Comin’ Round the Mountain - September 2017

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With stellar settings, rider control, and all-weather access, alpine coasters are having their moment 

by Keith Miller

Roller coasters have been the signature amusement ride for almost 100 years, but now a sister attraction is quickly growing in popularity—the alpine coaster. Also called the mountain coaster, its all-weather operation has it appearing on sites where roller coasters just won’t work, and these adventurous rides have some unique attributes their larger and faster siblings don’t provide.

Zip World opened its “Forest Coaster” in May, the first alpine coaster in the UK. (Credit: Zip World)

An alpine coaster usually features an elevated track made of tubular rails and uses gravity to propel riders seated in bobsled-like cars down an incline. There are more than 250 alpine coasters currently operating worldwide. Historically, Europe has been the continent where the rides are most popular, with around 180 in operation; Asia is next with 36, followed by North America with 31. 

But these numbers don’t reflect the growth this ride group has recently enjoyed. In only the past four years, 60 new alpine coasters have opened, which is 24 percent of the total number in operation. North America has seen the greatest surge in popularity, with 16 new coasters opening or under construction since 2015—a growth of 44 percent compared with Europe’s growth of 10 percent in the same time period.

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Alpine coaster designs allow them to operate even in snow and ice.. (Credit: Josef Wiegand GmbH & Co.)

Josef Wiegand GmbH & Co. in Rasdorf, Hesse, Germany, has created about 80 percent of the alpine coasters in operation in the world today. Andrea Bohl, a project management assistant with the company, says much of the growth in North America is attributed to ski resorts looking to draw visitors in non-winter months: “The balance of the numerous American and European ski resorts is impressive. The alpine coaster is the perfect solution for supplementing business in summer and also in winter. The number of visitors to all [locations] has constantly increased, and even in the so-far weaker months, new guests are attracted by alpine coasters.”

Jessica Mahoney, marketing manager for Aquatic Development Group (ADG), which owns Alpine Mountain Coasters in Cahoes, New York, agrees; she says the growing number of ski resorts wanting to supplement their winter operations by expanding into summer and year-round attractions is helping to spur the groundswell of new alpine coasters. She also sees another factor also contributing to the growth: “Understanding the safety and Forest Service regulation requirements in the United States has been a roadblock to expansion that’s now becoming easier to navigate.”

Safety Enhancements for Alpine Coasters

Funworld asked two manufacturers about the safety enhancements recently made to alpine coasters.

“Automatic speed restrictors limit the top speed to approximately 25 mph,” says Jessica Mahoney, marketing manager for Aquatic Development Group’s (ADG) Alpine Mountain Coasters, “Our proprietary automatic breaking system detects how far away a rider is from the cart in front and will bring the cart to a gentle stop if they get too close, eliminating any danger of bumping.”

Andrea Bohl, project management assistant with Josef Wiegand GmbH & Co., discusses the company’s “distance control” system: “The new electronic system operates on magnetic eddy current technology and is completely wear-free and weather-independent. If the prescribed minimum distance of 25 meters is [infringed], the following vehicle brakes automatically by means of the non-contact braking system, and the speed is throttled until the prescribed distance from the preceding vehicle has been reached again.”

Another important new feature of ride restraint belts is the use of belt-buckle locks and automatic locking retractors (ALR). The lock prevents the unlatching of the belt buckle during the ride, and the ALR device prevents the locked belt from slackening until the belt buckle has been released and the belt has rolled back completely. 

 

What’s the Appeal?

There has also been impressive growth in the number of mountain coaster installations not associated with ski resorts, so there must be something intrinsically appealing about these rides. “Passengers experience an exciting and varied ride at dizzying height, as the track can be installed between one and six meters above the ground,” says Bohl. “Jumps, twisters, circles, and camelbacks increase the thrill, in any weather, in any season. You can even ride in the rain, ice, and snow.” 

Tom Hagen, owner of the “Rushmore Mountain Coaster” at Rushmore Mountain Cave and Adventure Park in Keystone, South Dakota, suggests a couple of other reasons for their growing popularity: “I would say first, you can ride two people, and people like the generational ride with family members, and 38 inches is the minimum height (54-inch minimum if riding alone) and kids can ride with someone at least 16 years old. Also, you’re going almost 30 miles per hour around trees in the forest and the scenery. Our views are just awesome, just incredible, so our re-rides numbers are huge.”

Like most alpine coasters, the “Rushmore Mountain Coaster” features individual cars seating two riders inline. The coaster is 3,400 feet long, including the ride up the mountain, with the downhill portion at 2,477 feet.

When speaking with mountain coaster operators, another important factor in their growing popularity becomes apparent: rider control. When riding a traditional roller coaster, guests almost never have control over the speed of the ride. But this is not the case with a mountain coaster. “You’re in control of your speed,” says Klaus Machne, supervisor at “Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster” in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. “If you’re not comfortable going fast, you can go slow, and you know you’re in control.” This speed control is via a brake lever positioned in each car that riders pull when they want to slow down. 

Machne says there’s another alluring advantage of alpine coasters: “On most roller coasters, you can see everywhere it goes when standing on the ground. But with mountain coasters, you can only see a part of it, so you don’t see where you’ll be going, and it’s a nice surprise.” The “Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster” has an uphill climb of 1,400 feet prior to a 3,900-foot-long descent.

One final feature of many mountain coasters is extensive track lighting along their entire courses, making for quite an attractive lighting show as their tracks wind down mountains at night, especially during the holidays. “People really like all of the lights we have on the coaster at night,” says Machne. “We have over 300,000 LED lights.”

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The “Rushmore Mountain Coaster” offers riders wide-open views. (Credit: Rushmore Mountain Coaster)

How It All Started and Where It’s Going 

Josef Wiegand, after which Josef Wiegand GmbH & Co. is named, started creating summer toboggan runs in Europe more than 40 years ago. “The first summer toboggan run was built on the Wasserkuppe in the Rhön Mountains in 1975, albeit in a very primitive form,” recalls Bohl. “Back then, the climb uphill was on chassis-like donkeys, with toboggan riders carrying their sleds on their knees—an unusual solution from today’s perspective. 1977 saw the first run sold in Switzerland at Lake Zurich. This was the step into the production and sale of summer toboggan runs.”

As these summer runs were continuously developed and extended, eventually a demand for a year-round attraction developed, and Wiegand’s solution was the alpine coaster. On the first one installed at Wasserkuppe, says Bohl, “the riders traveled silently down the mountain in fixed, guided, two-seat comfort sleds on maintenance-free stainless-steel pipes.”

Obviously, when creating coasters that wind their way down mountains, design challenges abound. There are none of the flat, graded, treeless construction sites customary with standard roller coasters. “Each of our facilities is unique because it’s adapted to the respective terrain on site,” Bohl explains. “This is why we have to find extremely flexible and suitable solutions. It’s often necessary to overcome very steep sections on the route, and sometimes road or river crossings are necessary. Our designers have the task to find the appropriate solutions.”  

ADG started its Alpine Mountain Coasters division after more than a decade of working with ski resorts to transform from single-season to year-round destinations with indoor and outdoor water parks. As mentioned earlier, U.S. Forest Service regulations previously slowed the growth of mountain coasters in the United States, and Mahoney says they are often stricter than in European countries.

There have also been some challenges for North American operators. “For us, it’s been the learning curve of handing all the people,” Hagen says. “It’s a lot bigger crowd than we’ve had in our cave tour or for our other rides. We put up to 200 people an hour and over 1,500 a day on the coaster. We’ve also had to train guests to keep moving and not stop on the track.” 

The future of alpine coasters appears bright. The United Kingdom’s first mountain coaster opened May 11, 2017, at Zip World in North Wales. Called “Fforest Coaster,” the 3,527-foot-long ride allows guests to zip through Snowdonia National Park. The first “dueling” alpine coaster opened at Bellewaerde in Leper, West Flanders, Belgium. Called “Dawson Duel,” it features twin 1,476-foot-long tracks running parallel through the forest. Wiegand calls it a “Sport Coaster” and hopes it inspires additional interest.

As for the cost of an alpine coaster, ADG says its has ranged from US$1.5 million to US$2 million, not inclusive of site preparation and construction-related costs. In Europe, the price to ride an alpine coaster is around k5 for kids and between k7 and k13 for adults. In the United States, it ranges from $4 to $12 for kids and $8 to $15 for adults. Both offer substantial discounts for multiple rides.


Contact News Editor Keith Miller at kmiller@IAAPA.org.