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20 years in the Amusement industry

Part 1: Kings Dominion’s Land of Dooz / Smurf Mountain: Not Just Boring but Fundamentally Flawed

Kings Dominion in Doswell, Virginia is a great theme park. It does almost everything right in its quest for newer and better rides and attractions. I worked there full-time almost 20 years, and my children worked there 7 years, working in a variety of capacities. Rides like Flight of Fear, Intimidator, Volcano and the Grizzly are classic, world-class rides and safely enjoyed by millions of riders. The water park there is without compare.

An issue tackled not just by Kings Dominion but every theme park across the country is the annual quest for bigger and better rides and more relevant and family-friendly themed areas created in a severely limited time window. The time crunch can unfortunately sometimes lead to half-baked concepts or inappropriate rides that almost always never make it past the drawing boards, but sometimes do anyway for a number of reasons to which no one will admit.

In 1978 Kings Dominion stuck its neck out on a major 4-ride attraction called “The Lost World” that was gigantic and cost a bloody fortune but was frankly lacking in the thrills category. The novelty was presumed to be the sheer scope of the project, not necessarily the rides included. Consequently the Lost World was a Saturn-5 rocket that couldn’t leave the launch pad. And one of the rides in particular suffered from what could only be described as fundamentally flawed in its concept and engineering.

The ride was one of three inside an artificial cement mountain that was built of rebar, I-beams, wire mesh and sprayed-on concrete. A water ride originally called “Voyage to Atlantis” then changed to the “Haunted River’ was on the lower level. The “Journey to the Land of Dooz” was on the topside, and a parking lot carnival rotor ride called the “Time Shaft” was buried inside on the far right at the end of an impossibly long tunnel that (for one year only) briefly wandered outside the mountain, leading guests across a rope bridge. It became obvious very quickly that the rope bridge was a blunder, as when some of the ropes broke no one in maintenance was willing to go out on it to fix it. The rope bridge quickly became history.

Outside the mountain tucked in an alcove was a “Himalaya”-style flat ride called Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Apparently mountain construction was dogged by cost overruns. The entire first construction crew was fired and a whole new crew brought in. The first time they attempted to spray on the concrete shell it all went on the ground. It was rumored the entire mountain attraction and rides cost over $20 million in 1978 dollars – in comparison 2011’s “Intimidator” which cost $25 million. It was at that time the single most expensive theme park attraction in the U.S. (outside of Disney).

“Journey to the Land of Dooz” (later known as “Smurf Mountain”) was nothing more than an overblown kiddie ride – a slow “mine train” (as dubbed by the maintenance mechanics) that carried families and clueless teenagers who unknowingly climbed aboard in a gaudy, filigree-covered 4-car train at walking speed through a place called the land of Dooz. Dooz was a supposed underground lair inhabited by bulbous, animated Hobbit-like dwellers in checkered bib overalls who did things like push plants out of the ground, manufacture water and air and other tasks generally credited to a God or Deity of some sort. “Welcome to the land of Doozies, it’s a Doozy day” warbled the thundering speakers as guests struggled to either stay awake or fought against punching the fat foam-filled smiling creatures that jerkily waved at them and sang that dentist drill-like song. Unconfirmed rumor has it that “Doozy” was a variation on the park’s hometown of Doswell.

Finally, after winding its way through several “scenes” the mine train chugged its way out of the mountain across a wooden bridge past a waterfall and parked back in the station. Total ride time from load to unload was about 7 minutes; an eternity in theme park rides, where hourly capacity is king. Guests were rarely laughing or smiling as they exited, wondering why the hell they got dragged onto such a lackluster ride as they then sought out faster and more exciting fish to fry. But the real problem with the mine train ride was not the jerky pneumatic-and-servo animation or the operational procedures, which were carried out with a forced smile by seasonal teenagers wondering whose lunchbucket they must have peed into to get relegated to this slow ride purgatory, but the basic engineering concept, which seemed to escape the geniuses at Arrow Dynamics who designed and built the thing.

Arrow Dynamics had a pretty good track record with rides going into 1978. In 1959 they built the first tubular steel roller coaster, the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland, as well as “Pirates of the Caribbean” and the Haunted Mansion at that park. They perfected the clothoid loop that is now standard design for looping coasters. Bush Gardens’ Loch Ness Monster was hailed as almost perfect in its design, thrill factor and topographical layout, as were other rides across the country that continue uninterrupted operation to this day. It is unknown what happened with the design and execution of the mine train, and it was speculated by the mechanics that Arrow pushed the project on a team of chimpanzees in the hopes they would eventually stop flinging feces and design a ride.

The land of Dooz track was standard steel coaster “Ribbed backbone” construction, with a 20” diameter main tube ribbed with twin 6” steel tube running rails. A storage area accessed by double transfer tracks held up to 2 trains. The Land of Dooz trains themselves – designed to resemble Victorian, Jules Verne-style exploratory vehicles that could tunnel through the earth or fly to the sun – looked underneath as if they were made from steel scraps left lying around Arrow’s fabrication shop. A giant fiberglass screw-type augur was mounted on the front of the lead car – an artistic nod to “Journey to the center of the earth” but actually more a middle finger to anyone getting on the ride thinking they were going to have a good time. Lap bars with no function other than giving the impression of holding riders in their seats actuated by air cylinders in the station were notoriously fickle, needlessly complicated and almost impossible to troubleshoot, with literally dozens of cams, springs, bearings, threaded adjustments and other moving parts. Mechanics inspecting the ride in the early mornings were always dismayed to see lap bars tied off with trash bags, and were more eager to swap trains than attempt a repair.

The trains were individually electric motor-driven, with power supplied by copper brushes that slid through an electrified buss-bar when activated by a board operator. The motor transferred power through a gearbox mounted upside down, then through a standard Ford drive shaft and transaxle possibly scavenged from a Detroit junkyard that drove the rear wheels.

Each car had four running nylon-composite running wheels and twin inside friction (side) wheels under each running wheel. The cars had no pickup wheels, only skid plates. An operator rode in the lead car, and could stop and start the train as dictated by guest misbehavior or electrical or mechanical problems. One the train was loaded and the lap bars locked, the operator pressed a start button, and the train left the station, rounded a turn and climbed up a 50-degree chain-driven lift hill (an odd direction for a train that supposedly was tunneling underground – but that’s just the start of the mine train madness).

Therein lies the engineering anomaly of the mine train: Why in God’s green earth did Arrow build a motor-driven, self-propelled train with a chain lift hill and a subsequent downhill profile?

It was a maintenance and operational debacle that no one seemed to anticipate. The motors were not strong enough to drive the train up the steep hill, therefore the train was equipped with the same style “chain dogs” used by real roller coasters that hooked into the giant, greasy chain and pulled it up the hill. The chain and train motors had to be perfectly synchronized at the EXACT same speeds. If the chain was running even slightly faster than the train motors, the train would slide and start bouncing, causing a derailment. If the train motors were running fast than the chain, the chain dog hook would try to pull out, then at the top of the hill it would pop out of the chain with a noise that sounded like a hand grenade inside an oil drum. Then the train would derail anyway.

If there was a power failure on the train while on the lift (such as a copper brush popping out of the buss bar), the train’s brakes would lock automatically but the chain would continue dragging it up the hill, sliding a flat spot on the nylon wheels and causing a derailment (a pressure indicator was mounted on the lift idler pulley that supposedly would stop the lift chain if excessive force was detected, but the train always derailed before the lift shut off). If the lift for some reason cut off but the train kept running, the chain dog would pop out with that characteristic cannon blast, derailing the train with the added bonus of terrifying everyone in that end of Hanover County.

Luckily, the train was also equipped on the bottom with a chunk of standard operating procedure steel called an “anti-rollback dog” that prevented a stopped train on the lift from rolling backwards. That is the clanking sound heard when a roller coaster climbs a lift hill.

To prevent power interruptions while the train was on the lift the on-board operator had to hold their thumb continuously on the train power button. Another operator had to stand at the top of the lift hill and depress the lift power button the entire time the train was on the lift. And everybody held their breath until the train was safely off the lift hill.

If the train successfully negotiated the lift hill and released from both the lift chain and a secondary auxiliary chain, it was a downhill ride through the mountain then back into the station – which was engineering dumbass mistake #2. A motor-driven train, running at a precise, regulated speed on a downhill slope of even a few degrees is like driving a car while riding the brakes. Crazy wear patterns started showing up on the nylon coated wheels, necessitating numerous wheel changes. No one could figure it out – why would a train like the Anaconda, which traveled up to 50 MPH have less wheel wear than a stupid mine train that traveled at 3 MPH?

It was simple actually – the train was trying to drift through the mountain faster than the motors were driving it, prematurely wearing down the wheels (even melting them in some instances) and wearing out the clutch discs in the motors. In a perfect “Doozy world”, the Land of Dooz would have been a perfectly flat, winding circuit, with no lift hill and no downhill profile, which would have eliminated 99% of all the problems with that ride.

In 1984 the ride was re-themed to “Smurf Mountain” and all the highly-flammable Doozies were taken away and hopefully buried somewhere. The ride was now more enjoyable for the Underoos set but everyone else, including the maintenance guys, got no reprieve. The ride continued to operate as Smurf Mountain until 1995, when the mountain was gutted to transform it into “Volcano: the Blast Coaster”.

On a personal note, this writer lost a fingertip on Smurf Mountain in 1992 when coupling 2 cars together, using his right index finger as a line-up tool. The tip was found in a pile of grease and taken to St. Mary’s Hospital, where Richmond plastic surgeon Dr. Boykin sewed it back on. Ultimately, the Smurfs went back to Paramount and the rest of the ride went into a dumpster.


This post originally appeared at 5-2-2012.

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