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20 years in the Amusement industry

Part 5: Kings Dominion's Diamond Falls: the Ride Common Sense (& Its Manufacturer) Apparently Forgot

In January of 1985 the Kings Dominion Maintenance and Construction department was drumming its fingers, wondering when the new ride was going to show up. It was like waiting for the pizza guy to deliver a $4 million pizza. The park had contracted with Intamin AG to construct and build a “spillwater” ride that was going to be placed in an unused corner of Lake Charles in the Congo area of the park and it was late.

The ride, going by the manufacturer’s name of “The Lost Diamond Mines of Zanzibar” straddled the family/thrill categories, and was running down to the wire. The lake had been drained, the footings had been poured and part of the station had been built. All that was needed was the ride.

Then, one day in late February, just as the park VPs were about to bust a blood vessel, several trucks showed up with huge chunks of galvanized steel strapped on them. The ride had arrived, and all other work stopped dead, with all park resources thrown into building and piecing together this weird hybrid in time for a March 30 opening – about 30 days away.

A steady parade of cranes, loaders and forklifts unloaded the pieces off the trucks, and teams of maintenance guys and contractors began piecing together parts of the ride in the parking lot. There wasn’t a lot to the ride: the lift hill was the most complex, with 3 steel sides and dual lift chains tied by lift boards that carried the boats up the hill. There was a topside trough that carried the boats through the treetops, then a “camelback” style drop that sent the boat with a huge splash into a runout, where the boat drifted through a “diamond mine” tunnel complete with a fiberglass dragon. Once through the “mine” the boat re-entered the station and unloaded.

Busch Gardens’ “Escape to Pompeii” is basically the same ride but with more extensive theming.

There was speculation that Intamin forgot about the ride then threw it together at the last minute. Many of us truly believed that scenario, as it quickly became apparent that hardly any of the pieces fit. Parts had to be forced to fit and holes had to be re-drilled. It was as if different departments at Intamin made individual pieces and never consulted with one another. Once sections were finally forced together they were carried down to the ride and set in place, where a whole another round of forcing, prying, reaming and re-drilling took place. Guys worked from 6 AM to 11 PM seven days a week to make it all fit.

28 days later, after being congratulated by the General Manager for the “Yeoman’s job” putting the ride up in time for opening, it was time for a test run. The ride worked on a reverse-vacuum principle: Lake Charles filled the ride naturally, then three large submerged pumps pumped water out of the ride, pulling the boats around through the diamond mine and into the station instead of pushing them. Another pump sent water up the hill to the trough to propel those giant heavy boats around the curve and down the drop.

When the ride was started the whole thing leaked like a colander. So much water ran out of the trough onto the ground it actually temporarily lowered the lake level. Everything was shut off for the final remaining days to plug all the holes and squeeze a thousand tubes of silicone around the upper trough especially. With two days left before opening day a boat was put in the ride for cycling. The boats were massive, with four rows of 5 seats for 20 people. They had 4 giant rubber running wheels and smaller side (friction) wheels to minimize the side-to-side motion of the boat in the ride. The ride was started, the boat climbed the lift hill then squealed to a stop in the upper trough. The side wheels needed adjusting.

Once adjusted the pumps were restarted and the boat roared down the hill, losing a wheel and tearing up a bunch of guardrail in the process.

The ride was shut off and guys worked 24-hour shifts to get the guardrail fixed and the boat wheels reinforced, as it was obvious they were horribly insufficient to carry the crashing weight at that speed.

Opening day finally dawned. The ride opened on time at 10:30 and exactly one load of people rode it before a boat lost another wheel and the ride shut down the rest of the day.

Every new ride has opening day jitters, but Diamond Falls’ opening day problems and repairs were beyond the pale. The next month after that was spent making major modifications: Extra support columns had to be added under the upper trough because the weight of the boats made it sag to the outside. The water inside the upper trough was not turbulent enough to “kick” the boats around to the drop, so dozens of wooden weir strips had to be bolted to the trough floor.

It was discovered after a couple of cycles the boats accumulated so much lake slime on the bottom they would slide on the lift, so all 450-some boards had to be removed and thick rubber grips screwed on them. The boards – made from ultra-hard Bengasi wood – could not be cut or drilled with conventional saws and drill bits, so diamond-point drill bits and concrete saw blades had to be used. It was time-consuming, back-breaking labor.

It was also discovered after a few cycles that not only would the boat shear all the Volkswagen lug bolts that held the running wheels on, but would bend and break the side wheel brackets. Bolted brackets that held the seats started breaking. All had to be removed and modified.

Concrete had to be poured in the runout, an unloading dock was designed (by this writer) and built and the station drive units had to be extensively modified. It was like building 2 rides. And it didn't stop after the first year - every winter major modifications and improvements had to be made to keep the ride running just one more season. It seemed to get worse, not better.

All in all, thousands of man-hours were put into a ride that little more than splash riders and onlookers on the exit ramp with stagnant lake water. And, by the end of summer, everything in the station and especially underneath the station was so disgusting with mold and that lake slime that powdered lime had to be sprinkled to hold down the smell. The ride periodically became home to water snakes, and at least once a snake turned up in a boat full of guests.

Still, the ride is remembered fondly by those guests who stood on the exit ramp and waited to not just be splashed but deluged by the enormous splash generated by a billion-ton boat roaring down a hill. But to a bunch of exhausted and frustrated park employees and contractors, it was all a big yawn.

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