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20 years in the Amusement industry

Part 8: Busch Gardens-Williamsburg discovers Why Celebrities are a Bad Idea at Ride Inaugurals

Dana Carvey: "Nuthink to zee here!"

On April 4, 1992, Williamsburg’s Busch Gardens attempted to repeat the success of the Loch Ness Monster coaster by investing $4 million into another Arrow Dynamics multiple-inversion steel monolith called Drachen Fire. DF was a monster of a coaster, 3550 feet in length, with a 150-ft high lift hill. It turned people upside down about 6 times and had a top speed of about 60 MPH.

The ride was supposedly designed by Arrow design stalwart Ron Toomer. Toomer gained a reputation as an old-school coaster designer when he appeared on a Discovery channel documentary sitting at a drafting table bending wire into shapes that supposedly would eventually become steel coaster elements. It was similar to watching a 17-year-old seasonal employee playing blacksmith at a touristy folk museum somewhere.

The fact is by that time Toomer was either retired or ready to retire, and an Arrow designer confided to this writer that Arrow intentionally trotted out Toomer for PR purposes like that because he added a folksy appeal to a high-tech industry. Seriously, he said, nobody bended wire anymore.

Toomer’s contributions to the industry cannot be denied, however, and he has been a critical player in coaster technology, wire or not. Millions of coaster enthusiasts thank him for his work.

Busch had big plans for Drachen Fire -- The theme park industry and Busch in particular had been sluggish in the early 1990’s, reflecting a stubborn recession and the Persian Gulf War that discouraged travel. And like every other theme park across the U.S., Busch experienced a decline in paying visitors, aggravated by rising gas prices and fears of terrorism. Drachen Fire was going to be the one to pull them out of the slump.

''This coaster has some new things that haven't been tried before,'' said Mark Wyatt of “Inside Track” magazine, a publication devoted to coaster enthusiasts. One feature, called a ''cutback,'' rotated passengers 180 degrees while they are upside down inside a loop. Urp. Another was coined the “diving corkscrew”, which came just after the brake zone near the middle of the ride.

Second-hand accounts are sketchy, but it is rumored that pre-opening test runs of Drachen Fire were concerning to Busch officials. It was extremely rough, and the prototypical “cutback” and “diving corkscrew” were horrendous neck-jerkers – undesirable problems sometimes impossible to predict in the design phase, and even harder to deal with after construction and just prior to opening. It is unknown if Busch attempted to re-profile the track at the last minute or modify the restraint padding, but they may have known they had a $4 million problem on their hands.

Still proud as punch of their new baby, however, it was rumored that they tried to get Arnold Schwarzenegger to personally come to the park to inaugurate the ride on opening day. Obviously unsuccessful, they instead settled on alleged comedian Dana Carvey to come instead.

And apparently he decided to impersonate Schwarzenegger.

Why Carvey did not instead go 90 miles up the road to Kings Dominion to open its brand new themed area “Wayne’s World” (based on the SNL skit of the same name) is beyond anyone’s guess. Carvey would have been a natural at the WW opening, seeing as how he was one of the characters in the movie of the same name, but no matter – his handlers brought him to Williamsburg. Carvey may even have thought he was at Kings Dominion for all anyone knows.

Opening day went badly. Possibly jacked up on multiple cups of foamy beer from the Anheiser-Busch brewery next door, Carvey showed up with a small entourage ready to ride but the ride refused to cooperate. A self-professed coaster enthusiast, Carvey then went up on stage in front of the gathered press and launched into an off-the-cuff monologue that rambled on and on, possibly due to the fact his PR guy was indicating that he needed to “stretch it out” while the mechanics and electricians scurried in a panic trying to troubleshoot the problematic ride. “Vhat are you doink here?” Carvey said to the crowd in a half-ass Schwarzenegger voice, “Nuthink to see here! Go home!”

Boy, you ain’t kidding about that, pal. A video of this train wreck once available on YouTube showed only one guy laughing – a heavyset dude in black glasses right behind him (an obvious flunky) who cracked up and clapped for every word. Every other awkward pause in Carvey’s performance was met with stony silence.

Drachen Fire proved to be a dud. An April 20, 1992 Richmond Times-Dispatch headline read “"Some riders rate Drachen Fire as pain in the neck". After two years’ operation and numerous complaints the ride was re-profiled in 1994, taking out the abominable diving corkscrew that left vertebrae and stomachs in knots. Still, the fire maintained a deserved reputation for roughness, and by 1999 ridership had dropped off so badly it was no longer cost-effective to keep it going. It was offered for sale by Busch ("Busch Gardens' Drachen Fire For Sale": The Virginian-Pilot, 8-15-99) but with no takers, it was finally cut to the ground with torches and sold for scrap – going to the same coaster boneyard as Kings Island’s infamous first suspended coaster, “The Bat” almost 10 years earlier.

In 2012 Busch introduced “Verbolten”, a Zierer launch coaster, on the grave of Drachen Fire.


Fabio takes a goose to the beak

Just about the time Busch was ready to send Drachen Fire to Roller coaster hell they countered that ride’s disappointment with a glorious new success story – a streamlined steel beast called Apollo’s Chariot. Chariot was a new breed of “hypercoaster”, typified by an extremely tall lift hill, huge, lunging camelback humps and long, swooping helixes. It was 4,880-ft long with a maximum speed of 73 MPH. And not one diving corkscrew in sight.

To celebrate the opening of Apollo’s Chariot for the 1999 season, Busch again decided to ford the celebrity waters and bring in a Roman God of their own to christen the new ride – none other than star of Harlequin romance covers and Parkay butter spray commercials, Fabio.

Fabio was a half-hit, half-wit wonder already at that time in his 16th minute of fame. He was a trailer court celebrity; a muscular Adonis with flowing blond hair and almost stereotyped Norse features that served no other purpose than to just look good. His almost kitschy good looks and barest grasp of the English language lent what Busch must have thought was the perfect amount of good PR humor to a day that they wanted to be perfect.

Fabio arrived at the park in a black limo with his publicist and with great fanfare went directly to the ride, smiling and waving at the adoring press and fans gathered to watch his inaugural ride. He was strapped into the center front seat and with a final wave the train clattered up the 210-ft high lift hill.

What happened after that is theme park legion. After the first hill the ride swooped down over a body of water that always seemed to contain a large number of geese – a “gaggle” of them, in zoological terms. The train roar apparently startled the geese, and one of them made a direct 70-MPH collision with the face of the blonde Adonis in the front seat, killing the bird and bloodying the God’s nose.

It was a classic photo op when the train arrived back in the station: Fabio in the center seat, holding his hand over his face which by this time was covered in blood, making him more resemble a Norfolk gangbanger than a Williamsburg celebrity coaster rider. The press gasped in horror at what started out as an innocent inaugural ride and turned into avian carnage, with the flowing-locked butter spray spokesman bearing the brunt of a 20-lb goose smash to the face.

Once parked, cold wet washrags were fetched and Fabio quickly went from being the Roman God of Roller Coasters to just a schlub who took a bird to the beak. Eager to leave, he was overheard by a maintenance guy telling his publicist on the way back to the limo to Williamsburg Community Hospital “I told you this was a bad idea.” He was treated and released for a minor cut. The goose, on the other hand, was seen floating on the lake soon after.

Fabio declined to talk after the accident, choosing instead to return to Los Angeles and skip the media event that night.

That summer, to avoid a repeat of the Fabio face-smash, Busch had to hire a guy to sit in a johnboat at the foot of that hill and shoo the geese away.

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