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20 years in the Amusement industry

Part 11: Sky Ride: Raw bacon and another billion moving parts to carry 900 people 250 yards per hour

A mainstay of 1970’s amusement park boom was the ubiquitous Skyride (also known as Skylift and Sky Gondola). They took many shapes and forms at parks around the country – some parks used them strictly as aerial novelties; the kind that carried people up in the air just to give them a birds-eye view of the park, then set them down and forced them to exit past an over-priced game and an equally ubiquitous and over-priced merchandise booth.

Some parks, like Busch Gardens Williamsburg, used them as legitimate conveyances; a way for guests to avoid the torturous terrain and never-ending stairs of oddly-designed areas to get from point A to point B and to point C.

Skyrides were classified as “conveyor” rides for that very reason, along with railroads, monorails, trams and trolley cars, serving dual purposes as fun and scenic ways to navigate parks. They were basically win-win attractions.

Skyrides are also technically complex, maintenance-heavy and difficult to inspect, which led new owner Paramount Parks to jettison Kings Dominion’s Skyride on the 20th anniversary of the ride even after 10 million trouble-free riders and exactly 2 decades of relatively trouble-free service.

It was akin to announcing a divorce on a 20th wedding anniversary.

The Skyride was part of the “Paramount Purge.” Paramount Parks bought Kings Entertainment Company (KECO) in 1993 to create giant marketing and merchandising opportunities for their lousy movies. While creating ill-conceived themed areas like “Wayne’s World” (two years after that film’s release, and after it had been relegated to repeat showings on 2nd-class Viacom cable networks like USA Up All Night), Paramount brass also elected over the next 3 or 4 years to stop operating and even get rid of several long-time attractions that were more than just rides, but symbols of Kings Dominion’s mom & pop past. I suspect Paramount considered them “Old Coney” attractions that had no place in today’s glistening new repackaged & rebranded theme park milieu. Gone were the Old Dominion Line steam trains, the “Patrick Henry” and the “Stonewall Jackson” (Thank God they did not change the engine names to the “Wayne” and the “Garth”). Smurf Mountain (thankfully) bit the dust, as did the other three mountain attractions (Haunted River, Time Shaft and Mt. Kilamanjaro). The wild animal safari and the monorail got deep-sixed.

Paramount was good in a lot of ways, because they sunk a lot of money into infrastructural improvements that KECO could never afford, such as re-paving the 100-acre parking lot and replacing a lot of the underground utilities. Still, the vulgar creep of the Hollywood culture into this once small-town-like operation was like eating a day-old corn dog: it left a lingering bad taste in a lot of mouths.

For example, I recall just after the Columbine shootings a t-shirt for sale in a merchandise building across from the Dodgem showed a drawing of a tourist with a gunsight over them. The caption read “Why do we call it tourist season if we can’t shoot them?” I shot an email to the VP of that department, complaining loudly at such an affront of taste. I was told that sometimes, guests like stuff that was “edgy” – but mine wasn’t the only complaint about this shirt, and it was pulled. That would have NEVER happened under KECO.

Sidebar: When KD got rid of all the animals in the Safari, someone asked me what they did with them all. I answered, “Paramount executives were given high-powered rifles and they took one last ride on the monorail with the windows removed. Afterward they had a big barbecue.”

Edgy stuff, pal, edgy stuff.

Safari Village was changed to Congo, to capitalize on the name of the worst gorilla movie ever made. The singing mushrooms were removed. And of course, the Skyride went away.

Inexplicably the Philadelphia-based Liberty Bell stayed in Old Virginia. Someone please explain that one to me.

Sorry to keep getting off-topic. In theory the Skyride was a simple attraction: guests could get on the ride at one of two ends, the “drive” end or the “tension” end. They then rode about 80 feet in the air in a gondola, suspended from a cable over Candy Apple Grove, where they descended down to the other end and exited – a ride of about 250 yards.

The stations were named for the purpose they served. The “drive” end, located beside the Safari Village entrance, was where the drive motor was located. It was a massive electric motor that drove an equally massive gearbox that turned via a vertical shaft the “Bullwheel,” a horizontal pulley about 16 feet in diameter. A Volkswagen engine stood by as an emergency generator should a power failure stop the motor and strand guests suspended over the park. Every day at inspection it was started and run for a minute to keep it active. It was rarely needed.

The “tension” end (where the Ferris Wheel is today) was named because it created the proper tension on the cable to eliminate sagging. The 16-ft diameter bullwheel in the tension station was connected in a sliding track to an enormous concrete block that hung suspended by cables inside a concrete silo directly behind and below the unloading platform, dangling about 12 feet from the floor of the silo. This is what maintained the proper tension on the 45mm diameter steel cable loop on which the gondolas traveled. Just inches below the block was a limit switch mounted on the wall.

“Do not stand underneath the concrete counterweight” a sign in the pit said. Don’t worry. I do not know the weight of that concrete block, but it was massive – several tons.

Over time, all steel cables stretch, even Skyride cables, which are specifically constructed solely for aerial conveyor purpose. If and when the cable eventually stretched past its limit (over a period of years), the concrete block crept down lower and lower. If left alone, the block would eventually drop low enough to trip that limit switch, which would immediately stop the ride. This never, to my knowledge, ever happened. But one time in the mid-1980s, the cable reached a point of stretch that it was time to call in The Other Fritz.

The Other Fritz was a cable engineer from Switzerland. He was called The Other Fritz because for one, no one could remember his unpronounceable last name. Second, he was not Fritz Bruner, an engineer from Intamin who popped in periodically to resolve some maintenance crisis on one of the Intamin or Schwarzkopf rides – hence he was “the other Fritz.”

The Other Fritz was a short cigar-smoking coverall-clad European who spoke little or no English, ate raw bacon and was notorious for stealing tools. Maintenance guys always wondered whose lunchbucket they crapped in to get picked to help The Other Fritz the one or two times he came to KD (he also inspected the Eiffel Tower elevator cables). But The Other Fritz was a wizard at one thing – a thing he did on sky lift cables all over Europe – and that was cut a section out of a stretched Skyride cable and splice it seamlessly back together.

It was a job of delicate craft, safecracker nerves and unimaginable liability. In fact, it was rumored that it cost a total of about $15,000 an hour ( in 1980s dollars) to have The Other Fritz on location to cut and splice the Skyride cable, including not just his fee but all the ancillary costs associated with what he did. In case you wonder if it was cheaper to just buy a new cable, keep in mind even brand new Skyride cables were made as a straight piece then spliced together in a loop. This was far less expensive than replacing the cable.

Here’s how it worked: After the park shut down for the winter, the maintenance guys would prop up the cement block to release tension on the cable, then use a crane to lift the cable off the tower guide wheels and lay it on the Candy Apple Grove asphalt. They used this opportunity to remove the banks of guide wheels off the towers and replace the bearings and the rubber linings in each one. It was always a joke to send the new guy out on the end of the guide catwalks on top of the towers to retrieve the wheels on the ends. Unknown to them, the catwalk was mounted on a pivot pin, so even though they were in a safety harness, it was a trouser-soiling experience to be 3/4 of the way out on that catwalk and have it suddenly pivot down 6 inches, 80 feet off the ground. Yep, I learned that lesson the winter of 1986.

With the cable on the ground (and my pants changed), The Other Fritz would use a standard oxy-acetylene torch to burn a short section no longer than 8 feet long out of the cable. Once the section was cut out, The Other Fritz (after a lunch of head cheese and raw bacon) would prop and clamp the two ends on stands, grind the burned ends and separate the dozens of overlapping strands that made up the cable, about 8 feet back from both ends.

Using what he called a “bung wrench” and a pry bar, along with an assortment of other tools he borrowed that always seemed to go back to Switzerland with him, he proceeded to weave the two ends back together. I never saw the entire process, so I don’t know exactly how he did it, but when he was done no one could tell where the splice was, and the structural integrity of the cable was uncompromised. It was an amazing talent.

With the cable now slightly shorter, and with the guide wheels rebuilt, the entire apparatus was put back up on the towers and around the bull wheels. The concrete tension block released. It was a back-breaking and time-consuming job. Then it was time to rebuild the gondolas.

The gondolas looked simple enough, and for sure the vehicle itself was merely a fiberglass shell. But what disgusted the maintenance guys was that the clamp apparatus (that held the gondola to the cable) was made up of over 300 individual parts, including dozens of tiny needle bearings. It took about 6 maintenance guys the entire off-season to tediously dismantle and rebuild the 36 gondola clamps (which was scheduled every other winter). This, more than the cable splicing, was a source of the enormous maintenance costs of the ride.

They were called clamps because that is what they did – they clamped the gondola to the cable. And they did it extraordinarily well. The clamp was spring-loaded, and the weight of the gondola was enough to close the clamp tight around the cable. When the gondola was loaded with guests and the operator shoved it off the spur onto the continuously rotating main cable (freshly spliced by The Other Fritz), the clamp on top (shaped like the cable to avoid creasing or crimping) gripped the cable from over the top, not on the bottom of the cable. The clamp was weight-balanced, meaning the heavier the gondola, the tighter the clamp gripped the cable; thus a carload of “beefalos” (a common maintenance description of a load of large people) actually gripped the cable tighter than an empty gondola. There was absolutely NO WAY that clamp could lose its bite on that cable. And one never did.

Once the gondola drifted over the Grove and lowered down to the other side, it went over a clamp-release mechanism that lifted the gondola to reduce the weight, opening its bite. Once released from the main cable the gondola (via guide wheels on the clamp) rolled onto the spur to allow unloading, and the subsequent loading of another load of Beefalos (or regular-size people) for a trip back to the other side. It was like an aerial version of a motorized scooter for people too whatever to walk.

The only time all 36 gondolas were used was on extraordinary crowd days, such as when Patti LaBelle or Luther Vandross performed, drawing over 40,000 people. That was tough on the loading/unloading operators, as gondolas had to be dispatched every few seconds. Otherwise, just enough gondolas were put in service to avoid a wait at the loading station.

As mentioned earlier, the ride ran at KD exactly 20 years before it was expurgated in the Paramount Purge of 1995. The towers and cable were scrapped, and the 36 gondolas went to a 6 Flags park somewhere.

Personal anecdote: My family met me after work one afternoon at the park, and we were riding the Skyride from the drive end to the tension end when I noticed as we started our descent a commotion on the ground beside the Dinner Bell restaurant. Four people lay on the ground, and security were running in from every direction. It was a gang stabbing, and five were critically injured. That incident led to the introduction of metal detectors the following season. And we witnessed it from the Skyride.

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