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20 years in the Amusement industry

Part 15: Kings Dominion's Shockwave: “You can now loop the loop in a standing posture!” UPDATED:

(KD 25th anniversary plaque, designed by Dale Brumfield. Courtesy Kings Dominion)

“This is the standing coaster no one ever created before,” states the oddly-translated 1983 brochure, published by Togo International Inc. of Tokyo, describing a new type of coaster called the “Astro Comet.” “… Which transcended the common sense and realized an unexpectedness. The three factors, thrill, speed and action, were thought over and over. Furthermore, its safeness was thoroughly examined from a medical standpoint and was technically authorized by the minister of construction …”

Wait. What?

In 1982 the world’s first stand-up coaster debuted in a park in Japan, winning the D.S. Humphrey award for excellence at the 1982 IAAPA Amusement trade show. In 1984 its manufacturer – the English language-challenged Togo International Inc. – imported the first American version to Kings Island, near Cincinnati, Ohio. It proved to be so popular Kings Dominion contracted Togo to build a similar ride there.

Togo’s history went back to 1935, when they built a mechanical walking elephant kiddie ride. By 1984 they had amassed an impressive but strangely-named portfolio of rides and attractions, including the “Looping Rocket,” the “Ultra Twister,” the “Sea Panic Adventure” and the “Surprising House.” Later, in 1997, they also submitted a proposal for the Volcano coaster to KD, which included a lift hill instead of a launch to send the train out of the top of the mountain.

Space for the space-age standing coaster was provided by the removal of the “Flying Carpets” giant slide and an old Italian coaster called the Galaxie, which had unfortunately been the scene of an accidental death in 1983. While Kings Dominion was found faultless in the accident, the ride’s operations and control systems had become outdated and the decision was made to remove it.

Preparations for this snazzy Japanese import (which was a break from the typical German and Swiss rides more commonly installed) began in the summer of 1985, when several crates arrived from Japan at the KD maintenance tool crib. Inside the boxes were small hand tools, white cotton gloves, bottles of Japanese wine and bags of rice. Some of the guys (somewhat politically incorrectly, but this was 1985 after all) pictured a team of Japanese coolies building the ride during the day then sitting around the construction site, imbibing on rice and Saki at night. It was wrong, and we knew it, but it was just so culture-clash weird.

The proposal had impressive credentials. It was going to be about 2,210 feet long, with a 93-ft high lift hill, a maximum tilting angle of 48 degrees, and a 70-ft high loop. At a maximum speed of just under 50 mph with two train operation, the ride boasted of a 1,200-person hourly capacity – which would delight any park bean counter.

Large unpainted sections of track began appearing in the late fall, still coated in mill dust, and were stacked in the parking lot. More crates, bags and boxes poured in, including the train cars, wheel assemblies and already assembled high-tech robot-like restraints – to the joy of maintenance and construction, who were more used to receiving a pile of oddly-shaped pieces from the Europeans and expected to assemble them, usually with no manuals or guides.

The land was cleared, concrete was poured and construction began in earnest after the park shut down in October, 1985. The 5-month race was on: get a new coaster built and operating by April 2, 1986.

Around this time three engineers from Togo showed up: a man named Kanayama was in charge of the mechanical systems; Sano was in charge of actual construction, and a third one whose name escapes me was in charge of the electrical installations. They appeared like the FBI agents in the movie ET: in white coveralls tucked into shiny black boots, and white hard hats with chin straps. Their first night in Richmond they ate at a local Japanese restaurant and were so impressed with their female server’s grasp of English they hired her to be their interpreter during their entire stay in Doswell. It was a good thing – not one of those three guys spoke a lick of English, and certainly not one of us knew Japanese.

“The amusement industry has been placing increasingly an important role in our society today, where one seeks new kind of relationship among the people alienated mutually. Togo creates and presents rich amusement space, from now toward the future, based on the true human society.”

-1982 Togo brochure, “Amusement Machine.”

What was remarkable about construction was that things actually fit together. This was a far cry from rides like the 1984 Intamin-manufactured Diamond Falls, where almost nothing fit and everything had to be modified, pried, opened, spread and re-drilled to force it all together. The standing coaster slipped together like a giant erector set, and the track was completed shortly after the New Year. The only difficulty was that Japanese metric thread pitch on their fasteners were different that European versions, so extra care had to be taken to make sure the correct metric fasteners, nuts and washers were mated.

The mechanical and electrical installations went much slower than the structure. The ride had huge 1986 electrical requirements – everything on this ride was over-sized and built 3 times stronger and heavier than it probably needed to be. An American engineer assisting with the lift mechanism remarked the gearbox and drive pulleys appeared to be off of old battleships. The vehicle axles and couplings were massive. The lift chain was bigger and beefier than any other roller coaster this writer had ever seen, and miles of conduit and pipe had to be run to contain the pneumatic lines and electrical cable to operate it all.

Once the loading section was installed the carpenter shop began building the station around it. Huge and enormously expensive laminated arches were brought in, and the glass-enclosed operator’s panel was situated above the station to afford the board operator visibility of both the loading platform and the entire lift hill.

One day after track installation had been almost completed this writer noticed that where the track exited out of the helix and passed under itself looked suspiciously low. Coasters have what is called a “clearance envelope” – an imaginary field around the train, usually at least 8 feet in diameter to ensure riders cannot touch anything while in operation. In this case the clearance envelope appeared to be within Togo’s (and Kings Dominion) minimum standards. Kings Island’s track was laid out slightly different and did not contend with this issue.

At 6’-4,” and the tallest guy in the department, I was positive that if I were riding this ride I could touch the “backbone” rail of the track above me. I tracked down our manager and described the situation to him. After looking he agreed that the clearance looked insufficient, and ordered some guys to bring one of the assembled cars down to the ride from the maintenance shop. A crane set the car on the track and it was rolled into position under the helix. As the three Togo engineers watched, I stood in the restraint, got locked in, then reached up and (even with my arms in the shoulder restraints) easily slapped both hands on the rail above me.

Our manager turned to Kanayama and said “that is unacceptable.” Attempting to defuse the situation, Kanayama smiled and jokingly made a chopping motion at my knees, indicating that the fix was to cut my legs off at the knees. It would have been somewhat funny if the inevitable “Japanese prison camp” jokes had not begun circulating among the guys watching. Very, very politically incorrect, but sometimes, that is what maintenance guys do.

The next day a fix was proposed. A millwright torch-cut a notch out of the overhead backbone, then welded plates in the notch. Two horizontal braces were custom bent to fit inside the crossties for strength compensation, and it was all welded solid into place. The fix worked, and even today, a person can stand outside the fence behind the helix and still see the “Brumfield notch” in the track.

Each restraint on the train contain three separate, independently-operating positive closed loop hydraulic systems: One for the height adjustment cylinder, one for the lap restraint and one for the shoulder restraints. The operator activated the electrical operation from the control panel for loading, then once riders are loaded it de-energized. Foot pedals on each car allowed the loading operators to temporarily energize the restraints to allow adjustments to ensure the riders were in proper standing position before the train was dispatched. Once the power to the restraints was de-energized, it was impossible to open them. There was also a massive spring within the restraint device to cushion the 4G’s pulled by the loop, which were amplified by riders being in a standing posture.

In early March, 1986, construction was complete and a complete train was placed on the track and the first test was ready to commence. The President of Togo, Mr. Tomokazu Yamada and his comely young daughter flew in to witness the first cycle, and all of the full-time KD employees took a break to come watch.

We then saw the reason for the Saki and rice that had arrived months earlier: it was customary in Japan to bless the operation of a new ride by sprinkling the wheels. We all stood, impatiently but reverently, while Mr. Yamada took about 10 minutes to walk around the entire train, pouring perfectly good wine on the wheels and tossing on a handful of uncooked white rice.

When he was finished, the lift was started, and an empty train was dispatched from the station, clattering onto the chain and beginning its slow climb up the 93-ft. hill.

Laughter and Cry. Passenger’s facial expressions are multifarious. Girls enjoy the momentary space flight with their eyes opened, but boys do it with their eyes closed. The varied dynamic course leads you to the thrilling world.”

-1983 Togo brochure, “Astro Comet.”

The empty train ran without a hitch, down the first hill, through the loop, across the camel-back then into the giant helix. It passed uneventfully under the “Brumfield notch,” over another camel-back then around the lower back curve, banging to a stop in the remote e-brake zone just like it was supposed to. Everyone cheered. On the second cycle, the general manager, along with several park VPs, managers and Mr. Yamada in the very front climbed aboard to take the inaugural ride. Mr. Yamada started waving going up the lift and did not stop until the train was safely back in the brake zone. He was ecstatic. The ride was a hit.

The next cycle all the construction employees were invited to ride. I took the second restraint in the lead car, coincidentally beside the comely young daughter of Mr. Yamada. Once on the lift she struck up a conversation in very good English:

“Have you ever ridden the standing coaster?” she asked.

“No I have not,” I answered.

We bantered back and forth, and by the time we reached the top she asked me to join her for dinner that night. No kidding. Before I got engaged, I couldn’t buy a date, but suddenly I appeared to have a shot with the daughter of a millionaire Japanese businessman. I showed her my ring, thanked her but told her I was engaged to a lovely woman named Susan. I was not seduced by the promises of a life of Japanese amusement riches, and next January, 2016, Susan and I will celebrate our 29th wedding anniversary.

“Circular safety arms are adjustable and fits the passenger’s body well. And a safety bar fits the belly well too. These devices are automatic and keeps the safety perfectly.”

- “Astro Comet” brochure.

The “perfectly safe” ride was amazing, although I thought the back curve was too sharp and abrupt. But it was a unique experience, and I could not slap any rails over my head at any point on the ride. And, because of the Shockwave, for the first time in its history Kings Dominion logged over 2 million visitors during the 1986 season – a remarkable accomplishment – and also for the first time paid a $500 employee bonus at Christmas.

In the late 1990s there was an accidental death on the Shockwave. Apparently a small man was able to wiggle his right shoulder out of the restraint, and when the train went around that sharp and abrupt lower back curve he was thrown off and struck the handrail. While Kings Dominion was held harmless in the man’s unfortunate death, it was with no small amount of irony noted that this death occurred at the exact same spot as the last one – on the former Galaxie ride, which as you recall was the former ride at this location.

Despite maintenance and construction’s somewhat “home-grown” humor regarding working with the Japanese, construction really was one of the most positive experiences any of us ever had building a ride, and we appreciated their commitment to building the best ride possible. As the Shockwave approaches its 30th anniversary at Kings Dominion, it is rumored to be on the chopping block. But the Shockwave (which remarkably ran under the same name all 30 of those years) can hold its head high if it indeed goes off into the amusement after-market sunset – it has a lot to be proud of.

UPDATE: The rumors are true - the ride is going to be removed after the 2015 season, with the final circuit August 9, 2015 at 10:00 PM. "While it’s bittersweet to say goodbye to one of our older coasters, we’re excited for what the future holds,” Kings Dominion vice president and general manager Pat Jones told the Richmond Times Dispatch. “The park has evolved so much over the past 40 years and as Kings Dominion continues to grow, we’re committed to enhancing the overall experience for our guests. We’re happy that Shockwave was able to provide close to three decades of memories.”

“Please, go ahead and try the standing coaster!”

-Astro Comet brochure.

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