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20 years in the Amusement industry

Part 18 - Kings Dominion’s White Water Canyon: Correction; You Will Get Soaked

In late 1982, just as park maintenance was finally getting the Grizzly coaster somewhat tamed, Kings Dominion went in a more family-oriented direction and announced the new attraction for 1983 would be a white water raft ride. Employees shrugged and looked at each other – how the hell were they going to install a financially-viable white water raft ride? What about capacity? Liability? It seemed a stretch.

How narrow-minded. Unknown to us, Intamin had designed a 6-person boat built expressly for high-capacity white water rafting. A wooded area near Old Virginia bounded by two service roads, the Log Flume and the Old Virginia stage was the perfect spot to put in what turned out to be one of the all-time popular rides at Kings Dominion – White Water Canyon.

The mechanics of the ride – like most – was deceptively simple: water pumped from a reservoir through a concrete trough would send up to 36 boats one at a time on a spinning, jarring, splashing white water experience, past a waterfall, through a lake, then a sawmill before climbing a series of conveyors back to the load/unload platform. Guests were warned as they buckled their seat belts that they would not just get wet, but soaked.

Construction began and trees started coming down in the late summer. To create and preserve the actual experience of a real, in-the-wilds white water raft trip, only the vegetation directly on the serpentine ride centerline were removed. Any others were taken out strictly on an as-needed basis. The park was intent on creating a true, Disneyesque jungle-like experience.

Once the trees were removed and the site graded on a slight descending grade, forming began on the cement trough. A million pieces of rebar were tied and hundreds of sheets of 4x8 plywood were sprayed with diesel fuel before nailed into place, buttressed with thousands of 2x4 bracing. The diesel assured the concrete would not stick after curing, allowing easy removal. The floor was poured first, then the walls.

Elements along the ride course included two lakes, a whirlpool, a waterfall, geysers and a sawmill. Lake 1 – which was placed after the first curve after leaving the station – was designed as a “holding area,” which funneled only one boat at a time into the ride. A giant steel blade called a wavemaker, located under a shack on the right, kept the water churned up to avoid any “dead spots.”

Construction of the White Water Canyon trough. Courtesy Kings Dominion.

The exit of Lake 1 was flanked by two drive drums rotating in opposite directions, so if two boats went through at the same time one drum kicked one boat forward and the other backward. After a few years, this arrangement proved to be inadequate when one boat caught up to another one just past the waterfall – but that discussion is for later.

There were a couple considerations to creating the actual white water – while powerful 50-hp pumps would send thousands of gallons of water per minute through the ride, the white water waves are created by massive timbers bolted to the concrete floor of the trough. The actual behavior of the water was dictated by correct placement of the timbers, and soon boats could be speeded up or slowed with almost pinpoint precision by the angle and location of the timbers. Of course, the timbers were huge and weighed hundreds of pounds and had to be moved by hand, so timber placement quickly became a dreaded assignment – like being picked for duty aboard the USS Hunley during the civil war.

A waterfall was created by having the trough pass directly beside itself, and the “upper” trough spilled excess water down into the “lower” part, that was further down the ride.

Once past the waterfall the boats traversed a relatively calm area, but the water picked back up just prior to entering the second holding area, Lake 2. The purpose of Lake 2 was to allow spacing for the final trip through the sawmill (really just a building with two bib overall-clad mannequins staring off into space). Lake 2 also had four air pressure-operated geysers. The first three geysers operated automatically when the boat passed a photo-switch, but geyser 4 was operated manually by the tower 2 operator – or by a maintenance guy with a screwdriver who happened to be standing at the plunger-release valve up on the bank. It was hilarious to watch a boat full of guests avoid getting sprayed by the first 3, and while holding their arms up in triumph, get drowned by a perfectly-timed push of the #4 valve.

A final element – a rain curtain – was installed on both sides of the sawmill exit to assure that anyone who may have somehow avoided getting wet during the ride certainly got saturated there. From there it was up the lift conveyors back to the station, where guests would exit and squeegee themselves.

Like with any new ride, construction was difficult and physically challenging. Backhoes and loaders scooped out the rough, 20-ft wide trough centerline. The concrete forming went on forever, but sometimes carpenters and laborers got a break when they discovered a tree was in the way and they had to wait for the landscapers to remove it. Four 50-hp pumps were lowered into place on either side of the station platform, and down in the reservoir a smaller pump was placed for the rain curtain. The 2-million gallon reservoir was created from hundreds of yards of concrete, with a spillway valve that emptied eventually into the South Anna River.

Only three of the four pumps are in operation during the season. Four pumps draw too much water from the reservoir. But, it is a luxury too, to have one on standby.

For authenticity, hundreds of boulders were imported from nearby quarries and set on the banks of the trough. Some were so big I recall seeing dump trucks creeping into the construction gate with only one rock in the bed. The boulders were lifted and placed by cranes.

Soon basic construction was finished and the time-consuming, labor-intensive process of fine-tuning the white water began. Some spots were too rough, so a timber had to be moved back or removed entirely. Where the water was too slow a larger timber was added, or two moved closer together and angled away from each other. Once the timbers were set, the pumps cut on and the water studied to see if the desired effect was created. If not, the pumps were cut off and again the timbers moved, on and on, ad infinitum. Once the water was deemed perfect, the timbers were bolted into aluminum unistruts embedded in the concrete floor.

With the ride basically completed the boats arrived from Europe and since they were from Intamin, of course modifications had to be made. The tubes are huge, like monster truck tires, but hold only 0.2 BAR (2 PSI) of air. Yes, I said 2 PSI. “But how can that be?” shriek skeptics, “A skinny racing bicycle tire holds 60 PSI!” Ah, yes, the old law of “high-volume, low-pressure; low-volume, high-pressure.” A bike tire holds very low volume, but has tremendously high pressure. The WWC tubes hold huge volume (I can’t recall the exact cubic yards), so correspondingly very low pressure. Go look it up. And, if a tube is blown up to 3 PSI, it is too fat to go up the lift.

While the original tubes were single-chambered, the newer tubes were divided into six chambers, each one with a separate valve stem for inflation. So if one goes flat the remaining 5 stay inflated. Handy when some wiseass stuck a pocketknife in the tube in the pre-metal detector days.

The problem with the first generation of boats (other than the single-chambered tube) was they were slightly top-heavy. With a full load of guests there was concern the boat could flip since the center of gravity was so high (at the seat cushions). The solution was to attach a 5’-diameter, ½”-thick galvanized steel plate on the bottom.

36 plates were fabricated locally, and every boat had to be brought to the shop, separated from the tube, (a matter of untying the lashing [“rope” for you landlubbers] from the plastic thimbles) and lifting the fiberglass body out. The body was flipped, and three holes were drilled through the boat to bolt the plate on, then the plate was fiberglassed securely in place. The nuts holding the plate can still be seen in the floorboard corners of the boats. The boat was placed back in the tube and re-tied.

The boat bottoms have three large opening with plastic balls inside them. These are drain (check) valves – they let water out of the boat when going up the lift conveyor, but don’t allow water in through the bottom during operation.

Just prior to opening, the marketing department invited a white water canoeist to ride. He did, and attested to its realism.

The ride had a solid opening weekend in April, 1983, but on Monday I got a call from one of my fellow inspectors. I was in the station inspecting the boats and he wanted me to come out in the trough and convince him he “wasn’t crazy.” I met him at the waterfall area and no, he was not crazy – a boulder the size of a small European car was sitting down in the concrete trough. Apparently it had rolled off the bank and into the trough sometime Sunday during operation. It was enormous, and luckily had fallen at the foot of the waterfall where the boats only skimmed past.

The Manager and the VP showed up and the first thing they said was “for God’s sake, don’t tell anybody.” I guess after 32 years that cat is finally out of the bag. The park boom truck was brought in and the boulder replaced back more securely on the bank, and everyone’s mouth remained shut. To my knowledge that was the only time this happened.

The first generation of boat tubes lost air, and went flat too easily, so Intamin started sending sturdier tubes with wear strips wrapped around them. These cost about $3,000 each in 1984 dollars. Patching those tubes – a necessity due to the cost – was a difficult, time consuming and not real effective process, so Intamin sent a couple guys over to conduct a patching seminar for maintenance staff. Soon we were tube patching experts.

After a few years of relatively trouble-free operation, one morning in late September the white water hit the fan – one boat caught up to another one before the waterfall. With the trough too narrow to allow two loaded boats side by side, one was pushed into the wall and up the side of the trough where it spun, went vertical and flipped completely over.

It was a terrifying situation – six guests were trapped upside down in seat belts under about three feet of rushing water. The tower one operator saw the accident and slammed the e-stop, which stopped the pumps and immediately dropped the water level. A “code one,” life or death situation (one of only a handful in KD history) went out over the radio.

Maintenance, park police and EMTs rushed to the scene and got the guests out from under the boat. The situation was handled extremely well under the circumstances, with operations working hand-in-hand with the other departments to avert a tragedy. And miraculously, the passengers in the flipped boat suffered only minor injuries.

It took a week of experimentation with empty boats to determine what had happened – apparently two boats got out of Lake 1 too close together. I will never forget this week – several of us rode the ride 26 consecutive times trying to re-create the fluke incident (although not the flip, of course). It was cold, rainy, and after 26 times I simply got out of the boat in the station and threw up over the exit handrail. You can’t imagine how dizzy this ride makes you after that many circuits. And, we were unable to exactly duplicate the situation. It was truly a freak occurrence.

The maintenance manager designed a gate system, yours truly drew up the plans (after I stopped vomiting), and maintenance then went to work building the air-operated, cable-driven gate system that could only be manually opened by the tower 1, operator but quickly closed automatically when the released boat passed a photo-eye switch. Also, an automatic emergency gate was installed just past Lake 1 as a redundant backup. There has never been a repeat of that terrible, and potentially deadly occurrence.

The flip, not my 26 consecutive rides.

Shot showing the waterfall configuration. Courtesy Tony Rice.

In 2015 White Water Canyon is 32 years old. The landscaping today has aged magnificently, and the ride is light years better than Roman Rapids at Busch Gardens because of it. And while some of the boats and all of the tubes have probably been replaced many times over, the ride remains a hot-day favorite – although no one recommends making it the last ride of the day before exiting the park – unless you want to go home soaking wet.

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