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20 years in the Amusement industry

Part 19: Kings Dominion’s Rebel Yell - 40 Years of Thrilling Riders and Dodging Political Correctnes

25th anniversary plaque, design by Dale Brumfield. Courtesy Kings Dominion

The Rebel Yell roller coaster is Siamese twins joined at the spine. They are two mirror-image, independently-functioning out-and-back roller coasters that could operate just fine without the other, if they just were not connected on their inner out-bound tracks. In this case, it would not take Dr. Ben Carson to separate the two, but a guy with a chainsaw to just start at the bottom of the chain lift hills and walk the entire track out to the back curves, cutting the ledger boards between the posts. Now, the Lakeside track is free to pursue life somewhere in another park if she so chooses – perhaps Carowinds. Woodside is perfectly content to stay in Doswell.

Construction on these two classic out-and-back (as opposed to a figure-8, like the Grizzly) coasters started in late 1973 while the Eiffel Tower was still under construction and corn stalks were still being cleared on the other 400 acres that was to make up Kings Dominion amusement park. The Scooby Doo coaster was almost complete by this time, and that ride actually ran during a short “preview” time in 1974 with Lion country Safari before the park opened proper on May 3, 1975.

Escaping the fickle trends of political correctness while running for 40 years under the same name (a “Rebel yell” is a confederate battle cry, as well as the name of a 1983 Billy Idol song and a bottom-shelf whiskey), construction of the Yell was a Herculean undertaking; building two 3,368-ft wooden coasters at the same time. Designed by classic coaster designer John Allen (who studied under the amazing Herbert Schmeck), the KD design was roughly based on a similar wooden racing coaster at Kings Island park called the Red Racer, which had opened in 1972 and gained wide exposure when it was ridden by the TV family the Brady Bunch for an episode filmed in 1973.

Kings Island's Red Racer being mounted with a camera for the Brady Bunch episode, 1973

Kings Dominion construction supervisor Jim Figley was in charge of the project. A spot was cleared beside Lake Charles and hundreds of individual concrete footings were marked, dug and poured. Dozens of carpenters and laborers were recruited from the central Virginia area, many of them unaccustomed to working on flimsy boards 50-80 feet in the air, and at a time when safety harnesses were optional, or those requesting them were laughed and jeered off the jobsite. As noted in the chapter on the Grizzly, one young Ladysmith man fresh out of working at Evans Plywood Mill found himself walking up the first drop hill carrying 20-ft treated 2x10 boards on his shoulder with no handrail in place – just posts. “I had never been off the ground in my life,” he told me years ago. “I was so scared I was crying.”

The Yell design “hook” was its unique twin racing feature, rather than the whiplash-inducing, tooth-chipping sudden twists, dives and turns that characterized other Schmeck-inspired coaster designs from the 1930s and 40s (see my chapter “When Roller Coaster Riding was Blood Sport”). Thanks to such family-oriented parks as Disney and Knotts Berry Farm, the 1970s was a renaissance period for theme parks and especially wooden coasters. Amusement parks were growing up and attracting families instead of boardwalk-bound derelicts, drunks, daredevils and shell-shocked servicemen looking for their next head-banging thrill. No longer was it considered a status symbol or good PR to have a broken neck or a death on a coaster. Times were changed, and amusement parks were responding.

The original plans called for the Yell to be exactly like the KI Racer, but Jim Figley discovered there was no room for the “pigeon wing” shape of the Racer’s back curve without bringing in tons of fill, so a decision was made to re-profile the back curve to an oval return feature. It was a good move - Yell riders attest to the thrill of the sudden separation of the trains at the top of the back curve. Carowinds’ Thunder Road, which was constructed in 1975, was built on the same plans as the Yell but with minor variations, including a lift hill 8 feet taller and the total ride almost 500 feet longer.

A close look at the Yell’s (and even the Scooby Doo’s) support structure shows the lumber flecked with what looks like pin pricks. This is the result of an older form of treating limber against insects and rot, when boards and timbers went through a device that physically injected the wood with a toxic brew of arsenic, salt, chlorine and creosote. Any wood cut today from an existing wood coaster – especially the Yell – must be properly disposed of due to its high concentration of poisonous chemicals. The wood actually has its own Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), and it is actually against the law to burn roller coaster wood. Lumber on newer wood coasters, such as the Grizzly and the Hurler, is pressure-treated instead of injected and bear none of the scars of those earlier methods – but is still equally toxic.

Rebel Yell layout. Drawing by Brumfield

Construction of the Yell was straightforward. The main lift hill rose 85’-10”, and each side was exactly 3,368 feet long, with 12 hills on each side. Chain lifts were installed with mirror-image drive units. Once construction was complete, two empty trains on both sides ran 8 hours per day for two weeks in preparation for the grand opening May 3, 1975. The ride debuted a few days earlier for employees and special guests, with operators wearing tuxedos and champagne served to eager riders.

The Yell was constructed with an older generation “mutton-leg” slide braking system. The brake zone was comprised of four sections, called emergency, trim, ready and dispatch, extending from the tunnel exit all the way to the station. Each zone used an air cylinder under the station that extended when actuated, and the mutton leg actuators lifted two steel rails between the track, which physically lifted the speeding train off the track, where it slid to a stop. Despite the crude description, the system was extraordinarily accurate, and since it was undercover was unaffected by rain. In the early days, once the train exited the tunnel the board operator pressed the emergency brake button, which stopped the train. Then they would press and release the trim, ready and dispatch brake buttons until the train was safely parked in loading position.

However, this form of operator-dependent stopping contributed to a very bad accident that first summer. One of the fully-loaded woodside trains stopped on the trim brakes and the operator claimed they could not move it. The second train then roared out of the tunnel (block systems were not yet developed), and while details are sketchy, it was presumed the operator panicked and accidentally manually released the emergency brake. The second train then rear-ended the parked train at almost full speed, injuring dozens of people. Reports on file claimed there was “blood everywhere,” and ambulances had to rush injured guests to Richmond hospitals. The trains were badly damaged and were sent to maintenance for repair.

This accident resulted in an overhaul to braking operations. An “automatic” system was installed that kept the brakes raised in the stop position, so the train automatically stopped on the e-brake zone once it exited the tunnel. The operator then had to depress the brake button, where a series of switches and photo-sensors brought the train into the dispatch position. While the trains could still be brought in manually, that form was only to be used in rare situations, such as by maintenance and when adding or removing trains.

Even that resulted in an accident with empty trains in 1982. A maintenance manager was attempting to remove the lakeside red train when he parked it on the transfer table brake. He then accidentally dispatched the blue train, where it drifted out of the station and crashed into the parked red train, causing quite a bit of damage. He realized what he had done as the train left the station – he turned, covered his face and said “Tell me I didn’t just do that” just before the sickening sound of trains colliding. This time lakeside was shut down, both trains went to the shop for repair, and even more revisions were made to prevent the accidental dispatch of a train while another was in the transfer table position.

Also, the block system was extensively modified at this time. The block system ensured the proper distance between trains during two-train operation. For example, if a train is going up the lift hill and another train is already out on the track, the lift will stop until the other train passes a sensor located around the trim brake.

A dual dispatch system was also introduced. The lift could not be started, nor a train dispatched from the station unless a second operator at the unloading area (in view of the lift) simultaneously pressed the button at the same time as the board operator. Sometimes the train may stop on the lift if there is a delay with loading or unloading in the station; for example a disabled guest. This is completely normal.

In 1976 the Rebel Yell went Hollywood, just as KI’s Red Racer had 5 years earlier. The movie “Rollercoaster,” starring George Segal and Timothy Bottoms, among others, was about a terrorist bombing at an amusement park and filmed at KD, Ocean View in Norfolk and Magic Mountain in Valencia, California, Cameras were mounted to the front of one of the trains and viewers got a cool Rebel Yell POV that hopefully took their minds off the enormous plot holes. One young lady who worked a Candy Apple Grove games booth was thrilled that she got a speaking role (giving directions to some actors), but was crestfallen when the movie was released and she discovered her voice had been dubbed with a terrible and unconvincing southern accent.

Letter from "Rollercoaster" Art Director Henry Bumstead to construction supervisor Jim Figley. Bumstead also worked on such classic films as "Vertigo" and "To Kill a Mockingbird."

For the 1992 season KD decided to follow the lead of KI and turn around the lakeside trains to run backwards. It was a simple process – the car was taken off the track, the chain and anti-rollback dogs underneath turned around, as was the lap bar electrical brush, and the car placed back on the track. Literally, that was it. Philadelphia Toboggan Company President Tom Rebbie sent a letter to all the parks informing them that PTC would stand by any adverse results of this action, since the trains were not built for backward operation. The lakeside trains enjoyed 15 years of trouble-free backward operation before they were turned back forward for the 2008 season.

Yell riders may notice the characteristic clatter of anti-rollback dogs as the speeding trains barrel up the back curve hill. This is a safety feature that has been used many, many times, although to my knowledge never with riders present. After the winter train rebuilds, the wheel bearings may be changed and pumped full of new grease. The train thus requires many circuits to free up the wheels, but in the meantime, the train frequently sticks on the back curve hill the first few circuits. The anti-rollback feature ensures the stuck train does not roll backwards and “rock in the cradle.” When this happens, a team of maintenance guys – sometimes armed with a cable and a bulldozer on the ground below – have to push/pull the train up the hill and around the curve, where it easily travels back to the station. Sometimes this procedure is repeated three or four times before the wheels are free enough to make it all the way without sticking the train on the back curve.

In 1981 an empty lakeside blue train stuck in a dip during a test run just before the last hill before the tunnel. Some of us had the brilliant idea to uncouple the cars and push them over the hill one at a time, where they would then roll through the tunnel and stop harmlessly in the e-brake zone. We uncoupled the lead car and began pushing, but quickly discovered those giant 6-passenger cars were too damn heavy to push up the hill. But it was too late by that point – if we let go the car would roll backwards and collide with the other cars still in the dip. We had no choice but to muscle it over the hill as we all imagined ourselves going home for a week with no pay for destroying another coaster train. Exhausted, we secured a bulldozer from landscaping and pulled the remaining four cars over the hill with a cable. Lesson learned.

The 2-person lap bars originally operated via that electrical copper brush mounted under the car running board, which contacted an electrified bar under the station. A near-electrocution on a rainy day in Cincinnati on the Racer necessitated a change to an individual mechanical lap restraint system around 1993, operated by a spring-loaded plunger activated under the station in the parked position. Also that year dividers were placed between the seats, and high-back Volvo seat backs were installed.

Also at this time a cut-through was made under the Yell to allow access to the new waterpark.

In the late 1990s the old mutton-leg slide brakes were replaced with Grizzly-style air-operated. spring back-up fin brakes as part of a Paramount-wide standardization procedure. These brakes utilize an actuator that uses air to set the brake, and a second actuator that has a spring that is held compressed to allow the air actuator to function. As always, the brakes remain closed during operation and can be opened by the operator only after the proper sensor sequence. Standards also include one closed brake between trains at all times, and reserve air tanks ensure the brakes close and stay closed during a power failure.

Other standardization procedures for multi-train coaster operation involved such minutiae as proximity sensors (to sense where the trains are on the tracks at all times), redundant sensors with self-checking logic, and dual PLC-operation – all of which was designed to ensure the safest possible operations, with no more rear-ended trains.

Wow, that’s a lot of stuff.

Even with all possible hardware, software, reserves and redundant backups, there is always the human element. Around August, 2010 a lap restraint apparently opened on one of the trains during operation. The ride was shut down for two days while maintenance determined an operational failure had occurred. Changes were made to loading procedures, and everyone went on their way.

(Tip: centripetal force does more to hold the rider in the seat than the lap bar in most instances. For 75% of the ride the lap bar is mostly decorative. I know, I know – it seems like a rider would be instantly ejected, but it’s simply not the case.)

Forty years after opening the Rebel Yell continues to thrill guests with its somewhat old-fashioned layout and approach to family coaster enjoyment. KD repainted the ride its original red white and blue color scheme (by the way – you rarely see painted wood coasters anymore. You paint it once, it is a very expensive lifelong commitment). Much track wood was replaced, the chasing lights were returned to the lakeside (now the original waterpark side) profile, and the huge, 6-person cars are painted their original red and blue. While Carowinds has regretfully torn down the Yell’s younger sister Thunder Road to make room for waterpark expansion, it is virtually everyone’s wish that the Rebel Yell – a symbol of Kings Dominion – continues for another 40 years of trouble-free operation.

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