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20 years in the Amusement industry

Part 25: Kings Dominion’s Scrambler - This Carpet-Bagging Carny Import Has Some Hidden Secrets

In 1974, as Kings Dominion in Virginia was gearing up, Willow Grove Park in Pennsylvania was winding down. WGP had started in 1896 as a trolley Park, much like Idlewood Park in Richmond, and despite various improvements, theming changes and ride additions as the Thunderbolt Roller Coaster, simply could not keep up. Like many original trolley parks, Willow Grove was affected by the increased use of affordable automobiles, which freed people from dependence on the trolley lines and allowed them to seek entertainment literally anywhere. Willow Grove Park closed after the 1975 season, was demolished in 1976, and is now the site of the Willow Grove Park Mall.

I haven’t even been to the mall but I already know I liked it better as an amusement park.

But Willow Grove’s loss was Kings Dominion’s gain, as several flat rides at WGP were purchased in 1974 by Jim Figley and Top Value Enterprises and brought to Virginia. Included among that grab-bag of ancient kiddie rides and a bunch of other junk was a genuine, 1962 Eli Bridge Co. Scrambler.

Located in Jacksonville, Illinois, Eli Bridge started making Scramblers in 1955 after producing Ferris-style “Big Eli” wheels. Company President, W.E. Sullivan, had witnessed the first gigantic Ferris Wheel at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and decided that was the business he wanted to get into. In a few short years the Scrambler became one of the most recognized amusement rides in the world, and by the mid-1970s there were over 400 in operation, both in fixed theme parks and traveling carnivals.

A Scrambler ride is a unique experience no one recognizes, and does some things no other ride does. A center mast rotates about 30 riders clockwise in 12 “buckets” at exactly 11.4 RPMs. These buckets in turn rotate in a counterclockwise direction on a “unit pole,” causing each bucket to trace a 24-point star pattern back and forth across the operating circle (see illustration). Anyone who ever drew with a Spirograph in the 1970s understands this concept.

As each seat reaches the outside of the circle, it comes to a momentary dead stop. From this dead stop, it restarts and picks up speed so that when it reaches the center of the circle 1.2 seconds later, it is traveling 25 MPH and subjecting riders to 0.95 g’s. consequently, two cars pass each other at their closest the equivalent of 50 MPH. After another 1.2 seconds the car again reaches the outside and again comes to a dead stop. This makes the Scrambler one of the fastest accelerating flat rides in the park.

Each car passes the center base 24 times, creating a 24-point star before the brake sets. It takes the ride about 3.5 revolutions to come to a stop, for a total of 27.5 times.

I’ll bet this never occurred to anyone riding.

When the original portable Scramblers were built in the mid-1950s they were equipped with Allis-Chalmers gasoline engines. Carnies – not nearly as clueless as portrayed in the media – quickly figured out they could “goose” these engines to increase the rotation RPMs from the recommended 12.5 at the time to over 16 RPMs. Once Eli Bridge got wind of this they issued a stern warning to owner/operators that this practice was extremely dangerous, and not only to the structural integrity of the ride but in the excessive g-forces these speeds exerted on riders.

To compensate, in 1961 Eli reduced standard operating speeds from 12.5 to 11 RPMs for gas motors and 11.4 RPMs for electric motors, with speed governors.

It was a good move – and here’s why: a bucket loaded with 600 lbs of human flesh exerts 695 lbs. of force at 11.0 RPMs against the hapless rider seated on the outside. At 12 RPMs this force becomes 827 lbs., and at 16 RPMs (115% of overload) this translates to a whale-like 1,496 lbs. of force, which could result in broken ribs, concussion or even suffocation. Even at the reduced RPMs, it is standard procedure to load the larger person of a group into the outside of the bucket.

“Your operator may tell you that it ‘is necessary’ to operate at 12, 14 or 16 RPM in order to give the customer a ‘good ride’ and that it ‘doesn’t hurt the equipment,” warned a bulletin to owners dated August 15, 1975. “DON’T BELIEVE HIM.”

Scrambler layout, 1990s

KD’s Scrambler motor is located behind the operator’s panel, and drives the ride via a long drive shaft in a plate-covered trough to the ride center. This shaft drives a series of pinion gears, providing rotation to not just the center mast but the four individual “sweeps.” There are two brake drums under the center panel that work exactly like old-style automobile brake drums, with curved brake shoes that clamp electrically after 24 rotations, slowing the ride to a stop.

Modifications made throughout the years include a secondary door latch (added so any less intelligent riders would not try to open the doors during operation), an aluminum lap bar for something to hold on to, and a cap over the sweep unit poles so a broken bearing would not let the center mast drop and strike the ground during operation.

(Right: Scrambler center mast, showing sweep arm connection)

There have never been any major accidents on KD’s Scrambler. In 2004 a 7-year-old girl named Stephanie Dieudonne of New Rochelle, N.Y. stood up in a Scrambler at Playland Park to wave at a friend riding behind her. She was sadly thrown out and killed. After that Eli Bridge instituted a “no single rider” recommendation, set a mandatory height limit at 36” and a seatbelt policy for many older models.

The Scrambler is the third oldest ride in the park (behind the Carrousel (1917) and the Flying Eagles (c. 1940)). Like most all of them, it was built as a portable carny ride, and this writer can attest that two reasonably capable mechanics with a small forklift and a toolbox can disassemble the ride in just a couple hours, and re-assemble this middle-aged baby boomer almost as fast.

Probably even faster while shirtless, smoking and swearing, just like a real carny.

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