Happy 50th to Vancouver's wooden coaster
I get so scared when I ride it but everytime I go to the Playland I have to ride it. Even though I think I am going to die when I do.
Like many 50-year-olds, the wooden roller coaster at Vancouver's PNE feels a bit rickety. It creaks, groans and bends in ways that can be downright scary.
But that's exactly the way roller coaster legends Carl Phare and Walker Leroy designed it. And it's why five decades after it was built, the wooden roller coaster remains far and away the most popular ride at the annual fair, attracting more than 500,000 riders annually.
This Tuesday, the Pacific National Exhibition will celebrate the coaster's 50th birthday by offering free rides to the public from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Then Mayor Sam Sullivan will designate it a site of "special significance" to the city.
By modern standards, the PNE coaster is quite slow -- its top speed of 80 kilometres per hour is barely a third the speed of the Kingda Ka coaster in Jackson, N.J., which whips around the track at 205 kilometres per hour.
But what it lacks in speed, it makes up for in ambiance. The lightning-quick modern coasters at mega-amusement parks like Six Flags and Knott's Berry Farm are made of steel, which allows them to go fast, but has no give, no feel.
The PNE coaster is made of Douglas fir which is all give, all feel. It makes the ride seem a bit wonky, like something's going to snap and you're going to be hurtled into kingdom come. Which makes it all the more frightening, and all the more fun.
"It's a really well designed track," says roller coaster enthusiast Mike McKinney of Burnaby.
"For the size of the thing, it delivers one hell of a punch. It's got one of the sharpest whiplash turns I think I've ever been on; strange little bunny hills at the end that really beat you up; a very odd section that runs flat then drops and runs flat. Everything about it works."
The X factor is that the only thing holding you in is a lap bar, which means you really get jolted around.
"You're really loose to move around in that thing," notes McKinney, who has ridden hundreds of roller coasters around North America.
"I've been on some good coasters, but they strap you in so tight, there's no thrill left."
The old wooden coaster is not the first rollercoaster to be in the PNE, but it is definitely the most popular and a lot of money and time is spent on it every year to maintain that it is still safe to ride.
It is actually the third roller coaster on the PNE grounds, prefaced by the Giant Dipper (1925-47) and the Little Dipper (1928-44). The older coasters were located at the Happyland amusement park, where the Pacific Coliseum is today; the current coaster is at Playland.
It isn't all that big -- 23 metres tall, with a 856-metre track.
But it was a wonderful design, incorporating the decades of experience Phare (who designed it) and Leroy (who built it) had accumulated building coasters.
In an interview a year before his death in 1999, Leroy said the key to the feel of the coaster was the "select" Douglas fir it was built with, and the skilled carpenters who built it.
"Select Douglas fir for a roller coaster is harvested at a particular altitude," he explained.
"Because only Douglas fir -- and use the word Douglas -- grows at that particular elevation. It has a real tight growth ring on it, and the knots are spaced out, so you just get beautiful wood out of it. Awfully hard to buy now."