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Are wooden roller coasters the best?

As Tivoli returns its 100-year-old wooden roller coaster to its original state, we ask if wooden coasters are having a moment

Are wooden roller coasters the best?

Text by Ed Frankl / Photos courtsey of Alamy

A century ago, the Rutschebanen (“roller coaster” in Danish) was a marvel of engineering and design. It was designed by the “father of the gravity ride”, LaMarcus Adna Thompson, to replicate a trip through snow-capped mountains, and was originally unveiled at the 1914 Baltic Fair before it moved to Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens amusement park the next year.

The world’s second-oldest continually running roller coaster (the oldest is at Luna Park in Melbourne) is still going strong – so much so that it’s Tivoli’s most popular ride, with 1.5 million passengers a year. What they get is one of the world’s very few side-friction coasters – there isn’t a set of wheels under the track to prevent cars from becoming airborne – and one of only four on the planet that still uses a brakeman in the car, meaning that no two rides are exactly the same.

And this year it’s been returned to its original design. In the 1920s, local authorities got rid of the ride’s mountain peak, arguing that visitors arriving at the central station should see city buildings rather than fake mountains. But this year the mountain’s back, meaning that you’re essentially riding the Rutschebanen as it was in 1914 – almost.

According to Jonathan Gress Wright, senior architect at Tivoli, only “about five to 10 per cent of the wood on Rutschebanen is actually 100 years old. We refurbish 10-15 per cent of the ride every year with new wood. In the old days they used fir, but now we use oak. It was barely built to last 10 years, but Tivoli just kept it going – even now, it’s one of the smoothest wooden roller coasters in the world.”

Rutschebanen is part of a renaissance for wooden roller coasters, which had their golden age in the 1920s but fell out of favour through first the Great Depression in the US and then the advent of steel coasters in the late 1950s. Several new ones have popped up in the past 15 years, from the giant, circular Troy in the Netherlands’ Toverpark to Colossos, the world’s tallest, at Germany’s Heide Park, and the dense Wodan Timbur Coaster at southern Germany’s Europa-Park, which was built in 2012. This year, Six Flags Adventure in New Jersey will open Goliath, the most extreme wooden roller coaster ever, with the fastest speed (116kph) and tallest, steepest drop (55m at 85 degrees).

But it’s not about records says Andy Hine, the founder and chairman of the Roller Coaster Club of Great Britain, who got married on the Grand National wooden roller coaster at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in the UK. “You can’t do loops and you can’t go 160kph on a wooden roller coaster, but you do get this shake, rattle and roll adrenaline rush that feels more primal than a clinical, controlled steel coaster. Once you get to the top of the lift hill, with all that tension building, the ‘k-k-k’ noise as it goes up, then it’s all released, and the train’s completely out of control – it’s just pure fun. The key thing coaster enthusiasts like is ‘airtime’ – that weightless feeling of being pushed out of your seat.”

Gothenburg’s Liseberg amusement park’s Balder coaster, which opened in 2003, has twice been voted the world’s best wooden coaster, not because of its height or speed, but because of the high percentage of airtime on the ride. And Hine says that the Rutschebanen can compete. “Take the back seat, and there’s one particular hill that really gives you a lot of airtime, which you wouldn’t expect of a 100-year-old ride.”


The four to try

Tivoli Gardens
One hundred years old this year, it’s one of few coasters to employ a brakeman and use side friction – but it’s Tivoli’s most-visited attraction because it’s so fun.

Heide Park
The tallest wooden coaster in the world is this monster in Germany’s Heide Park, 45 minutes south of Hamburg. It’s 60m tall and reaches over 100kph for almost 1.5km of track.

Balder, in Gothenburg’s charming Liseberg Park, cost SEK100 million (NOK93m) when it was built in 2003 – roller coaster geeks love it for its high percentage of “airtime”, with nine opportunities to experience zero gravity.

El Toro
Six Flags Great Adventure
The 55m-high El Toro is one of the stars of this  New Jersey theme park, just over two hours from New York. But even that will be put in the shade this year by new boy Goliath, with the world’s fastest speed (116kph) and tallest, steepest drop (55m at 85 degrees).


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