Tucked away in the wooded suburbs south of Atlanta is a small family-owned amusement park that used to bring in customers thanks to humble attractions like its Ferris wheel, bumper boats, Tilt-a-Whirl, go-kart tracks, Scooby Swing and batting cages.
It towers above the green landscape, its steel tracks shimmering in the Georgia sun. Its 154-foot lift hill and steep first drop are visible from Highway 85, beckoning to and intimidating passers-by.
The ride is among the newest designed by Rocky Mountain Construction, a roller coaster manufacturer that, in the last decade or so, has become one of the most innovative in the business. The company is a particular favorite among roller coaster fans who make special trips to theme parks around the country to check out the latest advancements in thrill-seeking. And Rocky Mountain Construction’s latest creation was the main reason I paid Fun Spot a visit on a recent Saturday.
Another manufacturer on the wow list is Bolliger & Mabillard, a Swiss firm focused on bold, smooth steel rides, including a new stand-up roller coaster at SeaWorld Orlando. Yet another company, Intamin, has made its name with launch coasters and rides of extreme heights and speeds.
You’ll hear the abbreviated terms for these companies — “RMC” for Rocky Mountain Construction; “B & M” for Bolliger & Mabillard — tossed around at events attended by roller coaster aficionados, including the annual CoasterMania! at the Cedar Point theme park in Sandusky, Ohio. The day before my trip to Fun Spot America Atlanta, I was among the CoasterMania! revelers who rode roller coasters built by each of these three top designers.
Events like Coastermania! give roller coaster nerds like me a chance to wallow in the details of a great ride with like-minded people. We can express what’s great about the various twists and drops, discuss rumors of what’s coming up at theme parks around the world and have exclusive time to ride (and re-ride) roller coasters early in the morning, before the parks officially open to the public.
This year, we talked a lot about RMC while in line for Steel Vengeance, one of the wildest and most ambitious coasters that the company has made.
The manufacturer has become known for taking old wooden roller coasters whose rides have gotten too rough and retrofitting them with steel tracks, keeping a lot of the wood structure and turning the rides into hybrid coasters.
Fred Grubb, who founded RMC with Suanne Dedmon, worked with the engineer Alan Schilke to come up with their own brand of track for this purpose, the I-Box track. This innovation allows for creative tricks, like overbanked turns and inversions that give those on board a feeling of weightlessness.
For the recently unveiled ArieForce One at Fun Spot, RMC did not reprofile an old wooden coaster, instead building it from scratch with steel supports. The ride’s most talked-about element is its zero-G stall. Riders go upside down in an arc and feel as if they are floating for around four seconds. Fun Spot says its new roller coaster has the longest zero-G stall in the country.
ArieForce One is named after the Fun Spot America chief executive and owner, John Arie Jr., who said in a news release that the jet-themed coaster was “a tribute to my father and his passion for flying.” And, boy, does it fly. Once you make it over the lift, the ride clocks in at a relatively brief 45 seconds, but it doesn’t waste a single one.
After the first drop, the ride goes into what RMC calls a raven-truss dive. In this part of the ride, the track flips you over and sends you diving the other way. From there, ArieForce One manages to fit in two barrel rolls before concluding with four swift airtime hops that bounce you out of your seat before the too-quick end.
“I’ve seen Jesus and came back,” one frazzled rider behind me said.
In the station before my third ride, a girl who had gotten into her seat before the ride started to cry and asked her father if they could get off. He said OK, which was probably the right choice because ArieForce One packs a surprising wallop. That said, I rode it seven times.
Before one of my rides, I spotted two guys in line wearing roller coaster T-shirts from other parks (Mako at SeaWorld Orlando and Time Traveler at Silver Dollar City). I realized that they, like me, were doing a bit of coaster tourism.
They said they had come to Fun Spot from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and one of them, Brandon Cummings, recently started a YouTube channel, CoasterNotes. They were both impressed by ArieForce One. “It is definitely way more aggressive than I had anticipated,” Mr. Cummings said, “but they nailed it.”
So what, exactly, is the secret to an RMC creation? What about this company has people buzzing and making treks to ride its coasters all over the country? How does the company keep doing it? In a video call, I spoke with Jake Kilcup, the director of engineering at Rocky Mountain Construction about the company’s design strategy and goals. Below are edited excerpts from that conversation.
How long have you been with Rocky Mountain Construction?
I started with the company in 2009. I came in as a designer and a draftsman. I have my graduate degree in architecture. So I grew up with a fascination in homes and ended up in roller coasters.
So you were there during a pivotal time of change.
I came in when the company had just come up with the I-Box track concept and had just secured their first contract.
How has the I-Box track changed steel coasters?
In the past, when it came to steel coasters, they were all built out of pipe, almost like a giant exhaust bender that’s bending heavy-duty pipe into shape. But what we’re doing is taking a steel plate and making a double webbed I-beam with a rail box. We’re running on a flat surface, whereas most of the other steel roller coasters out there are running on a round surface.
How does this make a difference?
When we build out of plate steel, we’re not physically bending anything to the point where it’s changing shape in any way. All of those track pieces were built by hand and with clamps. So it actually lends itself to making the smoothest roller coasters in the world.
Your rides have fun elements like wave turns that put riders horizontal and zero-G rolls that twist riders upside down. Where do these ideas come from?
Well, Alan Schilke, who’s kind of a legend in the industry, does all the layouts for our rides. And Joe Draves is his protégé. We talk all the time about how to recreate a feeling that you get from doing a certain trick on a snowboard or on skis. It’s something that most people would never do in their lives because it’s difficult and risky. And how do we get that on a roller coaster, where it’s essentially a freebie but you still get that incredible feeling?
Aside from ArieForce One, do you have a good recent example of an RMC-style element?
We’re opening a ride in Hershey, Pa., right now called Wildcat’s Revenge. Right off the drop hill, the first big element on the ride is an underfoot, which is a snowboard move. It’s barrel-rolling to one side but then turning to the other side. That’s straight out of extreme sports, right there.
ArieForce One is a short coaster with a lot of power. What are you most proud of achieving with this ride?
We had some design constraints due to zoning. They were a pain at the time, but they lead to creativity that you would have never found if you didn’t have them. We have some elements that go over a building at Fun Spot, and we had a ceiling that we had to stay under, which required a very aggressive barrel roll right over the building. There’s a lot of eye candy on that ride. But I’m always looking for the more subtle surprise on each ride, and that barrel roll sneaks up on people.
There’s an element on here I haven’t seen before. Can you describe the raven-truss dive?
A raven turn is essentially half a loop. We go up to the top, we turn upside down, and then we dive straight down to the ground. It’s almost the combination of a barrel roll and a loop.
And then there’s the signature zero-G stall right after that. How did you work to make it the largest in the country?
It really comes down to speed, because our goal is to be at zero-G throughout that entire stall. So you’re not sitting in your seat, and you’re not hanging on the lap bar. You’re just floating like an astronaut, is the feeling you’re going for. So we have to take what we believe our typical speed is going to be and then design that entire element around those speeds to hold that zero-G. And there’s nothing between you and the ground 90 feet below.
The scale of this ride is much greater than all else at Fun Spot America Atlanta. How did you get to design this large aggressive coaster at this small park?
We had Fun Spot get a hold of us and say, “Hey, we’re interested in doing something.” And I’ll be honest, the first thing that we thought was, OK, how do we put together a good value for them on a smaller scale? And they said, “No, no, stop right now. We want something big. We’re looking to punch up. We’re looking for something that is going to make people take note.” And right then, we were on board.
A video above of riders on ArieForce One was captured at a slower frame rate.
Mekado Murphy is the assistant film editor. He joined The Times in 2006. @mekadomurphy