Robert Coker

Robert Coker is a creative consultant to the themed entertainment industry, working as a show/concept writer and designer:

He has written advertising and promotional copy for the themed entertainment industry and beyond; articles for both themed entertainment trade publications and general consumer media (including Smoke magazine, and The Guardian); feature film screenplays; greeting cards; and more.

He is a frequent co-host on The Season Pass, the Internet’s leading themed entertainment industry podcast.

He also writes and publishes ThrillRide!, one of the internet’s earliest (and at one time, one of the most popular) amusement industry-focused websites. Because of ThrillRide’s international renown, Robert has been a featured industry expert on a number of television documentaries, including an appearance on Britain’s Postcards From America series, in which he rode the Coney Island Cyclone with Monica Lewinsky. (Yes, that Monica Lewinsky.)

In 2002, the first edition of his book Roller Coasters: A Thrill Seeker’s Guide to the Ultimate Scream Machines was published. It received “Five Star” customer ratings at both and and climbed to the number one slot on Amazon’s “Travel Books Best Sellers” list. There were three subsequent reprints, two with updated content, and all four editions sold out. (Some used booksellers have listed “like new” first-edition copies for sale at over $350.00.

Loggers, and Timber, and Bears (well, at least one). Oh my…

garner holt concept art bear knotts berry farm timber mountain

I was able to attend the park’s May 30th media event with The Season Pass crew , a day in which the park formally unveiled their new Boardwalk attractions (fairly stunning in their own right) and Bud Hurlbut’s restored masterpiece.

By Robert Coker

As you have likely heard already, logs did not start flowing until late in the afternoon, and only with park staff on board. Herculean efforts were made to have it open to the media and the public, but it was not to be. (Though it did open the very next day, to instant acclaim.)

That said, on the outside, everything is gorgeous: the freshly scrubbed and painted rockwork; the new trees, some 200 of them, imported from China; the more natural-looking dark green troughs; and on timber mountain knotts berry farm logoand on.

Inside, it’s even better. Doug Barnes and I were escorted through the mountain for a peek at several new show scenes, with the new Garner Holt animatronics in full performance mode, and we were both awestruck. In more than one prior discussion with Raffi Kaprelyan, the park’s GM, he emphasized that there would be no drastic changes to the overall flavor and story, but there would be some new elements and surprises that they hoped would please the many fans of this beloved ride. Mission accomplished, definitively. (The bear? Wow. Wait until you see the bear.)

They’ve even reworked some of the nomenclature to make the overall story of Ghost Town itself more cohesive: it’s now the “Calico Logging Company” harvesting the timber on Timber Mountain.
To witness the level of craft – and expenditure – that has been lavished on a ride more than four decades old is deeply satisfying. As a fan, I am overjoyed that one of my favorite themed attractions is in the best shape it’s ever been. More importantly, this work is just the latest and most striking example of how this park is being treated by its new caretakers. As an industry professional, I hope that other parks follow their lead.

We’re told that a similar top-to-bottom restoration of the Calico Mine Ride isn’t far off, and I cannot wait to see the results of that effort.

(Seriously, that bear, it rocks, and speaking of carnivores: try the Southwest Burger at the Coasters restaurant. Damn, that is one good theme park burger!)

Amusement Parks: Terminator – The Woodie? Hmmmm…

Our basic concern: Why would anyone try to mate an old-school lumber thriller, whose core technologies have remained unchanged for several generations, with a tale about killer robots from the future? Seems like a conceptually dubious way to go. (And I won’t even address the fact that another park very close by already has a pretty damned righteous Terminator-themed attraction.)

I must admit, my first reaction was real disappointment. But as time has passed, I’ve been feeling less angst over the whole issue. Honestly, for most roller coasters (big-budget Disney rides aside), are names and themes really that important? Six Flags New England’s Superman Ride of Steel just won – again – the steel coaster blue ribbon in Amusement Today’s Golden Ticket Awards and I don’t think the results would have been any different even if it had been dubbed the Hello Kitty Koaster.  And the GTA’s top woodie, Holiday World’s The Voyage? Sure, that’s a fairly clever moniker for a Thanksgiving-themed zone but it doesn’t really make the blood race. The ride itself clearly does, though, and that’s all that matters.

Names do make implied promises, to be sure. For instance, if we walk up to a coaster called Titan, or Goliath, or Behemoth, it had better be pretty big. And if a coaster is called “The Terminator,” it should be diabolical. Which it no doubt will be, given the astounding talent pool at Great Coasters International, the designers of the attraction.

And I must admit, the park designer-wannabe inside me couldn’t help but think of the possibilities. How about they paint the whole coaster – structure, roadbed, every visible surface – completely black, as if it had been charred from top to bottom in the Judgment Day conflagration? And then maybe add glowing red lights to the trains, as if they were some kind of nasty caterpillar-bots, roving the wasteland for stray humans? And then maybe tunnel the entire lift hill and pipe in some of that sweet percussive Terminator theme?

So, maybe… We’ll see.

See also:

Amusement parks: Just the Ticket

Amusement Parks: X2 – Thrilling As Ever, Almost To A Fault

Amusement Parks: X2 – Thrilling As Ever, Almost To A Fault

To judge the overall success of the coaster’s recent multi-million dollar makeover based on that visit would be unfair. The mist and fireball effects were not working, so we got sort of an “X1.5” experience. But we certainly bore the brunt of X2’s raw power.

A quick recap of this coaster’s history: In late 2001, Magic Mountain debuted X, the world’s first “Fourth Dimension” roller coaster, an Arrow-designed monster with seats that rotated forward and backward, a 200-plus-foot-tall vertical drop and a top speed of 76 miles per hour.  Over the next few years, this massive prototype operated only sporadically, and when it did, its hours-long lines moved very slowly, due to the long and arduous train-loading procedure.

Finally, during the 2007 season, the park announced it was shutting down the coaster for a $10 million revamp, including a new paint job, redesigned trains with onboard audio, and the addition of some effects along the course. Over time, the park announced that the highlight of those effects would be a blast of flames to be shot out over the train. Very rock and roll.

The new look is a definite improvement. X’s former yellow and pink colors were, to put it kindly, unorthodox, and the new charcoal grey and blood-red scheme is much more in the grain of this ride’s badass nature. And the new, lighter trains have certainly improved through-put.  All three trains were running and the ride ops got them in and out of the station at a reasonable clip.

The on-board audio we both found to be a bit of a mixed bag. You can certainly enjoy it on the lift hill, but once over the top, the only sounds I can recall are the roar of the vehicles and my incessant screaming.

My greatest hope, although one the park has stressed was not a sure-fire outcome, was that the ride itself would be a tad less brutal with the lighter trains. That, we both agree, was not the case. A ride in the outer seats is at the far limit of what I’d consider acceptable, and I would not recommend it for newbies. The inner seats, closest to the wheel-base, are better, but still way up on the intensity scale.

All in all, though, X2 is still one of the most amazing roller coasters ever built and there are very, very few rides that offer an equal amount of gut-tightening horror. As the trains begin to spill over the initial vertical drop and the vehicles slowly rotate, tipping us face-down, and then completely inverting as we fall… that is some serious business. And the rest of the course is non-stop chaos. In total, I’ve probably ridden X/X2 about a dozen times, and I still can’t fully describe exactly what happens from start to finish.

Would I call it “fun?” In a sick way, yes. But this is not a ride I’d choose for a marathon. Once it’s over, I need some time to make sure all my internal organs are still where they should be.

But I’ll definitely be back to get flame-broiled.

Enjoying The Ride: An Enthusiast’s Perspective

Thanks to a very patient mother, much of my childhood was spent at theme parks. I remember walking through a rather barren Magic Mountain during its premier season, young enough to be awed by the Gold Rusher mine train coaster; visiting Knott’s Berry Farm (for the umpteenth time) to ride the Corkscrew, the first modern coaster with inversions; dragging every out-of-town guest to Disneyland to ride the Matterhorn Bobsleds, and the Submarines, and the Mighty Microscope, and Mission to Mars, and Peter Pan’s Flight, and on and on.

When I wasn’t visiting the parks, I was eager to learn more about them. I bought every book on the topic I could find. I wrote to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions and asked to receive their monthly newsletter, a request they very kindly granted. I subscribed to Amusement Business. I interviewed Randal Duell and Ira West of R. Duell and Associates, the trend-setting theme park developers. After my family moved to New York in the mid-70s, I joined a small group of like-minded folks who had just started a club called the American Coaster Enthusiasts. For my high school senior year project, I designed a theme park called “Atlantis.” And for one glorious summer, between my freshman and sophomore year in college, I worked for WED Imagineering in the electrical engineering department as the company was feverishly prepping both Florida’s EPCOT Center, and Tokyo Disneyland.

Though my professional career as a graphic designer has taken me in different directions, I have indulged my passion for this world by writing about it, through my “ThrillRide!” website, and the book that it spawned, “Roller Coasters – A Thrill Seeker’s Guide to the Ultimate Scream Machines.” And I hope I’m able to offer some relevant and/or entertaining comments here as well.

On that note: I recently attended the media debut of Universal Studios Hollywood’s “The Simpsons Ride,” the simulator attraction that replaced the legendary “Back to the Future – The Ride” (at both the Hollywood and Florida parks). Without a doubt, it’s a winner. Anyone who enjoys the humor of the series is in for a great time, from the preshow all the way through the ride itself. It’s manic, silly, and loaded with some very disorienting thrills.

In hindsight, it’s clear that the visceral, immersive punch of  live-action footage – as was employed for “Back to the Future” – will always be greater than anything attainable with cartoonish animation, 3-D or otherwise.  So on that level, TSR doesn’t quite deliver the “Wow!” factor that BTTR-TR did. But that’s a minor quibble.

Before I sign off for now, I’d like to share something I discovered rereading an old book called “Fun Land U.S.A.” This paperback, written by Tim Onosko and published in 1978, offered a rundown of all the major amusement parks in the country. During Onosko’s description of what was then California’s “Marriott’s Great America,” there is this editorial remark: “Opened during Great America’s 1977 season… was the Intamin Shuttle Loop…It’s mentioned here because it may very well be the limit of thrill riding.”

It pleases me to no end that not too long ago, a roller coaster with a top speed under 60 MPH and a single vertical inversion (navigated both forward and backward, granted) could be considered near “the limit of thrill riding.”

Can’t wait to try out Six Flags Magic Mountain’s X2.