Ghost Town coaster an open-and-shut caseWritten by Becky Johnson
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The much-anticipated roller coaster at Ghost Town opened amid fanfare last week, then was promptly shut down again.
The coaster is one of the primary attractions at the mountaintop amusement park in Maggie Valley, but has been plagued by a series of glitches in the two years since the park opened under new ownership. The new owners pledged to breathe life into the 1960s-era amusement park, including rebuilding the coaster that had been shut down due to safety issues under the former owner.
The park hired a ride manufacturer to build an all-new roller coaster train that could run on the existing track. The new train has been slow to pass state ride inspections, however — from the type of harnesses it used to the way the cars rode on the track.
All those hurdles were finally cleared, however, and the coaster debuted to the public for a single day last Wednesday (July 1). By Thursday, it was shut down again.
The latest glitch involves the way the seat frames are bolted to the cars, according to Jonathan Brooks, head of the N.C. Elevator & Amusement Device Bureau. The seats will have to be taken apart and the connections analyzed — all the way down to which forge and which batch the steel came from, Brooks said.
Brooks said the ball is now in the ride manufacturer’s court to do an evaluation and come up with a fix.
“Until their engineers come back to us with a suitable solution to the problem, there is where we are,” Brooks said.
Ghost Town characterized the issue as “fine-tuning” in a press release sent out last Friday announcing the set back.
“The maintenance of a coaster is an ongoing and continual thing. This is just part of a process,” said CEO Steve Shiver. Indeed, a roller coaster at Carowinds was shut down by the state over the weekend due to concerns that arose there.
Shiver said the ball is already rolling on a new design for the seat brackets. If the new design is approved by the state, it should not take long to make the modifications to each seat.
Shiver said issues like this aren’t unusual and in fact are to be expected as part of the process in launching a new roller coaster.
“If it were easy everybody would be doing it,” Shiver said. “Some of it is trial and error, particularly given the uniqueness of our location and the logistics of being on top of this mountain. That’s why we are excited about having one of the most unique roller coasters in the world.”
How it was discovered
The state signed off on the final round of lengthy and arduous inspections Tuesday afternoon, but Brooks asked one of his inspectors to hang around and keep a close eye on the first couple of days of the ride’s operation.
“This being a brand new coaster, it is not unusual to have the inspector hang around and make sure the operations are running properly,” Brooks said.
In fact, ride inspectors make both surprise and announced inspections of all amusement parks and fairs in the state. Sometimes inspectors will pay the admission price at Carowinds and go in undercover as a tourist. Brooks said the repeated monitoring goes with the territory.
“You are taking people and turning them upside down and flipping them and spinning them, so there is a constant oversight that happens,” Brooks said.
The Cliffhanger roller coaster was open to the public all day on Wednesday. But Thursday morning, a Ghost Town ride operator detected something that didn’t seem quite right. He noticed what seemed to be abnormal movement of one of the seats in a car at the back of the train. The movement was most likely imperceptible to most, but not for an attuned ride operator.
“You get to know every little clink. They know when they see some abnormal movement,” Brooks said.
The ride operator in turn called the state inspector over who was still on the grounds. The inspector examined the seat fastenings, which wasn’t an easy task in itself.
“You have to get on your belly, standing on your head with a flashlight and mirror, to be honest,” Brooks said.
The inspector called Brooks and told him something didn’t look right in there. Brooks’ response: shut down the coaster and take the seat apart. The ride inspector found a hairline crack in the seat frame near the bolt that fastened it to the car.
“I took some heat for shutting it down, which I was willing to take. I don’t have an issue with that. My family may be on it and I certainly want it safe for my family, your family, everyone else,” Brooks said, reciting the rule of thumb behind his decisions.
Shiver said that while the setback is “absolutely frustrating” he, too, puts safety first.
“We want a safe and enjoyable experience for all our patrons,” Shiver said. “We have waited this long to open the coaster and because of our false starts in the past, we want to make sure that all of our theming and the complete Cliffhanger experience is satisfactory according to the high standards I personally set when we embarked upon the renovations and remaking of Ghost Town in the Sky.”
Inspection process works
The closure is a testimony to the state’s inspection system working properly, Brooks said. Brooks said his inspectors had been all over the roller coaster train examining every bolt and the crack wasn’t there. Brooks surmised it is a stress crack that developed during operation. It’s one reason the state requires a roller coaster to make 1,000 runs loaded with 170-pound sand bags in each seat before it can pass inspection.
The test runs not only familiarized ride operators with the coaster enough so they would detect any abnormality, but also meant the stress crack appeared early in the coaster’s debut while an inspector was still on site and not back in Raleigh already.
“We crossed all our T’s and dotted all our I’s,” Brooks said.
“The process worked like it should,” Shiver said. “That’s why we have daily inspections and well-trained ride operators. It worked.”
Brooks’ expertise in ride operations helped the amusement park overcome a problem that had been stumping them for months. The roller coaster was repeatedly getting stuck on the track in certain places. The ride manufacturer, Rotational Motion, was unable to diagnose the problem that seemed potentially insurmountable without either rebuilding the cars or making serious alterations to the track itself.
Ghost Town had hired Brooks’ former counterpart with the state ride inspection bureau, Clyde Wagner. The two were on site at Ghost Town one day trying to troubleshoot the confounding problem.
“He and I were just talking one day and I said something ain’t square here,” Brooks recounted.
It turned out the neoprene wheels weren’t quite hard enough. Using an instrument to taking readings on the softness of the wheels, they tested the old wheels from the original roller coaster cars and discovered they were slightly harder than the ones on the rebuilt cars. New, harder wheels solved the problem.
There was another issue as well. The park has greased down the track with cooking oil. Lubricants aren’t uncommon to reduce friction since roller coasters operate on gravity.
The cooking oil left a residue, however, and sand sifting out of the bags placed in the seats during test runs had stuck to the track and even gotten in the bearings. Brooks had the maintenance crews strip the tracks of the build-up.
The ride manufacturer suggested switching to baby oil as a lubricant, which is applied to the wheels of the cars by hand every morning.
Ghost Town’s Cliffhanger roller coaster is truly amazing. The track perches on the side of a 4,700-foot mountaintop, offering sweeping vistas of distance mountain ranges in every direction and the valley floor visible far below. See footage of the short-lived opening of the coaster filmed by a tourist, including footage of the ride from the front seat of the coaster train at www.ghosttowninthesky.com/Special/cliffhanger.html.