If you took all 123 roller coasters at Cedar Fair parks and put them end to end they’d stretch for 58 miles. Stack all those lift hills on top of one another and they’d reach more than 10,000 feet into the sky.
“Coasters are in our DNA,” said Matt Ouimet, CEO of the Cedar Fair amusement park chain.
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I sat down recently with Ouimet for a wide-ranging discussion about roller coasters at Cedar Fair’s parks in the United States and Canada. The chain has 11 amusement parks with some of the biggest coaster collections in the world: Cedar Point (16), Canada’s Wonderland (16), Kings Island (14), Kings Dominion (13), Carowinds (13) and Knott’s Berry Farm (10).
As a former Disneyland president, Ouimet was brought in to sprinkle a little Disney pixie dust on Cedar Fair. Some coaster enthusiasts thought his arrival would herald the introduction of more family-friendly rides and far fewer record-setting coasters.
Indeed, Cedar Fair parks have seen a host of family-friendly attractions under Ouimet’s watch, from water park and kiddie area upgrades to new tower swing and flying scooter rides. But since Ouimet took over as CEO in 2012, Cedar Fair parks have also added a steady stream of steel behemoths, from Leviathan at Canada’s Wonderland to Banshee at Kings Island.
Over the last few years, Ouimet has employed an array of coaster strategies -- from rethemes to renovations to relocations to conversions. But so far the biggest weapon in his arsenal has been a new gate coaster concept unveiled at a pair of parks and designed to make a statement to visitors as they enter.
“I want you to be impressed at our doorstep,” said Ouimet. “When you get to the park and you see that coaster, you can’t help but think you’re in for a good day.”
The gate coasters -- Gatekeeper at Cedar Point and Fury 325 at Carowinds -- are known internally as “Deckerated” coasters, so named for Cedar Fair coaster designer Rob Decker, who hates the honorific, Ouimet said.
So can we expect a gate coaster at every Cedar Fair park?
“Now, if I could rewind history, would I do them at the front of every Cedar Fair park?” Ouimet said. “Probably. But it’s not going to happen.”
While several parks with beautiful promenade entrances like Canada’s Wonderland and Kings Island will never get gate coasters, Ouimet said a couple more Cedar Fair parks will eventually get “Deckerated.”
Paramount for Ouimet is making sure major new coasters are comfortable for riders and non-riders alike. That means adding plenty of shade and seating for parents and grandparents who might not want to climb aboard a 95-mph beast like Fury 325 while also stretching out the elements to make the G-forces more manageable for the coaster-inclined.
“I don’t want you to be so scared that you don’t want to ride it again,” Ouimet said.
This summer, Ohio’s Cedar Point converted the 1996 Mantis stand-up coaster into a floorless coaster known as Rougarou. The relatively rare conversion raised the obvious question: Which Cedar Fair coaster is next?
“We have a couple more we could do and I suspect you’ll see that happen,” Ouimet said. “But unfortunately it’s not one of those things you can play out in 10 different places.”
Last year, Ohio’s Kings Island rethemed the Flight Deck suspended coaster with a new paint job and a retro name: the Bat. The name pays tribute to another suspended coaster called the Bat that briefly operated at Kings Island in the early 1980s. Flight Deck itself was a rethemed ride that started life in 1993 as Top Gun, a tie-in to the Tom Cruise fighter pilot movie.
“One of the things that’s fascinating about this industry, and Disney has this in spades to some degree, is you have to be innovative and yet you have to give the nod to nostalgia,” said Ouimet, who only sees rethemes working when they pay tribute to a park’s historical legacy.
With coasters, the what’s-old-is-new-again strategy takes many forms. Shipping off an old coaster to a new location is the theme park equivalent of the witness protection program for aging thrill rides -- complete with a new look, name and city for the relocated attraction. Rival Six Flags has turned coaster relocation into a regular practice.
Cedar Fair’s Dorney Park in Pennsylvania is home to a couple relocated rides: a 1998 Vekoma Invertigo shuttle coaster from California’s Great America and a 2000 Intamin Impulse launched shuttle coaster from Ohio’s Geauga Lake.
But Ouimet doesn’t see coaster relocations as a viable business model.
“If a ride is really popular, you don’t want to take it out,” Ouimet said. “And if it’s not, then it’s probably outlived its longevity anyway.”
One of the biggest challenges amusement parks face is maintaining aging wooden coasters. In recent years, Idaho-based Rocky Mountain Construction has solved the problem with wooden coaster renovations that turn existing rides into wood-steel hybrids with looping inversions.
“The revitalization or rejuvenation of wooden coasters is probably a card that gets played for the next 10 years,” Ouimet said. “We are obviously looking at our whole portfolio just to decide what we do with it.”
Cedar Fair has more than two dozen wooden coasters in its vast collection from manufacturers like Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters and Great Coasters International, but none of the rides has ever gotten a Rocky Mountain makeover. Cedar Fair has several uncomfortably rough wooden coasters -- including Cedar Point’s Mean Streak -- that have long been prime candidates for renovations.
“The industry has developed some very good, solid players these days,” Ouimet said. “Rocky Mountain is a good example, GCI is a good example. We’ll probably work with all of them before we’re done.”
Knott’s Berry Farm has announced plans to renovate GhostRider in 2016 but has not yet said which company will do the work or revealed the changes planned for the wooden coaster.
Looking forward, the future of Cedar Fair coasters could be digital. In 2014, Canada’s Wonderland introduced the Wonder Mountain Guardian coaster-dark ride combo that added interactive gaming and digital screens to the traditional coaster experience. Ouimet said more digital coaster experiences are on the way this fall.
“We’re going to continue to invest in this digital world and they won’t all be rides,” Ouimet said. “It is clear to me that the integration of this digital entertainment world with the amusement park world is going to work.”
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