Saturday, March 22, 2008

Dorney Park History: Hercules

It would be hard to argue against the massive impact that Hercules had on the development and future of Dorney Park when it opened on May 4th, 1989. It was big, fast, intense, and a gave a wild ride that was hard to find on other coasters of the era. Now only a piece of Dorney Park history, I wanted to try to slap together some details of the attraction's past to bring the ride's memory full circle. That said, here we go.

As with so many Dorney Park attractions, Hercules did not follow the typical amusement park ride building pattern: Announce, Build, Open. Hercules had drama, the type of drama that almost didn't allow the ride to be built.

Dorney Park hired Curtis Summers to design the coaster, and hired Charles Dinn and his crew to build the massive ride in late '87 or early '88. The coaster was laid out over an empty hill at the edge of the park's property, and was to be the anchor of the new park area that replaced the former speedway which ran at the park for many years.

Building such a massive ride was a huge project for Dorney Park. The six million dollar attraction had several names considered, such as Thunderhawk and Barbarian, but in the end Hercules was the winner. A ride so big also needed a huge announcement, which takes us back to the middle of July, 1988, when the park sent out a press release touting an announcement to be made on the 15th of that month.

"The purpose of the news conference is to formally unveil plans for a major attraction set for Dorney Park for its 1989 season. The attraction promises to be Dorney's greatest achievement, setting it apart from the remaining amusement world."

Although the name for the ride was not announced at the press conference, Harris Weinstein did present a group of press and coaster buffs with a drawing and some statistics at the conference on the 15th. The ride was to be gigantic, and the crowd was excited.

Here's where the 'typical' Dorney Park ride approval stuff started; only a few days after the announcement the South Whitehall Township started listing aspects of the coaster they were bothered by - it's height, location in a flood plain, how close it was to the park's electric substation.

Curtis Summers actually came to one of the planning meetings to assure the ride would be safe and provide additional information on the supports that would be in the park's lower lake. Other issues were also addressed, and something must have pleased the zoning board because zoning approval was given to the ride.

The planning commission gave a conditional approval for the ride at the end of July 1988, but wanted to see what their engineer had to say about the plans before making it final. The last piece of the approval puzzle would come from the Board of Commissioners, but the park missed their monthly August meeting, and at the September meeting Weinstein started the fireworks.

The commissioner meeting was filled with raging debate over the ride's footings in a flood plain, and how high it should be over the lake. It looked like the commissioners wanted to delay their decision another week, so Harris Weinstein announced that he would have to abort plans for the ride if the park did not get approval right then and there. He said they needed to get started on the ride to get it open for the 1989 season, and that the designer and builder had other projects scheduled that would conflict with the Dorney project should it be delayed too long.

At the next meeting, in the middle of September, the commissioners forced the park to agree to a resolution that the ride would not generate noise above 85 decibels, an agreement that appeared to finally clear the way for the park to begin work on the ride. Another week went by, and suddenly the commissioners decided to appeal the approval given for the ride by the zoning board, almost two months earlier.

This was both a surprise to the park as well as a slap in the face. The appeal allowed the township to file a court order for the park to stop work on the ride, however, not much was really going on at the site at that point. Dorney Park officials said that if the commissioners went forward with their appeal they would be met with a "multimillion dollar lawsuit" from the park.

The lawsuit wasn't filed, but the park and the commissioners did have their day in court. In the middle of October both parties met in the Lehigh County Court to discuss the matter. Finally, an agreement was made: both the park and the township would hire a sound expert to decide what would be an acceptable amount of noise for the ride to make. If, when the ride opened, the Township felt it was going above the 85 decibel limit, they would be able to go back to court to argue their case once more.

Considering that many parks start big coaster projects the summer before they are to open, and in some cases even earlier, the final approval coming in the middle of October for Hercules was frustrating, but at least final approval had been granted.

By April of 1989 the ride had been named Hercules and construction was well underway. The coaster was built from both ends inward, meaning the 157 ft., 49 degree, 65 m.p.h. drop was built later in the construction. When the 4,000+ feet of track were finished, and testing was completed, the ride opened for a glitzy media day on May 4th, 1989. There were people dressed in Greek armor, and the park played 'Chariots of Fire' for the opening. They really knew how the cheese it up back then...

The following Saturday the ride opened to the public, and it was a hit. ACE held their annual conference at the park that June, where the ride received plenty more rave reviews. Even though Hercules was open, the drama did continue. Dorney Park got into quite the squabble with Six Flags Over Texas about who had the biggest wooden coaster, and the noise issues stemming from the ride lasted for years.

The ride was modified several times after its opening state. Actually, the top of the "triple-up" was lowered a few feet before the public opening to keep the train going as the ride broke in. The real changes came when Cedar Fair purchased the park in 1992. By 1993 trim brakes were added to the ride's first drop, which itself was reprofiled some, heavy work was done to the lake turn, the "triple-up" was lowered significantly, and new trains were purchased for the ride. The coaster needed work several times more; RCCA did some work, Martin & Vleminckx took a turn, and I've even heard that Great Coasters International tried to help Hercules.

The above comparison shot really shows the changes made to the "triple-up" hill. On the left is the original hill, the right the lowered version. You can see that we're not talking a difference of a few feet here, it was rather substantial. You can, and could until the ride was removed, see were the old hill was 'attached' to the lift hill supports; that's clearly visible in the above photos.

The trim brakes added to the first drop slowed the ride down by what some people estimated to be upward of 10 m.p.h., though I certainly can't confirm it was that much. Whatever the amount was, the ride never was the same - or even close. The ride ran so slowly that it barely made it over several of the ride's hills and turns. Since the ride was designed for the train to be moving at a much faster pace the vibrating and 'bouncing' became much worse. Watch this and you'll see what I mean:

Sadly, over the years the ride got so rough that it's popularity sank. Everyone looked back to the "first four years," meaning 1989-1992 - as the best time to have ridden Hercules. By the time the new millennium rolled around, ridership was low and the ride was still painfully rough. Though the ride was no longer popular, it's enormous yearly maintenance budget was really the final nail in its coffin.

Early September 2003 the news broke: Hercules was being removed for a new floorless coaster to debut in 2005. The ride did not open that fall and would be removed shortly after the park closed for the season. Well, the rest of this story we all know - Hydra the Revenge opened in 2005 using most of the space that Hercules did. Perhaps that plot of land is cursed or something, though, as Hydra has never really been the hit the park intended.

In all, Hercules gave 15 seasons of wild rides to those who decided to take a spin. Some people loved it, some hated it, but it's easy to agree that the ride's impact on Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom lives on today.

Oh and hey, if you enjoyed this article or anything you see on NewsPlusNotes - please feel free to thank me through that Paypal or Amazon box in the margin there. I appreciate it!


Tori Simba Finn Esquire said...

Wow, amazing article.

But why did they (Cedar Fair) put trim brakes on? Was the ride deteriorating, or did they feel it was too intense, or what? And why was the triple up, lowered?

It's I really wish I could have ridden it back then. It's so sad to see such a great thing go to waste like that.

NewsPlusNotes said...

I would wager that the first drop brakes were to try to lessen the amount of maintenance the ride needed. Lowering the overall speed would make the ride tear itself apart a little less each year.

Then because of that loss of speed from the first drop the top of the triple up was lowered into a big ramp and the rest of the ride just never worked at the new speeds.

Tori Simba Finn Esquire said...

Okay. Do you think it would have been cheaper or more profitable just to let the ride stay fast? What I mean to ask is, do you think if they hadn't slowed Herc down, it would still be around today?

I'm just wondering. I really miss the ride.

Chris said...

The sad thing about it is that if Cedar Fair took the park over 10 yaers later, they could have ran the CAD software and actually could have predicted how much slower the ride would run through the rest of the course by using the trim brakes. Sounds like they used a very primitive approach- first add the trims to then realize they needed to reduce the height of a hill. This is why Cedar Fair had such a bad reputation within the wooden coaster enthusiast circles. It would seem this is changing quite a bit by virtue of the recent installations the company has done/is doing. Still, if I was with GCI sales, I'd make sure it was in the contract somewhere that no modifications would be allowed without consent of the manufacturer!! Never thought I'd see the day of a new wooden coaster at a Cedar Fair park, or an operating dark ride under Cedar Fair management!

NewsPlusNotes said...

I really have no idea! Slowing it down also reduced the number of people who were hurt on the ride - just sore backs and legs and the like. My point with that is that keeping it running faster may have led the park to remove it for other reasons anyway.

Trying to "fix" the ride in 1993 really did ruin it, but the ride was slowing ruining itself anyway. So it's sorta a toss up IMO in the end.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that one pic did wonders to explain just how drastic the changes were. It was changed into a terrible ride where I beat the side of the train in the 2nd half like a race horse cause it was way too slow for what it was designed for.

NewsPlusNotes said...

Yeah... it was pretty bad in it's final years. When someone first pointed out to me that you could see on the structure how much higher that hill used to be I was shocked. I always thought it wasn't that severe...

dwitos079 said...

Have you seen any POVs from early in Hercules life? I really would like to know what it was like back then.

Unknown said...

Great article.

I remember it when it first opened. It was a much faster and smoother ride those first few years. I didn't see Dorney until maybe 8 years after that, riding it during its final years. It was slow, painful, and left me dumbfounded, wondering where the coaster I knew I loved a decade earlier went.

Anyone know why each other row was sectioned off some seasons?

Anonymous said...

"Anyone know why each other row was sectioned off some seasons?"-Nas

They started doing that for multiple reasons. Number one being due to low ridership, they could barely fill the train. When they did fill it, they filled it in the front and roped off the back. This was to keep all the weight in the front of the train so it didnt stall at places like the hill going under the station and particularly the last turn-around.

The ride was still decent after dorney made the original changes in the very early 90's like slightly lowering the triple-up. The first few rounds the train took around the course, they had some roll-backs here so they slightly lowered it to keep a consistent speed.

What CF did to the ride in 1993 was just plain butchering. They should have torn it down then because they simply destroyed the ride. None of it seemed to make sense. The original design was so daring. So intense. What was left afterwards was a mere shadow.

Unknown said...

Now that I think of it, Cedar Fair really changed Dorney's history. Once they bought the park in 1992, they completely wipe out Dorney's past and continues to do so today. The only rides left from the pre-1992 purchase are Thunderhawk, Whip, Zephyr, Scambler, Thunder Creek Mountain, Chance Carousel, Ferris Wheel, Musik Express, Enterprise, Apollo, Sea Dragon, and The Wave Swinger. Enterprise and Apollo may be next because those rides have slowly going away at other parks. Cedar Fair needs to learn that they can make changes but not this drastic.

Chrissy said...

The Hercules was the first roller coaster that I ever rode - I was about 11 years old. I rode it in the spring of '90'. It. Was. Awesome.
I still tell my kids about it. My daughter is 12 and when she rode her first coaster I told her about Hercules - joking with her that I lost my stomach at the top of the hill and I bet it's still sitting up there.

Unknown said...

I rode Hercules the first year it opened. It was sad what they did to it over the years.