WILLIAMSBURG — As crowds flock back to Busch Gardens Williamsburg (BGW), some may vaguely remember a blue-and-white roller coaster looming over the Oktoberfest hamlet of the park. Today, let’s take a journey back to “The Olde Country” and reminisce on the misstep that was Drachen Fire.
It was the early 1990s. Permed hair, neon colors, and shoulder pads were all the rage, New Kids on the Block and Boyz II Men dominated the airwaves, and Bill Clinton was running against President George H.W. Bush for the presidency.
In the theme park world, there was a race to see which roller coaster manufacturer would prevail. Arrow Dynamics, an elder statesman amongst manufacturers, known for creating the world’s first log flume and tubular steel roller coaster track, was responsible for classics at BGW such as Loch Ness Monster and the Big Bad Wolf.
However, its dominance over these massive amusement rides was threatened by newcomers, Bollinger & Mabillard (B&M). This new company designed coasters that allowed for a smoother yet quieter ride and taking riders to new heights. When BGW’s then-owner, Anheuser-Busch Entertainment, contracted the young company to build two roller coasters (one for its Tampa park and one for BGW), B&M realized that it could only commit to one build and that would be for Tampa.
With only a preliminary idea abandoned by B&M, Anheuser-Busch Entertainment turned to the tried and true Arrow Dynamics to complete development of a new, sensational coaster for the Williamsburg park.
Famed roller coaster engineer and innovator, Ron Toomer, was tasked with finalizing a design to be built by Arrow Dynamics.
After examining the original concept, Toomer came up with something quite different from what B&M originally proposed. After the ride’s first 150-foot-tall lift hill, the coaster rolled into an awkward inversion after dropping only 50 feet. This inversion was followed by five more odd and awkard inversions. One of which was called a “batwing”, which Toomer designed specifically for this new coaster.
The design’s end result wasn’t anything like Arrow Dynamics’ other builds… and not in a good way.
Some tell-tale signatures of the manufacturer were notably missing: the typical, box-shaped support structure (as seen on Loch Ness Monster) and trains that were completely redesigned into a round, box-like car. Additionally, the track layout was uninspired and more conceptual than completed. It was as though Toomer was trying to rewrite the book of roller coaster engineering that he wrote where he had no reason to.
The coaster was built adjacent to the Festhaus in the Oktoberfest hamlet of the park and christened with the menacing name, Drachen Fire. A large chalet-like queue building was constructed along with a foot path, gift stall, maintenance shop, and a sample car that guests were encouraged to take snapshots in. The total cost was approximately $4 million.
When Drachen Fire opened its queue lines for the first time in 1992, the reception wasn’t exactly positive. As riders boarded the vibrant red trains, they were advised to remove earrings. What was initially a puzzling request, riders quickly found out why: during the series of six odd inversions, their heads were constantly whipped and banged against the hard, plastic shoulder harnesses.
After a few years of complaints and decreased ridership, BGW made the unprecedented move to remove one of the inversions, taking the total number down to five. This was supposed to facilitate a smoother ride experience, but for guests who got off with red ears, headaches and injuries, disagreed.
In 1996, actor and director, Alex Winter, known for his many roles, including as Bill S. Preston in the “Bill & Ted” franchise, filmed a segment for the E! Network’s show, “Theme Parks a Go-Go” at BGW. After riding Drachen Fire, he quipped to the camera how it felt like the ride snapped his vertebrae. To watch the clip on YouTube, click here.
Meanwhile, BGW was in talks with B&M to design an inverted coaster for the park. In 1997, BGW unveiled Alpengeist. This inverted coaster was taller and faster than any other coaster in the park. And, typical of B&M, it was a smooth and exciting ride experience for guests.
Drachen Fire became an afterthought in the pantheon of high-speed options at BGW.
Mid-operating season of 1998, the gates for Drachen Fire quietly and unceremoniously closed.
Cindy Sarko, BGW’s former manager of public relations, said at the time, “There has been a steady erosion of ridership, combined with the high operating expenses of the ride, it helped officials make the decision to shut it down.”
While it was alluded to that the park would attempt to make modifications in order to create a more pleasing experience, it was never to be.
Seasons passed and Drachen Fire sat dormant in its corner of the park. Attempts were made to sell it, but every contract fell through.
During 2001’s member preview day, guests reported seeing Drachen Fire’s empty trains racing along its electric blue track. Fans of the somewhat forgotten roller coaster were thrilled with the prospect of it reopening. However, the excitement was short-lived and the coaster never reopened.
In 2002, the track was disassembled and the steel was recycled. Drachen Fire, a roller coaster that never stood much of a chance from its opening, became a lost landmark.
The land where Drachen Fire once stood is now known as Festhaus Park. Vestiges of the ride remain, with the former queue building still standing and repurposed for use during Howl-O-Scream. While rumors persist that a new hamlet or coaster may eventually be constructed on the grounds where Drachen Fire once terrorized riders, these murmurings remain simply thus.
To add insult to injury, the same year that Drachen Fire came down, Arrow Dynamics’ long legacy came to an end. After several missteps and poor ride designs, the company declared bankruptcy and its assets were sold to S&S Worldwide, the company that would later be responsible for BGW’s Screamin’ Swing, Finnegan’s Flyer.
The vacancy that Arrow Dynamics’ absence left in the ride industry was not deafening. Companies like B&M, Intamin, Vekoma, Mack Rides and Rocky Mountain Construction (RMC) have filled that void, further perfecting the engineering that was founded by Arrow’s brilliant designers like Ron Toomer.
Though long lost, for those of us that dared to ride Drachen Fire, it is a bittersweet memory of a time where we banged our heads while being twisted and turned on one of Arrow Dynamics’ swan songs in the amusement ride industry.
To relive Drachen Fire, a point-of-view (pov) video can be found on YouTube by clicking here.
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