BY DANIEL VICTOR
Of The Patriot-News
More than two years ago, Hersheypark officials privately gambled that few people would miss the Western Chute-Out.
They figured the water slide, built in the 1980s, would become old hat as the colorful Boardwalk water attraction opened nearby in 2007.
“We ended up being right,” said Frank O’Connell, the Derry Twp. theme park’s general manager. “We saw a significant reduction in ridership.
In a park with very little available land, where everything new must replace something old, the Western Chute-Out was sacrificed for the next big attraction. Its land became a canvas for what would eventually be named Fahrenheit. The coaster is scheduled to open Saturday.
To build a roller coaster, you must deal with the small: What kind of sand should be used to fill the supporting columns to make the coaster less noisy? You must deal with the big: Is this going to hurt people’s necks?
In a process that spanned several years, the creation of Fahrenheit, Hersheypark’s newest roller coaster, combined advanced engineering and science with the childlike joy of fitting together an Erector set.
Selecting the design
When park officials ask guests what they want to see next, they have consistently delivered two answers:
More water attractions. More roller coasters.
The successful launch of the Boardwalk, which park officials have said was a big reason for a record-setting 2.7 million visitors in 2007, took care of the need to cool down.
But the park hasn’t had a new roller coaster since 2004, when Storm Runner was launched.
It was time.
So the park sent out requests to vendors, asking for their best attempt at filling the long, thin space to be vacated by the Western Chute-Out. The park supplied the topography, the safety requirements, and a few requests.
The coaster must get close to 1,000 riders through the turnstiles per hour. It must have a “vertical lift” — a 90-degree rise that has riders feeling like they’re riding straight up into the sky.
It was, essentially, a design competition. Three months later, they had four bids.
One bid came in too far over budget, O’Connell said.
One couldn’t handle the park’s request for 1,000 riders per hour.
One offered the vertical lift, but didn’t offer enough fun.
Then there was IntaRide LLC, the Glen Burnie, Md.-based division of the Switzerland company that designed Storm Runner. It offered something that got the attention of park officials:
In roller coaster terms, an “est” is bragging rights in the industry. It’s a marketing hook. Sometimes it’s the fastest, or the highest.
What IntaRide offered was the steepest. After the requested 90-degree lift, the design would shoot riders back to earth at a 97-degree angle, surpassing what used to be the United States’ steepest drop of 95 degrees.
The design was selected, and it was time for the park’s engineers to take over.
“I’ve never been asked to build the tallest or the fastest,” O’Connell said. “I think that’s consistent to our philosophy of family-first, safe and clean.
“But we try to find ‘ests’ that fit our core values.”
The plan comes to life
Kent Bachmann, director of design and engineering, and Joe Prowell, the senior project manager, like to say that they worry so you don’t have to.
“The last thing you want to think of is how this was put together, how this was built,” Prowell said.
Of the many challenges he and the other engineers and construction workers face, perhaps two are the biggest:
It has to be done safely.
And it has to be done in a very short amount of time.
Used to be they could get to work in the fall, after summer ended and the park closed. Not anymore, not with Christmas Candylane, a seasonal event in December.
All the construction has to take place between the first week of January and May 24, that constantly impending, inflexible and sometimes horrifying deadline.
Oh, and you’ve got to work in the freezing cold, find a way to make up for days lost to bad weather, and work around April’s Springtime in the Park.
“We said it’s going to open, and daggummit, that thing’s going to open up,” Bachmann said.
The pieces of the ride are assembled in Europe, then come by sea into Baltimore and New York. They’re delivered to Derry Twp. in 60 to 80 tractor-trailers.
Several outside contractors are lined up. The park has to coordinate them and make sure they stay on schedule.
The coaster has now been named by the marketing department, the colors have been chosen, and plans have been announced to the public. Time to get to work.
Fitting it all together
Sometimes Aycock LLC, of Hummelstown, works mechanical construction on power plants. They also work at quarries and food plants.
But assembling a roller coaster is what it really enjoys.
It’s contracted with Hersheypark for more than 40 years, putting together most of the rides, including all of the steel roller coasters.
“You’re going to be a part of something that kids, that people will enjoy themselves on for 20, 30 years,” said Scott Campbell, the project manager. “Every time you go into the park, you have a sense of pride that you participated.”
It’s a good thing they enjoy it, because they work longer hours at the park than on any other project.
In March, at the height of the construction, there were about 20 workers toiling six or seven days a week, with 10- to 12-hour days.
Two weeks before the park opened, they were back on site to check and retorque the bolts on the track and steel columns. That required a 16-hour day, a 14-hour day and a 10-hour day, said Brian Peiffer, a 28-year-old worker from Elizabethville.
So when it’s assembled, and they watch people ride it, the workers feel a small sense of ownership, he said.
“To know that you put it up, helped build it and then to watch somebody enjoy it,” he said. “We made their day.”
During the construction, there are often several different contractors on site, either working together or working on different parts of the ride. One would be pouring concrete to hold the ride’s supporting columns, while another was building the station.
All of them are depended upon if the ride is going to open on time.
“You don’t want to be the first team to get in there and not complete a job,” Campbell said.
One day, several workers stayed after their shifts to watch the first time the empty train went around the track. The workers were dead silent, Campbell recalled, hoping nothing would go wrong.
Then, as it pulled into the station, they all clapped and cheered.
Ready to ride
Before any humans experience Fahrenheit, Fred has to ride it.
Fred is a brown, computerized dummy with no legs who measures the g-forces of the ride. In other words, he makes sure your neck, head and back aren’t jerked around too much.
Fred, coupled with other machinery, feeds data to engineers, who confirm that the ride exceeds safety standards.
Problems could arise from faulty construction work, or unforeseen design problems. Park officials said the track has fully checked out.
Fred is joined in the train by 10 180-pound dummies filled with water. Weekend parkgoers in May could see those dummies taking their rides.
As of now, only one human has taken a ride: Sandor Kernacs, the owner of IntaRide. IntaRide continues to own the ride until it passes state inspection, which is expected to happen this week.
Once ownership is passed on to Hersheypark, the first rides will be given to park officials, engineers, and other workers who put Fahrenheit together.
Then, less than a week later, it’ll be open to the public.
“It’s fun to be in this business,” O’Connell said. “Not too many people get to build a roller coaster.”