Every one of us has a moment in their time where something makes an impact on our lives, for better or for worse. This is what happened to me in July 1987 ...
Growing up in the northeast, you had a number of choices as to where to go on vacation: The Jersey Shore (long before it became a plasticized molded TV show) and Atlantic City; up to Maine & New Hampshire, down to Rhode Island & Connecticut - or even to the Adirondacks. This year however would be a bit different - as we headed to tidewater Virginia - Virginia Beach, Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk... and Williamsburg. Up to this point, those areas were unknown places for me to visit; indeed, a single visit when I was much younger did not count. We'd be seeing Colonial Williamsburg, and the standard array of tourist traps & such, but to me, it was Busch Gardens Williamsburg that was most appealing to me.
Mind you, my fondness for theme parks had not developed yet. While I'd already had my first coaster encounters notably in Massachusettes & New York, for me they were still terrifying things. Being that I was small for my age, and very thin (Yes, those of you who know me now... I was rail thin) so my first coaster encounters weren't the kind one associates with fun... but rather, terror. I'd seen from a number of brochures that I found around the room the various attractons & such one could find in the area, and one of 1987 Busch Gardens had pictures of this swinging coaster... The Big Bad Wolf. For some reason, the eyes on the lead cars of the train looked alluring to me - and from the pictures, the ride didn't look too intense... to 12 year old me. What I didn't realize is that pictures may speak 1,000 words... but those words don't include "Speed" "Height" and "Terrifying plunge into the water". Rationality was not my strong suit at that age.
The morning started with breakfast in our hotel not far from Williamsburg; and proceeded into the main entry plaza for BGW. The park wasn't overly crowded for the mid-week of summer season, but the heat was definitely in place. In 1987, there were only two coasters in the park: The Loch Ness Monster (That's a future story folks...) and Big Bad Wolf. In fact, the park's offerings were very well balanced: Plenty of flats in the newly-opened Festa Italia, a very good log flume in LeScoot, and the park's general aim was for family friendly rides and attractions spread throughout the grounds. It was certainly a beautiful place - and had a very welcoming, open feel to it: You were the guest in their place, and they made you feel good about being there. If anything, Busch Entertainment Corporation knew how to build & operate a theme park, and to do it with great skill & adept planning. Nothing was out of place - and everything was well tied together.
After wandering through the park's outer perimeter via New France, Rhinefeld & such, I saw the station for BBW - complete with the massive red Wolf logo out in front. The line wasn't very long in all reality, filling in only a few switchbacks of the queue holding house outside the main platform. And having not seen the ride itself, it didn't look too intense at all... as all you could see if you'd come from that direction around the park was the brake run & station house/track to the lift. After 15 minutes, I was in line for the middle of the train...
The air gates swung out and open, and I climbed into the train. I recall sitting down, and waiting for the restraint collar to drop; it did so with little effort even for somebody as small as I was. The restraint lowered... and I recall the dispatch of the train...
"Sit back, relax. Hold on tight. Enjoy travelling at the SPEED of FRIGHT on the Big... Bad... WOLF... (HOWL)"
And my thought was this: What had I gotten myself into. As the train gently dipped down and out towards the first lift, I saw another train blister onto the same lift... apparently, the picture I'd seen before wasn't quite accurate towards my undue expectations. In fact, I'm pretty sure I was about to crap myself. Slowly, slowly up the lift, the anti-rollbacks "CLONK....CLONK....CLONK....CLONK....CLONK....CLONK" as the train ascended the lift... followed by the first drop into the village below.
At this point... the ride became a blur of sheer, unadulterated terror. And I wanted off... NOW. Of course, there were more things to come, such as the helix in the middle, and the second lift.
It should also be noted: Back in that era, I battled severe motion sickness... the kind of which kept me drugged up the hilt on airplanes and any other moving vehicle. Needless to say, my breakfast that morning was starting to chatter with me in very dangerous ways. As our train ascended the second lift, with every "CLONK" of the anti-rollbacks my body made itself known that a technicolor yawn was about to take place... in bad ways. The train rounded the top of the lift, and I saw white. The drop looked beyond taller than it was... and down... she.... went.
There are times in our lives where we wish we were elsewhere: The first time we wreck the family car, the pregnancy scare of a teenager, the baseball thrown through the ginormous plate glass window. All of those seemed preferential to where I was right then. The rapid motions of the BBW train combined with the swaying right then left then right again were bringing me ever-closer to the embarrassment of ejecting the contents of my esophagus forward at blistering speed. Fortunately, the brake run slowed us down, and the good operations let me off and out of the train in no time flat. Up the exit stairs, down the other side... and in full view of any patron within a good 100 ft was the Linda Blair inspired projectile hoarking into the bushes just outside the exit stairs. I felt as if I'd swallowed a live squirrel, and he wanted out.
Needless to say... it was NOT love at first ride. It was however the ride I credit with being the first to make an impact on my life. As time would progress through months and years, I would become reacquainted with BBW - to grow closer together, and in the end, BBW became a fond & loving friend of mine through many years of living close to each other (From 1991-2000, I lived very close to BGW, and would spend 40-60 days annually there... if not more.) While my #1 coaster is (and always will be) the Loch Ness Monster, BBW may be my fondest memories - and certainly among the most notable.
There are times where something can scare us to death one minute... and become a close friend the next. BBW is one of those for me. Through the 90s, I became aware of every nuance and every fine point BBW offered her riders over the years. The way one could (and SHOULD) ride her at night. Or on foggy days the trains disappearing into the late evening fog at the base of the river ravine- with the mist and the speed and the breeze at the same time coating the tracks and making the strange BBW 'squeak' as they did this. Or how on rainy days, one never sat in the forward seat, lest they get covered in 'wolf pee' from the bunting wheel covers on the axles. And then there were the hidden references to Die Wildkatze, the coaster which occupied the site formerly - including a single Schwarzkopf light column to the left side of the train, between the village run & the mid-course helix; it was customary to say "HI ANTON!" as the train zipped by.
And then it was with great sadness when the announcement was made: Big Bad Wolf would be silenced in 2009. This monumental machine of my history, a ride that had at one point caused me to hurl as if possessed - would soon become nothing more than a memory. I had relocated a few months earlier to the west coast, and watched friends take their final rides via the web, and I mourned that I did not get to say my goodbye to BBW. I spent the better part of a week in a dark funk; a sad moment in my life as I watched a ride so impacting on my future turned off one last time. By the end of the year, BBW was gone; removed from the landscape, with only the footers and a few small scraps of the columns remaining. To me, seeing the first pictures of the site less the brown & red structure that made up BBW were painful; as if years of my life had been erased in one short winter. In a lot of ways, I lament this - but as we all know life & love are different from reality & facts. And since then, the site has been re-used by Verbolten, an excellent family coaster - and with tributes to BBW remaining (WLF-XING) on the new attraction.
BBW will never be known as the most terrifying ride on earth. But rather, a ride that was well designed, well engineered, fun & thrilling - and one that made a thousand memories for millions of people over her 25 years. She will always be nothing short of a great ride for me, and one that I cherish as I do a handful of others.
And those bushes at the exit of the stairs? They never did grow back...
It's funny how these articles come about, considering we'd never actually wanted to do opinion pieces or editorials. But sometimes things just happen that are too much for 140 characters to explain, or even a Facebook post, because they simply lack explanation.
And such is the case of today's story.
Written by Gregg Condon
Anybody who follows the Universal Orlando Resort twitter account knows they like to have fun. They interact with the fans, are quick with fun responses and generally like to have fun with the online community, not just bloggers.
They are also very informative to those that have legitimate questions which is what a lot of people think the sole purpose of their account should be. But when you are an account for an "amusement" or "theme" park, shouldn't the fun already be assumed? Shouldn't we be able to find amusement in their tweets? We sure do. Sadly, many do not.
And this started with this tweet from yesterday:
We're sure that 95% of people saw the joke in this, it's funny, it has a hint of truth, is well thought out and again ... it's funny. There was no ill intent behind this, they didn't say Expedition Everest was a bad ride. Of course they were going to say Kong would win, but they did it in a clever and entertaining way? What's the problem with that?
The problem is, so many take this hobby way too seriously. Why? Why So Serious?
The proper response to this isn't to get all butthurt and yell, the proper response is for some slight ribbing back the other direction. But most of the responses we've seen were "Well this is broken at Universal" or "Yeah, well, they got screenz everywhere". That's neither funny or well thought out.
Look, we get it, as we discussed in our "enthusiasts" article last year we know there are people who just go to Disney parks and will defend them against other parks on one hand while on the other totally bashing everything they do that they don't 100% agree with.
It's like siblings who will torture each other (as siblings do) but the second somebody else does it the gloves come off. Why? It makes no sense at all.
Sadly, this wasn't the only incident of fans taking things too seriously this week.
Kings Dominion announced an expansion to their Camp Snoopy the other day. Some fans because of some tweets sent out by the park (ALL which contained Snoopy in the pictures) felt slighted because they were expecting something else. So much so that some started a petition to boycott the park until they add a new coaster. We did get a tweet from the petition starter saying it was a "joke", but we don't really buy that.
Even if it was a joke, it just goes to show that some fans think they own the park, or that parks do things just for enthusiasts. They don't.
Never-mind that Kings Dominion has the coaster consistently ranked as the #1 coaster in the United States, that they have one of the best mixes of coasters and rides in the Cedar Fair chain and that there are half a dozen other parks in the chain who have gone longer without a major coaster addition.
As we approach September 1st, the day Six Flags will be announcing their 2017 additions it's important to keep the "enthusiast hyperbole" in check.
Remember that this is all supposed to be fun, that at the end of the day it's the goal of all of these companies to make as much money as they can and it's up to us to have fun and not take our hobby so seriously.
Today was a bad day for many at Walt Disney Imagineering. There have been some massive layoffs, 400+ at last count. And while we realize this means that 400+ people are now without a job and that sucks, as a theme park site it's up to us to share some thoughts on the events of today. And that's just what RD has done below.
Written by RD Sussman
The news has been awash over the past few days of some serious shakeups at the Walt Disney corporation, notably in the Walt Disney Imagineering unit (WDI). As of some estimates, nearly 450 people were let go over the past two days, and that major reformations are beginning.
So what went so wrong so fast?
Historically, it has been WDI (and previously WED Enterprises) were the true geniuses when it came to theme parks & attractions. And in many ways, they were the ones who brought some of the most dramatic and incredible shows & attractions to the forefront of the theme parks. Working with groups such as Arrow Development (Matterhorn, It's A Small World, Omnimoviers, etc.) and later Dynamic Attractions (Soarin' and others) they have innovated or developed technology that is in use to this day. Their mark on design are permanent - historical pieces of engineering & creativity that are monumental to say the least.
However, they have always been one of the most expensive parts of the Disney organization. As they never sold their attractions outside the parks (Save for a single installation of a PeopleMover) they were not generating revenue in-stream. Disney relied on the profits from the theme parks, movies & merchandising to keep WDI afloat and creating.
As times have changed, so has the world around WDI. Disney movies are no longer a guaranteed blockbuster (See also: BFG...) and no longer always draw the merchandising profits, WDI has become harder to justify its size, shape & scale. Most engineering firms derive their operational capabilities as part of a profit process, but WDI has never had that over their heads. In a way, this never limited their creativity and prowess...
And then came Universal.
Universal's parks have always been in semi-competition with Disney - but at the same time, they were co-draws in the same cities. A decade ago, Universal made the bold move to capitalize on their Harry Potter franchise, and go for broke with appropriate areas in their theme parks. Taking the book from Disney, they went for total immersion in their attractions, redefining the art & the scale of the theme park ride for the masses. The success was astonishing to say the least - in fact, the draw of attendance was notable on a massive scale. Repeating success with more success, expansions at the Universal Orlando added a second immersion area complete with themed transport between the two areas in the two parks; and then recently the Hollywood expansion of Harry Potter.
Disney's countering was to have WDI take on a blockbuster property which has since faded: Avatar at the Animal Kingdom park in Florida. And it has been an epic nightmare on a grand scale. Delays now running into years, and costs nearly double of what was anticiapted, WDI had egg on their face.
And on the other side of the planet, Shanghai Disneyland had its own issues - namely with the increased technology of the attractions developed by WDI - and with the local contractors & building systems. It too shot over budget - and well beyond the planned estimates for opening day.
Though both the Avatarland & Shanghai Disneyland projects are near or at completion/opening day, the impact is clear & very heavily felt throughout the world. WDI has lost its way - and now is feeling the after effects of its own weight & size. Disney has financial indigestion... and unfortunately, cash-flow diarrhea.
Here we are today: Disney has major construction ongoing in the two US operations - namely the Star Wars Lands - as well as expansion projects in Tokyo & Shanghai. The cost of these expansions are on the very high-end of budgets; indeed, one Star Wars land would be enough to build a brand new theme park from the ground up. And the cash coming in from these expansions won't be seen for another three to four years - or more. Shanghai Disneyland's financial fallout will be felt for at least a decade - and EuroDisney's financial strife continues to this day.
Disney had a choice - a big choice - to keep operating the WDI group as it is, and taking huge losses, or to reformat and rebuild themselves from the inside out. It was the latter which they chose to do, especially in light of the mass casualties from the layoffs.
Realistically speaking, this is a move 25-30 years overdue. Even Eisner knew that WDI was too big & too bloated to move easily & nimbly from project to project. Disney could no longer justify up-streaming profits from other units to cover the constant losses & operational issues of WDI. And at the same time, fewer & fewer projects were coming out - and those that did arrive were arriving late. WDI had been too dependent on itself and it's ego, and a bad case of stasis had set in. Universal had done what WDI had once done - at 2/3rds the cost and 1/2 the time. And Universal had a winner.
So where does WDI go now? How does it continue with this massive staff reduction? And how will it recover?
From my own experience, staff cuts and getting rid of the dead wood isn't always a bad thing. It tightens up the remaining staff - and forces a change in management & administration. With the right impetus, and the right management style, this could produce powerful results. By eliminating the concept of single-project teams, and going with a group effort, projects come through faster - and with better ideas. The costs drop, and thinking creatively comes up with longer-lasting ideas.
WDI also must be allowed to do outside work - to justify it's existence. It has to be able to sell projects & concepts to other groups whether Disney or not, and to make its own way as part of Disney. Not just as a profit point on the annual report, but also as a way of justifying the overall long-term financial investments. And more importantly, the financal results need to be accounted for at corporate level. Endless money for a handful of projects has to go - WDI has to be responsible for their own reasons to be, and not just a playground for a creative group of people.
Walt Disney started WED Enterprises with a staff of five people, and grew it up to 20 to build an entire theme park - in less than a year. Now it has taken nearly 700 people six years to build one theme park. Less is more, WDI - and in this case, you're taking the medicine that was long ago prescribed to make you well again.