There is no glasnost in the roller coaster wars. The Soviet Union may be sharing more information with its citizens these days, but manufacturers of amusement park rides could give lessons to the CIA: Plans for upcoming attractions are strictly hush-hush.
And while the superpowers are trying to slow down the arms buildup, the race to build ever bigger, faster and, yes, scarier amusement park rides is hotter than ever and shows no signs of cooling down."I don't see it ending, not now, maybe not ever," said Ronald V. Toomer, president of Clearfield-based Arrow Dynamics, a company on the front lines of the coaster wars. "The public is fickle; they always want more."
And Toomer intends to give it to them. An Arrow-built 165-foot-high monster called Shock Wave opened this season at Great America in Gurnee, Ill., to the kind of reviews a coaster builder loves - screams of terror.
Inevitably, an even bigger coaster is currently on Arrow's drawing boards for a summer 1989 debut. Just how big it is and which theme park has ordered it is, for now, "Top Secret."
The midwestern United States is the Iwo Jima of the coaster wars. In those states, the owner of the park with this year's most awe-inspiring coaster ride can stand back and watch long lines of ticket buyers form.
Coaster fiends will drive for hours to the park boasting the latest and greatest ride while the also-rans can only plot their strategy for next year - which probably means ordering an even bigger coaster.
"Coasters are why people go to amusement parks," says Toomer. "The rest of the rides and stuff . . . well, they're there because they need them but coasters are the big draw. No one goes to a park because it has the biggest Ferris wheel."
Anyone who doubts that statement should note the way parks spend their marketing dollars. If a visitor to Southern California this summer were later asked to recall any outdoor advertising he saw while driving the freeways, it would likely be Six Flags Magic Mountain's massive billboard campaign for its "Ninja" overhead suspension coaster . . . designed and built by Arrow Dynamics of Clearfield, Utah.
And even when parks get a new coaster, most just keep their older models going."You just can't have too many roller coasters," says Toomer, who admits his thinking on the subject may be biased.
Have you ever ridden the venerable Matterhorn bobsled ride at Disneyland? Then you've ridden an Arrow coaster. And if you are among the growing army of coaster fanatics _ happily deranged people who make pilgrimages around the country and abroad just to ride the newest coasters _ then you've ridden a lot of Arrow Dynamics products.
Here's a small sampling of Arrow's recent contributions to the world of thrills, screams and queasy stomachs: The Loch Ness Monster, at Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, Va.; The Orient Express, at Worlds of Fun, Kansas City, Mo.; the Vortex, a six-loop monster at Kings Island, Ohio; the Gemini, a traditional-style wooden coaster at Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio; the Dragon, at Ocean Park, Hong Kong; the Cyclone in Sendai, Japan; a double loop coaster near Seoul, Korea.
But what about Lagoon? local readers may ask. Doesn't Utah's premier amusement park have an Arrow Dynamics super attraction? Well, no, except for its log flume _ a type of ride Arrow invented in 1963 and now sells worldwide.
Lagoon, Toomer ruefully admits, has resisted his best sales pitches for a new state-of-the-art coaster. But take heart, coaster buffs, Toomer hasn't give up. Someday . . .
But don't expect to find Ron Toomer sitting alongside when you go coaster riding. After 24 years of building rides that turn people every which way but inside out (and some would argue even that) Toomer has bowed to a motion sickness problem and stays away from the "big guys." His most recent coaster ride was on a relatively tame 85-footer.
Is there a limit to how big roller coasters can get? Again, Toomer doesn't think so. But no matter how much higher or faster they become, Toomer assures that the engineers will _ by changing the radius of turns and such _ never let the "G" forces build beyond what is safe. Arrow holds its rides to 3.5-4 "positive" (downward pressure into the seat) G's, and even that is sustained only for a tenth of a second or so.
"Actually," says Toomer, "NASA tells us people can take 30 G's if they are in the right seat, but we won't be exploring that. We've had doctors measure riders' blood pressure before and after the rides, and there's not much change. It appears that the screaming people do affects their blood pressure more than the ride itself."
Arrow has been making people scream for 42 years. In 1946 Ed Morgan and Karl Bacon opened a small-job machine shop in the San Francisco area. They later bought a small children's park in Palo Alto as an investment and refurbished the equipment.
That got them a job building a carousel for a San Jose city park, and in 1953 that caught the eye of a man named Walter Elias Disney, who had been looking for a company to build the rides he envisioned for his new theme park in Anaheim.
Snow White, Peter Pan, Dumbo, The Mad Hatter's Tea Party and the Casey Jr.'s Circus Train were all built by Arrow, followed by the Matterhorn and other classic Disneyland attractions such as Pirates of the Caribbean.
In the wake of Disneyland's success, theme parks began appearing all over the country, and Arrow could not keep up with the demand for innovative new rides.
But eventually, as often happens, entrepreneurs Morgan and Bacon sold their company, to Rio Grande Industries, the Denver-based subsidiary of Rio Grande Railroad, which owned it through most of the 1970s. In 1978, Arrow wanted to expand out of the Bay Area and opened an additional facility at the Freeport Center in Clearfield. In 1985, the entire operation was relocated at the Utah site.
Although Arrow remained profitable, Toomer says building roller coasters really didn't fit into Rio Grande's scheme of things. "They just tired of it," he reflects. In 1981 it was sold to Huss Trading Corp., a German firm. Three years later Arrow-Huss, as it was named, found itself in bankruptcy court in an involuntary Chapter 11 status.
"We were making money right along," says Toomer, "but we didn't get any of it. Huss just kept taking it out." When Klaus Huss went down, he took Arrow with him.
Since then, the court has approved a reorganization plan by a group of Arrow employees that, Toomer is convinced, will bring the company that is now named Arrow Dynamics out of debt and back into profitability. Under the plan, Toomer, Otis Hughes, vice president of operations, and Brent Meikle, company controller, each owns 20 percent of the stock. The other 40 percent is owned by a group of 11 employees.
The new owners, who have taken on all of the debt, have until 1992 to pay off creditors, but Toomer hopes to have that out of the way "in a couple of years." After that, they hope to begin slowly expanding operations into fields other than amusement park rides.
"We talk a lot about growing once we're out of Chapter 11," says Toomer. "We look to maybe a public stock offering one day that will allow us to get into other fields."
But he doubts Arrow will ever get back into major manufacturing. After the bankruptcy, the company cut back staff and began contracting out its steel fabrication and other manufacturing tasks. Fiberglass work, for the coaster and log flume cars, is still kept in-house because they haven't been able to find outside contractors who can do the work to their standards.
Today, Arrow Dynamics designs and produces three to four coaster systems a year (and runs a large spare parts business). Sales last year were $12 million and Toomer expects to do $15 million in 1988. The company occupies two new buildings, totaling 75,000 square feet, at the north end of the Freeport Center.
A word about accidents and the roller coaster business: they happen, but rarely. There have been two people killed on Arrow rides, said Toomer. In one case, the operator didn't secure a woman properly. In the other a woman simply fell out. "We still don't know what happened there," said Toomer. Arrow paid half of a $1.5 million settlement to her family.Comment on this story
But while Toomer does not downplay the tragedy, he does point out that some 100 million people ride on Arrow coasters each year and about 200 million on the company's total rides in operation _ log flumes, water slides, "people movers" and others.
"Accidents can happen," says Toomer, "but it's not as bad as the newspaper headlines make them seem. It's not like an airplane crash where hundreds of people are killed."
Small as it is, he concedes, there is no escaping the element of risk when you are in the business of making thrill rides. "If you don't care for that risk, you should find another business," he says.
Arrow Dynamics pays $600,000 a year for $5 million in liability coverage that has a $250,000 deductible _ a total of $6 million the company has paid for insurance premiums over the years. That has caused Toomer and his associates to seriously explore the option of self-insuring the company.