Spotlight: Intimidator 305

“The Best New Attraction for 2011 is… Intimidator 305”
In the light of the various modifications to Kings Dominion’s gigacoaster over the past year, Alex Harris explains why the revamped Intimidator 305 is the ride we should be most looking forward to in 2011… despite opening in 2010.

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Impressive statistics do not an impressive coaster make… but they certainly generate hype, excitement and discussion. Intimidator 305 opened at Kings Dominion (Doswell, VA) to much anticipation in the spring of 2010. Before Intimidator 305, Cedar Point’s Millennium Force was the only ‘traditional’ non-launched coaster in the USA to top 300ft – and that was unveiled a decade ago. Thus it was no surprise that Kings Dominion’s new gigacoaster would be the most talked-about new attraction to open in 2010. Furthermore, its layout appeared to be a mixture between two of Cedar Point’s incredibly successful and highly-rated Intamin coasters: Maverick, and the aforementioned Millennium Force. If Millennium Force is to have one criticism, it is ironically its lack of forces, but by splicing some Maverick-style elements into the circuit, Intimidator 305 looked like it would have all the credentials to become one of the best coasters on the planet.

Indeed, it opened to rave reviews, with many riders highlighting its first drop as the best they’d ever experienced. Hitting 90mph, what follows is an insane series of ground-hugging turns and wild directional changes, with a couple of ejector airtime hills thrown into the mix. Many early riders claimed that the ride had more than lived up to its hype. There was however, one infamous blackspot – quite literally. In the quest to introduce more Maverick-esque forces and intensity into a Millennium Force-style layout, it seemed the designers of Intimidator 305 had perhaps pushed things too far in the other direction.

Following the 300ft high, 85 degree first drop, the train carries its 90mph top speed through an intense low-to-the-ground 270 degree turn. The train then pulls back up into a 150ft ascent which crosses under the initial lift-hill. It is this pull-up into the second hill which has proven to be too intense for many an Intimidator 305 rider. From the very first day of operation, many riders have reported ‘greying out’ or even ‘blacking out’ as a result of the high positive g-forces experienced during this segment of the ride. After this opening act, passengers face more thrilling bunny-hops and high-speed twists and turns – but for some riders, their experience had been tarnished by the discomfort and panic of greying out seconds earlier. Whilst many early rider reports claimed that Intimidator 305 and its drop could well make up one of the best coasters on the planet, a phrase being thrown about in many of the reviews was “too intense”. 95% of the ride had delivered, but there was that one segment of the experience which was causing its passengers discomfort.

And thus a long-standing question in roller coaster engineering had once again been raised, only this time in a more prominent fashion than ever before: just how far should a roller coaster designer push boundaries such as g-force tolerance levels, in order to deliver the ultimate rush? Intimidator 305 treads the line very finely. Many riders enjoyed the unique intensity of the ride, saying it contributed to the overall experience, whilst a similar proportion of passengers were more than happy to tolerate the grey-out segment since the rest of the ride was so thrilling. However, these riders were balanced by those that believed that the high g-forces, intensity and grey-out spot actually ruined the ride entirely, and made them feel uncomfortable and unsafe. This is an interesting issue from a technical, commercial and ethical point-of-view. Parks want to open the most innovative, exciting new rides, so boundaries need to be pushed – but how far can they be pushed such that the ride remains thrilling yet never unpleasant or unsafe for all riders? This trade-off between entertainment and safety is a delicate issue. Was it possible for Intimidator 305 to deliver its maximum potential without its overly-high positive g-forces?

After hundreds of complaints regarding greying out, Kings Dominion decided to act after less than two months of operation. Something needed to be done – the safety, comfort and enjoyment of park guests is paramount, and has to come first however incredible a ride experience is. If a ride is unpleasant or even potentially unhealthy or unsafe for any proportion of riders, action and modification is required. Whilst this decision might sound simple and logical, it couldn’t have been as easy as you’d think. As well as altering a highly-rated ride experience, modifications would mean time and money and disappointed park guests. Intimidator 305 is of course one of the most significant rides to be opened in Kings Dominion’s history.

Therefore the park came up with a quick-fix solution to the problem by installing trim-brakes on the first drop. This reduced the train’s speed from 90mph to around 79mph, meaning that the ‘grey-out’ spot was not as intense as before. These modifications occurred quickly, and the modified ride opened in June in time for the park’s peak summer season. But how would these trim-brakes affect the ride experience – had the trade-off between entertainment and safety been juggled correctly such that Intimidator 305 was now comfortable and enjoyable for all riders, whilst still remaining as one of the best coasters in the world?

I arrived at the Kings Dominion gates in early July, with Intimidator 305’s red lift-hill towering ominously in the background. It doesn’t have the setting that Cedar Point’s Millennium Force has, but to say I was excited was an understatement. I had heard all of the opening day reviews. I had heard about just how good the majority of the ride was. I had heard about how intense it was, and how some had found its ‘grey-out’ spot to be just too much. I had heard about the resultant modifications. Given that these had only just taken place, I hadn’t heard much about the ride experience after the installation of the first drop’s trim-brakes. Whilst I never had the opportunity to ride Intimidator 305 without its trim-brakes in early 2010, I was nonetheless very excited and optimistic that despite its modifications I’d soon be bouncing down Intimidator 305’s exit path debating whether it was a Top 10, Top 5 or indeed Top 3 Steel Coaster.

At around 1pm that day (having waited all morning for the ride to open), I trudged down Intimidator 305’s exit path, with the only question in my mind being not whether it was a Top 10 ride, but instead whether it was even worth rejoining the 60 minute line to have a second go.

It wasn’t that Intimidator 305 was a bad ride – not at all – it was just very disappointing. I was expecting Intimidator 305 to be one of the best rides I’d ever experienced, but instead found most Intamin and B&M Megacoasters to be better than this new gigacoaster. Everything starts well enough. For those who have experienced Millennium Force, Intimidator 305 starts in a similar fashion, with a cable lift-hill hauling the long train up to the top of the 305ft summit at a startling pace. The immense height of the ride becomes apparent at this stage, as you realise how exposed being perched in a seat atop a metre-something wide track at 305ft high really is. The view may not be as impressive as Millennium Force’s, but in essence, the build-up is as equally good, and indeed the first second or two of the first drop is also as exciting. But then the dreaded trim-brakes kick in – there is a notable halt in the train’s acceleration, and instead of increasing in pace, the train feels as if it’s being held back. Sure, the trim brakes may only shave off 10-15mph or so, but it is the sudden arrest of acceleration which makes the first drop seem lifeless and controlled, rather than the incredible freefalling experience it should be. And so for a ride which has merged the best of Millennium Force and Maverick, things have not got off to a good start: Millennium Force is all about its first drop and sensation of speed, and the modified Intimidator 305 has disappointed on both fronts.

But what of the ‘Maverick-esque’ remainder of the ride? (We have indeed only experience the first few seconds of the ride!) Well, it is from this point on that the speed which has been shaved off by the trim-brakes becomes all too apparent. The train just feels as if it should be taking every remaining element faster than it actually is – and this is of course the case: the train is travelling slower than it should be, its top speed has been reduced by at least 12%. This was particularly obvious during the ‘s-bend’ section of the ride, where the train dives from right to left and back again. This is very reminiscent of a couple of segments on Maverick, but whilst the Maverick train powers aggressively through these bends, the impact is somewhat lost on Intimidator 305 due to the train’s reduced speed. That’s not to say this section of the ride is bad – it just isn’t as brilliant as we know it should be. Similarly, the airtime hills deliver some negative-Gs… but not the ejector air they should. And this is the crux of the issue – Intimidator 305 is still a great ride which will be a huge success for Kings Dominion, but due to the modifications it just isn’t as earth-shatteringly epic as it should be. It feels like a normal megacoaster and is unlikely to trouble any Top 10 lists.

Indeed, just a week before Intimidator 305 opened, its sister ride of sorts began operation a few hours’ drive away at Carowinds in Charlotte, North Carolina. Also confusingly dubbed ‘Intimidator’ (minus the ‘305’), this North Carolina coaster may share a similar name, but is otherwise very different. Manufactured by B&M as opposed to Intamin, this megacoaster is based on a more traditional ‘out & back’ design, with a large 232ft first drop followed by a succession of airtime hills. I rode this version of Intimidator just a week after experiencing Kings Dominion’s ride, and found the B&M coaster to be far superior. The first drop may be smaller, but unlike Intimidator 305’s trim-braked first plunge, this one feels smooth and organic whilst remaining powerful. Indeed, the rest of the ride follows a similar format, with each hill delivering airtime by the bucketful. Only the short segment following the block brake fails to satisfy, but despite this – and the fact that the layout isn’t particularly unique – all in all Intimidator is smooth, powerful and a lot of fun.

The B&M coaster also upstages its Intamin rival in a number of other departments, which are crucial to the overall enjoyment of the attraction. In the B&M trains, passengers are restrained by a clamshell restraint, which leaves their upper half of their bodies free and unrestrained. The Intamin trains however utilise an over-the-shoulder harness. This was found to cause too much discomfort to passengers, and has since been modified. The new harnesses resemble padded seatbelts, but still do restrain the passengers’ upper bodies. Whilst these are by no means uncomfortable, the B&M restraints are by far superior in terms of freedom of upper body and overall comfort. They also allow quick and efficient loading of riders. Coupled with the fact that the ride can run 3 trains, this means that Intimidator can shift through a large line very quickly. In comparison, Intimidator 305’s trains take much longer to fill, and when I visited, the park was bizarrely running only one train. The staff explained that they only run the second train on peak days – but with an hour line on a summer’s day in July, I wondered what could be classed as a peak day. This also meant that waiting for a go in the front seats took a very long time – I persevered – but I probably shouldn’t have.

It seems the modification to the restraints has certainly cut capacity. But I am more than happy to wait a while for an incredible ride, so the modification which really needs addressing is the addition of the trim-brakes. However, the ironic thing regarding the addition of the trim-brakes on the first drop is that they do not solve the problem they were meant to. The pull-up to the first airtime hill, even with the reduced speed, is still very intense. I found myself greying out and temporarily losing clear vision during this section of the ride. I can only wonder what this segment was like earlier in the season when the ride had no trims and was operating at its intended speed. Assuming that it was indeed more intense, it is no surprise to me that Kings Dominion decided to make the modifications to address the issue. However, the trouble is that the modifications have not solved the problem and indeed have introduced a new set of issues, such as a ‘neutered’ first drop and a slower-than-intended remainder of the ride.

Therefore Intimidator 305 just feels like a bit of a mess. Whereas I have used the word ‘organic’ to describe its sister ride at Carowinds, Intimidator 305 just seems a little ‘all over the place’. The modifications have not worked, and have actually worsened the ride experience overall. And thus the question remains – should Kings Dominion have even bothered making the modifications? And is it possible for a ride like Intimidator 305 to perform at its best whilst still being a comfortable experience for all riders? Can Intimidator 305 ever deliver its maximum potential without subjecting its riders to overly-high positive g-forces?

Well, the answer is ‘Yes’ – it is possible for Intimidator 305 to be returned to its former glory, minus the ‘grey-out’ spot. Whilst one can endlessly debate the trade-off between entertainment and safety, in some sense, this does not even have to be considered with Intimidator 305 for one simple reason: the cause of all of Intimidator 305’s problems can be attributed to a couple of key design flaws. The bottom line is that Intimidator 305 has been badly designed in places. The restraints utilised are one example of poor design, but the most obvious badly-designed section is the much-discussed ‘grey-out’ spot. This section of track exposes riders to g-forces which are simply too high. These g-forces are not essential to making the rest of the ride brilliant – they are simply there as a result of bad design.

As a quick-fix solution to lower the g-forces, trim-brakes were added to the ride’s first drop. These lowered the g-forces, but did not totally solve the problem. And in trying to unsuccessfully solve the issue, the trim-brakes then caused the ride to lose some of its impact – the reduction in the ride’s top speed meant that the first drop and remaining elements never delivered their maximum potential. In other words, the trim-brakes were the wrong solution to the issue, and it was these that meant the ride’s performance dropped. It is possible for Intimidator 305 to be a world-class ride without subjecting riders to overly high g-forces – Kings Dominion just have to come up with a better solution to the problem than installing trim-brakes on the first drop, which quite frankly ruin the rest of the ride.

And therefore I was extremely glad to see some pictures surface online recently which showed that the trim-brakes have indeed been removed from the first drop. Instead of coming up with a cheap, quick-fix solution, it seems that Intamin and Kings Dominion are addressing the real issue at hand, and that is that the ‘grey-out’ section of the ride is simply badly designed. Their new solution is to remove this section of track and replace it with a new re-profiled version. Three track pieces have been removed and new track pieces are being installed – the radius of the first turn will now be wider such that the pull-up into the first airtime hill is not as intense and should no longer cause the overly-high positive g-forces which made it a ‘grey-out’ spot.

Hopefully this should solve the problem. Without the trim-brakes, the ride can operate at its top speed once again, ensuring that the first drop and indeed the rest of the ride can deliver their maximum potential. In addition, the overly high g-forces should now be a thing of the past, thanks to the re-profiled track. With any luck, this redesign should solve all of the ride’s problems. Intimidator 305 should reopen in 2011 without there being any debate over its safety or any discussion over discomfort experienced by riders. Instead, all of the talk should be about just how great this gigacoaster is. I never had the chance to experience Intimidator 305 in its untamed state – and given how uncomfortable I found the g-forces in its edited form, perhaps I am glad that I didn’t. However, if the ride can be returned to its former glory, minus the uncomfortable intensity, then I am sure that Kings Dominion will have a truly world-class ride on their hands. And it is for that reason that whilst there are many brand new attractions opening this year, perhaps the best ride to open in 2011 will be the redesigned version of Intimidator 305.

Photos: Joe Schwartz (used with permission)

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Comments

  1. Paul Coker says:

    this is a fascinating review, the last time i was there was before i had kids the volcano was the newest ride there.

  2. Robert Bowman says:

    Excellent article. I had the experience of riding Indiminidator 305 last April with the gray-out and last September with the trim brakes. This past Friday I rode Intiminidator at Carowinds and agree that it is one awesome ride, though very little tops the grace of Millenium Force or the intensity of Maverick. Saturday, on my way back home to NJ, I hesitated to stop at King’s Dominion and give 305 another try but was very glad i did. My son and I were able to ride it nine times (7 in an hour)…. The new track design now make this a truely top-ten ride. We didn’t even bother with Volcano or Dominator (and their lines) but kept getting in line for Intimidator 305. The improvement is impressive and definitely worth the experience….

  3. Laurie Kelly says:

    I rode this awesome coaster today (6-6-11) and experienced a gray-out spot as did most of the people I knew riding it. 2 out of the 8 people did not experience this gray out. One person experienced gray-black-gray. I was wondering how many Gs there were. It was a great ride. I was terrified to get on it, but glad I did. I have never experienced graying out before. I would love to know how many Gs I experienced.

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