With all the talk of the upcoming closure and removal of the Big Bad Wolf in Busch Gardens Williamsburg, people have again started remembering coasters of the parks past. While there have been several removals/additions/replacements of coasters throughout the parks history, the most captivating story is that of Drachen Fire. It’s the most interesting story in the entire history of Busch Gardens, period. Perhaps what is most interesting about it is that it had such a short life in an era in which coasters last at least two decades. Perhaps the backstory involving a young company ushering in a new era of coaster design and an old industry leader which found itself behind the times and unable to adapt to the new coaster world being created is what draws people’s interest. This article’s aim is to provide the rides history as well as provide enough evidence to finally put to rest the theory that B&M played no part in the Drachen Fire story.
The best place to begin is, well, the beginning. Busch Gardens had two roller coasters, Loch Ness Monster and Big Bad Wolf (pictured right). Both rides were revolutions in coaster design and proved to be extremely popular among park guests and very profitable for the park. Busch has consistently made efforts with each of their coaster additions to make sure they are building something unique and groundbreaking. Their goals were no less than that when they decided to add a third roller coaster to the park.
Following the standard plan for adding rides to their parks, it was decided that both parks would have a new ride built (Busch normally builds complementary rides in each of their parks, Montu/Alpengeist, SheiKra/Griffon). A new young company was pushing the limits of roller coaster design at that time, which is just what Busch was looking to do. Bolliger & Mabillard was approached to build two sit-down coasters that included multiple inversions. The first coaster completed by this company was opened in 1990, the stand up coaster Iron Wolf in Six Flags Great America. The ride left something to be desired but it was a great first ride for the company and provided a smoother ride experience as well as new design concepts and a look not seen before on other coasters.
Early talks took place between B&M and Busch, the talks included concepts of the coasters to be built. By 1992 the company had completed a total of four roller coasters and besides working on their first sit-down design for Busch, they were also developing a brand new concept, the inverted coaster. The company was set to deliver two inverted coasters in 1993, their standard annual output in terms of numbers at that point. Their ability to deliver two rides to Busch Gardens was strained to the point that it was not possible. They agreed to deliver one ride, that ride was to be located in the Tampa park.
With the coaster already in the concept phase in the Williamsburg park, Busch approached the company that had created the other two coasters in the park. The concept was presented to Arrow, who agreed to complete the project. The concept was a complete departure from what Arrow had done in the past as was to include elements not seen before or since in any Arrow design.
B&M’s concept for the ride included a loop over the lift hill, this can be seen on Kumba in Tampa. Arrow could not figure out how to make that work on Drachen Fire and thus included an element not seen anywhere at the time, an inversion midway down the first drop. This element was never seen again on an Arrow design. Arrow also included an element they called a batwing in Drachen Fire, again, this was an element missing from any Arrow design prior to or after Drachen Fire. Arrow had a signature corkscrew design, one immediately following the first, however, on Drachen Fire, the corkscrews interlock, an element seen on Kumba. Perhaps the biggest departure for Arrow was the support system. The system used for Drachen Fire was one never used by Arrow before or after this coaster; one that strongly resembled the system used on B&M coasters.
Maybe it’s a good time for some photographic evidence…
To say that the presence of these elements is just a coincidence is naive at best. It’s also safe to say that it is these elements that lead to the failure of Drachen Fire. Arrow attempted to force an evolution in design concepts within their own company artificially. Perhaps they took on the project hoping that it would force them into the new era of coaster design, but, obviously, that turned out not to be the case.
From opening day, Drachen Fire was plagued by complaints of roughness. These complaints were not just ones submitted by dramatic individuals or moms worried about their kids, the ride was very rough, I know from personal experience, it was a neck snapper (much more so than Big Bad Wolf and Loch Ness). The problem was poorly executed entries into the elements Arrow apparently felt forced into including in the ride. The original design included 6 inversions, in an attempt to salvage the ride, Busch removed the first corkscrew, which followed a brake section, in 1994. POV videos showing the original design make clear the problem with this inversion. The entry causes a hard, immediate jerk from side to side.
The style of entry into both elements as well as through turns caused extreme lateral G’s to be experienced by the riders. This is not uncommon for Arrow designs, but the problem was exacerbated by the fact that the train designs changed for Drachen Fire. In another departure from their design concepts, the trains took on a new, more streamlined, look. The trains also had the effect of tightly boxing in the riders and being very unforgiving in movement in any direction. Arrow had always used the center of the train as the point where the center of gravity worked. This worked somewhat well on basic roller coaster elements, which Arrow had been using for decades. The problem came in trying to implement the new elements with the same old method of center of gravity design.
B&M trains are designed to place the center of gravity at the riders heart. This allows for the more complex elements to be pulled off while maintaining smoothness throughout. Their use of a zero car at the front of the train also allowed for increased stability throughout the rest of the train.
In early 2002 the coaster, after standing but not operating for almost four years, was disassembled and the steel was melted down. Trains were kept in the old train barn after the coaster was removed and were gradually taken apart for parts.
There are some that think the location of the ride was a contributing factor for low ridership. I think this thinking is extremely flawed. The ride was located in a spot that was out of the way, but there were plenty of signs as well as its inclusion on the park map. Perhaps the best example of why the ride’s location was not a contributing factor to it’s demise is the popularity of the same plot of land during Howl-O-Scream. The park’s annual Halloween celebration routinely sees lines that extend much longer than Drachen Fire normally saw. Location was not a factor in the coaster’s failure, the only factor causing demolition was poor design. Had Arrow designed a coaster more in line with it’s natural design concepts, Drachen Fire would still be standing. The irony of Drachen Fire is that it is much more popular in it’s non-existence than it was when it was running. It’s a story that has captured the attention of many in the coaster enthusiast community and is one that Busch Gardens certainly hasn’t forgotten about, and certainly won’t mind exploiting when a new attraction is eventually built on, or near, the land was used by the Drachen.
Busch announced in 2009 that the classic suspended coaster, Big Bad Wolf, will be closing on Labor Day 2009. The fact that the ride is not only being closed, but also dismantled, during the season leads many to believe that the long anticipated expansion of the park to a new country is finally happening. The removal of BBW leaves an even larger plot of empty land for this new section to be built on. Most of the rumors also center around the building of a flying coaster by B&M. Needless to say, a flying coaster would fit in very well with the story of a dragon reborn, and the ability of a flyer to drop down over the Rhine River like BBW currently does cannot be overlooked.
Pictures and videos will be added to this article as they are found. If you have any questions about Drachen Fire, feel free to leave a comment here or head over to the official Drachen Fire thread on the BGWFans Forum.