The Importance of Nostalgia and the RMCification of America's Classic Wooden Roller Coasters

A few years back on one of my many excursions to get creds around the UK, I found myself at Barry Island in Wales, a place now known in the public perception because of BBC’s Gavin and Stacey. In the 1970s the Barry Island Pleasure Park was the area’s main tourism draw, boasting attractions designed by a young John Wardley that were at the height of technological sophistication and wizardry and truly the envy of any amusement park operator at the time. The ride, called Uncle Frankenstein’s Scream Machine, not only housed incredible haunted house trickery but also displayed an elaborate and enticing facade. This attraction, alongside a log flume housed inside a fibreglass mountain and a charming boat ride through a faux jungle, made Barry Island Pleasure Park one of the leading amusement parks in the UK at this time, and would likely go down in history as some of the great innovative rides and attractions with regards to theming. However, upon my visit in 2011 these once revolutionary rides sat decaying in the background of the already cramped confines of Barry Island Pleasure Park, with vulgar travelling fairground rides instead taking pride of place. And it was so sad. So sad that something once celebrated as innovative and that brought so much joy to so many previous generations was now next to forgotten, rotting in some crappy seaside amusement park that was clearly heading for a similar fate.

And so it got me thinking, and this has been on my mind for the past few years, that whilst technological advances are of course awesome and always welcome, especially in something like the theme park industry where we’re always wanting to try to next bigger and better thing, that we must be careful not to forget our roots and the things that got us to this point in the first place. Why? Because of the nostalgia value. Nostalgia is an incredibly important factor in building and maintaining an atmosphere, and as such, an identity that is specific to the place in question. Think about it, say for example you buy a car, and over the course of the years you systematically replace every single component of that vehicle. Eventually, it is completely different to the car you originally bought, and therefore it maintains none of the original character. Furthermore, places and their appearances act as physical stimuli for evoking memories. Even if a place is geographically the same, even if it is called the same thing, if it undergoes a rehaul and changes all of the attractions that originally contributed to building its character the place loses something in its personality and ability to elicit memories in its patrons. It loses the nostalgia factor.

Another example of this is the “copy of a copy of a copy” theory. A lot of time we hear that when something is copied over and over again it loses the impact of the original. Think about movies, especially nowadays when most of what we see are either sequels or remakes. What do we always complain about? “It wasn’t as good as the original”, although joked about as the rhetoric of hipsters, is a phrase we have all been guilty of uttering. most notably when we sign up for a dose of nostalgia and leave feeling empty handed. The same is true of theme parks. Amongst the enthusiast community it is general consensus that Disneyland Paris is entirely inferior to its original cousin on America’s West Coast. Personally I was always sceptical of this theory, and thought it was people just being precious because “it was ours first!” I visited Disneyland Paris first and adored the place. It had the Disney magic, it had all the greatest hits, it was a winner in my eyes. However, it was nothing compared to walking through the gates of Disneyland, Anaheim. The nostalgia of this place hits you like a ton of bricks the second you set foot on mouse territory. Not to sound cheesy (but I am gunna) but you can really imagine Walt himself strolling down these streets and hear the laughter and feel the joy of over 60 years of families creating memories within the walls. And that is because Walt really was there, and Disneyland was created from the ground up with original ideas and concepts that had never really been seen before on this scale. And, perhaps most importantly, they protect it. They don’t just roll in some new fangled and garish ride contraption to cover up the fact that some of their rides are older than others. They give rehab sessions to their classic rides and ensure that newer attractions are blended with the style and personality of what makes Disneyland Disneyland. 

Bigger is not necessarily better.
Yes, of course, a lot of theme park companies do not have the money to give their rides the TLC they deserve a lot of the time. But, think about this: globally, Merlin is the second most profitable theme park company in the world (to Disney, of course) and yet rides that are barely 25 years old such as Dragon Falls at Chessington World of Adventures sit with peeling paint, covered in cobwebs, litter and overgrown foliage. It makes no sense, and smacks of a company who do not understand the value of not only general upkeep of rides, but also in maintaining their older attractions in order to continue to preserve the attractions that have long served to contribute to the park’s personality through the nostalgia factor.

Original theming was removed from Dragon Falls at the start of the 2013 season.
Well, that took longer than I thought it would to explain, but I think we’re getting there, which brings us on to the woodie debate. In case some of you haven’t noticed, there is this awesome new company called Rocky Mountain Construction (RMC) who have not only built some awesome custom jobs of their own, such as the incredible Outlaw Run at Silver Dollar City, but who made a name for themselves by retracking some of the more notorious woodies in the US. And so a buzz has been created. Which woodie will be next for the RMC treatment? Please let it be a coaster near to me! Etc. And there is no doubt about it, RMC do some spectacular work. Iron Rattler is fantastic, Outlaw Run is out of this world. But there is one other word I would use to describe the RMC coasters. And that is that they are soulless. They are void of character and some even feel formulaic. And so it got me worried for the classic woodies of America. On my recent travels I got to ride some awesome newness to the world of coasters, but I also got to experience some of the loveable old classics. I adore Judge Roy Scream at Six Flags Over Texas and the way it takes the scenic route out by the lake, I love the way the Georgia Cyclone at Six Flags Over Georgia tries to literally fling you from the train. Many enthusiasts would argue that these coasters are bland, but I disagree. I am perhaps in the minority who believe that these older classics represent a time when coasters were less ‘tried and tested’ and are therefore more erratic and enjoyable in nature. 

Classic vs. RMC
These classic coasters also represent what I was discussing earlier about the nostalgia factor. The analogy I gave about replacing car parts rings true here. Getting RMC to retrack your classic woodie means that the coaster is not the same coaster anymore. It won’t evoke the same memories nor will it have the same personality that the loveable yet rickety old hunk of junk that rarely gets a queue anymore does. From a business point of view it makes financial sense to capitalise on the assets in your park that bring in the most guests, and of course I totally understand the idea of doing this from that perspective. However, I would argue that the old geezers of the coaster world represent a lot more in nostalgia value than the (shortlived) capital gain of replacing them does. You only have to look at places like Disneyland and Blackpool Pleasure Beach to see examples of where protecting and investing in the historical protection of your park pays off.