Lost Coasters of California – Part 6: Flashback

Last week I discussed the short lived Psyclone at Magic Mountain.  Psyclone’s trains designed by Swiss manufacturer Bolliger and Mabillard caused much of it’s woes.  This week’s article looks at the first coaster these designers worked on, and one with lasting impacts in the coaster industry.

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Throughout the 1970s Swiss company Intamin made a name for themselves selling various amusement park attractions, typically working with various subcontractors.  One of these subcontractors was Swiss steel manufacturer Gionovola.  Gionovola was responsible for the design and manufacturer of various Intamin rides including the Freefall, first introduced in 1982.  In 1985 two Gionovola engineers, Claude Mabillard and Walter Bolliger, would introduce a new type of roller coaster as well as a new type of coaster track.  Sold by Intamin, the “space diver” was a compact 86 foot(26 meters) tall steel coaster which featured a series of hairpin turning dives.  These compact twists were achieved through two innovations: One was the utilization of a square track spine allowing for a wider track than other coasters.  The other was four across seating, allowing for both shorter cars and trains to navigate the compact ride layout.  The space diver was, in essence, the first B&M Coaster.

Footage of the space diver prototype which would open as Z Force at Six Flags Great America in 1985.

Intamin built a full-sized prototype of the space diver. Six Flags promptly purchased this prototype to introduce it at Great America for the 1985 season as Z-Force, a new kind of coaster.  The ride was well received and its compact layout made it the perfect candidate for Six Flags’s ride rotation program.  After the 1987 season, Z-Force was disassembled and moved to Six Flags over Georgia where it would operate through 1991 under the same name. In 1992 Six Flags would move it to Magic Mountain along with a new name, Flashback.  Unfortunately the consistent dismantling and assembling would take its toll on the ride experience and the track rode much rougher at Magic Mountain than it had at Great America.  Adding to the uncomfortable ride experience was the train design.  Unlike the over-the-shoulder restraints seen on later B&M coasters the space diver featured both a lap bar and hard over the shoulder restraints which came down on an uncomfortable flat fiberglass bench seat.  This restraint and seating layout was borrowed from Intamin’s looping starship ride. The combination of uncomfortable and restrictive restraints and the coaster’s sharp turns made for a mind pummeling experience. 

A television advertisement for the renamed Flashback when it was relocated to Magic Mountain.

Flashback operated for the next few years with little incident.  In 1995 Six Flags decided to enter the water park market by opening Hurricane Harbor at Magic Mountain and purchasing Wet n’ Wild in Arlington Texas. Six Flags built Hurricane Harbor next to Magic Mountain’s park entrance and much of the new water park was bordered by Flashback.  Almost immediately patrons and employees in Hurricane Harbor complained of the distracting noise caused by Flashback.  Starting in 1996 Flashback ceased operating while the waterpark was open, May through September.  This meant the ride was only open for short periods of time and even during the parts of the year where it could its operations were patchy.  After 2003, Flashback remained standing but not operating until 2007 when it was removed from the park with little fanfare.

While never a hugely popular ride in its final park the removal of Flashback did mark the end for a one of a kind coaster.  Gionovola and Intamin had envisioned the space diver growing into a popular coaster production model.  Unfortunately the orders never materialized.  Bolliger and Mabillard’s next project under Gionvola for Intamin would be the stand up coaster ShockwaveShockwave opened at Magic Mountain in 1986, relocated as part of Six Flags’s ride rotation program, eventually ending its life at the now-defunct Six Flags Astroworld. Shockwave utilized the track and four across seating first seen on the space diver and the success of this stand up model eventually would lead to B&M’s first independent coaster project, Iron Wolf, in 1990.  While it never saw success as a coaster model, Flashback was an important piece of coaster history, the foundation of the continued success of B&M. 

Next week we finally take a break from Magic Mountain, but not a break from uncomfortable steel coasters.  Unlike Flashback/Z Force, which marks the beginning of a major coaster manufacturer our next subject marks the end of one.  What led Knott’s Berry Farm to choose Japanese Manufacturer Togo to build a unique racing coaster?  Why did this concept fail leading to it’s manufacturers demise?  I’ll try to answer these questions in next week’s Lost Coaster of California, Windjammer Surf Racers

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