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SPOTLIGHT : NEW BREED OF CAT : Designers Beat Space Problems to Create Latest Knott's Attraction

June 15, 1995|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a member of the Times Orange County Edition staff.

When designers at Knott's Berry Farm let their imaginations roam, it's not long before they're fenced in by an ever-present reality: the lack of real estate. Knott's is cozy by amusement park standards, and land for new attractions is at a premium, as evidenced by the design of the park's two biggest roller coasters.

Montezooma's Revenge, built in 1978, is a straight line: through a 360-degree loop, up a ramp, then a return trip through the loop backward. Boomerang, constructed in 1990 on the site of the old Corkscrew, packs its thrills onto a tiny slice of property, but managing to turn its passengers upside-down six times in less than a minute.

But with the latest Knott's coaster, Jaguar!, designers managed to hop the fence. The ride's 2,700 feet of track take a luxurious (by Knott's roller coaster standards) three minutes to travel, and the ride achieves its length with a minimum of doubling back. This cat really stretches out.

How does it do that? By breaking what seems to be an unspoken rule of roller coasters. Whereas most stay politely within their boundaries, Jaguar! breaks out of its cage and roams one-sixth of the park--gliding above the milling crowds. Launched from a Mayan-style temple in Fiesta Village, Jaguar! lopes toward the carnival-style Slammer ride before turning coyly aside and then threading the loop of Montezooma's Revenge, prowling teasingly close to the Timber Mountain Log Ride, crossing over Reflection Lake and then heading back to the temple.

Working with an eye toward such neighbors, however, is nothing new for Robin Hall, the park's vice president of design and architecture. He had to work with tight spaces when he designed a roller coaster for the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.

"That was a very contained environment," Hall said by phone. "I came up with this idea of a sort of ribbon through the sky."

It was a concept he returned to when he designed Jaguar! with another Mall of America veteran, Tracy Caviola, the Knott's manager of design. The design team had a rare piece of somewhat open land to work with, the site of the now-gone Studio K teen dance club and a small picnic area, although the property wasn't big enough in itself to house a major new attraction.

In Hall's terminology, the new coaster "interacts" with the park's existing rides, which makes Jaguar! more exciting and adds a thrill to the old rides. More than that, however, it brings a fresh feel to the entire park, and to the Fiesta Village area in particular.

"It was one of the few areas of parkland where we could develop easily and quickly," Hall said. "It was a natural for Fiesta Village. . . . It re-energizes that area and really changes the dynamics of that area of the park."

Even those who don't ride the coaster will get to watch it swoop just overhead.

"A lot of people won't ride a roller coaster, but they like to watch other people having fun--kids or grand-kids, for instance," Hall said. "If you don't want to ride it, you've still got the visual excitement."

Although the ride has a number of fast, swooping curves and quick drops, it lacks the dramatic, gut-wrenching thrills of big drops and loops that accent some of the Southland's more extreme rides. Park spokesmen, however, are hesitant to use the word family in describing the ride's target audience--for fear of scaring off coaster enthusiasts.

But the height requirement is shorter than those for the Boomerang and Montezooma's Revenge, and spokesman Bob Ochsner said Knott's is increasingly targeting a different demographic: families with small children. It can be called symbolic of the park's decreasing emphasis on teens that the new ride sits where Studio K used to be.

Hall said he designed the ride with families in mind but the ride he ended up with has more thrills than he planned.

"It's faster than I thought it was going to be. It's getting good reactions from our fairly jaded rides-maintenance people."

Hall likes to emphasize the minimal ride structure and elegantly thin track: "You really feel like you're up there flying. You don't feel like you're on this road or highway."

The coaster has a strong thematic element, too, complete with a built-in "legend" about, natch, a jaguar. The temple that houses the ride queue and loading area was modeled loosely on classic pre-Columbian and Mayan architecture in such areas as Tikal, Guatemala, and Copan, Honduras. Murals inside the structure were inspired by a recent article in National Geographic that featured computer enhancements of the Mayan murals found at the ruins in Bonampak, in the Yucatan region of Mexico.

There are fanciful elements as well, such as a ball of flame that shoots from the top of the temple as Jaguar! whizzes nearby and, near the end, two jaguar sculptures that breathe fire and fog across the track.

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