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A Technical Leap

Getting the Superman ride to reach its desired 100 mph wasn't accomplished in a single bound.


After numerous delays and technical problems, Six Flags Magic Mountain's Superman the Escape--the world's tallest and fastest roller coaster--will open to the public Saturday.

County safety officials gave the ride final approval on Feb. 27--nine months after it was originally scheduled to open--and anyone at least 48 inches tall can climb aboard.

"Safety was never an issue," said county inspector Dick Brundage, who has visited the attraction daily since January 1996. "They just couldn't get it to go fast enough, but it was always very safe."

The ride was expected to be a 1996 summer blockbuster for the Valencia park, but it failed to get off the ground in time, at least not at its advertised speed of 100 mph.

By June, it had reached speeds of only 50 to 70 mph and engineers ruled out opening the attraction in time for the summer rush.

But in December, Superman was up to 95 mph, and about a month ago, the ride finally reached its desired speed.

"There was enormous pressure from the public to open it, but we were only able to get it going in increments of 5 mph since June," said Jim Blackie, the engineer in charge of the attraction. "The biggest problem was turning high amounts of power on and off very quickly."

Another obstacle, Blackie said, was that engineers were dealing with unfamiliar and sophisticated, state-of-the-art equipment never before used in an amusement park setting.

In fact, to create Superman, Six Flags borrowed technology the U.S. Navy has studied for launching jets from aircraft carriers.

"It was untested prototype equipment and we thought we had it right on the models, but the accuracy of the signaling wasn't right on the real thing," Blackie said.

Unlike conventional roller coasters that tow cars to a great height and then let gravity take over, Superman is powered by linear synchronous motors, which means precisely timed, electromagnetic power interacts with the 6-ton passenger car to create an unprecedented acceleration of up to 100 mph in seven seconds.

The ride, which accommodates 1,800 passengers per hour, is intense with gravity force, or Gs, of 4.5 and 2,000 horsepower. It blasts 370 feet up the 415-foot portion of the L-shaped track, then comes to a momentary stop at the top before coming back down backward at 100 mph.

There are 6.5 seconds of weightlessness compared to a fraction of a second on most roller coasters and 1.5 seconds on Magic Mountain's free-fall ride.

The attraction that comes closest to Superman in the West is the Desperado in Stateline, Nev., which uses a 225-foot drop to reach speeds of 94 mph.

Six Flags officials refused to disclose the cost of Superman, but say it's the largest expenditure in the Valencia park's 26-year history, surpassing the $11 million spent on the Batman roller coaster in 1994.

"No one even wants to speculate about the cost because it took so long and there are too many variables, since it's technology that has never been used," said Tim O'Brien, who covers the industry for Amusement Business Magazine.

O'Brien wouldn't guess either, but one industry insider who asked not to be identified put the tab at $20 million to $25 million.

Park officials are confident the investment will pay off, even if it is a year late.

"We expect to do record business," said Magic Mountain spokeswoman Bonnie Rabjohn. "We're going to blow the roof off our business this summer."

O'Brien believes that's an accurate assessment because there are no other big thrill rides opening this summer in the country.

"There's a lot of excitement among people and the delay only added to it," he said.

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