Dozens of faceless riders got to experience the new X Flight thrill ride at Six Flags Great America before it will debut to the public next week, with only the sounds of sloshing water heard amid the quiet roar of this unusual "wing coaster."
The splashing came from plastic-shelled dummy riders — each filled with water to simulate the weight of a 200-pound person — as they accelerated up to 55 mph in stomach-heaving dives, loops and barrel twists.
The screamless mission was just one part of the preparations before the latest draw at the Gurnee amusement park officially opens Wednesday. The showcasing of the high-tech Swiss-made attraction also signals a show of confidence for Six Flags Entertainment Corp., which not long ago staggered out of bankruptcy after unloading some of its $2 billion in debt, industry experts said.
X Flight — intended to make passengers feel like they're dangling from the wings of an airplane — is the first major coaster introduced at Six Flags Great America since the 2003 opening of Superman: Ultimate Flight.
"This design is one of the first of its kind in the world," said park spokesman Brandon Bruce. Each "train" of the three-minute ride carries 32 people who sit in pairs, suspended on either side of the 3,000-foot-long track that includes a 12-foot drop, five inversions and a sideways roll through a fake air-traffic control tower.
X Flight, which experts estimate cost about $15 million, was designed by Bolliger & Mabillard, the company that built the park's Raging Bull, Superman and Batman: The Ride coasters.
"Those are what we consider to be the Bentley of our industry," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc. The Cincinnati-based consulting firm monitors the amusement park industry for investors and predicts a good year ahead.
"We think the industry, compared to 2011, has a significant chance of being up 7 percent in attendance and trailing revenue," Speigel said.
In the past decade, Texas-based Six Flags had hard times, with attendance falling as it did elsewhere after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Heavily in debt, the company declared bankruptcy in 2009. In spring 2010, it emerged from bankruptcy, changed leadership and began fresh with $90 million toward new investments, experts said.
Under its former management, Six Flags touted a frugal philosophy that sought to attract more families with modest roller coasters, kiddie rides and a renewed emphasis on park cleanliness and safety.
New owners are harking back to an industry strategy that calls for introducing at least one flashy attraction annually to draw new visitors and retain regulars, especially at an older park like Gurnee's, which opened in 1976. Amusement parks also depend on favorable gas prices, good weather and a large labor force.
"X Flight is going to be a very good ride for that park," said David Lipnicky, spokesman for American Coaster Enthusiasts, a nonprofit group whose members tested the ride this week. "These types of rides, even for people too afraid to ride it, they are visually stunning. I call it a spectator ride. People are just going to stop and look."
Ticket prices remain the same as last year, $59.99 per adult and $39.99 for a child under 48 inches tall, spokeswoman Jennifer Dugan Savage said. The park offers season pass rates that vary according to amenities included in each package. For the first time, guests can pay for their passes over a six-month period.
Six Flags is also relying more heavily on social media marketing and sponsorships from other corporations. Earlier this month, the company announced a new partnership with Nokia, which has developed an application for Nokia Lumia customers that offers an interactive park map and information on attractions, shopping, food, special events and discounts.
Excitement surrounds the X Flight in the days leading up to its opening. Park officials brought in a professional stuntman to compare the ride to his real experiences as a "wingwalker."
Tony Kazian, 45, of Harvard, routinely performs acrobatics from 1,000 feet off the wings of a Boeing-Stearman biplane.
"People say, 'Aren't they kind of tame compared to what you do?'" said Kazian, admitting he was thrilled with the Six Flags invitation. "Maybe they are, but I never get tired of roller coasters."
Construction on X Flight began last fall, when workers installed giant support beams that jutted diagonally from the ground like the legs of a bodyless spider.
Then workers pieced together precisely calibrated chunks of steel — kind of like a child's Erector Set — to connect 3,000 feet of track shaped for the roller coaster's dips, rolls and inversions.
Last week, four ride supervisors began a choreographed set of training exercises to simulate boarding and unloading passengers. They raised seat harnesses and then lowered them around the immobile water dummies. The employees returned to their stations on four sides of the ride, swept an arm sideways and upward and then gave a thumbs-up before shouting "all clear" before the next train rolled out.
There is a procedure for every possible scenario, park President Hank Salemi said. By 6 a.m. every day, 90 maintenance workers will have checked over every ride at the park, he said.
Theoretically, officials estimate that up to 1,000 passengers per hour will experience the X Flight, though they can't be certain until the park fills with actual guests. The minimum height to ride is 54 inches, and there is also a maximum height of 6 feet 6 inches.
"Being here, you get desensitized to the rides," said Director of Park Operations Dameon Nelson, who was among the first to test-ride the X Flight, and who nicknamed two of the water dummies "Henry" and "Jo-Jo." "Being on this one was a whole new experience. ... You don't know where you are sometimes because so much is happening."
The only similar ride nationwide is the Wild Eagle, designed by the same manufacturer, which opened at Dollywood Theme Park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., in March.
Six Flags Entertainment reports $1 billion in revenue and operates 19 parks across the U.S., Mexico and Canada.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times