It’s safe to say most coaster enthusiasts had never heard of ZDT’s before the tiny Texas amusement park announced plans to add a one-of-a-kind ride this summer.
Designed by Ohio-based Gravity Group, the Famous Switchback Railway will be the first new wooden shuttle coaster built anywhere in the world in more than a century. A shuttle roller coaster reverses course mid-ride and retraces the same track backward without ever making a complete circuit.
Located east of San Antonio, the family-owned ZDT’s amusement park opened seven years ago in Seguin and quickly built up a small but diverse collection of attractions.
“We’re in a small town,” said Sarah Donhauser, who runs the park with her husband and their three kids. “It has to be unique or people won’t come.”
ZDT’s new ride pays tribute to the Gravity Pleasure Switch Back Railway built by LaMarcus Thompson in 1884 at New York’s Coney Island.
Known as the Father of the Gravity Ride and an early pioneer in the development of roller coasters, Thompson’s Switch Back is listed in the Roller Coaster Database as the third oldest coaster of all time behind rides in Denmark and Chicago.
The 50-foot-tall Gravity Pleasure Switch Back Railway reached a top speed of 6 mph over a 600-foot-long track. The world’s first wooden shuttle coaster, which may have operated for as little as one season, cost 5 cents to ride.
Besides the Coney Island ride, according to RCDB, there have only been two other wooden shuttle coasters: Switchback Railway at Scotland’s Glasgow International Exhibition (1901) and Backety-Back Scenic Railway at Canada’s Crystal Beach (1909).
The new Switchback at ZDT’s amusement park begins with a traditional 63-foot-tall lift hill that drops riders at 45 mph into a pair of airtime hills, a 104-degree overbanked turn and two more airtime hills. After ascending a 64-foot-tall spire, the train rockets backward through the hills and turns before running out of steam on the lift hill.
A brake run at the bottom of the lift hill holds the train in place while a section of switch-track redirects the coaster back to the station as a second train departs.
The forward and backward experience allows ZDT’s amusement park to nearly double Switchback’s track length to 1,980 feet. The unique lift hill configuration lets the coaster run two trains and increase ride capacity.
Most steel shuttle coasters, like Boomerang by Netherlands-based ride manufacturer Vekoma at nearby Six Flags Fiesta Texas, eschew the traditional lift hill in favor of pulling a single train up a pair of spires.
ZDT’s amusement park opened in 2007 in Seguin, a town of 26,000 best known as the home of the world’s largest pecan and the smallest city in America with a symphony orchestra.
Starting with five attractions, the South Texas park added a new ride every year in hopes of convincing visitors to choose ZDT’s over Schlitterbahn water park (15 minutes away), Six Flags Fiesta Texas (45 minutes) or SeaWorld San Antonio (1 hour).
In order to attract attention, many of ZDT’s attractions break from the mold. The Mad Raft water coaster mimics the ups and downs of a traditional roller coaster with the help of water jets. The multi-level go-kart track runs in and out of an old warehouse. The 60-foot-tall rock climbing wall extends up the side of two old grain silos. Even the games in the video arcade are set to the “free” mode.
Run by Sarah and her husband Danny, ZDT’s amusement park is named for their three children: Zac, Danielle and Tiffany. Now in high school and college, the kids grew up at the park and joined their parents on business research trips to Cedar Point, Knott’s Berry Farm, Dollywood, Hersheypark and the various Disney, Universal, Six Flags and Busch Gardens parks.
“I like to think we’re pretty cool parents,” Sarah said.
Danny, who owned an automotive repair shop before conceiving of ZDT’s, originally planned to open a restaurant on the property that eventually became the amusement park. When he changed his mind about the restaurant and had trouble selling the building, Sarah, who has a PhD in counseling, suggested opening a place for families to have fun. Over the years, they’ve expanded ZDT’s and added buildings that were once part of a century-old agribusiness.
Presented with a tight location and a limited budget for their new attraction, Danny came up with the idea for a wooden shuttle coaster and approached Gravity Group with the challenge. There was one big problem, though: A historic livestock and wholesale grocery building was in the way. Danny’s solution: Blow a hole in the side of the building to clear a path for the coaster.
Then Zac, a biomedicine undergraduate student at University of Texas at Austin, spotted a fatal flaw in the ride design. The 23-year-old, who is considering a master’s degree in engineering, thought the proposed ride needed a traditional lift hill rather than the twin spikes typically associated with a shuttle coaster. Danny agreed and called Gravity Group to say the plan wasn’t going to work. But to his surprise, Gravity Group designers had already conceived of a lift hill as a solution to the tight quarters.
With the problem solved and the coaster back on track, the Donhausers are already looking ahead to future expansion projects.
“We’ve had a lot of ideas we’ve kicked around,” Sarah said. ”I’m not sure what we’ll do next.”