Venerable Corkscrew: End of a Long Ride : Before Knott’s Historic Roller Coaster Is Carted Off to Idaho Park, Many Pause to Attest to Its Thrills


Robert Santiago looked up, squinted at the midday sun and watched the thundering roller coaster carrying a carful of gleeful, screaming riders through a circuitous course that flipped them head over heels--twice.

He was hardly giddy himself, though. More like nostalgic. Definitely a bit blue.

Santiago, 28, is the ride operations supervisor at Knott’s Berry Farm. He has been working at the amusement park for nine years, ever since he was a senior in high school and got a job as a ticket taker. Every day at work, he has walked past the Corkscrew.

The red, white and blue roller coaster was the first in history to safely turn riders upside down. Beyond that, though, it has become a familiar, almost reassuring landmark, to Santiago and to many others.


But after today, it will hurtle through Buena Park no more.

“To come by in the morning and not have it here anymore . . . is going to be a big change,” said Santiago, who uses such words as “security blanket,” even “friend,” when he talks about the ride. “It’ll be like a part of me is missing.”

The Corkscrew, which helped to revolutionize roller coaster riding when it debuted in 1975, is being dismantled and sold to make way for a “bigger, more thrilling” coaster with more up-to-date technology, according to Knott’s public relations people.

The ride consistently ranks among the park’s five most popular, according to spokesman Stuart A. Zanville (who said popularity is measured by the number of passengers carried, even though some rides take longer to load or have smaller capacity per trip). The lines at the Corkscrew’s gate have not shrunk over time, ride operators agree.

But others say the ride has lost some of the appeal that once made it the park’s star attraction. “People have ridden it many, many times,” said Michael Leland, a Knott’s employee for 19 years who now works in ride operations. “They don’t come to Knott’s to ride the Corkscrew anymore, they come for something else.”

Some people at the park on a recent Sunday were actually happy to hear of the Corkscrew’s impending replacement. The new, reportedly harrowing ride, scheduled to open next year, does not have a name yet but is known generically as a “boomerang.” Featured at fewer than half a dozen other amusement parks in the world, it turns riders upside down not just twice like Corkscrew but six times.

“All right!” said Julie Brown, a woman in her early 20s from El Centro. “I could go for that.”


Still, most park patrons surveyed informally spoke of separation anxiety and an acute sense of loss when told that the Corkscrew is about to become history.

“No way!” protested Joanne Grove, 19, of Yorba Linda, shouting over the clang of the coaster lurching overhead. “They should find another space for the other ride. This is the original. It’s always been here, and it always should be. When I come back in the next 10 years, I expect it to be here.”

“It is a historically significant ride,” said Paul L. Ruben, editor of RollerCoaster! magazine. “But because it’s such recent history, we probably won’t appreciate its significance for another 50 years.”

A few upside-down coasters existed around the turn of the century, but the unwieldy machines caused neck and back injuries, according to Ron Toomer, who designed the Corkscrew.

“We proved we could go upside down and do it successfully, without hurting people,” Toomer said from his office in Clearfield, Utah.

A mechanical engineer who also helped design many of Disneyland’s early rides, including “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Pasadena native Toomer is president of Arrow Dynamics, a firm he joined in 1965. He recalled the day the Knott clan paid a visit to Arrow back when it was still operating out of Mountain View in Santa Clara County.


“We had the (Corkscrew) sitting in our back yard. The Knott family came and liked what they saw and decided to buy the prototype right out of the yard.”

Since the original Corkscrew, from which 10 exact replicas were made, Arrow and other companies have produced rides with loops in helical patterns, rides with double-reversing loops, rides with pretzel twists and suspended trains that hang and swing from overhead tracks.

One of Toomer’s own latest creations is the Great American Scream Machine at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J., which flips riders upside down seven times and is, he said, the world’s highest looping coaster, reaching a zenith of 175 feet. (Corkscrew crests at 72 feet.)

He is working on the Pipeline, which “rolls you over and over sideways, like an airplane doing loops, as you go down the tracks.”

“They all use the same technology that keeps the forces in the right direction, so people don’t know when they are upside down,” Toomer said.

How sad is he to hear that the granddaddy of them all is closing down? Well, an all-steel roller coaster can last at least 23 years, he said. The first one he ever built is that old and is still running in Arlington, Tex.


But Toomer said he understands why large amusement parks such as Knott’s frequently retire and sell their older rides.

“They have to keep doing something to keep the fickle public around,” he said. “It’s a very, very competitive business, especially in Southern California, and the people flock depending on who’s got the newest, big, sensational rides. There’s no doubt of that.”

Industry experts agree. New attractions--which have become increasingly expensive as well as elaborate--can boost park attendance by up to 10% during a ride’s first year, said Linda Deckard, West Coast editor of Amusement Business magazine. It’s an axiom that drives the industry, as parks typically open major attractions before each summer season--their busiest.

Officials at Knott’s would not disclose this year’s park attendance. Spokesman Zanville said only that it is “where we expect it to be for this year. We’re pleased.” (Amusement Business had no figures for 1989 but reported that about 4 million visited the park last year.)

Knott’s opened three new attractions this year that cost $4 million to build: the XK-1 and Whirlpool thrill rides and “The Incredible Waterworks Show” which features a giant, 25-by-90-foot fountain, colored lights and music.

Neither of the thrill rides, though, has been among Knott’s five most popular.

Universal Studios, meanwhile, reported that attendance jumped 37% over last year as a result of its $13-million Earthquake attraction, which opened in March. The simulation of a 8.3 shaker is expected to take the year’s total over 5 million, spokesman Jim Yeager said.


Knott’s is planning to spend $5 million to buy and install the Corkscrew’s replacement, Zanville said, noting that park expansion since 1983, including seven new thrill rides, has cost $50 million.

Actually, today is the Corkscrew’s last hurrah only as far as Knott’s Berry Farm’s public is concerned. The coaster will roll again Monday, when Knott’s will offer its employees a final fling. Then it will be dismantled and sold to the year-old Silverwood Theme Park in northern Idaho for $250,000, an official there said.

Darryl Rowles intends to be there Monday. Rowles says he rode the Corkscrew during its inaugural weekend 14 years ago. A Knott’s employee in 1976-79, he came back to work at the park this summer--as the Corkscrew’s operator.

“I heard the ride was going down, so I wanted to run it,” Rowles said. “I am so sad.”

Santiago, though, found a silver lining: “The Corkscrew has done it’s time (at Knott’s). It’s on to bigger and better things.”


Opened: May 21, 1975.

Closing to the public: Sept. 17, 1989.

Original cost: About $1 million.

Duration of ride: 1 minute, 15 seconds.

Highest point: 72 feet.

Highest speed: 32 m.p.h.

Safety Record: No accidents, no incidents.

Future: To be sold for $250,000 to the Silverwood Theme Park in northern Idaho, where it should be up and rolling again by June 15, 1990.

Passenger capability: A Corkscrew train consists of six cars, each carrying four passengers. Two trains usually operate on weekends for a maximum hourly capacity of 1,600 riders.


Celebrity riders have included: Farrah Fawcett, Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, David Copperfield, Ron Howard, Dudley Moore, Corey Feldman.

Record for most continuous rides: Set May 17, 1977, by two radio DJs, Tim O’Neal, then of KEZY-FM, and Joe Nasty, then of KTNQ-AM, who took in 484 laps, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

All-time record numbers of people carried by Knott’s rides in a single day:

1. Wacky Soap Box Riders: 25,390, July, 3, 1988.

2. Timber Mountain Log Ride: 23,493, July 3, 1988.

3. Corkscrew: 22,130, July 30, 1988.

4. Big Foot Rapids: 20,538, Aug. 13, 1988.

5. Montezooma’s Revenge: 17,300, 1978.

Source: Knott’s Berry Farm and Silverwood Theme Park.