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Superman Still Learning to Soar

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s . . . not ready yet.

Six Flags Magic Mountain’s new high-tech roller coaster--Superman--The Escape--was to be a summer blockbuster, but so far it’s more of a bust.

Because it has performed more like mild-mannered Clark Kent during recent test runs, executives say they remain weeks away from opening the attraction that was supposed to debut in May.

Touted as the world’s first 100-mph roller coaster, Superman has so far reached speeds of only 50 to 70 mph as engineers take longer than expected to grapple with fine-tuning the mechanisms.

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Park officials insist that the ride will eventually reach top speed, but in the meantime, cross-town competitor Universal Studios is scheduled to open its $110-million Jurassic Park attraction today.

For Magic Mountain, the delay comes at a difficult time. Last month, a worker was killed by another roller coaster, and amusement industry analysts say the park could use some good news.

“The thing has been hyped for almost a year, and people want to know what’s going on,” said Lisa Scheinin, a regional officer of American Coaster Enthusiasts, a national fan club that had planned to meet at Magic Mountain this week.

“I’ve gotten calls from as far away as Minneapolis saying, ‘When is this thing going to open?’ ”

The timing is significant, analysts say. The profitable vacation season is ticking away.

“Missed days are missed days,” said Ray Braun, senior vice president at Economics Research Associates, a West Los Angeles company that advises amusement park executives. “You don’t get June days back in September.”

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In the business of amusement parks, a new attraction can increase attendance 10% or more, which can translate into millions of dollars in revenue. But the technology required to fuel modern rides, Braun said, “doesn’t always follow the calendar.”

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Disneyland spent seven months debugging Splash Mountain in 1989. And the new Jurassic Park ride missed the industry’s optimum Memorial Day opening date by more than three weeks.

“But both [Jurassic Park and Superman] are really complicated technological breakthroughs,” Braun said. “They are trying to push the envelope and doing things that haven’t been done before.”

Superman represents a ticklish problem because it employs technology that has never been used in an amusement park. Unlike conventional coasters that tow cars loaded with riders to a great height and then let gravity take over, this ride is powered by a synchronous linear motor.

Its 6-ton cars are equipped with large magnets that pass over electromagnetic elements placed every few feet along the track. Split-second timing is crucial as the cars’ magnets are first pulled toward each element, then pushed away and toward the next.

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Propelled faster and faster, Superman races along a flat stretch of track and is designed to reach top speed in seven seconds. Then it is supposed to curve 415 feet straight up--making it the world’s tallest amusement park attraction as well as the fastest--before plummeting backward to the starting point, with the magnets now acting as brakes.

Engineers have devoted recent weeks to increasing the acceleration 10 mph at a time, pausing to synchronize the magnetic propulsion at each stage.

“Our business, despite the delay of Superman opening, is strong,” said Magic Mountain spokeswoman Bonnie Rabjohn. Ticket sales “are significantly up from prior years,” she said, although she would not reveal attendance figures.

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Even if the ride were to open halfway through the summer season, Magic Mountain officials and industry analysts say it could still be a success in the long run.

“You can expect several years’ worth of good, strong impact from a ride,” Braun said.

And coaster fans are not likely to be put off completely by the wait.

“It’s kind of frustrating,” said Scheinin, the club representative who works as a pathologist for the Los Angeles County coroner. “But it might just get people more and more interested.”

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