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New Ride Giving Amusement Park Super Headache

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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

With their new high-tech roller coaster called “Superman--The Escape” performing more like mild-mannered Clark Kent during recent test runs, Six Flags Magic Mountain 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 mechanism.

Park officials insist 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.

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For Magic Mountain, the delay comes at an inopportune moment. Last month, a worker was killed by another Magic Mountain roller coaster. 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 Dr. 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.”

In the business of amusement parks, a new attraction can increase attendance by 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.”

Disneyland spent seven months de-bugging Splash Mountain in 1989. And the new Jurassic Park ride missed the industry’s optimum Memorial Day opening date by 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.

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Its six-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 forward toward the next.

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 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.

Late last May, at roughly the same time that Superman was scheduled to open, Cherie La Motte, a 25-year-old Magic Mountain attendant, fell while trying to cross the tracks of the Revolution coaster and was killed by an oncoming train.

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Construction on Superman continued in the aftermath of that accident but park officials have declined to speculate on an opening date and have changed television commercials to read: “Opening soon.”

Magic Mountain officials say they have yet to notice ill effects at the gate.

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

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

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“There is a lost revenue opportunity, but it’s not overwhelming,” Braun said. “You can expect several years’ worth of good strong impact from a ride.”

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

“I think 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.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Getting Up to Speed

Designed in Switzerland, “Superman--The Escape” is electromagnetically powered, unlike traditional roller coasters that gain their speed by gravity. Achieving the desired speed using this complex new technology is taking longer than planned.

* Going Up: Rare-earth magnets mounted beneath each car conduct large amounts of electric current. Linear synchronous motors attached to the track come on in sequence, creating magnetic fields that increase the car’s speed using the force of magnetic attraction and repulsion.

* Coming Down: As he car falls backward, the magnets wrk n reverse as a braking system. Oversized wheels help reduce the rolling friction between car and track

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The Plan

* Speed: 100 mph

* Acceleration: 0 to 100 in seven seconds

* Duration of Ride: 30 seconds

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Sources: Six Flags Magic Mountain, Universal Studios, Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. Researched by STEPHANIE STASSEL / Los Angeles Times


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