The massive Colossus roller coaster, with a 100-foot drop and speeds up to 60 mph, has evoked screams of terror and joy for 36 years.
But 15-year-old Madi Giordano climbed off the venerable wood coaster this week feeling sad and nostalgic. Her grandfather, she said, helped grade the Valencia property beneath the ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain.
“You can get a piece of history by riding Colossus,” Giordano said over the clank, clank, clank of another coaster car climbing the first incline.
Colossus will close Saturday, ending an era for what once was the nation’s tallest and fastest wood roller coaster. Now, the ride doesn’t even rank in the Top 10 in either category.
Six Flags officials declined to say why the coaster was closing or what might replace it.
Three hundred fans have signed a petition calling for the coaster to remain open. And rumors are swirling that the coaster could reopen with reinforced steel tracks and a new name. Six Flags says future plans will be announced Aug. 28.
Whatever happens to Colossus, wooden coasters aren’t dead yet.
“There is always a love for the wooden coaster because it’s the real deal,” said Tim Baldwin, editor of the quarterly Roller Coaster magazine, published by American Coaster Enthusiasts. “Wooden coasters have an appeal because of the sense of nostalgia they create.”
The heyday of wood coasters ended in the 1940s and ‘50s with the surging popularity of speedy, sleek and easily maintained steel coasters. Although construction of steel roller coasters has surpassed that of wooden coasters in the U.S. in the last half-century, construction of wooden coasters continues.
Since 1990, at least 81 wooden coasters have been built in the U.S. while only 35 have been removed, according to Roller Coaster Database, an online database assembled by coaster enthusiast Duane Marden.
Several U.S. companies that specialize in renovating wood coasters are reporting thriving business.
“The big trend is bringing old coasters back to what they once were,” said Adam House, a design engineer at Pennsylvania-based Great Coasters International Inc.
Rocky Mountain Construction, an Idaho company that repairs and builds wood coasters, has been riding this trend. The company, which has a patent for a reinforced steel track that can be installed on existing wood tracks, began in 2001 with about 15 employees. It now has nearly 90 workers in three facilities.
“We can take an existing coaster, rehab it and retrofit it, making the track more exciting,” said Amy Garcia, a spokeswoman for the company. “We can have the coaster come back to life and have a new exciting ride for the park to market.”
Rocky Mountain has installed new steel tracks on five coasters, helped build seven new coasters and repaired an additional 10 coasters. Garcia declined to say whether her company has been hired to overhaul Colossus.
Roller coaster enthusiasts have long debated the merits of wood versus steel coasters.
A new wooden coaster can cost about one-tenth the price of a similar-size steel coaster but requires expensive maintenance, particularly on the flat steel strips that create the track, industry experts say.
Maintenance costs vary, depending on the construction material and exposure to the elements. Colossus was built for $7 million in 1978, using more than 1.2 million feet of pressure-treated Douglas fir and long leaf yellow pine.
Steel coasters are much more expensive to build — up to $25 million each — but can reach faster speeds and execute sharper banks and upside-down turns, while needing much less maintenance, experts say.
In 2013 alone, theme parks in the U.S. opened 22 steel roller coasters and only four new wooden coasters, according to the Roller Coaster Database.
Colossus and the smaller and newer Apocalypse are the only two wood coasters at Six Flags Magic Mountain, among 17 steel coasters. Other wood coasters in Southern California include GhostRider at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park and Giant Dipper at Belmont Park in San Diego.
For many roller coaster fans, the thrill of riding Colossus is heightened by the peeling paint and the slight shake of the wooden frame as the ride vehicle rumbles along the tracks.
Craig Akin, 42, made a special trip to Six Flags from his home in Sacramento to ride Colossus before it closes.
“I’ve ridden it many times,” he said. “It’s one of the best of the wooden coasters.”
Lisa Mitchell of Arizona remembers riding Colossus on her 16th birthday 32 years ago. “It’s still a thrill to ride it,” she said. “I hate to see it go.”