Developing Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park’s Haunted Mine Drop.
By Philip Hernandez, Editor in Chief, The Haunt Journal
Most of us have had the experience of stepping into an elevator on the top floor of a high building, watching the doors close, and wondering—at least for a few seconds—what would it feel like if the elevator’s mechanism failed and we plummeted floor after floor down the shaft.
Well, now you can find out. Not in an elevator, but in a haunted mine.
One of the nation’s newest – and most thrilling – attractions
On July 31st 2017, Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, opened its newest attraction – the Haunted Mine Drop. It is the world’s first and only underground drop, located on the top of a mountain. Even before the drop opened, it was selected by USA Today as one of the nation’s 12 most anticipated thrill rides of 2017. (It was subsequently voted USA Today’s Best New Amuseument Park Attraction for 2017 in the 10Best Readers’ Choice travel awards.)
There are other ‘drop rides’ out there, of course, including Disney’s several Twilight Zone Tower of Terror rides and the Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout! located at Disneyland in California. In these rides, guests are raised high into the air and then drop to the ground.
Thrilling, but not as thrilling as being completely enclosed in a dark room, buckled into a chair, feeling the floor drop out from under you, and descending 110 feet into the bowels of a mountain at a rate too fast for you to scream.
Guests drop in total freefall for three seconds
The Haunted Mine Drop doesn’t just simulate the terrifying sensation of freefalling into a mine shaft – it recreates it. Guests drop in total freefall for three seconds.
Themed to look like an old mine building and located on top of Iron Mountain (an elevation of 7,000 feet), guests enjoy a scenic gondola ride to reach the Adventure Park.
The Haunted Mine Drop features a giant, eight-foot diameter gear that rotates slowly on the front of the ride’s façade. Although this was never a working mine, the ride’s queueing area includes authentic Glenwood history: a door and window from the old Glenwood jail.
As guests walk inside, the experience is one of queueing into a mine shaft. Here they’re greeted with narrative and characters that introduce the storyline. Upon entering the ride, guests are seated, strapped in, and entertained as ghostly miners appear and tell tales of a mining tragedy from long ago.
How the mine got haunted – and what that means for guests
The story: guests sit in a 100-year-old mine which was shutdown years before due to haunting by ghosts of a mining accident. Guests act as miners heading into their ‘first day on the job’ at the newly re-opened (yet still haunted) mine.
“It’s your first day of work, and ghosts appear to tell stories about what happened there and why the mine had to close,” explained Steve Beckley, owner of Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, which is a family-operated business. “Then, boom, the floor drops out, and it’s a freefall to the bottom. Inside are more ghoulish images, skeletons and such, to round out the thrill. You think you’re coming to work, and we drop you down this pit,” said Beckley.
“Not only is the building themed like an old mine, but the ride also drops down a shaft excavated out of solid rock, the same way that a real mine shaft would be,” Beckley continued. “The temperature drops and the earthy smell of the rock adds authenticity to the experience.”
The fall is so seamless that guests don’t realise the floor has dropped out from underneath them until they’re plummeting down the shaft. Once at the bottom, more ghosts appear to continue the tale. Then, the ride returns guests to the main level for the exit.
Building the world’s most unique drop ride
It’s a major effort to dig a 120-foot-deep hole vertically into a mountain. Heather Austin, the Marketing Manager for Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, explained the inspiration for building the Haunted Mine Drop: “We didn’t want to hurt the topography of our mountain scene. We want to make sure the park is aesthetically pleasing [because it’s so visible] on top of a mountain.”
That – and the area’s history – prompted the owners to create a drop inside the mountain rather than building a drop tower.
Nancy Heard, General Manager of Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, expands on the decision: “The business opened in 1999 for cave tours; the natural caves are located at the top of the mountain,” she explained.
“At the time, patrons were transported to the top of the mountain via a steep dirt road in used school buses. The number of persons that we were able to transport was limited to the number of buses we had and the availability of drivers with a Commercial Driver’s License. Thus, the Tram was born in 2003!
“This mode of transportation allowed us to bring more people up the mountain in a shorter period of time, but this created a new problem – we had more uphill capacity than we could give cave tours. Patrons were waiting for upwards of two to three hours for their cave tour. In 2005, our first attraction was installed, which was the Alpine Mountain Coaster. Immediately following that came the zip line and a giant swing over the 1,300-foot-deep canyon,” she said.
America’s only mountaintop theme park
Throughout that process, a trend became apparent: “We learned people were more likely to return to the park for the amusement rides than to see the caves. This began the development of the mountain into America’s only mountaintop theme park.”
Solid reasoning, but we dug deeper to hone in on why a ‘haunted mine’ idea developed.
“The haunted theme came out of a group discussion with the management team and Mark McDonough, the owner of Creative Visions, who was hired to create the theming,” Heard explained. “It was a fun process to develop the storyline. One idea begat another, and the story developed.”
Excavating one shovelful of rubble at a time
Heard expanded on the challenges and setbacks the ride experienced:
“The excavation of the hole was certainly the longest aspect of the build. It was challenging due to the hardness of the rock; the weather (most of the work was done in the winter months); the steep terrain (which made it difficult to transport the excavated fill); and the long, hard hours spent by the men working in the hole to drill, blast, and excavate one shovelful of rubble at a time.
“Because the task took a lot longer than we estimated, the delay required every other aspect of the build to be expedited. That was a difficult feat – to coordinate all the remaining contractors to keep the project moving forward as quickly as possible. This involved many weekends and through-the-night work shifts. There were other tasks that were difficult such as mobilising heavy equipment to the steep job site – cranes, concrete trucks, the ride structure, and the motor assembly.”
Each team overcame their own ‘ghosts’
A project of this magnitude demands collaboration with multiple entities, and each team overcame their own ‘ghosts’ in the creation. Chris Mann, Lead Engineer for the Haunted Mine Drop expanded on some of those.
“There were several challenges unique to this ride,” explained Mann. “One challenge was that this was a top-load ride. In all drop rides we’ve built, passengers load at the bottom. This meant we had to redesign the pneumatic and electrical systems to function at the top of the ride rather than at the bottom.”
Mann continued, “Also, we had to have a solid floor for people to stand on to load and unload. But, we had to have a way to move that floor out of the way to drop them. We designed an aluminum floor on grooved wheels. These wheels roll on tracks on an H-frame suspended above the pit. Sensors on the floor tell us when the floor is in the “open” or “closed” position.
“Additionally, we didn’t want to risk an accidental drop of the ride without the floor being open and passengers being buckled. So, we put in an actuator safety pin that engages to hold the ride in the air during loading and while the floor is closed. Once the passengers are buckled, and the floor is open, the safety pin disengages,and the ride is allowed to drop,” he explained.
Magnetic-induction braking crucial to drop experience
“Another challenge was the space allowed by the hole. We had to minimize the excavation to reduce costs and save space for the building. This eliminated our traditional tower design, because it took up too much space. We tried to attach the track to the walls of the cave, but the soil was unreliable, and we weren’t able to do that. To solve this problem, we had to redesign the tracks so they were strong enough and compact enough to handle the loads without having to be attached to a tower.”
We asked Mann to elaborate on the braking system and why it’s crucial to the drop experience.
“The brake system is a magnetic-induction system. Depending on which brake-fin alloy the magnet passes by, the magnets generate a current in the fins. This in turn, generates a magnetic field that opposes the magnets on the cart and pushes back against them. This force is what slows the cart down,” said Mann.
“The faster the cart moves through the brakes, the stronger the current generated and the stronger the braking is. This braking system provides a smooth braking experience regardless of whether the cart is fully loaded or empty. The brake system requires no controls or electrical source to operate. The brakes also have no contact or wear components and, therefore, no maintenance. This design allows the brake system to work indefinitely and operate correctly with or without power or, in case of an emergency, release.”
How the Haunted Mine Drop has changed the Glenwoord Caverns Adventure Park Experience
Beyond thrills and magnets, thematic rides must contribute to the overall culture of the attraction. Heard expands on the role of the Haunted Mine Drop in the overall strategy of the park:
“This is a one-and-only, world-class ride with multi-media theming. This is the first ride in which we invested in theming. We’re very proud of this accomplishment and hope it will appeal to thrill-ride enthusiasts. The ride also allowed us to construct additional pathways forming a loop trail,” she said.
This new ride is part of a larger investment of some $2.5 million into park improvements in 2017. This included a new pathway loop connecting the Mine Drop ride to the lower cave tour area and back up to the top of the park.
“The cool thing about the ride is that it’s opened up a whole new area of the park,” Beckley said.
The inside story on the drop
Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park created the giant pit that forms the Haunted Mine Drop shaft. The team also constructed the building over it. Industry veteran and thrill-ride enthusiast, Stan Checketts’ company, Soaring Eagle, of Logan, Utah built the ride. Checketts also built the giant swing and zip line ride at the Caverns. Checketts designed, fabricated, and installed the Haunted Mine Drop’s mechanism. This allows guests to experience a true freefall into the magnetic brakes at the bottom. The ride’s braking system allows guests to feel an abrupt, yet smooth, stop.
Exterior theming and signage for the ride as well as interiors and queue theming and signage, pit theming, special effects, lighting, audio, and video were designed, fabricated, and installed by Creative Visions of St. Louis, Missouri. The specialty lighting used in the interior was provided by Gantom Lighting, a manufacturer known for making the world’s smallest LED spotlights. These lights were essential to the design due to the space constraints.
Creative Visions themed the attraction, and hologram imaging is featured throughout. Mining relics and video effects set the scene. This culminatesin a Pepper’s Ghost illusion that tells the story of the mine’s closing… and haunting. Mark McDonough, owner of Creative Visions, has developed characters for theme parks, museums, zoos, aquariums, haunted attractions, and amusement centres around the world.
‘You try to scream but you can’t’
Six guests at a time experience the ride. They sit in a row of seats in a small, dark room inside the mine shaft. They buckle up, and a ghostly apparition appears to explain why the mine remained closed for so long. But, there’s plenty of mining yet to do, he says. That’s why the guests are there – to continue where the previous employees left off. Then, without warning, the floor drops away. Many guests find the fall so sudden and shocking that they can’t even scream.
“You try to scream but you can’t,” said John Stone, who worked on the ride’s heating, air conditioning, and plumbing. He claimed his legs were still shaking long after he exited the ride. Repeat guests stated that on their second—or tenth—trip when they knew what to expect, the thrill was the same.
The Haunted Mine Drop has been compared favourably to Guardians of the Galaxy—Mission: Breakout!
Beckley stated that being compared to a major park like Disneyland was an honour: “It makes us feel like our efforts have come to fruition,” he said. He added that having the new attraction in a small park is a boon for visitors. “Our attendance is much lower [than other parks], so people can come and ride the Haunted Drop Ride multiple times.”
- The Haunted Mine Drop is the world’s first underground drop ride.
- The ride demonstrates how a novel ride concept creates earned media exposure and drives attendance.
- The thematic aspect contributes positively to the park culture and growth plan.
- Guests act as miners heading into their ‘first day on the job’ at the newly re-opened, haunted mine. The experience is one of queueing into a mine shaft. Here they’re greeted with narrative and characters that introduce the storyline.
- Guests are completely enclosed in a dark room, buckled into a chair. They feel the floor drop out from under them, and descend 110 feet into the bowels of a mountain. It’s happens so fast,they can’t even scream.
- The Haunted Mine Drop is Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park’s first themed attraction. The story’s inspired by tales of mines in Leadville and accidents that happened around the turn of the twentieth century.
- Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park created the giant pit that forms the Haunted Mine Drop shaft. The team also constructed the building over it.
- Industry veteran and thrill-ride enthusiast Stan Checketts’ company, Soaring Eagle, of Logan, Utah built the ride.
- Exterior theming and signage for the ride as well as interiors and queue theming and signage, pit theming, special effects, lighting (provided by Gantom), audio, and video were designed, fabricated, and installed by Creative Visions of St. Louis, Missouri.