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Theme Parks – A Designer’s View: Six Flags’ X2: A Ride of Genius?

John Hogg, a Senior Designer at California’s Lexington Design and Fabrication, where he is currently working on a theme park project he can’t talk about, tries out the world’s most talked about roller coaster, Six Flags Magic Mountain’s “X2”. The yellow and pink has gone, there’s on-board audio and could X2 be struggling with MS Vista?  Read on…

Having just ridden X/X-2 for the first time I thought I’d comment on the heels of
Bob Coker’s report with my own experience that fateful day riding this beast with him. If you haven’t read his blog please have a look at it ( X2 – Thrilling As Ever, Almost To A Fault).

john hogg roller coaster designer for theme parksFirst of all, and following one of Bob’s comments, why Six Flags Magic Mountain management initially thought that originally painting “X” yellow and pink was a smart move must have been because they were worried that anything less “happy” might scare off the ridership.  I agree with Bob: the current livery is much more appropriate for this machine, the gloss red track trusses with gray stanchions making it look like some large assembly device that’s escaped from the Ferrari plant at Maranello. Size-wise, X-2 seems compact compared with some of the longer, terrain-hugging coasters at this park, and knowing that X-2’s fright producing throw-weight lays within its evil mechanical capacity rather than its size, seeing it sitting there at the top of the parkway first thing as one arrives at the park is like coming across the nuclear bomb of coasters.  You don’t really know what you’re in for until you turn it on, but you know it will be very, very bad.

I need to mention that I hadn’t been to SFMM for a rather long time, and as before I was really impressed with the way the park is laid out using the local terrain. The great use of naturalistic landscaping with wooded hills creates some enchanting and hidden areas that the guest progressively discovers as they move through the grounds. Well done Six Flags! But back to this Hell-child of a thing you call a roller coaster.

Methylene glycol-yellow shirts

Bob and I got to the park early enough so as not to have to fight massive crowds to get on X-2, and to try and avoid the worst of what was looking to be a blast furnace of a day. When we arrived at the end of the spillover queue for the ride we weren’t sure how much farther we had to go, but we certainly weren’t past the marquee yet. The queue was evidently stalled, and after awhile the park’s queue “herders” worked their way down the line saying that X-2 was experiencing technical difficulties and that it might be some time before the problem was resolved. The bulk of the crowd took off, but we moved up to the top of the now empty queue path to the still unfinished marquee (concrete footings, electrical stub-ups, but no sign; do you really need one for this thing?) but the zigzag, final-approach queue was being guarded by SFMM’s finest. They reported a software glitch as the fault, but resisted all attempts by Coker and me to get them to spill the beans on what the real prob was. Unfortunately it looks as though X-2 still needs to have a few bugs worked out of its system. But software? Had the X-2/Vista patch not yet arrived from Microsoft? Was Outlook perhaps being used to dispatch trains and refusing to play well with the Arrow/S&S proprietary software? Was their version of Acrobat out of date? The theories were endless, and so were the jokes.
six flags x2 rollercoaster
But seriously folks, our perseverance paid off, and after about another hour of hanging out under the shade of the native pine trees, one of the methylene glycol-yellow shirted employees began to unchain the inner sanctum, and the adventure really began. And we were at the top of the line.

The first half of the exterior queue is sheltered from the sun by trees, the line cutting through a serene grove, with the second half covered by a tensile cloth structure supported by vertical trusses. Attached to these are clutches of large, flat-screen monitors that deliver media purportedly from break.com, a website apparently devoted to what seem to be the more athletically challenged followers of X-type sports. We witness the agony of defeat over and over again by the likes of skateboard guys who, for example, just can’t take the slide down the local library banister the way they should, ending up planting face rather than landing properly. The participants in these stunts seemed very embarrassed, crashing, bouncing, but not hurt. Watching this kind of stuff over and over prior to riding a thing like X-2 wasn’t exactly comforting, but some of it was pretty funny, if not painful to watch.

Ride concept engineers laugh like demons

Bob and I quickly reached the point in the queue where it split to feed the track-right and -left load platforms, and heavens-to-Betsy if we didn’t become the first victims to enter the track-left ramp. Reaching the top of the ramp, first in line, we were greeted by another SFMM employee guarding the gate, but who couldn’t let us proceed any farther as they were still doing a run-in with the trains. A bright and enthusiastic kid, he told us with an embarrassed laugh and grin that no way, he’d never ride the damn thing again as we simultaneously witnessed one of his peers in the background riding it alone, hurtling towards the ground on the first drop like a sky diver, legs and arms out, waggling. “Yep, ” I thought, “this guy may be right, and his friends are just stupid. Kind of like us.”

At this point I imagined how it might have been during the development of “X “at Arrow, now S&S Worldwide, in the back room with ride concept engineers such as the noted Alan Schilke, all of them probably sitting around laughing like demons about how this thing would scare the living life out of people, and the longer they contemplated, the more they realized all the wild and crazy things they could do – the signals they could send to passengers’ adrenals and digestive systems – with the mechanical parameters they’d set up for themselves. “Oh (expletive)! We can roll the track like this, while spinning the seat like this! Dudes, we’re evil!”

Another twenty minutes waiting at the gate and we were finally allowed to board, the ominous background audio repeating “Xssssss” like a hissing snake, and a Jim Morrison/Doors-sounding “Is everybody in? Let the ceremony begin…” ominous track following. I had the feeling of being in the theme park version of the movie “Apocalypse Now.”

Latching ourselves into our seats using the cross-your-heart front closing restraint reminded me of a torture device I saw in one of those creepy, touristy museums in ancient York in the UK, except that the X-2 version was of custom molded fiberglass and high-impact rubber. I’d not seen a restraint quite of this design before, the front closure curious in itself, but the other odd thing being the angle that the “saddle” caused your thighs to spread at a good ten degrees at least. I supposed this was to prevent one from using one’s right foot to push off one’s left shoe in mid-drop, and thereby preventing the creation of a quasi-ballistic projectile. But what made the whole affair really strange was how the seats rotated back at the point of departure so that we were in-reclinare, rolling head first out of the station in seats that now seemed kinda like mobile medical examination chairs.

I can do planes, I can do boats…

As Mr. Coker mentioned in his review, the on-board audio has its greatest impact during this portion of the ride, as you slide out of the load/unload to the lift-hill and your doom. Playing a hip, retro version of “It Had To Be You” (fabulously ironic), the BGM rapidly devolves in to a scratchy, grunge-rock track (that, frankly can’t be heard terribly well over the ratcheting din of the very loud anti-rollback device). This gives way at the top to a classic moment of silence, where the only sounds are that of wheel on rail, nervous laughter, your heart pounding…

Look, when I ride big coasters and other crazy thrill rides, my brain goes into this kind of self protective dream-state, and where about all I can do is holler like an idiot and laugh my head off. On air flights, my inner ear has no problem with the most vicious turbulence. As long as the wings continue to properly flex, I actually enjoy it. I can stand below deck in a pitching, healing boat in a high wind, just having finished lunch, immune to anything the motion-gods can throw at me. But this thing? SHEEESH! Not that I succumbed to nausea, no way. It’s just that at the point of first drop off, said dream-state was immediately shattered. The face-down free fall that X-2 subjects you to is something on that first descent was beyond my craziest expectations.

The track profile at the top of the lift hill puts the train into a rolling start by allowing it to drop perhaps 10 feet right after the crest and then level out slightly. The effect is that the train begins to accelerate before it drops over the edge, where it then seems to reach terminal velocity instantaneously. And the fact that you’re held in place by a front closing restraint, no matter how robust its construction, doesn’t necessarily provide reassurance. Ever had a dream where you’ve jumped from a plane, the parachute has opened, you’re floating along, the view is great, everything is wonderful, and then you slip out of the harness and plummet? That’s how shattered my dream-state was. It truly feels like you’re free falling. I don’t think I’ll be doing any sky diving any time soon.

 What happened next was… well, I have to agree that, like Bob, I’m not really sure. If you ride Viper, the coaster next door, for example, it’s easy to report back that first you go into a steep dive to the left, then up in to a high loop, etc., etc. The detail on X-2 is that you roll in to a terrifying face-first drop, and then the rest is a complete fracas. I do, however, remember one section, the one where I theorized several paragraphs ago about the back-room concept discussion at Arrow/S&S, where they might have discussed creating a compound corkscrew combined with a seat rotation. And I do remember thinking mid-flight that this section impressively combined extreme gut-churning with the feeling that one was just about to fly off of the ride. Perilously frightening, actually. With the flame effects working the ride may approach the point of sensory overkill. Who needs to be run through a blender and then barbecued? 

A Ride of Genius

Thankfully the X-2 circuit isn’t protracted – the experience lasts just the right amount of time. Riding this creature is like being in a Formula One car on a spree. Of course the experience was so absolutely insane that we had to ride it a second time. X-2 is a true work of genius.

Twice was enough for one park visit, though. Would I ride X-2 again? You betcha – after a little time has passed. I have a particular attachment to the Arrow/S&S “X” design: my own patent for the Cantilevered Roller Coaster is named as prior art in the X/ X-2 patent because of the dual rail system and the way that it is used to actuate X-2’s seat rotation. Not that my CRC and the X designs are that close mechanically, but it was fun to contemplate the relationship as I was stepping into a seat next to a stack of rails configured in a similar manner as my design. And I have been known to laugh maniacally (under my breath of course) while contemplating how I could use a Cantilevered Coaster to scare the whammy out of all of you. But for now you’ll just have to ride X-2. 

See also:  
X2 – Thrilling As Ever, Almost To A Fault
Six Flags Opens 7 New Coasters
Breaking the Mold with the Revolutionary Cantilevered Coaster System

Photos: 
Courtesy of Robert Coker

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