What’s happening to Top Thrill Dragster?

SANDUSKY – The future of Cedar Point’s mega-coaster Top Thrill Dragster remains up in the air, even after the amusement park announced weeks ago that the ride was being retired.

Retired, of course, doesn’t always mean no longer working. It could mean working in a different way.

Speculation has been rampant since Cedar Point announced in early September via Twitter that Top Thrill Dragster would be retired “as you know it.” The ride had been idle for a full year, since an August 2021 accident that severely injured a Michigan woman who was standing in line for the coaster.

Days after the announcement, the park erected a large, solid fence around the ride. In recent weeks — despite the fence — park visitors have observed alterations being made to the ride, including the removal of retractable brakes along the launch track.

Many park observers believe that Cedar Point is replacing Top Thrill’s complicated, maintenance-prone launch system with a simpler, magnetic-based system. Other possible changes include a new name for the ride, a new theme, new trains and a new queuing area, farther away from the ride track.

Cedar Point spokesman Tony Clark declined to provide any additional information about plans for the ride, referring back to the park’s original statement on Sept. 6. That statement included this line: “Our team is hard at work, creating a new and reimagined ride experience.”

That’s very different language from the words used to describe the fate of Wicked Twister, for example, a roller coaster that Cedar Point dismantled last year after 19 years in the park. In announcing the closure of that ride, the park said the coaster would “close for good.”

Ryan Chin, a New Jersey engineer who runs a popular YouTube channel for roller coaster fans, ElToroRyan, is among those who believes the park is working to reopen the ride. “I believe the park wants us to know that they are keeping the ride but making major modifications to it to improve its experience,” he said in an email interview.

Chin speculates that the park is swapping out the ride’s problematic launch system, which propels riders up and over a 420-foot-high hill at a speed of 120 mph. In one video, he equates the current system, known as a hydraulic launch, to a more-modern version of a steam locomotive, with hundreds of parts that can malfunction. The likely alternative: something known as a linear synchronous motor (LSM) launch, powered by magnets and with far fewer parts.

“If you’ve ever been in a Tesla – you push that thing down and it takes off,” said industry consultant Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services in Cincinnati. “That’s the direction that systems have gone in roller coasters in the last 15 years or so. That’s how they can get the speeds today that they are able to get.”

Cedar Point’s Maverick roller coaster, built in 2007, uses LSM technology and it’s one of the most popular rides in the park, despite its relatively modest top height of 105 feet and a top speed of 70 mph.

When Top Thrill Dragster debuted in 2003, it was the tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world. It lost that title in 2005, to a nearly identical ride, Kingda Ka, built by the same manufacturer, Liechtenstein-based Intamin, for Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey.

For years, Top Thrill Dragster has been well known among coaster fans both for its extremely intense ride, but also its long periods of downtime due to maintenance issues.

“It has been problematic and expensive to maintain from the start,” said Jeff Putz, co-founder of the Cedar Point fan site Pointbuzz.com. “The amount of downtime associated with Dragster is probably not something anyone is happy with, and if you were to calculate the cost per rider over its lifetime, it’s probably astronomically high.”

Even before the accident last August, the ride had been involved in other incidents that caused more minor injuries to guests.

The incident in August, however, attracted international attention. The victim was standing in line for the ride when a hand-sized metal plate flew off a train at high speed, hitting her in the head. A state investigation of the incident determined that Cedar Point did not violate state laws or rules in its operation of the ride.

Chin said that changing the launch system wouldn’t necessarily prevent future similar accidents.

He suggested that the park might also be planning to relocate or cover the queue line, which, up until the ride was shut down last year, wound through and immediately adjacent to the coaster track.

The park could also replace the ride trains, which are now 20 years old, he said.

Robert Niles, who writes for industry publication Theme Park Insider, cautioned that altering one part of the ride might inevitably lead to additional alternations. “It’s like an old, flawed sweater,” he said. “Once you pull on a stray bit you risk unraveling so much that you can’t save it and just end up starting over.”

He also questioned whether a new LSM launch system would have enough power to propel trains over the ride’s massive hill.

Chin, however, said that improvements in technology should make a new launch work. He cited as evidence Red Force, a launch coaster at Ferrari Land in Spain, which has a top speed of 112 mph and reaches a height of 367 feet. Open since 2017, it was also manufactured by Intamin.

Complicating any rebuild, according to Putz, is what may be a strained relationship between Intamin and Cedar Point. “I think the last ride they bought from them was Shoot the Rapids,” said Putz, referring to the water ride that opened in 2010, which had a serious accident in 2013 and was taken down in 2016. “Wicked Twister was one of theirs, which I hear was also expensive and obviously met the end of its service life last year, a fraction of the time some of the other roller coasters have been in service.”

An employee who answered the phone at Intamin’s U.S. offices in suburban Baltimore declined to say whether the company was working with Cedar Point on any remake of Top Thrill Dragster.

Chin also said that any new launch, whether LSM or some other technology, is likely to lessen the intensity of the ride. Top Thrill Dragster was able to reach its top speed of 120 mph in less than 4 seconds.

“Hydraulic launch systems deliver a much faster rate of acceleration that remains rather consistent throughout the entire launch,” said Chin, who worked as a ride operator on Top Thrill Dragster several years ago. “LSM launches can give a decent kick initially, but the rate of acceleration begins to slow as the train gets faster and faster. The intensity of Dragster’s hydraulic launch was my favorite part of the ride, so if an LSM launch does get added to the ride, I’m not sure if the launch will still be my favorite element.”

Putz, however, said that holding such superlative titles – tallest, fastest, etc. – may not be as important to the park, or riders, as it once was.

“Whatever they decide to do, I think the idea that you have to keep going taller and faster is a little outdated and doesn’t carry the marketing weight that it used to,” said Putz. “Maverick was a huge hit without being the tallest or fastest. It doesn’t mean that they won’t go that route on future rides, but they certainly don’t have to.”