Superman: The Escape

Faster Than A Speeding... well, you know.

It's been a long time coming, friends. After more than a year of announcements, rumors and disappointments, the most highly-anticipated thrill ride in history has finally opened.

SUPERMAN: THE ESCAPE, the first ride designed to achieve that almost mythic speed of One Hundred Miles Per Hour, can now rightfully claim to be the World's Tallest and Fastest Hiney-Kicker, deposing its Australian sibling, the Tower of Terror. (Dreamworld's T.O.T., a single-track version of Intamin's "Reverse Free-fall," was built while Superman underwent some high-tech tinkering). Yes, the Tower of Terror casts a mighty long shadow, reaching 380 feet into the skies. But the Supe-ster stands heroically upright at 415 feet. This, in simple language, is Bee Eye Gee, friends.

There's been some debate among the thrillseeking community about just how to classify this new pleasure device. Call it a rollercoaster, call it a freefall tower, call it an instrument of torture, it doesn't really matter to me. What matters is that S:TE offers an experience once only available to our finest jet pilots.

So, you may be asking, after all this waiting - after all the hype - could any ride possibly live up to such expectations? You'll have to decide for yourself, but after my first trip, all I could whimper was "I gotta do that again!"

It totally, utterly, completely Rules.

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When you approach Magic Mountain from the South on Interstate 5, the first thing you spot beyond the hills surrounding the park is the observation deck of the 38-story Sky Tower. Until recently, that's all you would have seen. Now, further up, poking higher into the heavens, is the vertical steel structure of S:TE.

I don't care how much you may have heard about the size of this thing - once you actually see what 415 feet really means, it takes your breath away. Yes, I'll admit it, I began to get a little frightened.

When you enter the park, stop and listen... "Gee, I didn't think there were any naval bases nearby. Where are those F-16's coming from?" You can't imagine the noise this thing makes. Stand under the bend in the far end of the track and wait for a car to pass overhead - it is earsplitting.

Follow the trails up to Samurai Summit and there you'll find a miniature version of Superman's Fortress of Solitude. The line snakes inside the icy cavern, where it forks in two. Makes no difference which way you head, really - you're gonna get a fine view from either track. The dimly lit corridor leads into an anteroom just outside the "launch chamber." Inside this room, you can hear, but not witness, the departure: there's an uneartly whine, a split-second of screaming, and then silence. Whatever happens in there is happening horrifically fast.

A row of automated doors opens and admits a car-load at a time. The trick, I think, is to finagle an aisle seat; that allows for an unobstructed look at the horizon when the car reaches its maximum altitude. Once your hindquarters are planted, you may find yourself pawing around for a seat belt or shoulder harness. Guess what? There aren't any! Just a simple lap bar. Yes, it is perfectly acceptable to freak out at this point. One woman I rode with needed some reassuring from the nearest ride operator before we were allowed to leave.

You may get to watch the car on the opposite track get motorvated. Wave bye-bye, and don't blink, or you'll miss it.

There's nothing left to do but put yer noggin back up against the headrest and say yer prayers. The car drifts forward, almost floating, so you have one heartbeat to try and brace yourself - and then it happens.

One second, you're stationary. The next, you are ripping down that 900-foot track like your life depended on it. Your adrenal glands go berserk and if this doesn't make you scream like a rabid monkey, see a doctor. Faster and faster, it's a long, smooth rush. The force pushing against your back is simply awesome, 4.5 G's worth. And seven seconds after this chaos has begun, you're traveling at that magic One-Uh, Oh speed, ready to get vertical.

The car plows through the curve, and your proboscis points 90 degrees off horizontal: Up, up and away! Higher, higher, higher... it's incredible. Gradually, gravity wins and you stop. Now's when you want to look to your side and see what the world looks like from roughly 400 feet up. Holy Toledo, that is something to tell the grandkids about. Remember, you're up twice as high as Niagara Falls.

Time to head back down. Six and one-half seconds, utterly weightless, backwards. If you can wrench your hands from the bar, hold a penny in your open palm and watch what happens. " 'Cause I'm free... I'm free-fallin'..."

By the time you hit the curve, you're doing the Triple-Digit Boogie again, but the miracle of "eddy current" braking starts to cool things off, and you cruise back into the Fortress.

Perhaps only twenty seconds will have passed, but your life will never be the same again. Do it now.

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All this magnificent pleasure didn't come easy. Jim Blackie, Six Flags Magic Mountain's Vice President of Maintenance, Construction and Engineering explained why S:TE had such a long gestation period.

It all started back in December of 1994. Parks around the globe had for some time been working towards developing the first 100 MPH attraction. And Intamin AG of Switzerland had come up with a bold idea to use what are called "linear synchronous motors," akin to the propulsion system used for the OUTER LIMITS coasters, to get something moving at that speed. But the scale of this attraction would obviously be unprecedented. Huge amounts of power and fantastic precision would be required to pull it off. It was a major challenge.

Six Flags was more than up to such a challenge. And Magic Mountain, already home to some of the greatest thrill rides in the world, was the obvious place to put this prototype through its paces. Time Warner, owner of the Six Flags Theme Parks, had begun actively developing a new "Superman" feature film and saw the obvious synergy in creating this kind of ride with a related theme. Checks were signed and work began.

Now, in the lab, theory and practice came together fine. But the real world never cooperates that easily.

The first issue was electricity, a whole mess of it. Because the idea behind the propulsion system is this: the vehicles carry huge magnets. The track is lined with these linear synchronous motors, essentially electromagnets, that are turned on and off very quickly, in sequence. The near end of the motor attracts the magnet; the far end pushes it away, on and on down the line. And to get a 6-ton car hustling along, those motors need some serious juice: 1.2 megawatts per track. The park had to run a dedicated line off SoCal Edison's local grid just to feed this beast.

Getting extra power into the park was one thing; getting it to the motors was even trickier. Engineers first encountered a problem called the "skin effect" - the wattage was so great that power only traveled along the outer surface of the wires. So, a larger diameter wire had to be employed. Then came the bigger issue of timing. Each motor in the chain has to be turned on and off within a fraction of a second, at an absolutely precise moment. Not an easy task. Test after test after test was needed to get the timing down. Special software had to be written and rewritten to control the power delivery to such a fine degree.

(If you think this all sounds pretty intense, you're in good company: NASA, that's right, the folks that shoot stuff up into space, have been actively following S:TE's development. They want to apply a system like this to their space shuttle launch procedure. Could cut down on the fuel costs, they say.)

But now that the fine-tuning is done, the job of operating S:TE is a simple affair. Once the "thumbs-up" is given for launch, the Main Operator and the Remote Operator simultaneously press buttons on their consoles (sort of like launching a missile), and those 6-ton cars take off with 2,000 horsepower at their disposal. Yowza!

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Are there plans to add another Reverse Free-fall to any other Six Flags parks? Officially, we'll all just have to wait and see (You can count on it, my fellow Thrillseekers). And when I asked how Magic Mountain planned to top such a stellar achievement, no specifics were offered, but Mr. Blackie volunteered that speed records aren't the only ones to be broken. How about revolutions per minute? Let that idea rattle around in yer cranium...

Superman may be indestructible, but Six Flags and Intamin are the real heros in my book, for together, they have helped make the world a happier place. I still get chills saying it out loud, "One Hundred Miles per Hour." That is Better Living Through Technology.

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Superman: The Escape

  • TRACK LENGTH: 1,235 Feet
  • TOP SPEED: 100 Miles Per Hour
  • MAX. G FORCE: 4.5
  • WEIGHTLESSNESS: 6.5 seconds
  • MAX. HEIGHT: 415 feet
  • RIDE DURATION: Approx. 35 seconds
  • CARS: Two 15-passenger, six-ton vehicles.
  • MANUFACTURER: Intamin AG, Switzerland

SIX FLAGS and all related indicia are trademarks of Six Flags Theme Park Inc. TM & © 1997 SUPERMAN and all related elements are trademarks of DC Comics © 1997





© Robert Coker.
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