After Kings Island closes every fall for the season, the maintenance staff takes over.
The roller coaster and water park, first opened in 1972, currently has 14 coasters sitting on 364 acres. Each ride car and track must be examined for signs of wear and tear, cracks, and loose nuts and bolts before a rider is allowed to board the following spring, Tom Dillingham, manager of Kings Island’s rides mechanical and automotive maintenance, told this newspaper in a behind-the-scenes look at the park’s winter upkeep.
Once the park closes at the end of October, staff begins the process of dismantling 185 ride cars, Dillingham said.
Magnets and dye penetrates are used to examine cars for cracks they can’t see by eye. X-ray scanners are used to look at pieces covered in foam such as a seat cushion, where the metal isn’t visible.
“We disassemble the coaster cars completely,” Dillingham said. “There’s nothing left to take off them when they’re apart.”
Parts needing replaced are ordered from throughout the United States and overseas.
Meanwhile, staff will also walk the wooden and steel tracks. Using a torque wrench, staff checks that bolts are as tight as they should be.
“What you’re looking for is any type of indications of cracks, movement, the footer movement, things like that,” Dillingham said. “If you were not to inspect, a crack would actually propagate or travel.”
Accelerometer testing measuring the forces of motion on a body is performed on wooden coasters every year and steel coasters at least every three years by an outside company. This test ensures the ride is compliant with G-forces or the forces of acceleration, which can cause motion sickness, he said.
All coasters will run train cars on the tracks from 50 to 200 times with no passengers before the park opens, he said. Brakes will be checked and computer operating systems tested.
“We may run it 10 cycles and pull that train off to do a complete inspection on it again. We may do that two to three times during the 200 cycles we talked about,” he said
Wooden coasters require more maintenance than steel ones because wood changes — plies of wood might flex or shrink from moisture or lack of, Dillingham, the maintenance manager, said.
The maintenance staff’s daily regimen during the season includes a checklist of inspections to do beginning at 5 a.m. before the park opens at 10 a.m.
“If you really think about it, to a degree, we’re the expert on these rides. The manufacturer doesn’t run these rides every day. They don’t live with them on a daily basis. They don’t inspect them,” he said. “So they learn a lot from us and we in turn learn from them.”
“The challenge is making sure that we stay up with everything that needs to be done. Things change over time,” he said.
Before Kings Island opens for the season in April, Ohio ride inspectors will have to license every ride for operation.
New to Kings Island in 2014 is the $24 million roller coaster ride Banshee, being promoted as the world’s longest inverted coaster. It will be the park’s 15th coaster.
But Banshee’s first rider won’t be human.
“When that ride is ready to run, it will not be ridden by people, it will be ridden with water dummies in it,” Dillingham said. “There’s dummies put into the seats and they’re filled up with water to represent a person’s weight.”
Water dummies simulate how the ride performs with weight on it. Also accelerometer tests will be performed on Banshee, the same as the other existing coasters.
“In theory, if g-forces are too high you can pass out, you can hurt yourself basically. So you make sure that all that is within the limits it’s allowed to be,” Dillingham said.
As a new ride installation, Banshee will run as many as 2,000 cycles before the first person takes the trip. Maintenance staff will ride it first before park visitors, he said.
Coaster technology has changed the last 40 years since Kings Island first opened in Warren County.
Newer coasters are more high tech, Dillingham said. For example, most new rides have hydraulic restraints instead of ratchet-and-tooth type restraint bars.
New technologies allow manufacturers to bend steel pipe in different ways.
Old wooden coasters were stopped on a skid break — coming to an abrupt stop. Some coasters have caliper brakes that work similar to a vehicle, clamping down on the wheel’s rotor. Now many new coasters have magnetic brakes.
“These magnetic brakes don’t touch the train. They create a magnetic field that slows the train to a given speed,” Dillingham said.
“There’s no contact, there’s nothing that touches, and it will take an object down to a certain speed.”
New materials and technologies mean better safety and a better experience for riders, he said.
“I’m not saying that the old technology wasn’t safe by any means,” he said.
“I do think that the goal of any ride manufacturer nowadays is to have the ride as safe as possible. They monitor restraints closer nowadays. The tracks are smoother, they’re more in control of the train,” he said. “The guests benefit from the newer ride technology for sure.”
Kings Island is owned by Sandusky, Ohio-based Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. which also owns roller coaster park Cedar Point.