Riders on the Thunderbird are strapped in to the ride two-by-two with their legs dangling over nothing. The ride stores up 2.5 megawatts of electricity in two massive flywheels before releasing the force to propel the train into a 140-foot loop and through 3,035 feet of bright orange track. Staff photo by Ariana van den Akker
Lights flicker and hearts pound with adrenaline. A thunderclap, its sound piped through speakers, reverberates through the line of eager riders. Nervous laughter follows.
Two-by-two riders are strapped into the nation’s first launched wing roller coaster, legs dangling over nothing. The train inches forward to an opening.
“Thunderbird clear for flight!”
Lightning. Thunder. Smoke. Launch!
Screams of terror and joy combine as the train reaches 60 mph in 3.5 seconds.
Bringing a steel roller coaster to Holiday World was just a dream once.
The dream to create the world’s first theme park came to life in 1946 when Louis J. Koch started Santa Claus Land with a Mother Goose train and a toy shop. The Spencer County park was renamed Holiday World in 1984 and Louis eventually handed the park to his son, Bill. Bill had five children, but it was always Will who would run the park.
Will Koch took over as president of the park in the early 1990s. Will, who came up with the idea for the park’s signature free soft drinks, invested millions of dollars in the Splashin’ Safari water park. In 2006 came the highly regarded Voyage wooden roller-coaster, then four years later came a water coaster, Wildebeest.
Holiday World was soaring and Will Koch was on a roll.
Unbeknownst to anyone outside the Koch family circle, plans for the park’s first steel coaster were under way.
“A steel coaster has always been the dream,” Holiday World President Matt Eckert said. “We really first started having serious conversations with the manufacturers eight years ago.”
Will Koch died unexpectedly in 2010 and all plans for a steel roller coaster were put on hold indefinitely.
His dream lived.
His daughters, Lauren and Leah, have assumed more responsibilities as they’ve come of age. Leah, 24, is now the director of research and development while recently-married Lauren Crosby, 26, is the director of theme and brand management. The sisters, both co-owners of Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, share an office. Their brother, 21-year-old William, is a student at the University of Evansville.
The three Kochs, along with their mother, Lori, had listened to Will talk about a steel coaster for years. In fact, Leah had been promised a steel coaster as her graduation present from high school in 2009. This was something they all wanted.
In early 2013, they decided it was time to make Dad’s dream a reality. Will’s plans from 2008 were removed from a locked filing cabinet and conversations with renowned Swiss roller-coaster manufacturer Bolliger & Mabillard were re-opened.
The similarities between Thunderbird and Will’s plans in 2008 are eerie. His suspended steel coaster is on the exact same plot of land and includes many of the same elements, including a keyhole corkscrew in the exact spot Will liked.
Those parallels are not an accident.
“We had so many drafts of this done and so many ways, we just said, ‘OK, go back to that. Let’s go winged, but let’s go back to the last thing you agreed on with dad. That’s where we want to start.’” Leah said. “Dad was pretty clear about that’s where he wanted to build it. In our minds there was only one place it was going to go.”
So they invited B&M to walk the grounds and tweaked plans for months, with William delivering heavy input on ride elements.
Whatever they were creating had to speed through the woods on the park’s east side. Voyage rumbles through the woods and Holiday World takes great pride in its lack of “parking-lot coasters.”
Will was a Star Wars fan and one of his favorite scenes was from “Episode VI: Return of the Jedi” when Luke and Leia chase stormtroopers by riding speeder bikes through the woods, narrowly missing dozens of trees.
“That is what my dad wanted to achieve with a steel coaster. He wanted that feeling of just going through the woods so close to the ground and just dodging trees,” Lauren said. “You definitely get that.”
The Koch siblings sneaked to Six Flags Great America in Chicago to ride X Flight, that park’s winged coaster. They were impressed with the feel but knew they needed more.
“We know coaster enthusiasts and we knew they’d go, ‘OK, what’s new?’” Leah said.
That’s when they decided to launch their coaster.
The Thunderbird uses a massive amount of energy, storing up 2.5 megawatts of electricity in two massive flywheels before releasing the force to propel the train into a 140-foot loop and through 3,035 feet of bright orange track.
It requires so much energy that if Holiday World didn’t build its own substation solely for Thunderbird, the lights in the town of Santa Claus would flicker every time Thunderbird took off.
“Energy just keeps getting poured into it and poured into it, and when it comes time to launch, it gets dumped out all at once,” Leah explained.
The “brains of the operation,” where the two 24,000 pound flywheel assemblies, panels of supercomputers and launch controls are stored, sit to the left of the track just beyond the launch point. There are 9 miles of wiring and 36 miles of conductors that power every aspect of the coaster, including the sound effects, and also the entire nearby plaza, which has been added as an extension of the Thanksgiving section of the park.
The man in charge of the $22 million attraction is James Olliver, vice president of development and maintenance.
When Olliver was 10 or 12 years old, he wrote a letter to one of the leading roller-coaster manufacturers in the world, asking how he too could grow up to build rides. A crazy thing happened — he received a handwritten reply with step-by-step instructions and a note of good luck.
“That day, I decided I would become a mechanical engineer,” he said. The framed letter hangs in his Holiday World office.
At just 30 years old, the card-carrying roller coaster enthusiast has already accomplished more than he could have dreamed. He received his master’s degree in mechanical engineering and began working as the operations manager at the Surry Power station in Virginia. He stayed until December 2013, when he spotted a notice on Holiday World’s Facebook announcing the park was searching for an engineer, with the construction of Thunderbird in mind. The timing was perfect.
“The last year or so of my life has gone by faster than any other by far. It’s been a blur. A great blur,” he said. “This is without a doubt my dream job.”
Anticipation has been building since the announcement about Thunderbird last July. Eckert, Olliver and the Kochs have all kept a close eye on every step of the construction process, which spanned through the fall and bone-chilling winter.
While the concrete pilings were put in place last summer, Thunderbird’s construction began in earnest when the first piece of track was lifted into place in late August. It took off from there. The next several months were spent trucking in the track piece by piece. In late October, Holiday World celebrated the official topping of the 140-foot loop when a 165-foot crane lifted the 9-ton section of track into place.
It didn’t get any easier.
Crews still had to construct the majority of the track, the station barn, the keyhole barn, a maintenance building and the rest of the plaza (they also re-located the Sparkler swing ride and re-branded the attraction the Crow’s Nest. When running, riders on the swings and those on Thunderbird will come so close they could almost high-five.)
There was also the control building, which took on new meaning with the simple addition of a sign.
Will Koch always wanted something special for his park. That’s why when his children began planning a steel coaster, they fell in love with the idea of launching it. If the technology had existed when Will was planning his coaster, they’re sure he would have launched that one, too, instead of using a traditional lifthill.
When family friend and Holiday World board member Chip Cleary suggested naming the structure that houses the flywheel assemblies the Will Power Building, the Kochs loved the idea.
“It’s so appropriate that it’s on that building. If my dad were here, he would know every inch of those flywheels. He would think those are the coolest things to ever exist,” Lauren said. “He’d probably be out in the plaza opening day trying to explain them to guests.”
By early spring, Thunderbird was ready for testing.
B&M engineers tested Thunderbird for weeks, running it a minimum of 1,000 times before allowing any humans to board.
Of course, the Kochs were first in line.
Lori, Leah (she had long ago called dibs on the front outside left seat), Lauren and William, who managed to get away from college for the afternoon, took their places.
“I screamed and then I laughed,” Lauren recalled. “I think it was more so just realizing that everything had finally...”
“It was kind of a, ‘We did it!’” Leah finished for her.
“Exactly,” Lauren said, “we did it.”
It was a special moment.
“To be able to do this when the kids are coming into ownership, it’s just a dream come true,” Eckert said. “Will was one of my very best friends, so to be able to do this for his children only adds to the awesomeness.”
There is no bad seat on Thunderbird. At every turn, the course is fraught with danger, more imagined than real. Riders on the far right feel like they’re about to smash into a chimney. Those on the left have the broad side of the Will Power barn to worry about. The near misses seem endless.
With a ride time of one minute and 18 seconds, the elements come fast. There are plenty, including two crossovers of nearby Voyage. The mythical Thunderbird made real through steel and fiberglass barrels through the 140-foot Immelman loop before banking directly into another 125-foot inversion. The blood rushes to your head in the over-banked horseshoe, which spits you out into an elevated spiral. The zero-G roll and S-curve are appetizers for the double fly-through barn and carousel, right where Will wanted it, before ending the ride on a dizzying 360-degree spin.
It’s a lot to take in.
That’s what the thrill seekers want. That’s what Thunderbird delivers. It glides through the trees along the gleaming orange track like a dream.