SANDUSKY Today is Cedar Point's opening day for 2013, but more than a thousand people were in the park, starting at 4 a.m. Thursday for a media day to introduce the park's new roller coaster, GateKeeper.
Reporters and members of several coaster clubs took the opportunity to be among the first riders on the new attraction.
During a morning press conference, Cedar Point officials were on hand to welcome the crowd and answer questions. One of them was Rob Decker, corporate vice president of planning and design for Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. Originally from Sidney, Decker is in his 14th season with Cedar Fair.
Decker worked closely with Bolliger & Mabillard of Monthey, Switzerland, which designed and engineered GateKeeper specifically for Cedar Point over the course of a year. Twelve million pounds of concrete were poured during eight months of construction. A consulting team of Ohio professionals helped build the $30 million coaster.
"The construction crew battled the weather all winter long," Decker said. "The fabrication was done right here in Ohio at Clermont County Steel Fabricators."
Matt Ouimet, CEO of Cedar Fair, described how he walked through the keyhole of one of GateKeeper's center columns while it rested on the ground in Batavia.
John Hildebrandt, another vice president at Cedar Fair, said the ride columns are filled with sand to reduce noise and vibration.
Only two other U.S. parks, one in Chicago and one in Knoxville, Tenn., have wing coasters. Another is in Europe.
"They're all much smaller than this," Hildebrandt said. "We rode the Chicago ride and the Tennessee ride and said, 'This is a great concept, but we need to do it the Cedar Point way. We need to make it higher. We need to make it longer with more transitions, more elements - make it the best."
The construction of GateKeeper required removing the Space Needle and Disaster Transport, which made the lake more visible to park visitors, Hildebrandt said. Once park management committed to building the sophisticated GateKeeper along the front of the park, they decided the 1968 front gate also needed a facelift.
"GateKeeper, statistically speaking, is a world record breaker. It's the longest wing roller coaster in the world with cutbacks at 67 miles per hour. It has the tallest drop. The neat element for me is, when you get to the top, the first thing you do is an inversion. You're upside down, it's 170 feet to the ground and that is the tallest on the plant," Decker said.
Seasoned employees were given extensive training to get the ride running well before opening day and to learn their responsibilities.
The coaster's three trains hold 32 passengers each. Running all three accommodates about 1,400 people per hour.
It is called a wing coaster because the cars are carried on either side of a central track. From a distance, the trains look like enormous dragon flies with eight pairs of wings. Riders experience a feeling of flying as they dip and climb, twist and turn.
"So with no track above you, no track below you, you're out on the wings." Decker said. "Gatekeeper starts at the beach with its tail all the way out to the front of the park where it does a fly-over of the new front gate where people are entering."
He said screams of excitement will serve to give guests a preview of what is in store at the park.
Although GateKeeper riders must be 52 inches tall, Decker said the smoothness of the ride makes it attractive to people of all ages. Each day, ride operators and a maintenance team inspect the ride before any passengers climb aboard. Trains must be accurately aligned to pass through the keyhole element.
"Every morning, we put it through its paces and we have to look for certain things," Decker said. "We look for cracks, we make sure the bolts have no movement, that the torque's right ... we make sure it's safe every day."
Ride operators also spend hours to practice getting people on and off the ride quickly and safely. Each worker gets a manual to study and then takes a written test. There are five positions staffed while the ride is running, and employees are busy every minute of their shifts.
"This is a hand-picked crew. They're going to be in the eye of the hurricane," Hildebrandt said. "The kids that work here get a lot of hours. They're going to get a lot of attention with media crews here, TV crews, VIPs and all of that,"
Gatekeeper is to open at 9 a.m. each day for early entry by hotel guests. Cedar Point's tradition at the end of the day allows anyone who is in line when the park closes to have that last ride. Decker said the park has undergone numerous improvements in recent years.
"It seems like everyone's daily lives are so hectic. We just want this to be the best day of the summer. For that we're starting to ... have more plazas, more open vistas, more shade, upgrading the food. We really want ... the whole day to be special for everyone," he said.