Thursday, November 7, 2013

Day 4: The Nuts and Bolts of Cedar Point

"Uh-huh. Uh-huh uh-huh."

Eric Lapp continued like this under his breath, barely audible over the sound of the rusted-out pickup truck as it rumbled across the causeway. Mr. Lapp is a Ride Maintenance Manager, and I had the privilege of spending my Thursday morning with him on a tour of the Cedar Point maintenance department.

I started the morning by meeting Ed Dangler, the head honcho for all things related to maintenance and construction at Cedar Point. He advised me to grab a coat; I took his advice without question and stepped out of the frigid peninsula air into his truck for a short ride over to the maintenance offices.

Stepping into the low building, Mr. Dangler introduced me to several members of his team before coming to a stop in Mr. Lapp's office. Blueprints rolled up in one corner and walls covered with old Cedar Point posters and bulletins, Mr. Lapp's office wasn't much different visually from those of most employees here. It's quickly becoming clear to me that everyone here loves Cedar Point and loves their job.

From there, Mr. Lapp took over. We wasted no time getting out of the office; making the short trek to the Hotel Breakers parking lot, we hopped in his blue "Cedar Point Maintenance" truck and headed around and out of the park. Our first stop would be the park's new maintenance warehouses, located across from Castaway Bay on Cleveland Road. Mr. Lapp explained to me the process of off-season maintenance: each year once the park has closed, the maintenance team begins "winterizing" the rides. In some cases, rides are left intact in the park and covered with a tight blue shrink wrap. Most of the rides, however, are dismantled to some degree so that parts can be inspected, repaired, or replaced.

This is a particularly complicated endeavor for the park's sixteen roller coasters and other major thrill rides. As Mr. Lapp showed me into the Cleveland Road facility, the first thing I noticed was the stripped-down GateKeeper car sitting in the middle of the floor. GateKeeper is Cedar Point's newest roller coaster (opened in 2013), and this particular car was being disassembled, inspected, and refurbished to be sent down to the IAAPA Attractions Expo for display by the manufacturer, Bolliger & Mabillard (B&M).

Even though this was a special case, Mr. Lapp informed me that every major ride car is disassembled in a similar fashion so that each individual piece can be inspected and repaired or replaced when necessary. In the next room, several cars from Magnum XL-200 sat on wooden pallets while a Raptor car hung from a large metal support structure, ready to be worked on. Clustered in one corner sat every seat from Power Tower, the foam pads for which were being cleaned in a large pressure washer. Mr. Lapp also explained how adjustments are made from year to year; on the Magnum trains, for example, the carpet material that lined the floor of each car had been replaced with a sturdier material used in truck beds. On the GateKeeper trains, they had just determined a way to prevent the vest-like harnesses from tightening throughout the course of the ride after guests were complaining of pain in the shoulders or collarbones. We took a quick walk through the paint shop and outdoor storage, where several employees were repainting the Monster spinning ride and a few retired coaster trains sat dormant.

Across the street is Castaway Bay, Cedar Point's hotel and indoor waterpark for those who may not know. Castaway Bay is currently closed until mid-December as the maintenance crews perform work inside the waterpark. A cloud of concrete dust hung in the air as we entered through the back door, pink and green slides twisting overhead. All of the pools had been drained and several men were working around the facility; Mr. Lapp told me that their main project right now was refinishing all of the concrete in the pools. After taking a quick look around the place and stopping to check in with some of the workers, Mr. Lapp guided me back out of the building and we returned to the peninsula.

Back on Point, Mr. Lapp's truck took a sharp left turn back towards Sandcastle Suites after coming around the peninsula. The Sandcastle Suites parking lot actually conceals the entrance to Magnum's access road. The access road is exactly what it sounds like; all rides usually have one in case you'd need to get to a certain part of a ride in an emergency. Magnum's access road also serves as sort of the back entrance to Soak City Water Park. Last year, Mr. Lapp explained, all of the pieces for Soak City's new slide complex were brought in and unloaded this way. This year however, the most exciting thing we saw (or heard, rather) was one of Magnum's brake sections hissing at us. As Mr. Lapp quickly tried to stop it from hissing, I took a short walk over to where I noticed that a track rail had been cut away. The rails on each coaster naturally undergo a lot of wear and tear, and along the way maintenance makes sure that they check for stress or cracks and reinforce the track where necessary; at this point however, they had opted to remove and replace that section of rail with a new piece altogether. I asked Mr. Lapp how the maintenance crews check the track like that, with an idea forming in my head that I hoped he would confirm. "Well, they walk the track, of course," he answered, explaining to me how that process works. Every coaster in the park is given a track walk at least once a year, some more often depending on the age or condition of the ride. A track walk is exactly what it sounds like: one man with a double harness system hooks himself onto the track and climbs his way through the entire course, checking for any potential problems along the way. More intense rides like Top Thrill Dragster will only receive a track walk once a year - the ride is relatively new, and climbing up 420 feet of vertical track is no small endeavor. For Magnum, however, a track walk is performed usually once a month - Magnum is a bit older, has higher ridership, and is generally easier to perform a track walk on.

Next, we swerved the truck past the Planning & Design offices at the base of Mean Streak and into the park. Entering at the back of the park, we passed Gemini on our left and Camp Snoopy on our right as we saw asphalt being torn up and buildings being torn down. This was the home of "Gemini Children's Area," a nice albeit outdated section of kiddie rides. As we drove through, Mr. Lapp pointed out to me where the new children's rides will be installed and other renovations will be made to liven up this section of the park.

Our first stop within the park was Top Thrill Dragster's hydraulics room - the true holy grail of roller coasters. In this room lies the most ambitious, advanced technology for nearly any roller coaster in the world. Let's just say that "excited" doesn't even come close to describing how I felt. Inside the room, the massive launch cable is coiled around a spool, hooked to dozens of tubes on either side. A mechanical medusa, the system required a lengthy explanation from Mr. Lapp - which I will do my best to convey to you. As I understand it, each launch begins its process when hydraulic fluid fills several large chambers, separated from nitrogen gas on the other side of the tubular chamber by a piston. The pressure is increased to ~4000psi before being released; in an instant, the hydraulic fluid rushes back out of the chambers through thick black tubes into each of 32 motors (16 on each side). With this sudden rush of fuel, the motors fire up and cause the cable to begin spinning, launching the train forward at 120 miles per hour. In the adjoining room, a computer tracks every single launch the ride performs.

On the other end of Dragster's access road sits the electrical room. As Mr. Lapp showed me, this room contains mostly computers that oversee the ride, from train sensors to safety monitors. Stepping out of the little room and up onto Dragster's unloading platform, he pointed out the train sensors to me on the track. These little green sensors along the side of the track, spaced only a foot apart, keep track of the train's location along the track at all times. Similar looking green sensors in the center of the track monitor train movement so that they can move in synchronization through the load and unload stations. Walking around the track, past all of the individual Dragster cars waiting on the midway in individual wooden pallets, we came to the ride operator's booth. This booth houses two employees; facing the station, the first operator handles the largest control panel and is mainly responsible for the ride restraints and train movement. Only when each of the five ride operators (one at each corner of the station plus one in the unload station) are pushing their individual dispatch buttons will the train move out of the station to prepare for launch. At that point, the second ride operator in the booth monitors the trains for any unusual activity or potential problems. After making sure that everyone is in compliance with the "arms down, head back, and hold on" ride audio, the operator will launch the train.

Having seen everything at Dragster, we continued to drive around the park after that. Much of the work that goes on to prepare the park for winter happens within the first few days after the park closes. A Snoopy statue is removed to be touched up and stored, flags and banners come down from their posts, ride test seats are shrink wrapped. Making a full loop around the front of the park, we now headed back towards Millennium Force. Once again, ride cars sat jumbled on the midway as we turned in behind a bank of midway games and crossed the train tracks. As I learned from Mr. Lapp, almost all the ride maintenance is done in-house; the only two exceptions are the Blue Streak and Mean Streak wooden coaster cars, which are sent to a specialist in Pennsylvania (Philadelphia Toboggan Company, Inc.), and the CP&LE Railroad, which has its own set of railroad mechanics that performs track and vehicle maintenance each year. Across the track, however, is access to Mantis, Shoot the Rapids, and Dinosaurs Alive. Stopping at Mantis, there was quite a lot of commotion as a ball bearing on one of the supports needed to be replaced. This would be the first time something like this had happened, and Mr. Lapp stopped to talk with the worker who was preparing to install the replacement part. While I was waiting, the new piece arrived; Mr. Lapp and the other maintenance employee together worked to move it into place to be welded together. As it turned out, angle iron pieces that the other worker had quickly welded onto the support to hold it in place were slightly too short; the new piece wouldn't simply slide into place under the track connector. It seems that this would take just a little bit of reworking before the piece could be installed.

Completing our loop around the back of the park now, the water rides had been drained and Wave Swinger, the swings at the back of the park, had been completely stripped down to the bare metal framework. Even after exiting the park, ride parts and cars sat in the parking lots waiting to be moved indoors for storage and inspection. The Cedar Point maintenance team does an incredible job each year of managing, maintaining, and repairing these rides; to be able to go behind the scenes with Mr. Lapp for the morning was truly an incredible opportunity.

My maintenance adventures described here actually only lasted until about noon; my afternoon was spent with Planning & Design. Rather than go on writing for another mile or so, I think I'll give my afternoon its own post. Stay tuned for that soon!


P.S. There's a lot more really cool pictures from my time at Cedar Point (including behind-the-scenes maintenance work) right here if you're interested!


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