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Apollo's Chariot

B&M's New "Speed" Hypercoaster Is Truly A Chariot Of The Gods.

My friends, Busch Gardens Williamsburg has done it again.

In 1997, Virginia's award-winning theme park left us weak-kneed and grinning ear-to-ear with Alpengeist, the Bolliger & Mabillard-crafted inverted coaster chosen by ThrillRide's readers as their Favorite Thrill Ride two years in a row. Still the biggest such scream machine anywhere, Alpengeist will always remain near the top of any Thrillseeker's list of beloved coasters. But as far as I'm concerned, that amazing piece of work is no longer the most satisfying coaster on Busch Gardens property. That honor now belongs to Apollo's Chariot.

Is this the best rollercoaster B&M has ever created? For that matter, we might as well ask: is this the best steel coaster ever created, period? Quite possibly.

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When BGW announced last fall that it would construct Bolliger & Mabillard's first 200-plus-foot-tall rollercoaster, the Thrillseeking community let out a collective cheer; finally, this renowned engineering firm would join the ranks of hypercoaster suppliers. For that reason alone, it was a foregone conclusion that Apollo's Chariot would be no ordinary hypercoaster (if we can call such a thing "ordinary"). But the deal was made even sweeter with this news: the coaster's trains would incorporate a radically minimalist restraint system and sideless cars with elevated seats. And this coaster's vertical falls would add up to a total of 825 feet, surpassing every other rollercoaster in existence. The mind reeled.

The park also revealed that the coaster's theme would be based upon the Greco-Roman myth of Apollo and his celestial horse-drawn chariot, an epic tale that goes something like this: Driving a thundering supernatural herd, the god Apollo was responsible for hauling the Sun itself across the skies. One day, his male offspring Phaethon, in a fit of youthful exuberance, asked to take the chariot out for a joyride and Apollo, against his better judgment, handed him the reins. Sure enough, Phaethon had bitten off a little more than he could chew. Those mighty steeds went berserk and the rampaging chariot, dragging the Sun right along behind, flew high and low, scorching everything in its path. This didn't sit very well with Zeus, Apollo's father and a notorious hothead. The Big Z was so enraged by Apollo's irresponsible behavior that he struck Phaethon dead with a thunderbolt. (You might wanna keep this tale in mind the next time you ask Dad to borrow the car keys.)

True to the essence of this myth, BGW's ultra-modern Chariot promised to take us on a soul-scorching journey, flying high and low like no rollercoaster had done before. Consider this promise fulfilled.

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A new era dawned on March 30th, 1999 when Busch Gardens Williamsburg officially set this metal monster loose, with the internationally recognized supermodel Fabio (dubbed a living "Roman God") on hand to lend some low-watt star-power to the event. Fame certainly does have its perks; the romance-novel hero come to life was escorted down a red carpet by a harem of 35 toga-clad sweethearts to take the first ride. In a bizarre parallel to the unfortunate details of the myth, poor Fabio was struck, not by a thunderbolt, but by a bird, in what will always be remembered as one of the wackiest thrill ride mishaps ever recorded.

Luckily, Fabio will likely be the only passenger to walk away from Apollo's Chariot feeling anything less than complete euphoria. If you've got the nerve to board this thing in the first place, you're in for a one-of-a-kind experience.

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AC's station is a banner-festooned Roman tent located in the park's Festa Italia section. Before reaching the loading dock, we walk across a covered footbridge that passes beneath the lift hill. From this vantage point, we can see the track soaring out of view and dropping precipitously down into the first valley. We'll also get to watch a train nose-dive down the final 49-foot hill. Borrowing an exclamation from South Park's big-boned Cartman: "Sweet!"

Standing behind the final gate allows us to get a nice, long look at the newfangled cars. These coaches are certainly dressed to kill, regally decked out in red, gold and purple. Especially noteworthy are the shark-nosed wedges that front each train, each sporting an intricately sculpted, triangular bas-relief panel depicting Apollo and the chariot's snorting, galloping beasts. As thrill ride cosmetics go, Apollo's Chariot has few equals.

But it ain't the purty stuff that'll have your eyes watering with anticipation; it's the deviously simple restraint system and reclining bucket seats. The molded black cradles are elevated and slightly tilted back so that once you've shimmied into position, your feet are dangling well above the floor of the car. Centered before each seat is a single vertical pole, topped with a padded, clam shell-shaped "lap bar." Ya just grab the hand-grips at the outer edges of the clam shell and pull the unit down over your hips. The fit is snug, but not too confining. And just as promised, there's nothing to obscure the view off the port and starboard sides. Handy Hint No. 1 - grab an aisle seat, preferably on the loading side of the train.

After a rousing send-off from the lead operator, we start to climb.

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Gliding higher and higher, we begin to fully appreciate the spacious accommodations. These first-class seats provide legroom to spare, no matter which row you've chosen. And the front row, Mama mia! I felt like I was perched on the bow of the Titanic, shouting "I'm King of the World!" Twisting around to look back is no chore, either. Hey, there's Alpengeist! The Loch Ness Monster! And the idle Drachen Fire... I hate to kick a coaster when it's down, but after one circuit on AC, you ain't gonna miss Drachen Fire at all.

The lead car inches over the top. Rather than diving right down, we edge onto a flat section of track, crawling forward and pulling the rest of the train along. It's an unusual touch, but it also means an extra few seconds to let the goose pimples sprout. Again, the front row is the place to be, folks. Just look at how the purple rails curl down, disappearing into that first abyss...

Handy Hint No. 2 - for maximum airtime pleasure, all 26 seconds worth, get your arms up, extend your legs straight out and let yourself go with the flow, baby! This Roman candle is ready to explode.

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They don't call it a "Speed" coaster fer nuthin', folks - the train dives over a steel cliff and gravity sinks its feral claws in deep, pulling us back towards the surface of the planet with an all-consuming rage. Down, down, down, 210 feet, accelerating to 73 whup-ass miles per hour... If you can make that fall without hollering your tonsils loose, you're a better man or woman than I. Time and again, I tried to hold back, but even after more than 20-odd rides, I just couldn't help myself; the body-compressing intensity of it all makes screaming completely involuntary. One last time, I must express a preference for the front row; with nothing to shield you from the elements, the roar of the wind blasting past your ears is deafening.

Now traveling at terminal velocity, the train shrieks across a flat straightaway, inches above a watery gully. With horsepower to spare, we charge towards the base of a 131-foot-tall peak. Remember, keep those arms and legs held high! A veritable turbo jet lifting off the tarmac, the train surges into the stratosphere and as we race over the top of the first parabola, it happens: we float for several glorious seconds like astronaut-trainees. It is The Bomb.

"Less is More?" No, More is More: after a 13-story plunge down through a small red and white-striped mini-tent, we curl right back up, this time preparing for a 144-foot-tall, curving dive. As we plow over this third hill, we're out of our seats again and before we can sink back down, the cars tilt way over to the left, threatening to dump us out. This, my friends, is why you want that inner aisle position. You can lean over and look straight down at the ground far below, a very gnarly treat. The cars rocket through this wickedly angled descent, bottoming out in the lower half of an awesome multi-layered spiral, careening around a ground-skimming, hard-banking, high-G turn. Phaethon may have paid with his life for a ride like this, but I'd say it's almost worth it.

Round and round we go, 360 degrees and beyond, the wind still rippling over every inch of our fully-exposed carcasses as we soar back up above 100 feet. The train falls away, lifting us against the clam shell for the third time, and drops 102 feet before swinging back up to the right, crossing beneath Hill Number Three and aiming back towards our point of origin. We scramble through some elevated trim brakes, a minor set-back, and get airborne again as the cars go south into a 48-foot-deep valley.

Hill Number Six serves up a heaping plateful of negative Gs and gets us poised for an 87-foot-fall back down onto the last straightaway over the gully. You'd think these horizontal stretches might be a let-down but with all that residual speed, our chariot makes like a nitro-fueled dragster and, lemme tell ya, it feels real good.

After lifting off the surface of the water, we've got to cross back beneath the lift hill, and we do it in high style. Veering to the right, the track seems to warp sideways nearly 90 degrees, giving passengers on the exiting side of the train a vertigo-inducing treat of their own. Still banked severely, we dip down 38 feet and then twist up to the left.

The train climbs to jump over a little camelback and before we hit the brake run, there's one last kicker. We're launched into a nice final floater as the cars swoop down into an excavated 49-foot-deep ditch, AC's coup de grace.

Good golly, Miss Molly. This one is a keeper.

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If traditional sit-down trains were enlisted to run over this monumental course, Apollo's Chariot would still be a world-class coaster. But Walter Bolliger & Claude Mabillard have set a fantastic new standard for vehicle design and yer basic vanilla-flavored train just won't seem the same again. Let's lay it on the line: 1999 is Year of the Bolliger & Mabillard Coaster, pure and simple. Ya got this one, Medusa, Raging Bull, The Incredible Hulk, Dueling Dragons, The Georgia Scorcher, Top Gun: The Jet Coaster... what else is there to say?

As for Busch Gardens Williamsburg, they've got even more goodies planned for us this year. The park is helping to celebrate Williamsburg's 300th Anniversary with "Freedom Song," a laser light and ice show spectacle at the park's Royal Palace Theatre, due to bow as Independence Day activity hits full swing. And on October 15th, BGW finally gets serious about Halloween with its "Howl-O-Scream" shindig. The park's Das Festhaus will be suitably haunted; we'll be able to scamper through a creature-infested maze; the 17th century locomotive is getting its own creepy makeover; and assorted ghouls will be waitin' for us in the shadows. I'm there, dude.

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In 1998, the trade publication Amusement Today presented this park with its "Golden Ticket" awards in five categories: Best Shows, Best Landscaping, Best Food, Cleanest Park and Best Theming. And the National Amusement Park Historical Association recently named BGW America's "Favorite Theme Park."

With Apollo's Chariot now part of the package, Busch Gardens Williamsburg had better start planning to add some shelves to their well-stocked trophy case.

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Apollo's Chariot

  • TRACK LENGTH: 4,882 feet
  • TOP SPEED: 73 Miles Per Hour
  • MAX. G FORCE: 4.1
  • MAX. DROP: 210 feet
  • TOTAL FOOTAGE OF DROPS: 825 feet
  • RIDE DURATION: 2 minutes
  • CARS: Three trains composed of nine cars. Each car accommodates four passengers across.
  • MANUFACTURER: Bolliger & Mabillard, Monthey, Switzerland

Apollo's Chariot logo artwork © 1999 Busch Entertainment Corporation. Reproduced by permission of Busch Gardens Williamsburg. All rights reserved.

 

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© Robert Coker.
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