When you think of tower rides and compressed air, you think of S&S Power in Utah. They’ve put rides on top of the Stratosphere in Las Vegas and they’ve put them in parking lots. They’ve put them in highly-themed parks like Universal’s Islands of Adventure and in state fairs. Behind all of the madness is Stan Checketts, regarded by many as a lunatic when they see him standing atop his 300-foot tower rides for a photo opportunity. With “Absolutely Insane” debuting last summer, and now his “Fungee” ride, we see that there isn’t anything the man can’t do without a little air and some tall objects.
CB: Where did the inspiration come from for “Absolutely Insane?”
SC: What started it is I built a little prototype. I wanted to get people totally exposed on a cable and get them in the air. I tried several on my tower, and I had a terrible time because after a million cycles, maybe someone could get hurt and I didn’t trust the mechanism. One night I thought, “I’ll control everything,” so by putting them on a saddle, that solved all my problems and that’s what I love about it.
CB: When Cedar Point announced VertiGo, Cedar Fair CEO Dick Kinzel said you showed the ride last year here at the show and...
SC: Actually, he didn’t when he left, said it was too crazy. It was Jack Falfas [general manager at Knott’s Berry Farm] who talked him into it!
CB: That’s an interesting twist! Anyway, when you come up with something like this, is it because it’s something you want to build and create a certain sensation, or is it a matter of the customer approaching you with some kind of idea?
SC: I go about it differently than most people probably do. I look at the sensation and then say, “How can I create it? How can I safely, economically and feasibly create it.” The Space Shot was a good example. I didn’t set out to build an amusement ride. I said, “What thrills people?” With my kids, I used to pick them up, throw them up and catch them. That thrilled them. All I did with Space Shot was throw them up a lot harder, a lot faster, a lot higher. I see that thrill, and I ask how I can achieve that, where it looks aesthetically pleasing, doesn’t take up a lot of room, I can do it safe. I generally don’t work with my engineers a lot at first. I generally go out in my back yard, with tons of metal, cable and pistons and start playing with all kinds of models. I’ve got all kinds of projects out there behind the shop where I build all kinds of prototypes and just start throwing chunks of iron in the air. In fact, ironically, I had Absolutely Insane up on these towers, and you never know what’s going to happen to that cart, it’s a gamble. The first few times I threw it up above the poles it flipped and got tangled in the cables. My wife was standing there and she said “Wow, you’ve got problems.” I said, “I just see challenges.”
Creating those safe thrills are the biggest challenges. Take for example the new “Fungee.” Bungee jumping to me has always been one of the greatest thrills, it always has been. All the way back in 1988 I did bungee towers all over the United States, I loved it. What I did is looked at that and took away all of the objections. Bungee cords, people object to them, so I took them out. Being hooked to one thing, people object, so I hooked them to two. And I looked at it that way to produce that element. I could let you jump safely from that platform with two things hooked to you and have a ball. We worked on it with little pieces of metal and bigger towers and created a working model. Then we took the working model and made sure all of the safety elements were there.
CB: Many of your rides are up-charge attractions. Do you think in the current economy that this arrangement is a hindrance or an opportunity?
SC: I think in the current economy, it’s easier to talk to a park about a separate charge attraction than it would be to talk about a big multi-million dollar investment. In the last few years I’ve seen parks wanting to get into these less expensive separate charge attractions. Overall it’s a lot easier for a park to put in an attraction that people love and are attracted to, even if most people go just to see this thing. I mean, this is an intimidating ride [Absolutely Insane] when you stand by it. The poles are moving around and it’s scary as hell! Someone asked me, “Why did you let the poles bend like that?” I said for one to scare you to death, I wanted those poles to move, and two, it makes for a softer ride. That is part of the experience. They love to talk about it when they leave the park. They say, “You’ve gotta go over to John’s park and see this thing. Did you ride it? Hell no, but you’ve gotta see it!”
CB: Have you been on your new Thrust Air coaster in Japan yet?
SC: I was the first man in the world, and they’ll never take that away from me, I’m very very happy, I shouldn’t say proud because I don’t like pride, but I’m very happy and pleased to say that Stan Checketts along with his son Quin, sat on that coaster, and were the first people to go, on this planet over a hundred miles an hour on a coaster, and it was awesome. I can’t tell you a lot about the experience because it happened so fast. They tell me the total ride time is about 50 seconds, but I swear it was less than five seconds. You’ve got to ride it to really understand what’s going on there. It’s just phenomenal. It’s not as violent and quick as the old one [Hypersonic XLC at Paramount’s Kings Dominion] because we lessened the G-force and pulled it longer, but you’re still hitting over a hundred miles an hour in less than two seconds. There’s nothing else that will do that.
CB: So the launch is physically longer?
SC: We’ve got three successive launch tanks that fire one after another, milliseconds apart.
CB: When you build these rides, is there anything that you want to do differently in future models?
SC: I think with anyone that builds anything there are always changes that you continually want to make. We’re still making changes on our towers after a hundred of them. A lot of them are little changes, but you’re always doing that. This Frog Hopper has gone through five major modifications over the years, but it still gives exactly the same ride, exactly the same concept.