Falling for the Rocky Point Park Freefall!

Back in the early 1980s, a Freefall drop tower ride could only be found in theme parks with towering presences, such as Six Flags Magic Mountain, Marriot’s Great America, and Six Flags Over Texas.  It was given names such as Demon Drop, Texas Cliffhanger, Drop of Doom, and Stuntman’s Free Fall.

Yet, somehow, in 1988, a Freefall found its way into our little Rocky Point Park in Warwick, RI.  But for Rocky Point patrons, it wasn’t a huge surprise.  Their park had been playing with big boy toys since 1971 with the installation of a major Flume ride, and got back into the mix in 1984 with an Arrow Development Corkscrew coaster.  Rocky Point’s Freefall ran from 1988 to 1995, barely enough time to get broken in.  But during those short seven years the ride developed a fan base that fell hard for the iron giant.

The Freefall was developed by Giovanola and marketed throughout the world by Swiss company, Intamin.  The drop height of most Freefalls was 87-feet although that varied park-to-park with modifications.

The Annenberg Foundation, in its thesis “Amusement Park Physics” describes the Freefall experience as such:

“Freefall rides are really made up of three distinct parts: the ride to the top, the momentary suspension, and the downward plunge. In the first part of the ride, force is applied to the car to lift it to the top of the free-fall tower. The amount of force that must be applied depends on the mass of the car and its passengers. The force is applied by motors, and there is a built-in safety allowance for variations in the mass of the riders.
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After a brief period in which the riders are suspended in the air, the car suddenly drops and begins to accelerate toward the ground under the influence of the earth’s gravity. The plunge seems dramatic. Just as Galileo and Newton explain in their theories of free fall, the least massive and most massive riders fall to the earth with the same rate of acceleration. If the riders were allowed to hit the earth at that speed, coming to a sudden stop at the end of the ride, there would certainly be serious injuries. Ride designers account for this by building an exit track. The car is attached to this track, which gradually curves toward the ground. A stretch of straight track allows the car to slow down and brake, producing a controlled stop at the bottom, that keeps passengers from getting injured.”

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Rocky Point Park’s Freefall began life in 1982 as “The Edge” at Marriot’s Great America in Gurnee, Illinois.  The theme park promoted its arrival heavily, allowing the print media to shoot construction photos – remember this was lightyears before the Internet.

Edge1 This rendition pulled passengers up a 131-foot tower by a mechanical chain device. The car then hurtled down a vertical track for 60 feet before it reached a curve leading to a horizontal track.  Cleverly landscaped, the Edge was a smashing success when it opened in May 1982.

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But the fun was short-lived.   On May 22, 1984,  a supporting cable snapped, and the mechanism’s anti-rollback devices failed to stop the car from plummeting nearly 60 feet to the bottom of the tower. Three teens were treated at a local hospital and released.  As a result, Intamin doubled the number of anti-rollbacks on the tower and the ride programming was changed so that a car did not enter the elevator shaft until the previous car has completed its descent from the tower.  The Edge re-opened after having been refitted, but the stigma associated with the accident caused ridership to be low and it was eventually closed and removed in 1986.

”We were satisfied that the safety improvement which we added to the Edge after the incident in 1984 made the ride operationally safe. But we were not satisfied that these improvements were sufficiently visible and obvious to completely reassure our patrons.” Margie Moss, public relations manager for the park said at the time.  The Edge was replaced by a boat ride.

Rocky Point Park soon purchased the ride and began the process of erecting it on the site of its mini-golf course, a park fixture since 1948.

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Recalls former park employee Scott Fairfield:

“Only those of us in maintenance were allowed to climb its stair. The first year it was in, I spent a lot of time going up and down the stairs. I would run up them. The first time I could only run up the first two flights. After a few weeks I was able to run all the way up. I haven’t been in that good shape since.”

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“The first year it was down a lot,” continues Fairfield.  “We were working the bugs out. There was a contractor who was updating the software who was there most of the summer. The second year it was up most of the time.”

The Freefall received a huge shot of publicity on August 3, 1988 when a NBC10/WJAR reporter took the plunge for a taped report on a 6 p.m. newscast.

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The ride quickly became a sensation, joining the other midway monsters; the Skydiver, Cyclone and Corkscrew.  Even those who feared the sight of it were seduced into riding  once, just to say they did it.

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So what kind of safety *track record* did Rocky Point’s Freefall maintain?
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To be continued! 

 

Photo credits:

Anita Cerri Ferla

You Must Be This Tall movie collection

Chicago Tribune

Providence Journal

greatamericasparks.com

NBC10

Paul F. Lynds

Burt Clark

 

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