THE BEAST REVIEW: Still the most radically unique wooden coaster to ever exist

It’s 1978, and a young and ambitious Kings Island is still riding the waves of a roller coaster renaissance that started with its own Racer in 1972. New coasters are popping up all over the country, and height and speed records are being broken left and right. The wood coaster to beat at the time? Six Flags Magic Mountain’s Colossus, with a height of 125 feet, and a top speed of 62 mph. Little did anybody know at the time that Kings Island was about break those records in quite a big way.

The result of course being The Beast, opening in April of 1979, and featuring the two largest drops of any roller coaster at the time at 135 and 141 feet, and reaches a top speed of 64.8 mph, breaking the height and speed records pretty modestly. But there’s one other record of note.

The ride features 7,359 feet of wooden track to speed across, shattering the length record, soundly. So soundly in fact, that The Beast still holds that record to this day. That’s 38 years (as of 2017) as the longest wooden roller coaster ever built.

Now the stats for this ride are impressive yes, but it’s what the ride does that really grabbed people’s attention.

Image from Google Earth

When Kings Island’s Al Collins and Jeff Gramke were designing this giant, they had the luxury of building on 35 acres of densely wooded, very uneven terrain, so to save money, they kept the majority of the ride close to the ground, below the tree line, taking advantage of the natural hills to create a ride that wisely rises and falls with the ground below it. Now this isn’t the first time a coaster has done this. One example being Screamin Eagle at Six Flags St. Louis, which opened just 3 years prior, but no one had ever built a ride that took advantage of terrain on the sheer scale of The Beast.

One little fun fact about The Beast is that Charles Dinn was the lead construction manager for the ride. The same Charles Dinn that went on to start the Dinn Corporation, which is responsible for roller coasters like Hercules, Texas Giant, Mean Streak, Raging Wolf Bobs, and Georgia Cyclone. Ironically, all but one of those coasters have been closed and either demolished, or completely rebuilt by Rocky Mountain Construction. Long story short, parks started demanding mega-sized wood coasters. Dinn built them, but ultimately several of them succumbed to minor structural problems. Basically, from an engineering standpoint, it’s not ideal to have high g-force on a really tall section of structure. Wood just can’t handle that kind of stress long-term.

What’s REALLY cool to me is that John Allen, the famed coaster designer responsible for KI’s Racer and consultant for The Beast, already knew this! He recommended the majority of the ride to stay low to the ground since the speed was going to be so high, and that would help scrub off some of the excess momentum. This is something I learned from KI’s PR manager Don Helbig at a Beast presentation during the Coasterstock event last year.

I think Dinn had to have been inspired by The Beast when he went on to design his own coasters, so in my mind The Beast really kind of kicked off the mega wood coaster trend of the 80s and early 90s.

When approaching the entrance to the ride, only one prominent feature is visible from the midway: the first lift hill, slowly creeping up and away from the park, only to drop down the other side, and disappear from onlookers on the ground. The rest of the ride is completely hidden in the trees. The only people who know what comes next are the riders themselves.

The entire experience focuses on the element of mystery. It’s one of the most vague yet primal fears of human nature, the unknown, but what else does mystery stir in us? Curiosity. We want to know what’s out there in those woods, and the only way to know is to ride the thing.

Sounds exciting enough, but today The Beast seems to be dismissed by a growing number of coaster enthusiasts as a boring, dull ride that doesn’t do anything interesting compared to the modern mega coasters being built these days, and I get it.

(POV provided by Kings Island)

When you break the layout down into individual sections, it suddenly seems very non-impressive. Other than the beginning and the end, the ride is nothing more than a bunch of basic straightaways and turns that hug the ground, with the occasional tunnel thrown in for good measure. There are virtually no airtime hills on the ride, not to mention its speed is robbed in a couple of places thanks to trim brakes scattered throughout the course.

It’s really easy to look at The Beast on paper and say “Oh, there’s no airtime or quick direction changes on the ride, and so many trim brakes. It’s gotta be boring”. When riding it, it’s even more easy to compare it to other roller coasters that have those more traditionally accepted elements and wish you were riding something else. Heck, right next door is Kings Island’s mega airtime machine Diamondback, a ride that certainly offers an experience The Beast can’t even come close to offering.

If you’re among the group that is not a fan of The Beast, I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong. I can’t change your opinion, BUT I still encourage you to open your mind and at least understand that The Beast is simply a VERY different kind of ride altogether; a ride much more psychological and theatrical in nature.

When riding the coaster, the track is so enshrouded in trees that you can never see what’s coming next until you turn into the next corner. What’s more is that the speed of the ride gets progressively faster and faster (yes despite the brakes) as it makes its way through the course, and the lateral force get a little stronger with every turn, keeping riders on their toes through the whole thing.

Then there’s the second lift hill which offers a jarring, yet natural break in the pacing. Riders start to let their guard down, perhaps thinking that the ride might be over, but this lift hill is really a calm before the storm. A moment of stillness that greatly heightens what comes next: that counter-clockwise double helix.

It’s the most powerful part of the ride. Flattening out at the top of the 2nd lift, riders slowly turn to the left and head down a long shallow ramp (yes I call it a ramp) that gradually gains more and more speed while also tipping riders on their left side as the track banks more and more, setting up for what I like to call “The Slam.”

Yes, “the slam” is that huge kick of lateral force to the right as riders hit that first section of the helix, and the lateral force never stops until you go around once, twice, then slowly head back home to the station.

Without fail, every time I ride The Beast, that ramp into the double helix gives me the feeling that I’m gonna crash into the tunnel wall. It’s such a perfect psychological build up and pay-off that is, in my opinion, the most well-executed finale to any roller coaster I’ve ever ridden, a lot like a well-executed climax to a good book or movie.

Again, let me emphasize that The Beast uses very different tactics to induce fear in riders compared to more traditional coasters. While many rides resort to the feeling of free-fall as their main weapon, The Beast works purely on the fear of losing control. You’re hurtling through the woods at speeds too uncomfortable to handle, and you wish you could slam on the brakes, but you don’t have any brakes, so you just have to hold on and hope you don’t die. It’s THAT kind of fear that makes The Beast work. I completely understand that some riders don’t feel that kind of fear when riding the ride, and those people may find the ride boring since they’re just waiting for some decent hills (that never come).

The Beast experience increases 10-fold when the sun goes down. The layout is completely isolated in the back of the park, and there is nothing else around it, so you’re speeding through 35 acres in complete darkness, totally alone, certainly feeling like you’re not at an amusement park anymore. The tunnels especially are so dark at night that you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. If you’re really lucky and catch the ride just after it rains, a layer of fog from the near-by Miami River will cover the ride area, adding an extra dose of eeriness to the experience. It’s tradition for park goers to get in line right before closing, wait for the fireworks show to end, then enjoy what is widely considered the most famous night ride in the roller coaster world.

On a completely unrelated note, there also seems to be this “homemade/backyard engineering” feel to The Beast since it was designed AND constructed completely in house by Kings Island. That tells me there had to have been a little bit of trial and error involved in the beginning. After all, Collins and Gramke had never designed a whole roller coaster before, and supposedly only had some rough calculations written on the back of a restaurant menu by John Allen. The trim brakes that are on the ride serve a purely functional purpose. The ride HAD to be slowed down I guess because it was going too fast for the structure to handle. It feels like the designers of the ride truly did not know just how fast the ride would go until they sent it around the course for the first time.

When you look at the ride from that perspective, the ride’s name makes total sense. It’s too big, too fast, too extreme. We must restrain this Beast before it goes out and kills someone. That’s definitely where The Beast gained its legendary status from, especially from those that rode it in it’s first few seasons. I wasn’t around back then, but apparently the old skid brakes didn’t grab too hard, and were susceptible to being slippery when it rained, so the ride felt a little faster back then. These days the ride operates with magnetic brakes, which grab harder and don’t fail when wet. Those trim brakes today probably generate the biggest complaints from enthusiasts, but since they are required to keep the ride in good shape, they’ve gotta stay. Oh well…

While I do happen to be one of those people that tends to hover toward rides that have more airtime, quicker pace, and higher intensity, I still really appreciate The Beast for what it is: a speedy, bouncy trip through the backwoods of Ohio. Nothing more, nothing less.

I’m really happy The Beast exists. I’m even more happy that The Beast remains largely unchanged since it opened, as it has cemented itself as one of the most iconic roller coasters in the world. Totally different. Totally unique. Totally Kings Island. Totally Ohio.

THE BEAST RATING: 7 / 10 (Solid)

I’d love to hear what you guys think of The Beast in the comments below! Until next time, I’ll catch you in the front seat!

-JC

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