Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Intimidator 305 at Kings Dominion - Review

A peculiar assortment

In 2010, Kings Dominion finally opened something major. 2008’s Dominator, a relocation from the company’s now-defunct park Geagua Lake, was a welcomed yet far from major investment. And before that, you have to go back to 2006 for the unremarkable Italian Job: Stunt Track.

KD was the first conventional American amusement park I visited. I have local friends who grew up with the place and that has probably shaped my perception to be sympathetic of their nostalgia… But, I honestly do rather like KD, never failing to have a good time there. I'm under no illusion however that the place is not critically good, but it certainly is interesting, and the more coasters I get to ride, the more I value those weirder, interesting additions to my checklist.

Photo by John Cooper

With its odd lineup, visiting Kings Dominion for the first time brings with it unusual additions to one's coaster count, with even most well-travelled enthusiasts acquiring a few firsts here. Until very recently, for example, the park was home to Shockwave, the last Togo standup left in North America. For an albeit brief period in the early 2000s, one of the only two S&S compressed air launches ever built: Hypersonic XLC, lived there too. But KD is still home to a bunch of weirdness today; the relocated Dominator is known for being one of the few (the only?) looping B&M’s to lack a zero-g and have one of the world's largest vertical loops; they have two rarely seen Premiere coasters and the only Mack bobsled in North America. Volcano is the only one of it's kind in the world and they also have one of those awful Mack wild mice found at Legoland parks.

But none of these were world renowned. Volcano came closest and was certainly the park’s signature attraction prior to 2010, but the place really needed a coaster that was undeniably awesome.

The stakes were high

So, the new for 2010 Intimidator needed to be good. It needed to put Kings Dominion on the map. And really, it had no excuse for being anything less than stellar. At 305ft tall, this monster Intamin giga coaster ranks as one of the tallest and fastest coasters in the world. I’ve wanted to take the time to write about I305 since its brief mention in my Skyrush review, because, like Skyrush, I305 is crazy intense.

Coasters themed to local interest are problematic for those who travel from further afield, but I guess KD doesn’t really have that problem, being a stereotypically regional park unlike neighbouring Busch Gardens. Being British, I305’s NASCAR driver endorsement is as unappealing as it is irrelevant. Where the local sports team theme of Carowind's Fury is abstract enough to not get in the way, here Dale’s moustache is very much the focus. A weird targeting of audience that I can't imagine has done any favours, alienating anyone not interested in NASCAR with overbearing branding. But it’s hard for me to say. If you're reading this as a local, imagine being me, imagine not knowing, or caring, who this guy is. Maybe the whole thing is genius and I simply don't get it because of differing culture.

Intimidator’s intensity was legendary from day one. At first reviews seemed incredibly positive - perhaps due to the shock of riding a coaster with such high positive g-force, but the cracks soon began to show. As more and more people got to ride it, more people began to question whether or not this intensity was actually any, well, fun.

I first rode Intimidator in opening season, but even by the time I got out to it in June, alterations had already been made to trim the speed. Rumours flowed about it burning through wheels uneconomically fast as little water sprays were installed on the final block breaks to cool down the wheels between dispatches. The restraints were altered from the standard Intamin OTSR to softer, form-fitting straps fairly early on, but most drastically, the bottom of the first drop and turn were entirely retracked only a few seasons later. I’ve since ridden it a handful of times over the years, last year missing out because the park were running it with only one train during a busy Haunt night. I was annoyed, wanting to refresh my memory of the ride experience to write about it. Apparently, it runs with one train almost all the time now, presumably to preserve it, which is fundamentally an unarguable flaw! But there’s something weirdly fascinating about a ride so extreme that it needed altering, not only because it was 'too intense' for riders, but because it was damaging itself. I managed to ride it again at the start of the summer 2016 season. One train, again, but luckily on a quiet day.

Too intense?

So, let’s get right to it and talk about that legendary intensity. After a massive first drop, the track turns near ground level. This section is more elevated now than when I first rode it (and I believe all the photos featured here are from before the retrack work, sorry), the entire turn around now pulls into the first hill with a far softer incline. It’s so drawn out you wonder how it preserves any force at all from looking at it. Whilst it is noticeably less intense than my memory of it before, it still remains the singularly most intense positive-g moment on any coaster I know. As the train powers up the long, gradual incline, my vision is distorted by white splodges. In the past, my sight would fade out completely to white - as if the blood was literally being drained out of my face - but that doesn’t seem to happen since the retrack work. I even had ringing in my ears as if I was about to faint that accompanied the visual phenomena in earlier years! A lot of people describe “blacking out” on Intimidator, but I think that’s just a misunderstanding of what blacking out - losing consciousness - really means. Visual distortion like these white splodges isn’t unique to this ride for me, but the regularity in which they occur and duration they last certainly is.

First drop and turn into first hill.
Top photo by author, bottom photo by John Cooper.
Photos taken from staff only areas with permission from Kings Dominion.

Whilst the turnaround of the first drop is the single most intense part of the ride even after alterations, it’s weirdly lacking in drama. I was shocked to learn that the train clocks 90mph here, because the sense of speed is frankly nonexistent. I often find with tall coasters that their sense of speed is muted by a lack of passing scenery to compare, with an overall too smooth, emotionless meandering feel. No drama, peaks or troughs, just a consistent meh, lacking dynamic turns or intense acceleration. Intimidator’s first drop, turn and hill are guilty of this - feeling strangely slow and controlled in spite of logic clearly telling you otherwise, but the second half is anything but.

POV from its first year, after trims were added to the first drop. 

Watching POVs, the later half of the ride ticks so many boxes for elements I love. A relentless series of low to the ground, high-speed turns, bounds, and twists and it even has a couple of conventional airtime hills to mix up the experience. On paper, this sounds great, but the rapid direction changes I love on Maverick, just aren’t fun here. They feel less yet somehow more violent. Just kind of… Wrong, I guess? The relentless lack of time to breath that makes Skyrush great, here, is tedious. And I'm not sure why? Intimidator just isn't very fun.

Photo by Brian Andrelczyk

I usually like relentless, difficult coasters. But Intimidator’s extreme positive g-force is only so extreme due to the duration in which it lasts. Fluctuation in g-force produces a better experience, as your body goes from being pinned down to thrown upwards or sideways in the blink of an eye and your body works hard to keep you stable. Coasters that no matter how many times you ride them, still manage to catch you off guard... Those are my kind of ride. Intimidator’s second half fails to do this despite having all the component parts, whilst the first half is little more than a drawn-out endurance test. Skyrush and Fury are excellent examples of giant, high-speed intensity done right - both rides are dynamic and intense, but Intimidator just feels heavy. Maybe it’s to do with Intimidator’s long train, but the sequencing of physical experience doesn’t have you anticipating the next element. Instead, I feel like all my senses are dimmed. The blustering wind on my face, something I adore about Big One at Blackpool, is just unpleasantly aggressive on Intimidator. It's the only convincing reminder of the speed in which it travels, but contributes to the dimmed senses as you find yourself unable to see, hear or even breath clearly because of it.

Giga Disappointment

I’m amongst a rare few who really like Blackpool’s Big One. Here me out… One of the reasons I love it so much is down to how it gets the height and speed thing so right. It spends a lot of the layout high up, not really doing very much of anything. But on that high turn around, when you lean out to look down at the ground below… I can’t think of another coaster that uses it’s height so effectively. You’re so high above the path, mid circuit on the ride. It’s a breathtaking pause in the pace. In general, I believe that coasters should take their selling point and really push it.

I305 doesn’t behave like a hyper/giga should. It doesn't consist of hill after hill in the traditional out and back format. Aside from the 3 airtimeless crests, the layout remains fairly close to the ground. When you think that a coaster like Nemesis can create speed and intensity from a third of the height, the 305 feet of Inimidator seem so utterly pointless. It doesn’t use that height to complete a series of  airtime hills, it doesn’t use it for dramatic effect, it just turns around at ground level, pulling way too higher g-force to be comfortable for the average rider (or its own engineering), over a drawn-out hill, and then it just seems to forget what it was doing and galumphs about for a bit.

How I305 should be viewed by the average onlooker!
Photo by author, taken from staff only area with permission from Kings Dominion


Intimidator is set so far away from the rest of the park and it's presentation from the approach is frankly appaling. Residing at the end of a cul-de-sac, the vast cattle pen of Intimidator’s queue is more of a visual focus than the ride itself. The bland plaza with a few benches sat in direct sunlight is a world away from better examples found at the same park! The area around Volcano is pleasant to be in and despite its flaws, the otherwise bland Dominator does a great job forcing guests in amongst it to the find the entrance. There’s a NASCAR vehicle plonked for a photo opportunity before you reach Intimidator, which is cool if you like that sort of thing, but there’s not enough populating the area to counter the lacking interaction from the ride itself.

Photos by CanobieFan

The borrowed name “Intimidator” is a great conveyor of the ride’s essence as a tall, fast and extreme ride that is undoubtedly intimidating in theory. Unfortunately, the presentation in situ within the park is so poorly executed that it loses a lot of impact potential it had. Theme park skylines are very important, but perhaps moreso is the viewpoint of a guest on the ground as they explore the park. Sadly, Intimidator’s structure is positioned almost in-line with not only the view from the park entrance, but the approaching pathway to the ride. The narrow structure of the lift hill viewed this way makes the coaster appear smaller than it could seem and hides the spectacular first drop off in the distance. It’s a common problem of American coasters to just be off away from any pathways or the queueing area and there are exceptions where it works (namely Kings Island’s Beast), but Intimidator is especially awful for the angle. The height is completely wasted, both as a visual selling point and in the ride experience. You have to visit the waterpark to appreciate Intimidator from the angle it should be seen by potential riders.

It's almost as if they were trying to make this 300ft coaster as unintimidating as possible.
Photo by CanobieFan

The first hill of the ride, the one that passes under the lift structure, is seen from a premium angle and it is pretty spectacular when you compare the size of it with a train atop it, to the height of the entire lift structure. The final breaks are also positioned nicely, angled downward, so onlookers can watch rider’s faces as the train returns. When you exit the ride, you get very close to a lot of the action which is also fantastic, but why couldn’t this have been where the queue passes, and the exit on the other side??

Photo by John Cooper


Intimidator did put Kings Dominion on the coaster map, no doubt about it. But it feels like a forced attempt to get a 300ft coaster at Kings Dominion when there wasn't the real space to do so; ill-conceived in location, layout, hardware and aesthetics. Nothing feels well executed. The ride experience polarising - undoubtedly extreme and worth the visit for the unusualness of that alone, but I personally can’t find the fun. It still does well in polls and remains a favourite for many, so I guess it’s just not for me. I can’t think of a better word for Intimidator’s ride experience other than heavy. If you like extreme rides - if you’re a fan of flat rides that spin you round and pin you down - I think you’ll probably like Intimidator. It’s not "intense" in the typical coaster sense, though. It's not relentless, not experientially intense as a cohesive whole, but rather has moments of high g-force - heaviness. It’s no Skyrush.

For me, the experience of riding it is really quite gross - from having to walk so far out of your way to ride it, to standing excessively long in line due to single train operation in the humid Virginia weather, to the discomfort of its intensity and lacking payoff. I305 didn’t become for Kings Dominion what Skyrush was for Hershey. Doomed by unreliable hardware, poor presentation and an uncomfortable ride experience, Intimidator seems to exist merely for shock factor. Six years on, the park has fallen back into an investment lull. But, with rumours of an RMC conversion for Hurler, maybe they will get another chance at creating that destination coaster.

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