A large part of the theme park is wrapped up in nostalgia. In fact, fond yearning for past times might thematic design’s single biggest ingredient. Whether conjuring up the imaginary past of Disney’s Main Street USA or romanticizing exotic foreign locales, theming relies on cultural mythology and shared media representations. Nostalgia is the reason much of our media exists, anyway, from Stranger Things to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or even the Westerns of John Ford.
Taken for a Spin
I was delighted to find a ride from my youth at Worlds of Fun. Finnish Fling is what’s called a “Rotor” manufactured by Chance Rides of Wichita, Kansas. You might have been on one of these at some point—there were once dozens of them across the United States, including a half-dozen Six Flags parks.
Rotor is essentially a barrel-shaped centrifuge which produces a sensation a bit less than 3g (three times the pull of Earth’s gravity). Certainly not as intense as astronaut training, but serious enough to cause weaker stomachs to lose their lunches. The big surprise for first time riders is that when the spinning reaches maximum effect, the floor slowly drops out, leaving guests pinned in place to the walls.
The Rotor I grew up with was called Spin Out at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California. Not all Rotors were installed within these ornate wooden structures, but the housings for both Spin Out and World of Fun’s Finnish Fling appear to be nearly identical. Both were built with an observation level, allowing guests waiting in the queue to look down on those experiencing the attraction and decide if they were up for it. The first time I went on Spin Out in high school, my friend Brad discouraged me from looking down into the ride. He’s not one for spoilers, and I’ll give him that—it was much, much cooler not knowing that the floor was going to drop out on you. I recall my face being flush red by the end.
So Finnish Fling was truly a time machine for me. Something of a “WayBack Machine” as the Internet Archive calls it. Spin Out was removed from Magic Mountain in 2008, and I only rode it during the mid-nineties. Here at Worlds of Fun I could be 16 again.
Vintage press photos from the early 1970s show that Finnish Fling originally had a 20-foot long spartan galley ship model which was used in the filming of Ben Hur (1959) out in front of the ride building. Definitely not Scandinavian, but whatever! Vikings had galley ships too. It was pulled in the early 1990s—just one of the many thematic details which have been removed from the park over the years. I’m guessing it was wood rot that did this beauty in, just like the other, larger boats at Worlds of Fun which were all bought at an MGM studio backlot auction.
To ride a Rotor, you have to be wearing shoes and socks. Blast! I was in flip-flops for my day at Worlds of Fun. Sympathetic to my plight—and after I told him I hadn’t ridden a Rotor in some twenty years and I was really, really looking forward to the experience—the ride operator loaned me his own footwear, including sweat socks! Bless him.
And I’m so very glad this young man did. As it turns out, this would be the last summer for Finnish Fling at Worlds of Fun. It was scrapped at the end of the 2017 season, amid outcry from fans and even an online petition to keep it. Park officials cited high maintenance costs. But in their wisdom, they did recognize the ever-potent power of nostalgia, and auctioned off final rides for a local charity.
There’s only a few places left in the United States to ride an original Rotor—the Turkish Twist at Canobie Lake Park in Salem, New Hampshire; the Tumbleweed at Frontier City in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and the G-Force Rotor at Sylvan Beach Amusement Park in Sylvan Beach, New York.
So for one last spin, Finnish Fling was my own personal thematic time machine. But what about nostalgic feelings for something that you yourself never experienced? In his introduction to Motel Vegas, Fred Sigman’s photographic survey of decaying and/or long gone Las Vegas motels and their garish neon signage, Scott Dickensheets notes a powerful lust for these images, despite the fact that
I never directly experienced the zoomy golden age of roadside splendor myself…so what, I wonder, is the source of this ersatz nostalgia I feel…the obvious-seeming answer is that [these images tap] into a culturally inculcated longing for a less complicated time…
The 1995 map above—from the very year that Cedar Fair purchased the park—proudly features the two most beloved extinct attractions in the history of Worlds of Fun: Orient Express and Zambezi Zinger. I never got to ride either one of them. Yet I know what Scott Dickensheets is talking about.
Orient Express (get it? it’s a reference to the famous Agatha Christie novel) was a classic Arrow looper, basically an evolved take on their wildly popular Loch Ness Monster which is still in operation at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Orient Express was constructed with the same interlocking loops which made Ol’ Nessie so famous.
When the ride opened for the 1980 season, it was the current state of the art for steel coasters. Along with the interlocking loops, Orient Express featured a reverse helix and a brand new element which Arrow had not yet installed on any of their other rides.
Arrow dubbed this element “The Kamikaze Kurve” for Orient Express. It has since been known on other Arrow loopers as a “boomerang.” As pictured above, basically it’s a pair of connected inversions. The train enters on the left, inverts and passes under, inverts again and then exits on the right. Both Vortex at Kings Island (1987) and Viper at Magic Mountain (1990) have boomerangs with identical geometry to the Kamikaze Kurve which was installed on Orient Express. They’re the only two left—all other Arrow coasters with a boomerang element have since been dismantled. Bolliger & Mabillard calls it a “batwing” on their rides.
Worlds of Fun was incredibly proud to debut Orient Express. It had enough record-setting stats and unique features to really place the park on coaster enthusiast’s lists worldwide. It was really this ride which put Worlds of Fun on the map.
I went on enough about culturally problematic design in my previous post, but I do want to point out the completely Krazy “Kamikaze” typography going on here in the Worlds of Fun press kit. It’s the tried and true “make Roman lettering look like Asian brush stroke” effect. Here it’s taken to the extreme—laughably tacky. What’s up with all the extraneous accents?
The park went out of their way to compare the height of Orient Express with the park’s other rides in their promotional materials and advertising. These days, of course, 117 feet is nothing. A kiddie ride.
Behold this logo! It has to be one of the coolest roller coaster marks ever designed. Some kind of mysterious, creepy-looking dragon, beautifully illustrated. And the lettering, which appears to be a modified, faux-italic bit of Serif Gothic, looks like an early 80s metal band.
From my research this looks to be the very first serious branding campaign for an individual ride at Worlds of Fun. That wicked cool logo was used everywhere.
As the ride’s queue marquee, it looks absolutely terrific. And complete with the branding push, Orient Express had its own merchandise shop called, naturally, “Orient Expressions.” The early eighties were a time when coasters were beginning to be more aggressively named, branded, and merchandised. Each ride now had to have its own logo, gift shop, and sweatshirts. Today, of course, this is commonplace.
I managed to find a few snapshots online, though I could not identify the photographer(s). You can see the lush landscaping which Orient Express was known for. Riders darted in and out of trees.
I can’t imagine trying to snap pictures with a film camera on a ride this rough (Arrow loopers have a well-deserved reputation for roughness, this being before ride layouts were simulated and refined on computers), but the coaster had enough superfans that apparently some of them went for it. Twisting and snaking this way and that, Orient Express was beloved for many years.
And let’s not forget those famous interlocking loops. Today Loch Ness Monster has the only pair left in the world.
Early on these loops had become the de facto symbol of Worlds of Fun, much like Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disneyland. The park used them time and time again on their press photos, souvenir books, guidemaps, and postcards. Orient Express appeared as the central element in almost all the park’s advertising, and was billed as “THE GREATEST COASTER EVER CONCEIVED.”
After riding Orient Express and heading back home, you could let motorists on the highways around Kansas City know that you were warned. But you rode it anyway.
Although the ride was dismantled after the 2003 season and its metal sold for scrap, Orient Express lives on. There’s actually an entire YouTube subculture of coaster fans who post and share both on and off ride vintage footage of amusement and theme park attractions, especially extinct ones. In this way, fans can relive a favorite roller coaster from their youth, or in my case, ride one for the first time. The above clip is Orient Express POV footage shot with a camcorder in 1995.
What’s most amazing is today in the age of 3D gaming software and now virtual reality, coaster fans are recreating extinct attractions in simulators such as No Limits by studying photos, videos, and even elevation plans. It was neat watching camcorder footage taken on the ride but it was even cooler (and light years more surreal, from a time travelling, nostalgic perspective) to “ride” the coaster as a virtual simulation—perfectly timed, slick and smooth, no jolts. The above clip is an Orient Express POV simulation in No Limits 2 software.
What a Zinger
So why go on about these extinct attractions? Well, I’m getting to that. But first I’d like to look at one other long-lost Worlds of Fun guest favorite—Zambezi Zinger.
Another fine alliteration, Zambezi Zinger was a particular type of electric spiral lift ride designed by Werner Stengel and manufactured by coaster legend Anton Schwarzkopf. His company called this model the Speed Racer or Extended Jumbo Jet. The first installation of this type was Big Bend at Six Flags Over Texas (1971–1979), which still has tons of fans. World of Fun’s Zinger was the second.
The Speed Racer / Extended Jumbo Jet was the largest and last such ride to be designed. The earlier Jet Star, Jet Star 2, Jet Star 3 / Jumbo Jet, and City Jet / Jet 400 were all prefabricated models designed to be relocated, as in the case of a travelling fair. As such many of them continue to be moved from park to park. For example, Cedar Point once had a Jumbo Jet (1972–1978) which was subsequently moved on to many other parks around the United States and Europe. It now resides in Belarus.
I spoke to several older employees during my visit to Worlds of Fun. They all waxed fondly and had nothing but praise for the Zinger. Makes sense—people are big fans of these things. Sadly, just like Orient Express, it was off the menu long before I arrived. I did, however, get to ride its cousin at Six Flags Great America just the week prior.
Both of Marriott’s Great America parks opened in 1976 with identical Schwarzkopf Speed Racer rides called Willard’s Whizzer, named in honor of the Marriott Corporation’s founder, J. Willard Marriott. The California version closed at the end of the 1988 season, a few years after a fatal crash on the ride at that park which caused Marriott to remove Willard’s name from both Whizzer coasters. The Six Flags version in Gurnee, Illinois was nearly closed in 2002, but public outcry forced park officials to reconsider. It lives on today.
All iterations of the Schwarzkopf electric spiral lift ride have two unique features. The first is, naturally, the spiral lift. Unlike a traditional coaster in which the trains are pulled up an incline by a chain and then released, the trains on these rides have on-board motors that drive them to the top of a spiral. From there, gravity does the rest. These motors are one of the reasons that there aren’t many electric spiral lifts left—apparently they are quite costly and difficult to maintain.
The second is the single file, bobsled-style seating. Initially these types of rides opened with no restraints of any kind, but seatbelts were added in the 1980s.
I rode the Whizzer several times during my visit to Six Flags Great America. It was super unique; the warm hum of the motors beneath the trains, the spiral climb, and the unusually smooth track layout with plenty of airtime, supremely banked curves, and relatively high G-forces. If you’re any kind of coaster fan, there’s tons to love here. And most of all, extremely rare—there are only two such coasters left in the entire world.
That’s right. Although Zambezi Zinger left Worlds of Fun after the 1997 season, it lives on.
¡El Renacimiento! (The Rebirth!)
Unlike its smaller, prefabricated Schwarzkopf cousins, the Speed Racer / Extended Jumbo Jet model was intended to be a permanent installation. Yet instead of scrapping the ride like California’s Great America did, Worlds of Fun did something unexpected. They sold it.
The Zambezi Zinger survives—improbably—to this day at Parque del Café theme park in Quindío, Colombia. It goes by the name Montaña Rusa (which is just “Roller Coaster” in Spanish) these days where it’s been in residence since 1999, two years after the Zinger closed at Worlds of Fun. What surprised me is that people actually make pilgrimages to Colombia specifically to ride this coaster which they remember so fondly and passionately from their youth. There are countless online threads and videos of people who have travelled all the way to South America for this.
Most recently, this past spring someone who has blogged and written about Worlds of Fun extensively over the past twenty years finally made the trip. Curiously, she had this to post shortly before departing:
The truth is I never rode Zinger… All those times everyone tried to get me to ride Zinger… Even when I knew it was being removed. How stupid could I have been? Fear is a powerful thing, but Regret. Regret is a terrible thing. So when I realized, probably 15 years ago that I had a chance to fix that regret, it was a powerful thought. How often are we allowed the chance?
The above 360 on-Ride clip was shot on May 24, 2019, as well as this one. She rode Montaña Rusa a total of eight times that day.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
Which brings me back to what Scott Dickensheet mused, “…so what, I wonder, is the source of this ersatz nostalgia?” For the Worlds of Fun superfan above, it was about regret. About growing up with that park but never riding that one ride. And the thrill of finding out—like a loved one returning from the grave—that there was a still a shot, a chance to go back, to unto that mistake. By booking a trip to Colombia.
There are many things I loved about the AMC period drama Mad Men (2007–2015). The set design, the costumes, the obsessive attention to historical detail—it’s a designer’s dream. And of course, watching Don Draper work a room.
My favorite all-time monologue / pitch (all of Don’s monologues were pitches, whether he was talking to Betty, Peggy, or a group of suits) is from the first season’s finale episode, “The Wheel.” It’s worth quoting at length (emphasis is mine):
Technology is a glittering lure. But there is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product. My first job, I was in house at a fur company with this old pro copywriter, Greek, named Teddy. And Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising was ‘new.’ Creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion. But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product: nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.
This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. Takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called ‘The Wheel.’ It’s called ‘The Carousel.’ It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.
Back in 2014–2015, some of the marketing folks at Worlds of Fun must have been binge-watching Mad Men, because they decided to refurbish a space in the Europa area and convert it to a nostalgic retail outlet. This location opened in 1973 as “La Petite Toy Shoppe.” It had been called “Déjà Vu” since the early eighties, and throughout the nineties was a clearance outlet for overstock souvenirs.
Déjà Vu now calls itself the “Vintage Worlds of Fun Headquarters” and carries the slogan I could swear I’ve done this before. This was a wise move on their part, as Don Draper reminds the Kodak people he’s pitching to that there’s bags full of money to be made from the public “if they have a sentimental bond with the product.” In a way, theme parks get to have their cake and eat it too; they can remove rides and other attractions with impunity, then posthumously celebrate their ‘extinct’ status with merchandise.
As Mr. Draper says, nostalgia is “delicate, but potent.” And it comes in many flavors, whether authentic or Dickensheet’s “ersatz” variety. Some people, if they have the skills and inclination, recreate their own experiences to relive. Just like with Orient Express, people have modeled the Zambezi Zinger using No Limits simulation software. The above clip is a POV simulation using the original version of No Limits.
Others prefer the physical to the virtual. The above working model was created by this fella in 2013. He had built an earlier version in 2011, and he’s constructed all kinds of working models over the years, both fictional and actual roller coasters. Perhaps because he’s in the Kansas City area and possibly has some kind of relationship with Worlds of Fun, his Zambezi Zinger was on display at the park for a while.
For the rest of us, of course, there’s the merchandise. The day I visited Worlds of Fun it was the middle of the week, and Déjà Vu was buttoned up tight. I inquired and learned that it was usually only open for business on weekends and peak holiday. I get it. Delicate, but potent. But after chatting up a young staff member (possibly too young to have ridden either the Zinger or Orient Express) I found he was sympathetic to my plight. He arranged to open the store himself just so I could shop a little.
While I was in there tooling around and getting all sorts of swag from t-shirts to sticker and magnets of extinct attractions and items featuring the original hot air balloon logo for the park, a couple other people ducked in and asked if they too could shop. It was awfully nice of this kid to let us in.
The park’s merchandisers aren’t the only ones getting in on the action. A local company called Charlie Hustle launched a Worlds of Fun Collection apparel line in June of 2019. As they say on their website,
Inspired by the classic designs in sports and popular culture, we use the t-shirt as a canvas in effort to express our love and passion for vintage clothing. Our influences take us back to our youthful innocence and those childhood moments we all wish to relive.
The original balloon logo is featured on several items, and Zambezi Zinger has its own tee. Their Orient Express shirt, however, sold out in all sizes except small the day after it was offered (they’ve since restocked). It would appear to be an official partnership, as guests throughout the 2019 summer season report that Charlie Hustle is available at retail outlets throughout Worlds of Fun, including Déjà Vu.
Loyalty KC is yet another local outfit that traffics in the midwestern nostalgic trade. The company designs “shirts that pay homage to the great city of Kansas City.” Fortunately their awesome Zambezi Zinger shirt from 2018 (featuring the era-omnipresent Cooper Black) is still available in lots of sizes.
So sure. I rode Finnish Fling in order to relive my high school trips to Six Flag Magic Mountain. But I also now wear vintage-style t-shirts for extinct attractions that I never rode that were once at a park I didn’t grow up with. I mean, why not? A woman flew all the way to South America to ride a coaster she’s apparently very passionate about but never actually went on growing up.
As usual, I have more questions than answers. I’m a designer and a history buff, so naturally I dig vintage graphics anyway. If the Orient Express logo was truly terrible, I doubt I’d sport it out in public. It is cool; it’s worth wearing just aesthetically. But there is more, I think.
Thematic design is so wrapped up in nostalgia, wound so tightly, that at each and every park I’ve visited so far—parks I did not grow up with and have never visited before—I still felt it. I tended to imagine what these places were like when they opened, or perhaps during their first decade. Maybe that’s about the nature of change at these parks altogether. The degradation I’ve been talking about, how the intention of the designers gets lost over time, distorted; contradictions introduced… I’m longing for that ‘pure’ experience. Which is really what Don Draper is talking about, in the end. A chance to return again to purity, to safety, and ultimately, to lost love.
Delicate, but potent.