Saturday, Aug. 30, 1997 | 11:59 a.m.
The screams are growing quieter this weekend, and the laughter is disappearing.
Labor Day traditionally marks the end of the theme park season. Most of America's 427 roller coasters are preparing for hibernation.
Except for a few of the big-name parks across the country, such as Disneyland, which drastically cuts hours but stays open every day, most theme parks are putting tarpaulins over the coaster trains that thrill millions of riders every summer.
But in Southern Nevada, thrill-seekers don't have to call it quits. Thanks in part to a climate that provides an endless summer and to Las Vegas' promise to visitors that it will excite them with a nonstop supply of thrills, area roller coasters roll on even when the calendar says the season pass has expired.
MGM Grand and Circus Circus started the local competition by developing theme parks. They used a signature thrill ride as the centerpiece of the park. The big attraction at Circus' Grand Slam Canyon is the Canyon Blaster roller coaster, the only indoor coaster with four inversions.
MGM was less successful in its initial foray with the Lightning Bolt, a dark coaster that was sold as a Space Mountain clone but turned out to be a disappointment to many riders. The park has rebounded with its Sky Screamer attraction, a duplication of a successful ride that has sprung up in 42 theme parks around the world.
MGM needed something big to re-energize its park, so the company built the tallest version of the ride, a combination of hang-gliding, skydiving and the playground swing set.
Primadonna Resorts then built what once was the tallest roller coaster in the world, the Desperado, and collaborated with MGM Grand to develop the high-profile Manhattan Express at New York-New York.
Meanwhile, Bob Stupak was building the Stratosphere Tower and swore he'd develop the ultimate thrill ride -- a roller coaster atop a 1,000-foot building. The roller coaster -- the High Roller -- turned out to be a dud, but a ride added as an afterthought -- the Big Shot -- was a huge hit.
While the Southern Nevada resorts were busy building thrill rides, a subculture of riding enthusiasts was taking note. With each new coaster, Las Vegas received greater attention from members of American Coaster Enthusiasts, a 5,000-member national club that crisscrosses the country riding rides, comparing notes and debating the merits of high-tech tubular steel coasters vs. old-fashioned "woodies."
Using the Internet to conduct their discussions, members of ACE, rival clubs and unaffiliated enthusiasts who join the conversations enjoy Las Vegas' thrill rides. They'll mention Southern Nevada's rides in the same breath with Southern California's or the reigning favorites in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
As with most Internet discussions, all topics are fair game and there are no holds barred. Some of the things enthusiasts like about Las Vegas: the variety of the rides, the hours the attractions are open and the other nightlife the city offers. They're high on the rides themselves, with many citing the high-intensity Desperado among their all-time favorites.
The coaster chatter also includes criticism: They think the rides are too expensive (most are $5 apiece compared with theme park admissions that average about $25 for unlimited riding). They're particularly miffed at having to spend $5 to go to the top of the Stratosphere Tower, then $5 more to ride the attractions.
They don't like the uncomfortable restraint systems on the Manhattan Express and the High Roller (a common complaint among riders on any roller coaster). They long for a Las Vegas-based thrill ride park like Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, Calif., and they feel the local roller coaster package would be complete with a good wooden coaster.
While many enthusiasts enjoy the smooth ride of a well-designed steel coaster, others revel in the rickety clatter of the more historic wooden designs and the recently built tributes to them.
Among the enthusiasts who have found Southern Nevada to be an impressive roller coaster venue is Bob Reid, who works in the University of Arizona's lunar and planetary sciences laboratory, currently on assignment in Pasadena, Calif., on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Mars imaging project.
"Las Vegas is like a big amusement park," said Reid, who has dedicated a World Wide Web page to his roller coaster exploits.
Reid has nothing but good things to say about Southern Nevada's coasters. He enjoys the speed of the Desperado, the mixed bag of experiences provided by the Manhattan Express and the pleasant ride of the Canyon Blaster, which he considers one of the smoothest coasters he's ever ridden.
With Las Vegas' we're-always-open welcome mat out for the endless summer, here's a tour of Southern Nevada's thrill rides, from the lightweights to the white-knucklers:
MGM Grand Adventures offers Over the Edge, Circus Circus has the Rim Runner and Buffalo Bill's has Adventure Canyon. All offer a refreshing dip on a hot summer day and each has unique characteristics despite minimal thrill value.
Over the Edge has drops of 25 and 40 feet and achieves a maximum speed of 25 mph. The Rim Runner has six-across seating and a broad hull, producing a massive splash at the end of a two-tiered, 60-foot chute. Primadonna officials added a unique feature to their ride -- an electronic shooting gallery following the 35-foot, drip-filled drop. Following the resort's Wild West theme, each rider gets use of a pistol. Targets are illuminated along the flume's path.
Shooting bad guys gives you points; shooting good guys deducts them. At the end of the journey, riders determine the best marksman as they towel off.
One of the original MGM efforts, the Lightning Bolt is a whole different ride from when it opened. But it's still a low-impact coaster designed more for family rides than big thrills. With its 35 mph top speed, it's the perfect opportunity for parents wanting to indoctrinate their kids into the roller coaster realm.
The entire track used to be indoors. Now, in its new location on the north end of the theme park, it's outside.
The new Lightning Bolt isn't expected to officially open until the end of September. When it does, it will be twice as long as the original at about 2,400 feet and its course will take it up two hills, one 45 feet, the other 65 feet.
The ride is a series of high-speed turns and will take passengers over the Grand Canyon Rapids attraction.
A SCREAM OR TWO
In the newest attraction at Buffalo Bill's, riders are slowly transported up a 200-foot tower. At the summit, they're yanked down at 45 mph and bounced on a cushion of air.
It's literally a hair-raising experience.
It's a new, improved High Roller on that 980 feet of track circling the top of the Stratosphere Tower. Midway through the third rotation, the roller coaster has picked up enough speed -- 30 mph -- to induce panic. ("What happens if this thing derails way up here?!?")
Since the track is attached to the tower above the widest portion of the bubble structure, riders never look directly down to the street level. But the seats inside the train have been raised slightly to give riders a better view of the scenery.
In addition, High Rollers get to run the track twice for the price of admission, making the ride a little longer.
Designed by Utah-based Arrow Dynamics, the Canyon Blaster crams four inversions into the tight confines of the Grand Slam Canyon Adventuredome. Twin corkscrews follow two vertical loops and the ride concludes with a tight helix that darts in and out of caves in the faux canyon wall.
Alas, the critics say the ride is too short. Just when riders get into the action, it's over.
STEEL NERVES ONLY
A 2-second, 160-foot launch up a tower is startling. Doing it 1,000 feet in the air atop the tallest building west of the Mississippi is downright terrifying. Riders are fully exposed to the vastness of the valley as the machine reverse-bungees riders up and down the mast before settling back to the base.
The whole experience lasts less than a minute. Be sure your seat belt is securely fastened to avoid collecting frequent-flier mileage.
This state-of-the-art roller coaster incorporates high velocity and inversions. Developed by the American division of the Japanese amusement giant Togo, the Express steals a taxicab motif, with bright yellow cars with headlights.
A 160-foot drop with a 50-degree angle on the second hill gets the train rolling at 67 mph. The two inversions are a vertical loop and a one-of-a-kind heartline twist and dive -- a C-shaped track that turns riders upside down with a barrel roll before diving underneath itself.
A series of camelback hills and a 540-degree spiral complete the Strip standout.
Riders are hoisted up a 220-foot launch tower. A ripcord is pulled and riders free-fall 100 feet (skydiving), then swing from a cable through a 250-foot steel arch (hang-gliding), flying back and forth by momentum (swing set).
This giant swing gets riders moving at 70 mph -- faster if there are multiple riders per flight.
Critics' big beef with the ride is the added cost and lack of flight availability.
The Sky Screamer is routinely sold out and MGM officials recommend reservations, either by phone or in person. A standby list is maintained if the crew gets ahead of schedule or a passenger fails to arrive at the ride on time.
Flights are booked every 15 minutes and the reservation system prevents riders from having to stand in line for long periods.
Low-volume, high-outlay rides such as the Sky Screamer need additional revenues to pay for it. And the lines keep forming for the high-speed thrill.
It used to be the highest roller coaster in the world until a newer one was built in Japan. Now, it's just the highest coaster in North America.
No matter. The 225-foot drop down a 55-degree descent on the first hill is well worth the price of admission, fans say. From the top of the first hill, a tunnel burrowing into the desert looks like an anthill. By the time the Desperado rams through it, the train is going about 80 mph. The second hill, a high-speed helix, takes off from 155 feet -- higher than most coasters' first drop.
The camelback hills leading to the front of the property provide riders with plenty of "air time," the thrilling zero-gravity sensation of getting tossed from the car.
The ride wraps up with a high-speed upward spiral through a man-made mountain.
The highly competitive thrill-ride industry has some characteristics of the gaming industry in that the players never like to tip their hands about what's next.
An executive with Primadonna Resorts Inc. said he would not confirm reports that the company is investigating developing another thrill ride on the west side of the highway at Primm, near the company's original resort.
Dan Rasmussen, director of rides and attractions at Primadonna, said his company is always exploring one-of-a-kind, you've-got-to-try-this attractions for the resort at the Nevada-California border.
Maybe thrill ride fans will get their wooden roller coaster after all.