by Danny Miller
With the debut of Raptor at Italy’s Gardaland in 2011, the geniuses at Bolliger & Mabillard showed what they could do with a new design, the wing coaster. Although not completely new to the industry, it was B&M’s first crack at the winged concept. Raptor was fairly small relative to other B&M coasters, and was not noted for its intensity, but rather its ability to be re-ridden and tight maneuvers.
A year later in 2012, the wing coaster made its way to England’s Thorpe Park in the form of Swarm, and also to the States, with Six Flags Great America’s X-Flight, and Dollywood’s Wild Eagle. Again, these rides were noted for their grace and maneuvers more than their intensity factor. It had long been rumored that Cedar Point would take a crack at their own wing coaster, and in August 2012, we got confirmation that Cedar Point would indeed be building Gatekeeper, a wing coaster to put every previous incarnation to shame.
Fast forward to Wednesday, May 8, 2013, and I was on my way to Sandusky. After flight delays, my aunt finally landed in Cleveland just before 10PM, giving us less than three hours to sleep at our hotel in Sandusky before waking up to get to the park for a 4AM start time at Gatekeeper Media Day. Upon our arrival about an hour before the event, we came to a park lit up in all its glory, a sight I had not seen for six years, but this time, a wonderful addition was present at the front of the park. Pictures cannot do it justice folks.
Gatekeeper immediately leaves a striking visual impression that is incredible by day, but seeing it at night for the first time is a treat unlike any other. The ride is beautifully lit, with its twin keyhole towers illuminated in an awe-inspiring blue that brilliantly matches the two-toned azure track that threads them. Each of Gatekeeper’s three trains feature scarlet red eyes on the golden bird that fiercely decorates the lead car. The sides of each row feature bright white lights that allow the train to be tracked through the course when the sun is down.
Check-in began directly beneath the keyhole towers at the brand new front gate as the ride made its final test runs, giving all in attendance early photo opportunities. The coaster enthusiasts in attendance were given black lanyards, while media personnel were given bright blue ones that allowed them to board via the exit for seating in front of a camera mounted on the front row of two of the three trains.
Our concerns have long been expressed on the Screamin’ Horseshoe Queue Podcast about how many folks would be at the event, and how awful the event could potentially be in terms of quantity of people, crowd control, and limited rides. Let me say that not only were we all wrong about the craziness, but we were also completely wrong about how intense the ride would be. The event was superbly run, with easy access to the ride, free breakfast and lunch at various locations around the front of the park, and even a nice surprise of Raptor and Millennium Force being opened in the afternoon as a special thank you to everyone who came out for the event. The food was good, and the treatment of each attendee was wonderful.
So now we get to the big question: Just how good is Gatekeeper? I alluded to it before by saying we were completely wrong about this ride. Every previous wing coaster has been criticized for its lack of intensity and speed. Gatekeeper is nothing short of a brilliant mix of intense moments, graceful, floating moments, and surprising elements that will scare even the most experienced riders.
The lift hill gives riders a chance to survey the lake to the left, which around 6AM was beautifully joined by the sun peeking over the horizon. At the top of the hill, the first drop marks the first location where the left and right wings vary greatly. The left side lifts you up, pressing you into your seat until you invert, while the right side drops you down, seemingly let you free fall right out of the seat. In either case, the drop is an amazing one that pummels you with positive g-forces at the bottom.
The second inversion flips riders upside-down again, with the left side again being thrown upwards, while the right side gently rolls out into a near miss with two support columns that cross just out of reach of your right arm. The train speeds to the on-ride photo section, again featuring strong positive forces. Next is the major airtime hill, an element that does exactly what you might think, and that is float you out of your seat. The front seat seemed to give a bit more airtime here than the back.
Next comes an oversized corkscrew that again, surprisingly greets riders with some intense positive g-forces, something the other wing coasters fail to accomplish. Now it is time for the signature move of Gatekeeper, the keyholes. Both sides (especially in the front seat) offer extremely scary views. On the left, you are thrown upwards, narrowly (and I mean VERY narrowly) escaping collision with the top of the first tower. The right side swings downward, just missing the right side of the tower.
As disorienting as it is, you are just as surprised when you narrowly miss striking the second tower, only this time on the other side. On the inclined dive loop, it is instead the right side that gets thrown upwards, with the left side getting the air. On the way back towards the towers, the train reluctantly starts to spin, with the right wing barely missing the tower. From the left, you are inverted as the second tower quickly approaches. With a collision seemingly imminent, the roll quickly tightens and provides both sides with wonderful ejector airtime while upside-down, almost like a bird snatching you with its talons just before smacking the ground. it is a feeling I have never experienced on a coaster before.
A brief moment on the brake run allows you to catch your breath before diving into a tight helix and another airtime hill that pops you from your seat. The final brakes arrive, and you have conquered Gatekeeper. It was here that I realized just how much my expectations were exceeded. With Wild Eagle in my mind leading up to the ride, there was no question that this ride was going to be a hit…and it was.
Everywhere I turned the rest of the day I saw folks smiling, ranging from small children playing hooky, to the most seasoned of enthusiasts. Some of them rode well over twenty times alone that day. I myself rode seven times before focusing on interviews for the SHQ Podcast and grabbing a few rides on Raptor and Millennium Force, and I enjoyed each and every one of them. In every seat you are in for a different experience, but the common factor is that Gatekeeper is fantastic regardless of seat selection.
Aside from a few brief stops early on for television station shots, the ride was run smoothly all day, with almost unanimous acclaim for the ride. If there is one drawback to the ride at all, it is one that is shared by all B&M wing coasters, and that is the vest like restraints that tighten ever so slightly during the ride, but this is nowhere near enough to deter one from grabbing multiple rides.
The opening ceremony at 9AM gave several people from Cedar Point, Cedar Fair, and B&M to thank multiple people, including the media and each group of enthusiasts in attendance at the event. This is where it was announced that Raptor and Millennium Force would be opened as a special thanks to those who woke up early, and in many cases, didn’t sleep at all in order to be a part of such a special day.
It was said that Walter Bolliger got the idea for the wing coasters by looking out the airplane window and wondering what it would be like the ride on the wing of an airplane. It may never be possible to do that, and if it isn’t, that is more that perfectly fine, because Gatekeeper is everything that the previous wing coasters tried to be and couldn’t quite do. It is fast, intense, scary in some spots, and most importantly, smooth. Re-rides are a must, and each seat, left, right, front, and back, all provide a vastly different experience, yet they all provide a tremendous one that truly makes you feel like you are flying.
Later this week I will review Opening Day and the park as a whole, but for now I’d like to wish heart-felt congratulations to everyone involved with the event, as it was essentially a perfect day that made every person in attendance feel like royalty. Also congratulations to everyone who had a part in bringing a spectacular coaster to Cedar Point that will forever be an icon not only at Cedar Point’s front gate, but also an icon of the amusement industry that has risen the bar to a whole new level in a way that only Cedar Point could do. Ride On Guardians.