Dinn and Summers — A brief resurgence in wooden coasters

STORYJeffrey Seifert, American Coaster Enthusiasts

2013 marked the 25th anniversary of the coasters built by the team of Curtis Summers and Charlie Dinn. Over a period of four years, ten of these Dinn & Summers coasters as they would become to be known were constructed at various parks across the United States.

History

Charles Dinn began working for the Taft Broadcasting Company as an electrician at Cincinnati’s Coney Island Amusement Park in 1969. He oversaw much of the construction of Kings Island when Taft decided to close Coney Island and move to a new location safe from the flood plain of the Ohio River. Construction for the 1978/1979 Kings Island’s Beast project was handled by Charlie Dinn, who had worked his way up to head of maintenance. Designed primarily by Jeffrey Gramke and Al Collins, Curtis Summers was also involved with engineering the support structure for the helix. In 1981? Charlie Dinn left Kings Island and formed the Dinn Corporation. One of the corporation’s first projects was moving the San Antonio Playland Rocket to Knoebels Grove in Pennsylvania.

Curtis Summers spent nearly 35 years maintaining, designing, building and rebuilding roller coasters. He began doing work for the Taft Broadcasting Company in 1958 when he was asked to do structural repairs to the Shooting Star coaster at Taft’s Coney Island in Cincinnati. When Coney Island closed in 1970 to be replaced by Kings Island, Summers was asked by the newly formed Taft subsidiary, Kings Entertainment Company (KECO) to design most of the buildings for the new park. Although the two new coasters at the park were designed by John Allen of PTC, Summers provided the structural engineering for the rides. Summers continued to provide structural engineering for the buildings and coasters that were constructed for Kings Dominion in Virginia in 1975. KECO was looking to build two more coasters for their newly acquired Carowinds park in the Carolinas. But John Allen, then president of PTC wanted to retire. He built Screemin’ Eagle for Six Flags St. Louis in 1976, but was not willing to take on additional projects that year. Curtis Summers stepped up to the plate and designed the Thunder Road and Scooby Doo coasters at Carowinds based on John Allen’s designs from Kings Dominion. His relationship with Taft/KECO continued as he designed and built two new coasters for Canada’s Wonderland outside of Toronto. Some sources indicate the coasters were built by PTC, they were however, built in-house by KECO as PTC had been out of the coaster building business since John Allen retired in 1976.

Although Charlie Dinn and Curtis Summers worked together for many years with Taft Broadcasting, they first joined forces outside of Taft/KECO in 1985 with the move of Paragon Park’s Giant Coaster to Wild World. Dinn moved and rebuilt the coaster while Summers provided the design for the restoration of the coaster’s missing helix. In 1986 the two worked together to rebuild and modify Lake Compounce’s Wildcat. The two companies always remained separate, but from 1988 to 1991 every coaster built by the Dinn Corporation was engineered by Curtis Summers, Inc.

The beginning

1987 was to mark the first year the collaborative team constructed a brand-new coaster—two as a matter of fact, both opening in the Spring of 1988. Over near the eastern shore of Lake Michigan a little park famous for its herd of deer, was rebranding itself both figuratively and literally as an Adventure Park. And what better way to do so than with the introduction of a wood coaster? Park owner Roger Jourden asked Curtis Summers for a coaster similar to the Phoenix at Knoebels Grove. Summers avoided the complications that come with a figure-eight design and instead opted for a double oval without the center crossovers. The Wolverine Wildcat had many features reminiscent of the Phoenix, including the same number of drops and turns and the famous double-up double-down combo, but the coaster is taller and was unique enough to give it a different riding experience. It was well-received by both ACEers and the general public as Michigan was without a wood coaster since the closure of Edgewater park in 1982. More importantly was its impact on the park now known as Michigan’s Adventure. As the coaster was still breaking in, Jourden was making it known that the Wildcat was just the beginning. This oldest operating Dinn and Summers coaster still stands along the edge of the lake in the center of the park, beautifully reflected in the waters below. It celebrates its 20th anniversary this summer.

Wolverine Wildcat

For many years Geauga Lake Park stood in the shadow of the behemoth in Sandusky. But this charming, century-old park with its unique character, served as a less-crowded destination for Northeast Ohioans. In the 60s, 70s and 80s, the park owners steadily added new attractions in a controlled growth befitting a park of its size. Park management obtained the blueprints to the famous Bobs coaster at Riverview Park in Chicago, and asked Charlie Dinn to build a coaster for the park’s centennial celebration in 1988. Curtis Summers designed the Raging Wolf Bobs using a similar Riverview Bobs footprint but modified the drops and turns. Because of the ride’s many banked turns, Charlie Dinn requested that PTC come up with a more flexible design for their trains. PTC’s Sam High designed a six-car train that featured smaller four seat cars connected together with a trailer hitch. Unfortunately in an attempt to balance the car on a single axel, High moved the hitch point to the back of the car. As each car negotiated a turn, the hitch point being too far back from the axel, got pushed in the opposite direction. As a result, each car tended to oscillate in a side to side motion as the train negotiated turns in the track. This motion quickly became known to enthusiasts as the “Dinn shuffle.” These original trailered trains remained on the coaster until the end of the 2002 season, when they were finally replaced with a pair of Gerstlauer trains. After several ownership changes, the park ended up in the hands of the owners of the same park that overshadowed Geauga Lake for all those years. The park was suddenly closed at the end of the 2007 season. Instead of celebrating a 20th anniversary in 2008, Raging Wolf Bobs was left to rot at the edge of the lake.

 
Build it bigger

Although the first two coasters brought Dinn and Summers some recognition it would be the opening of Timber Wolf at Worlds of Fun in Kansas that made coaster enthusiasts really take notice. Worlds of Fun had built several notable attractions over the years, and in 1989 they turned to Dinn & Summers to build them a signature wood coaster. Attendees at the ACE Spring Conference held that year in Kansas City were amazed at the abundant airtime and quick directional changes the coaster had to offer. Enthusiasts everywhere were praising this unique woodie in the heart of the nation. One year after its debut it was voted the number one coaster in the world by the readers of Inside Track, a popular enthusiast publication. Over the years the ride has been tamed with the addition of a trim brake on the first drop, and like many woodies from that era, it is always in need of track work. Today it is still the only woodie in a park that seems to lose a coaster every time it gains a new one.

Timber Wolf

Dorney Park, just outside of Allentown, Pa. was another centuries old park with a rich tradition. Already home to a Herb Schmeck out and back coaster, the park was looking for something to thrust them into the limelight. Park owner Harris Weinstein had two requirements. He wanted a wood coaster built along the side of the hill overlooking the lake at the edge of the property and he wanted a record-breaking drop. The result was Hercules with a 148 foot drop down to the lake that was the tallest in the world on a wood coaster. In addition to its record-breaking drop and outrageous Jet-Star-like turn around, Hercules had a few other fun elements. There was a drop into a twisted turnaround right out of the station, there was a triple up following the big u-turn that brought the train all the way back up to the top of the hillside, and a drop under the station that was loaded with airtime. Coaster Con XII attendees converged upon the coaster in June and were ecstatic with the ride experience. But even in that first year, the Dinn shuffle through the high speed turn over the water was extremely pronounced. Curtis Summers had calculated the perfect angle for the turn, but with all the forces directed downward toward the bottom of the train, the train hunted side to side between the side rails trying to find the right path along the turn. Eventually the angle was lessened a bit to keep the coaster trains pressed against the outside rail. But that high speed turnaround continued to be problematic requiring several retrackings and structural reinforcement. The original trailered trains were replaced with articulating trains, but the problems continued. By year five a trim brake was added to the first drop. Then in 1994, Cedar-Fair, the current park owners, called in John Pierce for some off-season modifications. When Pierce was through, the once mighty Hercules had been emasculated. The triple up had been reduced to a double-up and lowered in height, the drop under the station was reduced 15 feet. With the lower heights, the brake on the first drop was tightened to brake even harder. Over the years the coaster’s popularity waned, and Cedar Fair grew tired of pouring money into it. At the end of the 2003 season, the mythological hero at just 14 years of age, was removed from the park, to be replaced by a shiny new B&M floorless coaster. Dubbed Hydra the Revenge, Cedar Fair took the liberty of rewriting Greek mythology. Apparently the Hydra, slain by Hercules over 2000 years ago, came back to seek its revenge on the mighty hero.

Hercules

A foursome

1990 was to be the busiest year for the Dinn Corporation. Four new coaster projects were on the books including another record-breaker. All four coasters were to receive trailered PTC trains with a new feature—individual ratcheting lapbars. These new lapbars could be individually adjusted to accommodate riders of varying sizes. Originally none of the lapbars had any type of spring mechanism to keep them in place. Once the bar was released by the station attendant it dropped, often unsuspectingly, into the riders lap. During the course of the ride it was not uncommon for the bar to keep ratcheting down tighter to the point were it would frequently become uncomfortable for the rider.

The original Six Flags Park in Arlington, Texas had been soliciting designs for a new coaster for a couple of years. Casting aside a proposal from local designer Bill Cobb, they decided instead to employ the services of Dinn and Summers. Being in Texas of course, meant that everything had to be bigger, and the Texas Giant was to be the tallest wooden coaster in the world. But height was not the only notable statistic. At 4,920 feet it would be second only to the Beast in length, and a block brake in the center of the ride would allow for three train operation—a first for a Dinn & Summers coaster. But size was not the only difficulty the Dinn Corporation had to deal with. Straddling Johnson Creek, the coaster was built in a flood plain and had to be constructed to endure occasional flooding when the banks of the creek overflowed. As a matter of fact flooding did occur during the construction of the Giant and work had to be halted until the waters receded. The coaster opened pretty much on time in March of 1990. After climbing 143’ the coaster dropped 137’ then rose into a curved climb. Although it stood taller than Hercules, it did not have as long of a drop, and the Pennsylvania park took issue with Six Flags’ claims that it had the tallest coaster in the world. Eventually a judge decided that since the coasters were in different parts of the country and did not share the same market, each park could lay claim to the world’s tallest coaster. The wild ride with its out-of-control finish had many an enthusiast proclaiming the Giant their number one coaster. But the coaster proved to be a little too wild, even for the trains. The very first year, one of the ball hitches was sheared off the coaster and the train came limping back to the station held together by its safety chains. In another incident a rider came back to the station holding a detached lap bar over his head for the attendants to see. Modifications were quickly made to tame the ride, and the modifications continued for many years. The trains were sent back to PTC and rebuilt with articulating cars instead of trailered cars, and eventually springs were added to the lapbars to keep them from ratcheting down on riders. Even with the various alterations the Giant still claimed the number one spot on the Inside Track readers poll, and eight years later would claim the number one spot on the Amusement Today Golden Ticket Awards for two years in a row. Such a massive ride however, requires a lot of upkeep, and as the years marched on, the Giant always seemed to be in need of track work. With newer designs and an always aggressive ride, the Giant can no longer claim to be a number one coaster. But it still has legions of fans who come every year to ride this legendary wood coaster.

Texas Giant

Over in Atlanta, Six Flags park number two was also ready to add a second wood coaster to its lineup, but decided to leave the record-breaking to the Texans. Six Flags Over Georgia asked for a coaster based on an already proven design, the Coney-Island Cyclone. This would be the second Cyclone-clone for a Six Flags park following the Texas Cyclone, built in 1976 as a bigger and better version of the original. Like its Texas twin, Summers designed for Georgia a mirror-image to the New York version. And to pay homage to the original, this coaster would open with something no other Dinn and Summers coaster had—a coat of white paint. Opening just one week after the Texas Giant, the Georgia Cyclone featured everything the Cyclones had been famous for—steep drops, high-lateral turns and lots of airtime. ACEers everywhere were giving the coaster accolades soon after opening proclaiming it had non-stop slam-bam brutality. But the non-stop excitement didn’t last long. Before ACE managed to get to the park for its Spring Conference in April, trim brakes had been added to the coaster. Although it still starts off with a wallop, the trim brakes tend to suck the life out of the ending. Eventually the trailered trains were replaced on this coaster as well, but what remains are coaster seats with hard dense foam backs and dense foam seat cushions. With the lack of padding, every bounce in the track is transferred directly to the rider’s spine resulting in a somewhat uncomfortable ride. Although the coaster still offers plenty of steep drops and airtime, the ride is almost a test of endurance.

Georgia Cyclone

Up in the cold white North, Darien Lake’s Predator had a few more months to get ready as the season there did not start until May. Darien Lake was a relatively large property that began life as campground and picnic park in the late 1960s. It officially became an amusement park in 1980 and featured a number of flat rides mostly from HUSS Maschinenfabrik as it served as a U.S. showcase for new Huss rides during the 1980s. The only coaster at the park was Viper, a Huss-Arrow looper from 1982. A wood coaster was just what the park needed for its 10th anniversary, and Predator delivered. The L-shaped double out-and-back layout featured numerous drops and 45 degree banked curves. Situated right along the shore of Darien Lake, the coaster surprises riders with several moments of airtime. For the first couple of years, Predator was well liked by enthusiasts, and this may be the only Dinn and Summers coaster that never received any modifications. Unfortunately it never received much of anything else, either. Although all the other trailered PTC trains from this era have since been replaced, Predator is the only coaster that continues to run these original trains. Coupled with track that may have never been maintained or replaced, Predator was almost unrideable when ACE visited in the Spring of 2006. Since that time the park has been sold, and the new owners have given Predator some much needed maintenance and have started track replacement. They are also looking into refurbishing or replacing the trains in the near future. With a little care, perhaps this once-popular coaster, can reclaim its spot in the limelight.

Predator

The final coaster to debut in 1990 was at a little park that opened just three years prior on the grounds of the Kentucky Exposition Center. Kentucky Kingdom was a 38-acre permanent park that became part of the Kentucky State Fair for a few weeks in August. At the time, the park had just one roller coaster, an enclosed Jet Star that ran in the dark. For the 1990 season they added a Vekoma Boomerang and expanded to a new area across the street anchored by the new wood coaster Thunder Run. The coaster, which opened on August 11 just days before the start of the fair had an interesting history. It was designed by John Fetterman of Knoebels four years earlier. According to John Fetterman “Thunder Run was designed in early 1986 for Americana. It started on the back of a proverbial napkin —we even joked about it at the time — while at a Safety Seminar in Greenville, SC, which I, Jim Martini, and several other Knoebels Grove workers were attending, while Dinn was making a presentation on wooden coaster safety there. Jim, Charlie, and I were present for an evening meal as I sketched out the idea of making a high-speed turn at low heights. That had grown out of both my familiarity with the Jet Star first drop, of which we had an operating model, and an intellectual curiosity for making turns in a manner different from the classical Miller/Schmeck model of slow-and-high directional changes.” The design was presented to Ron Berni a manager at Americana Park in Middletown, Ohio. At Dinn’s request Fetterman sent the completed design, including ledger heights and placements to Dennis Starkey, an engineer with Curtis Summers, Inc. Americana failed to contract the building of the ride. Ron Berni left Americana and in 1990 was working in a position of responsibility for Kentucky Kingdom. “It is thus reasonable to assume that he was the reason that the ride designed for Americana was finally built at Kentucky Kingdom” Fetterman told RC! The first drop leads to a ground level turn that had probably served as inspiration for Hercules built the year before, but the following speed bumps that grew successively larger were quite unique. More ground level turns and additional speed bumps gave this exciting woodie a reputation for producing prodigious airtime. Like most coasters of this era, it too was tweaked after a few years and one of the speed bumps was removed. The trailered trains were eventually rebuilt into articulating trains. Shuffling was a problem for a while, but in recent years the coaster has been getting track work, and seems to be running better. Even though one speed bump was removed, the coaster still produces an amazing amount of airtime in its opening volley.

Thunder Run

The final chapter

By 1991 PTC had stopped building new trailered trains. Many of the first sets of trains built for the Dinn and Summers coasters had already been sent back to the PTC factory to be remodeled into articulating trains with four sets of wheels on each car and a back axel that was able to rotate a few degrees in each direction. Mean Streak would be the first new coaster to premiere with 2-bench articulated trains.

Six Flags ordered up two more Cyclone-clones. One for Great Adventure and another for Magic Mountain. For various reasons, the Cyclone for Great Adventure never materialized. Magic Mountain in California gave their new ride a moniker that was a clever play on words: Psyclone. The director of maintenance, had a bad experience with PTC trains on Colossus back in the early 80s and wasn’t real happy with the current Morgan trains either. He insisted the park look to another manufacturer, so B&M was contracted to provide three trains for the new ride. Although roomy and fairly comfortable, the B&M trains were heavy and had a higher center of gravity than PTC or Morgan trains. Instead of building an exact clone, the California version was tailored to provide a speedier ride and smoother transitions. Banking on the turns was increased, and the structure had to be modified to meet earthquake codes. Enthusiast reaction to the new coaster was somewhat mixed. Of all the cy-clones, this was clearly the most distinctive from the original. The first drop wasn’t much of a drop, and the tunnel was in an odd place. But the increasing speed enhanced the latter parts of the ride. Soon after opening however the modifications began. The first drop was reprofiled a couple of times, and trim brakes were added to the course. The train was slowed to the point that the highly banked turns became almost comical. Riders ended up lying on their sides as they crawled through each turn. The heavy trains took their toll on the track and Magic Mountain neglected the coaster for years. The poor location and lack of visual appeal contributed to the coaster’s lack of popularity. It seems the Magic Mountain masses prefer brightly colored multi-lopping coasters, and they just weren’t interested in a 90-foot woodie in the corner of the park. In 2007, the 16 year old ride was bulldozed and hauled away.

Cedar Point had a reputation for taking existing coaster concepts and turning them into record-breaking rides. They ordered up a woodie that would end the “tallest” debate once and for all. Mean Streak was to top out at 161 feet making it the undisputed tallest wooden coaster in the world. Looking somewhat like the Texas Giant it was not only taller but faster at 65 mph and longer at 5,427 feet, making it the second longest wooden coaster in the world. But bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. Although the first and third drops were rather impressive, the rest of the coaster didn’t live up to the hype. Much of the track was elevated within the structure, and the trains just plodded along without much excitement. To further add to its dilemma, the upward climb out of the first drop had developed a nasty shimmy just a few weeks after it opened. Enthusiasts were also surprised at the amount of sway present in the structure as the trains negotiated the track high above. Almost immediately Cedar Point began making modifications. They first tried to reprofile the curve on the first uphill climb, then they reprofiled some of the drops. The structure was shored up to keep it from swaying. The park tried shortening the trains. A sprinkler system was added to moisturize the coaster. Finally Cedar Fair ended up adding a trim brake to the first drop. By the time the park was done modifying the coaster, what little fun it had to start with, had for the most part been removed. Cedar Point continues to try to take care of their monster as best they can, and the ride is finally smooth—if nothing else.

Mean Streak

Park owners at this point should have realized that wood coasters made of southern yellow pine and built with traditional construction methods should never be made this big, but of course they didn’t learn. Just one year later a new park in Texas attempted an even taller coaster from a different builder with the same disastrous results.

The final collaborative effort of the Dinn and Summers duo was to take place in the Netherlands at Efteling Park. Pegasus, a junior coaster with a height of only 59 feet was designed by Curtis Summers and was to be built by the Dinn Corporation and Intamin. Charlie Dinn however was not happy with the working the conditions overseas and was concerned for the safety of his crew. He pulled out of the project and RCCA stepped in  to finish the coaster.

Soon afterward, Charlie Dinn retired and closed the Dinn Corporation. Curtis Summers designed one more coaster, Jupiter at Kijima Amusement Park in Japan. This first-ever wood coaster for Japan was built by the Intamin Corporation and opened in July of 1992. However, Curtis Summers never saw the finished product. On May 11, 1992 he died suddenly from a heart attack.

Dinn and Summers can be credited with a resurgence in interest in wood coasters in amusement parks. After John Allen’s retirement, few coaster designers and builders were left. They are both widely responsible for the move from Douglas Fir wood as the coaster material of choice for the previous 20-30 years to the cheaper and more readily available southern yellow pine. In a short four-year period Dinn and Summers added ten new coasters to the U.S. landscape. It is unfortunate that during that time, parks were obsessed with building record-breaking monstrosities that proved to be problematic. Some may question if Summers adequately engineered the coasters to compensate for the weaker and more pliable southern yellow pine wood. That same pine also resulted in a less durable track bed, which quickly became rough. Whatever the case, almost every coaster had to be modified after it was turned over to park owners, and most turned out to be maintenance nightmares. Enthusiasts of that era however were happy to have ten new coasters to experience and Dinn and Summers paved the way for future wooden coasters.

Charlie’s daughter Denise Dinn and her husband Randy Larrick went on to form Custom Coasters, Inc. (CCI) employing many of the same people from the Dinn Corporation. Two Curtis Summers, Inc. designers, Larry Bill and Dennis Starkey remained in the coaster business. Dennis Starkey started the Stand Company which continued to design coasters including Viper at Six Flags Great America and the Dania Beach Hurricane. Larry Bill went to work for Denise Dinn designing coasters for CCI then in 2002 became one of the founding partners of The Gravity Group. 

This article first appeared in the Spring 2008, issue of RollerCoaster!, and is reprinted here courtesy of American Coaster Enthusiasts. For subscription information, visit RCReride.com.