I seem to always be talking about how the UK failed to spark my interest in so many aspects and today is going to be no exception. I was never particularly enthralled with any of the wooden coaster offerings we have back home as they never showed me what made this seemingly antiquated construction material so special. It was old, it bounced around a lot, it wasn’t very good.
It fell to Great Coasters International to be the first company to introduce me to what highly enjoyable wooden rollercoasters are really all about and for a good couple of years they managed to establish themselves as my favourite wooden coaster manufacturer. Today I’d say that I potentially get more excited about riding a new woodie than I do a steelie and that’s not just because they’re outnumbered by about 25 to 1 in this modern age, substantial credit goes to this lot.
The company built their first layout in 1996 and quickly developed into one of the key players in modern wooden rollercoaster design. It’s a very niche market these days dominated by only 3 or 4 names and as things currently stand, GCI have remained the most traditional of the bunch – building on their signature twister style layouts and relentless pacing.
Traditional is all you need sometimes and they still top my list for all-time favourite woodie, though sadly as I have travelled further and experienced more, the consistency hasn’t quite always been there. I recently rode my 20th GCI in Poland, which marks a good chunk of the 26 currently operating worldwide. Hopefully the full set will not elude me forever, but for now I’d say that’s enough to sink my teeth into for one of these lists.
We have to start somewhere and guess what? It’s in the UK.
I was initially very excited that after over 20 years we were going to get a modern woodie so close to home, from a manufacturer that I believed I could count on to deliver a quality experience. As the construction developed it began to look a little underwhelming and when the day finally came to ride it, I was left with nothing but mild disappointment.
Most people love the Wicker Man and I wish it every success, but I’ve seen and felt what GCI can do and this does none of it. Though it certainly looks the part, there’s just no energy in this tiny layout and I stand by what I said in the introduction. Nothing wooden in this country excites me. Hopefully by the time we reach the end of the list you’ll see why.
The aforementioned first build in 1996 was here in home state Pennsylvania and as this is the one that started it all I feel I can’t judge Wildcat too harshly.
It’s taller, faster and longer than the Wicker Man but almost as uneventful – almost like they’ve come full circle. Big swooping curves form the majority of the layout and sadly I have no recollection of any interesting transitions or airtime.
Still in the early days, this ride hasn’t yet been treated to the manufacturer’s signature rolling stock (the Millenium Flyer) and this combined with the layout style makes Roar almost unrecognisable as one of their creations. Aside from the big swooping curves, there’s big traditional airtime hills in here, though again they don’t really do anything. I can’t think of any other GCI that’s been made since to have a hill shaped anywhere close to that, probably with good reason. Shallow and powerful is much more their forte.
With the bottom 3 out of the way we now enter a large cluster of almost inseparable experiences. I will say that everything from here on is at least a decent ride worth multiple laps so try not to focus on the negatives too much, I’m just better at talking about them.
Great Desert-Rally began with the promise of much greater things, taking a fast and powerful first drop similar to a certain European cousin. It then spends far too long in this bit, up high, sapping all the momentum from the ride and the remainder is a little underwhelming.
As easily one of my favourite parks in the world, oh how I wish Dollywood had a top tier GCI. Sadly the ride clings in desperation to a pointless claim, something along the lines of ‘most corners in the world’ and that’s about as interesting as it sounds. There really isn’t a whole lot else going on here.
Two thunders in a row and it takes a significantly powerful memory to be able to tell these apart. It took 10 years for GCI to go continental, bringing Thunderbird to Europe and I’m sure that was an amazing moment.
The layout tries, tries to do more than corners. There’s that hill in the picture that acts like a second drop and a little section of straight bunny hills that don’t really deliver.
Most notable to me for being my 200th coaster, I’ve always found this one a little underwhelming in the grand scheme of things. Take that first drop for instance – it doesn’t really go anywhere. Just a big swooping turn (here we go again) into some more swooping turns.
The transitions start to liven up a little at this point in the list and Troy does have a good bit of kick to it. I just can’t tell you where or when. I find it’s a particularly good ride at providing the illusion of being more aggressive than it actually is.
Now Gold Striker was aggressive, almost in the wrong sense. It gave me a headache on my first lap but I persisted and grew to respect it, to a degree. Offride I love the design of this one (Santa not included), the way the queue sits inside the intimidatingly loud starting sequence. Later on you climb some stairs towards the station where once again the train comes roaring past in very close proximity at a defeaning pace. The signature station flythrough is subverted with these moments and you get a lot more time to appreciate it while you wait.
Onride it’s more of the above. I just found myself willing it to do a little more.
The ingredients of what makes GCI special are beginning to fall into place and I believe I can pinpoint this as the first ride in the list with notable kinks in the corners, something I assumed would always be a part of the manufacturers recipe. These unusual track shapings provide a satisfying moment of unexpected airtime as you either enter or exit a turn and would serve to elevate all of the aforementioned big swoopers by giving them a moment of significance. After all, that’s what you need to stand out in a list like this.
Invadr was small, fun and punchy. Things are starting to get exciting.
Wildcat clearly wasn’t enough for Hersheypark and only 4 years later they ended up with not one, but two more GCIs. This time it was a racing coaster with two tracks intertwined in a spectacular tangle of timber. The racing element certainly enhances things for me, though I still found the layouts lacked a little definition. One side was running slightly better than the other (I couldn’t say which, but it was winning every time without fail) and my favourite moment was the surprise airtime hill in a shed. More of that please.
I can only really separate these two on theming. They are owned by the same park chain, share the same layout (albeit mirrored) and they both rode exactly the same – a welcome change to the standard GCI styling with a lot more straights, a lot less corners and a lot more airtime hills.
They’re very good for the size, but with so little speed to play with there’s a distinct lack of aggression. Which is fine, for a family coaster.
For what it’s worth I preferred the look of the one with the werewolves.
While still comparatively a baby, this little GCI has that extra spice that defines the manufacturer for me. A relentless feel from start to finish, with a good mixture of twisty bits and bumpy hills. It’s amazing how such seemingly minor changes can make a huge difference to the overall experience.
The sinister statues in the station alone should put this ride in the top half, but it’s the aggressive start and unpredictable ending that really did it for me. While the middle section loses pace for a short while, I always found myself laughing uncontrollably with joy by the time the train hit the brakes.
The ones that started it all for me remain the best in Europe and it’s not just the rose tint talking, I’ve been back to confirm. Fire breathing dragon aside (RIP), these exhilarating racing coasters throw so much at you in a short space of time and simply deliver bags of fun. The soundtrack is addictive and should be sung on any racing attraction in the world because it perfectly sums up the experience, as does the theming in the station with the cheers and jeers. A proper package.
I went in to this one expecting something on par with the #1 in this list and subsequently left disappointed. Fortunately I have come to appreciate it a lot more looking back on the experience, it was still a monster. It had all the ingredients to be truly special – the sheer size and the location on the hillside, the queueline even has a lift to take you up to the station, so there was plenty to play with.
It ended up a mixed bag though. As though paying homage to the days of Wildcat, a lot of the terrain was used for large swooping corners off the side of the hill and they didn’t really deliver. What made the ride was the straight airtime sequences, which were amongst GCIs very finest for getting me out of that seat again and again.
Now we enter the God tier. Stupidly huge, overgrown and built into the side of a mountain, ride location simply doesn’t get better than this.
Wood Coaster goes on forever, never stops being aggressive and is just about perfect in every way.
I can’t believe this ride exists, I can’t believe how much I went through to experience it and I still can’t believe how much it gave me in return.
But if there’s one ride to beat that, it has to be the snake, just. While the views might not be as spectacular, the experience is even longer and contains more airtime moments than there are grains of sand in the universe. GCI must have thrown absolutely everything they have at these marvellous creations and it really couldn’t be more apparent. I can’t wait for the day when another park attempts something of this magnitude again.