Holiday World announces $22M steel roller coaster

Artist rendering courtesy Holiday World

Herald Staff Writer

SANTA CLAUS — The wait is over. After 66 days of clues and speculation, Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari finally announced Thursday night that the park’s new attraction in 2015 will be a steel wing roller coaster named Thunderbird.

The coaster, the first launched wing coaster in the nation, will be more than 3,000 feet long with four inversions and located in the park’s Thanksgiving section.

When it opens in late April of next year, Thunderbird will propel riders 140 feet in the air from zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds, followed by multiple inversions. In one minute and 18 seconds, riders will experience multiple loops, including a 14-story Immelmann loop (a half loop with a twist shooting riders in the opposite direction), S curves, elevated spirals, a barrel roll, zero-G rolls to create a sense of weightlessness and near misses with barns along the course.

There will also be two points at which Thunderbird crosses over the nearby Voyage roller coaster.

Two trains, each with five four-person coaches, will be able to handle 1,140 guests per hour.


The Spencer County theme park is investing $22 million in the new attraction, more than double anything the park spent for a single expansion since opening in 1946.

In 2012, the park invested $9 million in Mammoth, the world’s longest water coaster.

“A wing coaster creates a feeling of incredible freedom — you ride beside the coaster track with nothing above or below you,” Holiday World President Matt Eckert said.

On a tour of the construction site, which sits directly behind the group of water slides dubbed Hyena Falls and winds through the woods, James Olliver, vice president and director of development and safety, highlighted the progress of construction.

“There will be a great view of the horizon and the surrounding area when its completed,” Olliver said Thursday afternoon.

Concrete footers already dot the scenery on both sides of The Voyage, the top-ranked wooden roller coaster in the nation, according to Time magazine.

Dirt pathways outline the path of the coaster, and Eckert said construction will expand even further.

The coaster is being manufactured by Bolliger & Mabillard of Switzerland, which Eckert called the “Cadillac of (roller coaster builders), known for their safety, quality and reliability.”

A wooden structure, which will be the ride’s starting point and be visible from State Road 162, will be a memorial to Will Koch, his daughters, Lauren and Leah Koch, confirmed. Will Koch, Holiday World’s former owner, died in 2010 at 48 because of complications with diabetes. On the side of the building, which will house Thunderbird’s fly-wheel launch mechanism, will be the words “Will Power.”

In a blog post on Holiday World’s site earlier this month, Leah said her father would be proud of the new addition. Lauren said Will had begun drawings for a steel coaster very similar to Thunderbird back in 2008.

Now, technology has caught up with Will’s imagination.

“If he were here, I’m certain what we’re building would be his dream,” Leah wrote.

After the announcement, Lauren and Leah were overjoyed with the reaction from the crowd. Hundreds of people stayed to watch the announcement, sitting shoulder to shoulder along the pavement facing a stage and video board.

“We couldn’t have asked for anything better,” Leah said.

The sisters, wearing matching Thunderbird T-shirts, have known the name of the ride since last winter and have been involved in the decision-making process from the very beginning as part of their park duties as directors of creativity and part owners.

Eckert said while park guests were watching point-of-view animation of the new ride, he was watching the Koch sisters.

“I looked at Lauren and Leah and thought that this is even better than we ever dreamed of,” Eckert said. “I feel like the Thunderbird will take Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari to the next level, but we will never forget our roots.”

Speculation ran wild during the 66 Days at Sea campaign, run by Paula Werne, the park’s director of communications. Each day, Werne posted clues to the campaign’s site,, in the style of pilgrims making the crossing to the New World on the Mayflower. The legend is that the pilgrims ran into a mighty storm that pushed them off-course. Their voyage seemed doomed until a thunderbird, a mighty creature whose wings created thunder and eyes flashed lightning, picked up the ship and launched it through the sky to the proper destination.

Werne said the site was expected to hit 100,000 site views since its launch by the time of Thursday night’s announcement.

Werne has kept an eye on coaster enthusiast forums —, and, for instance — and often tooled the next day’s clues depending on the conversation.

“It’s been a whole lot of fun,” Werne said, acknowledging the weight of the secret and anticipation of the announcement had reached a crescendo. “I only got two hours of sleep (Wednesday) night.”

Now the secret is out — officials had given Thunderbird the code name “Big Turkey” — and those in the know for many months can breathe a sigh of relief. A relieved Werne shouted “Thunderbird” after the announcement, just because she finally could say the magic word.

The relief will last until Monday morning, when a large shipment of track is expected to arrive. Then the manual labor begins.

The ride will open in the spring of 2015. Eckert said the park will open the last week of April, a week earlier than normal.

• More videos of Thunderbird can be found here:

• More photos of Thunderbird can be found here:

Contact Jonathan Streetman at

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