Amazing Amusements: Behind the Scenes, Behind the Screams Tours at Busch Gardens

Entertainment,Robin Tierney

How do they make those monster roller coasters so scary? How do they make them safe?

Now you can divine the secrets of drops, corkscrews, cobra rolls, vertical loops, helix turnarounds, Immelman inversions, "air time" -- and, literally, the nuts and bolts of thrill rides -- during a Williamsburg, Va., weekend.

Josh Kraegel has the job he dreamed of since childhood when his uncle took him to Busch Gardens. He leads the Europe-themed park's new Behind the Scenes tours, which "attract the science-minded as much as thrill-seekers." Indeed, a Wisconsin science fair winner was among 10 coaster connoisseurs on a recent morning tour.

Describing the evolution of ride technology, Kraegel contrasted old-school and new. The beloved 1978 Loch Ness Monster features hand-welding and a push-button control panel dominated by a big "E-stop" (as in "emergency"). Opened in 2007 as the first floorless dive coaster, the laser-cut Griffon is operated by touchscreens. Why is dead weight added to lightning-fast inverted (suspended from an overhead track) Alpengeist? What keeps 73-mph hypercoaster Apollo's Chariot secured to the track? Why does the Griffon slide through water? Hint: It's about safety, not splashing. And what happened to longtime crowd pleaser "The Big Bad Wolf"?

The three-hour excursion ($35 observer; $74.95 with ride privileges) includes design and engineering revelations, forays into hidden chambers where technicians inspect parts, a ride 205 feet up the Griffon service trolley to behold jaw-dropping views, VIP rides before the park opens for the day, and "quick queue" cards to get the best seating later in the day.

Other Behind the Scenes offerings include the new four-hour $49.95 "Insider Tour," which exposes the magic of running what the National Amusement Park Historical Association has voted "The World's Most Beautiful Park" award 19 consecutive years.

"All rides are custom-designed to work within the natural geography of the park," said Kraegel, noting how coaster tracks run low through existing valleys and along ridges. Revelations run the gamut from the 15th century-inspired landscaping of Italy Gardens to special effects that electrify "Escape from Pompeii" and "Curse of DarKastle," an 11-scene 3-D sense twister that Kraegel called "the most technical ride in the world." Tour attendees enter a maintenance bay for an up-close demo of one of the 8,500-pound cars, designed by experts who make bathyspheres -- deep-sea submersibles.

Here, pulling back the curtain adds to the magic, revealing how amazing these amusements truly are.

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