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Playland's Wooden Roller Coaster

The Wooden Roller Coaster in Vancouver’s Playland is a ride of mythic proportions.

With just under 900 metres of track and speeds of up to 75 kilometres per hour, the Coaster takes riders on an unrelenting ninety-second trip. Nearly a half million people brave the creaking climbs and stomach-churning drops every year, white-knuckling their way along dips, banks and horseshoe curves. The structure, itself, is composed of fireproof Douglas Fir and cuts a striking figure against the city skyline.

It has been awarded “classic” and “landmark” status by American Coaster Enthusiasts, noting its use of lap bars that allow riders to float and slide in their seats. It is considered to be the top wooden roller coaster in Canada and made the cut for the top 25 in the world, ranking among such contenders as Wildfire in Kalmården, Sweden and Outlaw Run in Missouri. The Vancouver Heritage Foundation even designated it “a place that matters.”

Though impressive, the Coaster’s accolades are somewhat unsurprising, given that the man who designed it was once widely thought to be the most renowned roller coaster builder in the world.

Carl Phare was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1885 and lived a life seemingly destined for the world of amusement park thrills. Leaving school at a young age to help support his family, he landed a job as an attraction ticket-taker. Over the years at the company, he would learn about the mechanics of rides and later make a sojourn to Coney Island, where he studied the craft of roller coaster construction. Eventually, he would make his way to the west coast, where he worked on the building of the railway before building and, ultimately, designing roller coasters.

Playland’s Wooden Roller Coaster was the last Carl Phare would build--passing away only four years after its opening--and is the last of his designs still standing. It’s said that Phare channelled a lifetime of roller coaster knowledge and passion into the ride, making the Coaster a magnum opus of sorts--the stuff of amusement park legend.

Costing $200,000, construction spanned 1957 and ‘58, with Carl Phare at the design helm, Walker LeRoy in charge of construction and a team of Norwegian shipbuilders among the crew. It was created to replace one of Phare’s earlier designs, The Giant Dipper--another wooden coaster that saw public outcry at its demolition. But the new ride offered truly unique and thrilling features that are still enthralling riders over sixty years later.

The ride is powered by gravity and momentum alone, using its initial 20 metre drop to drive the cars over the remainder of dips, humps and hairpin turns. Depending on where riders sit, they experience slightly different trips--those at the front have great views, while those at the rear might have a rougher ride. Even the weather affects how the coaster runs, with hotter, drier days making for faster speeds.

But arguably, the real genius of Phare’s Wooden Roller Coaster lies in its tendency toward the theatrical, its flair for the dramatic. Anyone who has ridden it knows that first steady climb up to its highest point. The clicking of the cars inching up the track mingle with the sound of carnival music and the excited chatter of fellow riders. Crowds surround the track and beyond, into the park.

But the higher you go, the more space there seems to be between your body and the lap bar. The sounds of the park quiet and the crowds become dots far below. And as you reach the peak, things become still and for a moment you are forced to witness the drop just before you take it--and it seems that this, the thrilling mixture of fun and fear is what makes the Wooden Roller Coaster a true icon of BC and amusement park history.


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