Rocky Mountain Construction, after the incredible success of the New Texas Giant, was tasked with taking another giant wooden coaster in the Six Flags chain and making it a signature ride again. This time, they headed a few hours south to Six Flags Fiesta Texas, home of the once record-breaking Rattler, now home to the nearly unrideable coaster not-so-lovingly referred to as the Bone Rattler. It was so rough for so long that when the media began to interview people at the park about the coaster closing for the makeover, several of them believed that the coaster was called "Rattler" because it "rattled you" - seriously.
It was huge, impressive, and it had the Best First Drop on Any Wooden Coaster, ever. Period. End of story. No wooden coaster has ever even remotely come close to the mind-altering sheer terror of that drop... as long as you're talking about the 1992 version, anyway. That drop didn't stay like that for long. In an effort to reduce maintenance costs, wear and tear, downtime, and to reduce the threat of riders complaining of whiplash, the drop went through several drastic changes over the years and by the end of its final season, 2012, it was mediocre at best. The rest of the ride had also been tweaked, most notably with trim brakes that kept the pace at a crawl through much of the ride. Rattler was too big for its own good and wood just wasn't the best material for a ride this size with this much intensity. Much like the Texas Giant to the north, the Rattler had become as much a liability as an asset.
When it was announced that Rocky Mountain Construction was going to give it the Iron Horse treatment (a term coined by Six Flags to indicate a wood coaster becoming a steel hybrid coaster through RMC's steel I-beam track technology), even fans of the old Rattler got excited. New Texas Giant had proved that this team with this tech could work miracles on an old coaster and the unique cliffside setting of the Rattler could truly be the basis for a world-class coaster unlike anything else.
Fans of the early Rattler had much to cheer about: the infamous first drop would be restored. While a smooth steel track wouldn't deliver the out-of-control sensation of the original, the new drop would be taller, steeper, and retain the twisting, zig-zag moments on the way down that would be a nice homage to the twenty-year-old memories still in our heads. Also, the ridiculous triple helix of boredom and pain would be replaced with a single u-shaped track containing three airtime hills and two overbanked turns. To top it all off, the horseshoe turn would begin with a double-up, keep the double-down, and finish with a zero-G rollover at the top of the cliff. Anticipation was high. While nobody doubted that it would far surpass the experience of the old Rattler, at least in its final seasons, speculation turned to bragging rights... could it be better than the New Texas Giant? The answer to that question, after I took my first rides on June 1, 2013, is a resounding, "who cares?"
Seriously, who cares? The point is, the two coasters are at different parks. If you find that you like one significantly better than the other, then go to the park where that coaster is. Simple. So, with that in mind, let's compare Iron Rattler to the old Rattler that it replaced, since that's what really counts. The bottom line is this: The old Rattler was a coaster that I could tolerate maybe once or twice per season, and this is from a guy who LIKES a good rough-n-tumble wood coaster. The discomfort of the ride was far greater than the fun you got from the layout and the aggravation caused by the heavily-armed trim brakes all over the course. The Iron Rattler, on the other hand, is incredibly smooth, exciting, unique, and struck a near-perfect balance between keeping the parts of the previous coaster that were good, then replacing the not-so-good parts with new parts that are spectacular.
I should put an addendum on it, though... how you view this ride is going to depend on a lot of factors. The ride is completely different depending on the weather and the time of day that you ride it. Seriously, I know that all coasters get a bit peppier as the day wears on and the ride warms up, but this coaster is more like a Jeckyll and Hyde coaster than any I've ever ridden.
My first ride was fun, but tamer than I expected. Sure, the first drop was amazing as was expected, but from there on it seemed that there was a sluggishness about it that belied its potential. This was not the intense, "epic" machine that we figured it would be, but it was so incredibly fun that we didn't mind much. That said, we had already been told that once the midday temperatures got to the 90 degree range, it would be a whole new ride. That, my friends, is an understatement. If you want to know how good your ride on Iron Rattler is about to be, have a look at the brake run at the end of the ride while you're in the queue.
The ending brake run is clearly visible from the queue line. When you see a train come out of the tunnel and stop on the brakes, check where the train stopped. In the above photo, it's about centered... and you'll get the fun-but-tame version of the ride. Enjoy it, then come back later when it's hot and the grease in the wheel bearings on the coaster has loosened up. Notice that the train now gets nearly to the end of the brake run before it stops? Right... and this is even with the rumored setting adjustments that get made to the brakes once the temps hit 90 or so. That train comes in HOT in more ways than one by mid-afternoon! From here on, I'll be referencing the "Hyde" personality of Iron Rattler, that is the late afternoon-to-evening version of the ride.
So: the ride. The speedy lift takes you right to the top, then slows to a crawl as it crests the hill. Left-side riders are looking over the cliff wall, but right-side passengers are looking at the cliff top, so they might not realize just how high they are. Front seat riders, however, are fully aware of the altitude, since they are looking right down the track, just hanging there for an eternity before all hell breaks loose.
The train slithers over the precipice, then jogs left and gets steeper. YES! YES! YES! This is the beautiful psyche-job that the original Drop used to do, only now it does it smoothly and comfortably. Better still, this one has a great zig-zag move under the shed canopy, also smooth as glass. Does it match the OMFG intensity of the original? Well... no. But considering the smoothness of the steel track as well as the litigious nature of today's society, this is likely as close as we could've hoped for. It is a fantastic drop, at any rate.
One thing I'd suggest to Fiesta Texas, if they're reading this: at night, there is a bright spotlight under the bottom of this drop that shines right in your face as you plummet. Take that light and move it up to the level of the cliff top. With it shining right in your face, you could only see as far as the light itself, meaning that the entire portion of the drop below the cliff top would be invisible to even those in the front seat. It would appear to the riders that the drop was only half as long and the point at which the train passes the spotlight and keeps on plunging into the darkness could be the most effective, most wicked mind-fuck in the history of the amusement industry. Just sayin'.
Immediately after the drop there is a double-up that provides some serious ejector airtime followed by the first of four overbanked turns. (An overbanked turn is a turn that is banked beyond 90 degrees, but not quite enough to be called upside-down.) This first turn treats the rider with an exhilarating moment of weird G-forces, first laterally as you go into the turn, then negative as you crest the turn, then a moment of zero-G and opposite laterals as your now-floating body again makes contact with the seat - which has already changed direction. No time to savor it, though, as the second overbanked turn rockets you back into the quarry at speeds that seem to approach those at the bottom of the first drop (remember, we're talking about "hot" rides after midday... in the morning, this section is already losing a lot of speed).
From there, the train races back to the top of the cliff into the much-ballyhooed zero-G barrel roll. Full disclosure here: I'm not at all fond of the latest trend of putting inversions on wood coasters. I prefer my woodies to be a bit old-school with the thrills coming from speed, directional changes, airtime, and an out-of-control sensation. While I completely understand that Iron Rattler is no longer a wood coaster, I wasn't really that excited about getting turned upside-down on a coaster that I've known as wood for the last 20 years. Well, not until I actually rode it. I'm still eating crow over this one, as I can honestly tell you that the zero-G roll on this ride is nearly perfect in every way. It's smooth, it's thrilling, it's a graceful weightless ballet of motion, and it absolutely feels like it belongs on this ride. There, I said it.
It's also a great way to transition from the intensity and speed of what just happened into the surreal landscape of the clifftop and the Turnaround of Weirdness. This is a grab-bag of G-forces that needs several rides to truly be appreciated. There are nuances to be savored here, like a fine glass of absinthe, and the blur of your first-ride experience isn't going to let you appreciate all of them. You've gotta go back a few times and let the subtleties sink in. The few seconds you spend up here are something of an acquired taste, not nearly as intense as the rest of the ride, but greatly rewarding in its uniqueness and its overall role in the ride. It was honestly disappointing on my first ride or two, but after 5 or 6 rides on it, I can honestly say that it's my favorite section of the whole layout. I shit you not.
After the delicious barrel roll, the train launches itself over an insane ejector airtime hill, then races into Overbanked Turn Three. There are odd G-forces here, none of them intense (like pretty much all of the forces that came before it), but all of them interesting. As I said, you need a few rides on it before the blur of "dafuq did we just do?" goes away and the subtleties and nuances of this section can truly shine. Once you're in that mental zone, this is a beautiful, trippy funhouse of forces. Sideways, diagonal, positive, negative, and zero-G forces that seem to be a bit different with every ride. One second you're floating parallel to the ground, the next you're hugging the side of the car, the next you're rotating in the opposite direction... it's still a bit hazy, but it's fantastic. On the old Rattler, I used to use the clifftop helix as a break in the action where I'd talk to my riding partners and compare notes on how many ribs we'd bruised going around the horseshoe turn. Now, once the train gets up on the plateau I just want to be quiet and savor the moment.
A basic (for Rocky Mountain Construction coasters, anyway) ejector-airtime-filled bunny hop snaps you back to reality after the Trippy Turns and sets you up for the grand finale. The seemingly innocent second bunny hop plunges back over the edge of the cliff toward the lagoon (complete with water spray effect), launching riders into an ejector airtime moment followed by a totally weightless drop. Great fun! The bottom of the drop curves around and rockets the train into the tunnel, another feature from the original ride kept intact, then improved upon in the new version.
The tunnel has been outfitted with mist and flashing LED disco lights. It's a great effect in the daytime and the mist helps keep the tunnel from being super-heated during the hot summer days. At night, however, I got to ride it both with the lighting effects on and with them turned off. When the lights are off, nighttime rides are even one or two notches better. It is DARK in that tunnel and the directional changes in there are even more fun when you can't see them coming.
Coming out of the tunnel gives riders one last jolt of ejector airtime before hitting the brakes, still laughing and cheering from the collective experience they've all just had.
So is it good? Yes.
Is it awesome, fantastic, and great? Yes, as long as you ride it in the heat of the afternoon or later, when Jeckyll becomes Hyde.
Is it better than the original Rattler? Yes, no contest, even better than the original 1992 version. Go ride it.