A wooden roller coaster is most often classified as a roller coaster with running rails made of flattened steel strips mounted on laminated wooden track. Occasionally, the support structure may be made out of a steel lattice or truss, but the ride remains classified as a wooden roller coaster due to the track design. Because of the limits of wood, wooden roller coasters, in general, do not have inversions (when the coaster goes upside down), steep drops, or extremely banked turns (overbanked turns). However, there are exceptions; the defunct Son of Beast at Kings Island had a 214-foot-high (65 m) drop and originally had a 90-foot-tall (27 m) loop until the end of the 2006 season, although the loop had steel supports. Other special cases are Hades 360 at Mount Olympus Water and Theme Park in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. The coaster features a double-track tunnel, a corkscrew, and a 90-degree banked turn. There is also The Voyage at Holiday World (an example of a wooden roller coaster with a steel structure for supports) featuring three separate 90-degree banked turns. Ravine Flyer II at Waldameer Park has a 90-degree banked turn, T Express at Everland in South Korea with a 77-degree drop, and Outlaw Run at Silver Dollar City which has 3 inversions and 120-degree overbanked turn.
Once a staple in virtually every amusement park in America, wooden roller coasters began a slow decline in popularity for a number of reasons. Steel roller coasters, while having larger up-front costs, cost much less in ongoing maintenance fees throughout the years of operation. Wooden roller coasters, on the other hand, require large amounts of devoted funds annually to keep the ride in operating condition through regular re-tracking, track lubrication, and support maintenance.
Wooden coasters are also becoming less marketable in today's media-driven advertising world. Superlative advertising in which the "biggest", "tallest", or "fastest" ride is what brings in crowds often cannot apply to new wooden roller coasters, especially since a large majority of record-holding rides are steel. Amusement parks are always looking to add attractions that can be presented in commercials and ads as incredibly tall, fast, or extreme, which eliminates many wooden roller coasters.
However, the arrival of several new wooden coasters has bucked the downward trend. In 2006, a trio of giant wooden coasters opened in the United States: The Kentucky Rumbler at Beech Bend Park, The Voyage at Holiday World, and El Toro at Six Flags Great Adventure. Another wooden coaster, Renegade at Valleyfair, opened in 2007. In Sweden Balder at Liseberg opened in 2003 and has received much attention and appreciation. It remains to be seen whether or not these new coasters mark the beginning of a wooden coaster revival, but they do indicate that amusement parks continue to show interest in wooden roller coasters.
The 1920s was the Golden Era of coaster design. This was the decade when many of the world's most iconic coasters were built. Some of these include the Giant Dipper at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and its counterpart at Belmont Park, the Cyclone at Coney Island, the Big Dipper at Geauga Lake, The Thriller at Euclid Beach Park, and the Roller Coaster at Lagoon. All of these rides were built during this time.The decade was also the design peak for some of the world's greatest coaster designers, including John A. Miller, Harry Traver, Herb Schmeck, and the partnership of Prior and Church. Many wooden roller coasters of this time were demolished during the Great Depression, but a few still stand as American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE) classics and landmarks.
The popularity may have come to a short closing, but that did not stop certain amusement parks from building scream machines again, and again. Cedar Point built Blue Streak in 1964, a Philadelphia Toboggan Company-manufactured coaster designed by John C. Allen. This relatively quiet age of coaster design following the Great Depression was brought to an end by The Racer at Kings Island, which opened in 1972 and sparked a second "Golden Age" of wooden coaster design that continues today.
After their success with the Racer at Kings Island, the Philadelphia Toboggan Company (PTC) constructed another 9 roller coasters over the next decade. About half were small family coasters, two were racing coasters similar to the Racer, and two were out and back coasters with custom designs. One of these, Screamin' Eagle at Six Flags St. Louis, was the last coaster designed by John Allen before his retirement. After these coasters, PTC stopped producing roller coasters, but continues to produce wooden roller coaster trains as Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters. Their distinctive rectangular cars are widely used on wooden coasters around the world.
A notable non-PTC coaster built during this time was The Beast at Kings Island. After John Allen refused to design the coaster in lieu of retirement, Kings Island built the coaster themselves, with the coaster designed by Al Collins and Jeff Gramke and construction overseen by Charlie Dinn. Rather than a typical out and back layout, the coaster sprawled over the woods at the back of the park, using the terrain to create an elevation change from lowest to highest point of 201 feet, even though the coaster was only 118 feet tall. The coaster also had two lift hills which, while common for mine train coasters at the time, was uncommon for wooden coasters. Opening in 1979, the coaster was, and still is, the longest wooden roller coaster in the world at 7,359 feet. Another significant wooden coaster of this era was the racing American Eagle at (now) Six Flags Great America, built by Intamin in 1981, which still holds the records for racing wooden coasters of height (127 ft), length (4650 ft), speed (66 mph), and drop (147 ft).
After the surge in the 1970s, wooden coasters construction became stagnant due to the steel roller coaster being much more popular. Most original coasters during this time were designed by William Cobb, such as Monstre at La Ronde. Another trend during the 1980s was relocating old wooden coasters in danger of being destroyed. Charlie Dinn, who formed Dinn Corporation after leaving Kings Island in 1984, oversaw some of these relocations, including the relocation of The Rocket from Playland Park to Knoebels Amusement Resort in Pennsylvania. It now operates as the Phoenix and is ranked highly on wooden coaster polls.
In 1988, Charlie Dinn started a partnership with Curtis D. Summers to design and build new wooden coasters. Between 1988 and 1991, the pair designed and built 10 new wooden coasters. While most were of typical wooden coaster size, a few set coaster records. Hercules at Dorney Park, built in 1989, had the tallest wooden coaster drop at 150 feet. Texas Giant at Six Flags Over Texas and Mean Streak at Cedar Point were large wooden coasters with similar layouts, with the later opening as the tallest wooden coaster in the world at 161 feet. After a dispute during construction of Pegasus at Efteling, Dinn Corporation closed down and the partnership ended.
Custom Coasters International was formed in 1991 by Denise Dinn-Larrick (daughter of Charlie Dinn), her brother Jeff Dinn, and her husband Randy Larrick. After the closure of Dinn Corporation, several other designers joined CCI. The company's first coaster, Kingdom Coaster at Dutch Wonderland, was a small family coaster that stood only 55 feet high. As time went on, they began to design larger coasters. One of their earlier coasters that was well received was The Raven at Holiday World. Custom Coasters took on increasingly high numbers of wooden coaster projects, including 7 coasters in 2000 alone (The Boss at Six Flags St. Louis, which was the largest with a 153-foot drop and almost a mile of track; Medusa Steel Coaster at Six Flags Mexico; Mega Zeph at the defunct Six Flags New Orleans; Boulder Dash at Lake Compounce; Villain at the defunct Geauga Lake; Hurricane: Category 5 at the defunct Myrtle Beach Pavilion; and The Legend at Holiday World).
CCI's coaster designs included both out and back layouts like Hoosier Hurricane at Indiana Beach as well as more twisted layouts like Megafobia at Oakwood Theme Park. Megafobia was also the company's first coaster outside the United States. CCI coasters were also unique at the time for sometimes featuring angle iron support structures rather than wooden beams (the track remains the same as other wooden coasters). Most CCI coasters ran Philadelphia Toboggan Company trains, although some, like The Boss at Six Flags St. Louis, run trains from the German manufacturer Gerstlauer.
In 2002, Custom Coasters declared bankruptcy while building the New Mexico Rattler at Cliff's Amusement Park. The company left a significant legacy on the coaster industry. The high number of wooden coasters they constructed, 34 over their decade of operation, helped to rekindle interest in the wooden roller coasters and allowed modern wooden coaster designers to thrive. Designers from CCI went on to form modern wooden coaster design firms, like Great Coasters International, The Gravity Group, and the wooden coaster department at S&S Worldwide. Many of their coasters rank highly in wooden coaster polls, including Shivering Timbers at Michigan's Adventure and Boulder Dash at Lake Compounce. In 2013, Boulder Dash was rated the number one wooden roller coaster in the world by Amusement Today.
Great Coasters International (GCI) was formed in 1994 by Mike Boodley and Clair Hain, Jr, the former of whom was a designer at Custom Coasters prior to GCI. The first coaster was Wildcat at Hersheypark which opened in 1996. Since then, they have become one of the major wooden coaster designers in the industry, with award-winning coasters like Lightning Racer at Hersheypark and Thunderhead at Dollywood. GCI's coasters feature highly twisted layouts with lots of crossovers, and usually use GCI's own wooden coaster trains called Millennium Flyers. Their designs are inspired by coasters from the 1920s, specifically those by Fred Church and Harry Traver, and the company focuses on making the structures of their coasters aesthetically appealing and artistic.
In 2001, Swiss steel coaster designer Intamin began producing wooden roller coasters using prefabricated track. Their wooden coasters are known for large amounts of airtime (including ejector airtime), smooth ride experiences, and steep drops. T Express in Everland is currently the tallest wooden coaster in the world at 183 feet tall. While only having built 4 wooden coasters, all are praised by coaster enthusiasts, with all 4 being within the top 20 wooden coasters in the world on Mitch Hawkers poll. Since 2010, El Toro at Six Flags Great Adventure, which opened in 2006, has been ranked the number one wooden coaster in the world on Mitch Hawkers poll.
Notable designers from the former Custom Coasters International formed The Gravity Group and in 2005 opened Hades (now Hades 360) at Mt. Olympus Water and Theme Park. The coaster features highly unique elements, including an airtime filled pre-lift section, an 800-foot tunnel underneath a parking lot, and a 90 degree banked turn. In 2006, The Gravity Group built The Voyage at Holiday World, a large wooden coaster which stood 163 feet tall, has over a mile of track, 3 90 degree banked turns, and has been ranked the number one wooden coaster in the world by Amusement Today five times. Many of Gravity Groups coasters are highly unique and custom built for the park, such as Twister at Gröna Lund, which has a highly compact layout to fit in the parks small footprint. Their coasters have become very popular in China, with 6 coaster being built there between 2012 and 2015.
Rocky Mountain Construction (RMC) has recently been revolutionizing the modern wooden coaster. In 2011, they renovated the Texas Giant, which had become very rough and hard to maintain, into a steel roller coaster. This treatment has been applied to eight other roller coasters (see Iron Rattler, Medusa Steel Coaster, Twisted Colossus, Wicked Cyclone, Storm Chaser, The Joker, Steel Vengeance, and Twisted Timbers) and is now considered by parks to be an option for dealing with old wooden coasters that are wearing down. In addition to this, RMC designs and builds their own original wooden coasters. These coasters use Topper Track technology developed by RMC which replaces some of the wood in the track with steel beams to smooth the ride and reduce maintenance costs. Their first coaster was Outlaw Run at Silver Dollar City in 2012. With this new technology, RMC can make wooden coasters that have inversions, which are normally not possible due to wooden track construction, including barrel rolls and, as seen on Goliath at Six Flags Great America, dive loops. In 2016, the company opened the world's first launched wooden roller coaster, Lightning Rod (roller coaster) which opened at Dollywood in 2016, and features a magnetic launch of 45 mph up a 200' hill, similar to the magnetic lift on Maverick (roller coaster)
In 2000, Kings Island opened Son of Beast. Designed by the legendary Werner Stengel and built by the Roller Coaster Corporation of America, the roller coaster broke many world records. With a height of 218 feet (66 m), it was the first wooden roller coaster to top 200 feet (61 m). It was also the first modern wooden roller coaster to feature an inversion, a 90-foot (27 m) vertical loop. The ride was well-received, but was plagued by a number of incidents. In 2006, a stress fracture in the helix finale of the ride caused a train to come to an abrupt stop resulting in dozens of injuries. The loop was removed and lighter trains were installed. Three years later in 2009, a park guest reported a head injury that was suffered as a result of riding Son of Beast. The coaster was closed while the claim was investigated and never reopened. It was eventually torn down in 2012.
One of the most significant recent developments in wooden coaster design is Intamin's use of prefabricated track. This design essentially applies the principles of steel coaster manufacturing to wood.
Traditional wooden coaster track is built on site. It is mounted layer-by-layer to the support structure, bent and smoothed to the proper shape, and mounted with steel running plates. Prefabricated track, on the other hand, is manufactured in a factory. It is made of many thin layers of wood that are glued together and then laser cut to the exact shape needed. The track is made in 25-foot (7.6 m) sections, which have special joints on the ends that allow them to snap together. This process allows for far higher precision than could never be achieved by hand. In addition, the trains for a prefabricated wooden coaster have wheels with polyurethane treads, just like a steel coaster. In contrast, traditional wooden coaster trains have bare metal wheels.
This design results in a ride that is nearly as smooth as the smoothest of steel coasters, and much smoother than any traditional wooden coaster. However, some coaster enthusiasts may find this smoothness to detract from the experience, as it would not have the same character as a traditional wooden coaster.
Prefabricated wooden coasters also benefit from faster construction and reduced maintenance compared to a traditional wooden coaster. The track is simply bolted to the structure, which takes an insignificant amount of time compared to actually building the track. The track also stays smooth much longer than traditional track, which becomes rough rather quickly and eventually must be replaced.
Wooden roller coasters provide a very different ride and experience from steel roller coasters. While they are traditionally less capable than a steel coaster when it comes to inversions and elements, wooden coasters instead rely on an often rougher and more "wild" ride, as well as a more psychological approach to inducing fear. Their structures and track, which usually move anywhere from a few inches to a few feet with a passing train, give a sense of unreliability and the "threat" of collapse or disregard for safety. Of course, this assumption is purely mental, since wooden roller coaster supports and track systems are designed to sway with the force produced by the coaster. If the track and structure are too rigid, they will break under the strain of the passing train. The swaying of the track reduces the maximum force applied, like a shock absorber.
Like steel roller coasters, wooden roller coasters usually use the same three-wheel design, pioneered by John Miller. Each set of wheels includes a running wheel (on top of the track), a side friction (or "guide") wheel (to guide motion in the lateral plane and reduce excessive side-to-side movement known as "hunting") and an upstop wheel (beneath the track to prevent cars from flying off the track). Some wooden coasters, such as Leap-The-Dips, do not have upstop wheels and are known as side friction roller coasters. As a result, the turns and drops are more gentle than on modern wooden roller coasters. Scenic Railway roller coasters also lack upstop wheels but rely on a brake operator to control the speed so that upstop wheels are not necessary. A handful of wooden coasters use flanged wheels, similar to a rail car, eliminating the need for side friction wheels.