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'XTREME' HEADACHE POPULAR AND UNIQUE COASTER HAS UPS AND DOWNS.

Byline: ALEX DOBUZINSKIS

Staff Writer

VALENCIA -- It twists and spins and hurdles its riders, but all those thrills come at a cost.

For riders, experiencing X can mean more than four hours in line. For Magic Mountain at Six Flags California, the ride's complexity has meant cost overruns, legal battles and engineering nightmares as wild as the head-over-heels roller coaster.

In a high-stakes competition over which of the world's parks has the most thrilling coasters, Magic Mountain's experience with X shows the pitfalls of relying on the latest in coaster technology.

"It was supposed to be the nuke bomb in the coaster war," said Robert Niles, the Pasadena-based editor of ThemeParkInsider.com. "The specs on the ride were just audacious. It switched the war from being who could build the tallest, fastest coaster to who can create the most intense experience."

But X, which was supposed to cost $6.6 million, ended up costing more than $17 million, according to court documents. And technical kinks are still being worked out, five years after it opened.

When the theme park disclosed plans in 2000 to build X and two other rides, coaster fans heralded the announcement as a huge expansion of the park. It was an era when Magic Mountain was in the running to be the world's coaster capital, a title it recently gave up to Cedar Point in Ohio, which has 17 coasters to Magic Mountain's 15.

For a time, Magic Mountain even centered its marketing strategy on X, calling itself the "Xtreme park."

Now, Magic Mountain's corporate owner, Six Flags Inc., has no immediate plans to build another coaster at the Valencia theme park, said company spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg. Six Flags has a new game plan: attract families.

"For a very long time there's been almost an arms race with regards to getting the most complicated and technologically sophisticated rides up in the park, and of course that lends a degree of uncertainty in terms of cost and completion time," Goldberg said.

"We're not swearing off thrill rides in the least. But for the time being, we do want to balance out our offerings so thrill riders and families can both come to the park and find everything they want for a great day of entertainment," she said.

Coaster fans celebrated the idea behind X as a head-spinning concept. Ultimaterollercoaster.com wrote in a 2002 article, "Initial reaction to X was almost disbelief. Had the ride designer gone insane?"

X is called a "fourth-dimension" coaster. The new "dimension" is because riders' seats, positioned on either side of the track, rotate 360 degrees as the ride plunges and loops.

But for Six Flags, the ride's complexity was its downside, contributing to long lines. X is still the only ride of its kind in North America.

"Believe me, if this had been a huge hit and a highly reliable attraction at Magic Mountain, you absolutely would have seen it at other Six Flags parks around the country," Niles said.

X was supposed to open in June 2001, but technical problems delayed that until January 2002. The ride was down for maintenance during the busy summer months of June to August 2002, and it recently required routine off-season maintenance before re-opening earlier this month.

X is still not running at its full capacity of 1,680 people an hour, contributing to the long lines. The ride needs to have three trains running to hit 1,680 an hour, and it normally has two, said Magic Mountain spokeswoman Sue Carpenter.

The troubles with X go beyond lines and maintenance time. It made the company that built it a casualty of the coaster wars. The decades-old Arrow Dynamics, a pioneer in steel coasters that in 1975 opened the first modern looping coaster, went bankrupt in 2002, the same year X opened.

The ride proved so complicated that Six Flags had its own engineers redesign parts of it because they didn't work, according to a complaint filed in federal bankruptcy court. Six Flags claimed an ownership stake in the ride's technology because of modifications from its own engineers.

Arrow countered in court that Six Flags scared away potential buyers, by telling them it had partial rights to X's technology, and tried to have the only "fourth-dimension" coaster in the world.

The two sides settled their dispute in 2003. Arrow eventually was bought by S&S Power Inc. of Utah.

"I can't comment on the history of the bankruptcy of Arrow," said Quin Checketts, the son of S&S's founder and the company's director of technical services. "But I do know that X turned into a difficult challenge for them, and it probably contributed to the financial trouble that they were in."

After S&S bought Arrow, the combined company built another "fourth dimension" coaster. Eejanaika opened last year at Fuji-Q Highland in Fujiyoshida, Japan. The ride is a new and improved version of X, with lighter trains and a smoother ride, Checketts said.

Meanwhile, Six Flags has hired S&S to redesign the trains on X, to lighten them and to limit down time, Checketts said.

For its part, Six Flags, like other parks, is spending less money on new rides than it used to. In 2005, the company announced that it would reduce capital investments in its parks from $140 million a year to about $100 million.

Meanwhile, five years after X opened, some coaster fans who travel the nation for a good free fall or to ride an old "woodie" coaster have still not ridden it.

Mark Cole, 46, is president of the 7,900-member American Coaster Enthusiasts. The Florida resident has made three trips to Magic Mountain in recent years, and X was never open when he came.

"It is well known by our members," Cole said. "They do want to ride it when they're there, and that is one of the reasons why they want to go to that park."

Eric Hernandez, 28, is a Burbank resident psyched to get on X for the first time one day. But he is not one to stand in line too long, especially when the ride is not running at full capacity.

"Literally, like in 15 minutes, we moved like five feet, and we saw one car go by," he said.

alex.dobuzinskis@dailynews.com

(661) 257-5253

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3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) People are aboard the X on Saturday at Six Flags California, Valencia, for a coaster ride with a "fourth dimension" of spinning in their seats.

(2 -- 3 -- color) People ride X, above, at Six Flags California's Magic Mountain on Saturday. Below, park visitors prepare to get on the ride.

Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 11, 2007
Words:1114
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