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May 17, 2007
WINTER HAVEN -- The whitewashed timbers don't look like much lying in a heap, but wait a few more weeks and they'll look plenty familiar to roller-coaster enthusiasts and visitors who remember the now-closed Miracle Strip in Panama City Beach.
The relocation of the Starliner roller coaster, an all-white wooden ride that ripples up and down with a peak of 60 feet, from the once-famed Miracle Strip to Cypress Gardens Adventure Park should be completed by mid- to late June, officials said last week.
At a time when most theme park coasters are one-upping each other on heights, speed and G-forces, the Starliner signals a move in a different direction: nostalgia.
"All your roller-coaster enthusiasts, this is what they want," said general contractor Tim Lundy, whose career working on theme-park rides began about 32 years ago at Polk County's long-gone Boardwalk and Baseball.
The $5 million coaster project already has taken shape, with the framework and wooden underlay for the track nearly complete.
Portions of the original had to be replaced with new wood, although the pile of whitewashed lumber is all from the original and was moved from the Panhandle in good enough condition to be used again.
The white painted latticework is the ride's trademark look.
"We're not doing anything different to the ride," said Lundy, president of Lakeland-based PLH Associates.
"We're putting it up just the way it came down."
Miracle Strip visitors will remember the coaster as the showcase ride of the 20-acre amusement park at Panama City Beach.
It stretched the length of the park, serving as the focal point for passers-by as well as visitors who once paid 50 cents for a ride.
Built in 1963, the Starliner was Florida's first major roller coaster. Finding a new home for it at Cypress Gardens -- the state's first theme park when it opened more than 70 years ago -- thrilled Miracle Strip officials. They had hoped it would stay in Florida when the Miracle Strip closed in 2005.
Now, the ride will be sandwiched between the large outdoor concert area at Cypress Gardens, where acts such as Willie Nelson, Big & Rich and Travis Tritt perform free for guests, and the park's current coasters, such as Okeechobee's Rampage, a steel coaster, and the Triple Hurricane, another wooden one.
Industry experts and park fans agree the move is a good one.
"It's a classic fit with the personality of Cypress Gardens," said 30-year veteran roller-coaster safety expert William Avery III, president of Avery Safety Consulting Inc. in Windermere. Avery started his career as safety manager for Busch Gardens in Tampa in 1976. "They're both classics."
Rick Dantzler, a former state representative who is married to Cypress Gardens' founder Dick Pope's granddaughter, agreed. Dantzler successfully led a task force to save the park when it closed in 2004.
The historic Starliner is a natural addition, Dantzler said. "Only because it's Cypress Gardens. There's a nostalgic feel that other parks don't have."
Installing the Starliner, Lundy said, is more difficult than putting up the average steel coaster, because the latter come in pieces that are relatively easy to work with.
The Starliner must be built from the ground up, starting with the 20-foot-wide, 4-foot-deep concrete foundational supports to every board in its latticework.
The out-and-back design uses momentum generated by the coaster's hills, including the initial 60-foot drop, to bring the four-coach train back to its station.
With wooden coasters, the entire structure must "give," as the train makes its route around the track.
"It can't be a stiff operation, is what it boils down to," Lundy said. "This takes a lot more time than a steel one."
As Avery explained, wooden coasters attract people for those very reasons.
"The wood has its own personality," he said.
"It's like a clickety-clack and that's because of the steel wheels on a steel track. I stopped short of almost saying they have emotions, but they almost do. True enthusiasts' first love is wooden."
With his consultant hat on, Lundy thinks the nostalgia peg is a good one. Having worked at Six Flags, SeaWorld of Texas and other parks, he thinks the return to the familiar is a sure attractant. Others agree.
"This is a classic wooden roller coaster," said David Mandt, spokesperson for the Virginia-based International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
"And there are coaster enthusiasts who will travel all over just to ride a coaster like this."
Coming out of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September, Cypress Gardens officials said the Starliner is a continuation of their strategy of marketing to families.
"It was important that the rides that were in here were family rides," said park spokeswoman Lynn Wright.
"Some of the rides at some of the parks -- everyone can't ride them, and it was important for us to have a family park and family rides that everyone can enjoy."
None of the Cypress Gardens' roller coasters turn riders upside down, for instance.
No date has been set for the Starliner's grand opening, but park officials have narrowed it to mid- to late June, saying everything is on schedule.
It won't be a secret when it happens.
"We're definitely going to be having a big event for it," Wright said.
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