Hersheypark feels like a small family owned park… With a number of large, steel thrill coasters. There’s some genuine backbone to the place which evokes an old fashioned, caring company that puts their heart before, or at least in line with, their head. Hersheypark originally opened as a leisure park for employees and families of the Hershey Chocolate Company, which is the most wonderful thought in itself. Whilst the reality today is business, the illusion carried on by the park’s accumulated history is magical.
It’s a weird place, certainly not what I expected it to be and far from a perfect park. In fact, despite how much I truly love the place, there are very few obvious positive points to make. It’s pleasantness rests mostly on the atmosphere. It’s very much an amusement park, not a theme park, which surprised me on my first visit. This “family theme park” is dominated by some very large, unthemed roller coasters, and they pay particular interest to dressing them in strings of lights like a classic amusement park of the golden era. Yet somehow, the park feels big budget too, and not just because of it’s high entrance fee and expensive ride hardware. Like a nice Blackpool Pleasure Beach, nice in that it’s clean and friendly and appropriate for contemporary audiences. The huge rides are cluttered and dance over your head and each other and every path in such a way to really make you feel apart of the place and the carnival fun it promotes. At night, the place truly comes alive. It all feels very honest, very authentic, very friendly and nostalgic.
The main negative of Hersheypark is operations. Staff are slow and they appear to recheck restraints on some rides frequently. I couldn’t work out if this was part of procedure, or that something was continually causing the need to recheck. Either way, loading is slow on all the coasters, and that really is a big deal at a park as busy as Hershey. There’s no sense of urgency that you find with employees at the other big, busy, well renowned parks in the USA. Like Dollywood and unlike most other amusement parks due to their seasonal nature, Hershey seems to hire a lot of older employees. The lack of age discrimination is great, but the impracticality of having older people do the most physically demanding job on park of a ride attendant just seems daft and it’s painfully obvious that it effects operations.
The park had another problem. It lacked anything truly ground breaking, a signature attraction, a “destination ride” as Theme Park Insider described it. Something that people talk about as being the biggest and best thing at the park, something enthusiasts will travel thousands of miles to visit. And for that reason, Hershey seems to get a little forgotten about. Well, that could well have all changed now, with the opening of their first coaster to reach 200ft in 2012, Skyrush. Perhaps a little long overdue…
Everyone involved with the industry is familiar with variants of the comment “they should design a roller coaster that is REALLY extreme” and we laugh it off because, well, they don’t understand… Do they? You can’t just make a truly intense, truly scary ride, for health and safety reasons! And because people would be being sick and dying from undiagnosed, preexisting heart problems. Well, SkyRush is that really extreme coaster that shouldn’t exist.
There are few truly terrifying roller coasters out there. I could count the ones I’ve ridden on one hand, with digits to spare, but SkyRush certainly makes the cut.
SkyRush is the latest in a long line of seemingly ever-changing designs of Intamin’s mega coaster. The basic premise is a ride that is about height, speed and lots of hills, producing insane negative g-force that launches you from your seat. Negative and lateral g-forces, which throw you up or sideways out of your seat, are far rarer on roller coasters and are far more frightening than positive g-forces that pin you down. They mess with that innate fear of falling out of the ride, of a restraint failing to keep you in, and the body can withstand far fewer negative-g’s than it can positive, so they seem more extreme. Intaride’s mega coasters receive a lot of praise from the enthusiast community, with several of them always coming at the top of any best steel coaster poll. A series of drops and hills is the original roller coaster concept, terrifyingly re-envisioned in the bright yellow steel mess that is SkyRush.
A couple of years ago, Intamin opened Intimidator 305 at Kings Dominion, a 300+ft monster with a new track style and unusual layout. The ride has had truly mixed reviews, but there’s no doubting one fact about it, it’s extremely intense. At the base of the huge first drop, a section sustained positive Gs lasts so long it affects most people’s vision. People report blacking out, but for the majority that’s a misunderstanding of what blacking out actually means – loosing consciousness. It’s not that uncommon for a ride to mess with my vision, especially on old Arrow loopers, but the effects of plummeting 300 feet down into a banked turn makes my vision flicker in waves before turning completely white, then returning as the train crests it’s first hill. And I simply don’t know how to react to it… It leaves you feeling vulnerable in those moments of blindness. I don’t know if that is good or bad. The physical sensations for the entire drop and turn are pretty weak, made more so by the distractions of having your vision taken away and the panic that causes. At first this experience is terrifying, and on subsequent rerides when you get used to it, just kind of annoying? But apparently, people don’t tend to reride this beast, especially in the hot southern sun.
Intimidator 305 at Kings Dominion, photo by author.
SkyRush won’t do this to you. Oh no, instead of psychologically messing with you by stealing your vision, it’ll physically demand you invest all your energy struggling for your life.
SkyRush's industrial style structure.
SkyRush doesn’t come across all that intimidating, painted in sunshine yellow and sky blue. It’s structure clashes violently with the colour scheme, with its solid, industrial looking lifthill and wide trains. In the mish-mash, colour wins out, portraying a fun and happy ride, and it’s bouncing track over the lake just really doesn’t look all that intense. Whether that was intentional I’m unsure, was there was a disregard for the visual aspects of the hardware and a misunderstanding of what the ride experience would offer? And the name seems to do a bit of both, too. The idea of flying around the sky is very much a tame and fun concept, whilst “rush” suggests an extreme sensation. An article about Skyrush I found in Park World magazine features an interview with Hersheypark’s general manager. He makes a whacky comment or two that suggest the mismatch was intended. “Because Hersheypark is a family park, we wanted a ride that offered choices to the riders. The wingedseats meet those specifications…”
Wait, what? Where do I even start explaining everything that is weird with this statement?
I forgot to mention SkyRush’s signature marketing gimmick, the “winged” seating arrangement. That’ll be because it’s the least interesting aspect of the ride and really serves no purpose other than to be a burden to both guests and the park. Giving guests choices sounds cool, but the reality is that by doing so you automatically make some seats more desirable than others. What you’d imagine were SkyRush’s more desirable seats, the outside “scary” ones, are not the ones most people will choose. See, people want to sit with their friends, and that becomes priority over everything else. So what happens? People sit in the middle two seats and leave the outside ones empty, and with HersheyPark’s operations you can laugh away the idea that any staff would be on top of things to correct that. Most theme parks have a space where guests can queue extra for the front row for a reason, if you offer guests a choice of seat you have to make allowances for their choices. How, exactly, can I make a choice to sit on the wing? Even ignoring all this, the difference in experience of sitting on the wings is rather minute, and, for the majority at least, if you’re brave enough to ride it I’m pretty sure you’re brave enough to sit wherever. Or worse still, I suspect most guests don’t even take notice in the difference, other than that the seat is alienated back and away from the middle two. The idea that these winged cars offers guests a choice is just silly. And those same cars B&M use on their hypers? Those are dumb too. But at least with the loading on those, guests are arranged in twos with the back seats set further back to clearly define them as a separate row. This reduces empty seats because guests are forced to deal with the fact they are going to be separated from their friend. But it’s still a stupid, pointless concept.
Look at all those empty outside seats...
As for Hersheypark being a family park… I’d argue that it is really not. The term “family” gets thrown around a lot in the industry. Enthusiasts use it to refer to children’s parks, or well themed parks, and the parks use it, hm, not really as a marketing tool, but rather a lying tool when they realize a dip in certain audiences. But by my definition, family means family. It means that toddlers, kids, teens, adults and grandparents are all accounted for, fairly equally. It means that a decent number of attractions need to entertain most of that spectrum at the same time, and that some of those should be major attractions. Hersheypark’s idea of family is to treat its waterpark rides as part of the main list of attractions and boast transportation rides and a carousel. Wow! What exciting and fun family attractions! But a more ludicrous idea is that SkyRush is a family coaster. Hershey has odd height restrictions; you have to be 60” (that’s 1.5m) to ride Skyrush and a couple of other coasters alone. That’s the highest height restriction I think I have ever come across, why is it so high?! To ride with an adult, you have to be 54” (1.4), which is standard “big coaster” height. Family coasters, in my mind, should max at 1.3m, but ideally need to be 1.2 and under. And then of course there’s the fact that SkyRush is one of the most intense rides built this decade… It isn’t suitable for some of the adult group, let alone granddad or some young teens, and I’m not one to underestimate the bravery of kids!
With it’s dull station of generic Aemerican architecture, a plain building with a clock tower, (what is this, a sky train? Are we going on a magical choochoo journey through the clouds?) SkyRush really doesn’t seem to make much of an effort to build up interest amongst potential riders. Perhaps that’s the point. I’ve alluded to the idea that maybe the aesthetic design was specifically chosen to dumb it down or bring doubt, to encourage the timid to ride it, and then blow them away? But what does that really achieve other than put some people off roller coasters for life? My mother rode Air, Alton’s delicate flying coaster, because of the way it presented. Had it fed a ride experience so unlike it advertised, she’d be put off rides for life. The way a coaster presents itself can enhance the ride experience, and perhaps that’s why SkyRush is so terrifying?
The queue line is a dreadful, generic one which weaves back and forth with nothing to look at. You can’t see the ride, or really any other rides, or anything. As you head up stairs into the station, we encounter a design flaw that contributes to the disaster of the loading efficiency. It’s TOO small in here, and both the queue and the boarding gates obscure the view of the train the whole time you’re in there. Guests have no chance to watch and learn how to board, and that would be fine if there was no room for error or if hosts helped organise and load people. So what would fix this? Enter the station from above and go down? Have less queue on the station platform? Have a staff member directing people into rows from the queue end? Have platform staff alert and getting people to fill all available seats? Any one or combination of these would help! This station is SO small that guests offload on the same side they board… Why?! Just why? I don’t understand the argument that the wooden coaster Comet is in the way. (KNOCK IT DOWN! …Actually, no! Wait! It’s awesome! That was a joke!) Why didn’t they just design it to reside over a metre or two, away from Comet? It’s not like the huge midway path outside of Skyrush was at risk of being obscured. Or alternatively, have two stations, one to load and one to offload? Why not have the queue go over the train sat in the station, thus showing people how the seats are set up, and then load on the far side? How would that have taken up any more room? And the bag storage system is over-complicated. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with bins, you didn’t need to make them spin and complicated and time consuming.
The plain, small station.
Sitting on board, you’ll find the outside seats are really not that far from the centre. Your inside foot will touch the floor of the train, which kind of kills that floorless feel. Truth is, I’ve never been all that impressed with floorlessness anyway. And unlike the outside seats on the foorless Diving Machines or true Winged coasters, you don’t get that weird alienated sense of being really far from the track. So I wasn’t sure what, if anything, these winged seats were for.
You pull the restraint down and they are extraordinary, with full upper body freedom to lean forward or hang out the train sideways and little to grip hold of, should you need to (you will). For those who are intimidated, it might heighten their fear, whilst for myself it’s excitement of having freedom and comfort to truly enjoy the aerial dance about to take place. And we’re off, pulled out the station so fast you might be mistaken for thinking this is launched. The train races towards the sky, not with the classical, slow, clanking of a chain lift, but a silent woooosh. The train crests the hill and immediately my breath was taken away as I am flung from my seat. I assume for most riders, this sensation sparks the instinct to grab hold of the restraint in fear of not just falling out, but being forcibly thrown to your death. However, that moment of freedom was immediately stolen from me by the lapbar I had praised the moment I sat down. I’m only held in place because my leg bones are just, and only just, strong enough to not snap under the pressure. Unlike other designs, which hold you at your waist, or preferably by lying flat against the thigh, this digs into your mid-upper thigh. It’s as if, under the restraint, is a metal pole, and every time negative G-Force throws you the opposite direction from the train, ouch! It’s no exaggeration to say that SkyRush hurts.
From then on, you’re distracted by this fact. See, I’m so used to riding roller coasters now that I have to consciously make a decision to pay attention when riding. I’m at the point where I can ignore the forces and visuals of most rides with ease, and choose to have a casual conversation with the person next to me, as if riding the bus. Theme parks have become less about rides and more of a hobby and a chance to see and spend time with friends. But my experience of riding Skyrush is like a high speed movie chase, where I’m clinging desperately to the roof of a vehicle whilst it swerves trying to fling me to my death… AND I’m being shot at. I’m distracted by the discomfort on my legs, but where on most coasters that distraction would leave me with a nulled experience, on SkyRush, it’s not enough fully remove me. The chaotic exasperation of desperately trying to remain upright, in a position where I would be least affected by the restraint pressing on my leg, before the next element tries to forcibly remove me from the train is… Horribly exciting?
One of SkyRush's trains trying desperately to get rid of it's riders... Note the lack of hands in the air.
How do average guests experience SkyRush? I imagine that the average coaster experience is for some not unlike the chaos I experience riding something like SkyRush, so to imagine how these “extreme” rides, which are so few and far between, are felt by normal folk is kind of mind boggling. Though perhaps, what makes SkyRush extreme are expectations only enthusiasts have? Do people understand why this ride is so shocking? What sets it apart? And by extension, feel what I feel? Or maybe, the experience of any coaster is far more universal than I imagine? Increasingly I’ve noticed a public preference towards Intamin coasters over B&M, certainly at thrill parks anyway. The reception of Swarm at Thorpe Park, which is ultimately a graceful beast dressed up to look scary, has been one of disappointment. “It’s not long enough” or “it’s not very intense” or “it’s not very scary” seem to be quite common opinions I’ve heard from non-enthusiasts.
Guests buckle under the forces and cling on for dear life.
I had the pleasure (PAIN?!) of night ERT on Skyrush thanks to the organization from CoasterForce and the kindness of Hersheypark for offering it to us. And what that enabled me to do was to experience the ride in a way guests usually do not. But my first ride was attained through normal daytime queuing experience and so I was able to write this review the way I have. So here’s what I realised through repeated rides, which were so numerous I lost count…
The pain, though distracting and bruise causing, was not so horrible it made me want to stop riding at any point. Maybe that should read, SkyRush is so good, that at no point did the pain make me want to call it a night. Where I’ve sat out of reriding other painful coasters, because they hurt my head or make me feel sick or rattle my insides in a sensation not unlike bad indigestion, SkyRush’s pain is the kind that, if anything, enhances the ride. It’s overkill, don’t get me wrong – I want those restraints changed from their original design, but it’s the same kind of discomfort you find on say, The Ultimate at Lightwater Valley. The pain is caused in part by poor design, but also because the ride does such an outstanding job at feeling wild and out of control. And no matter what they do to those restraints, it’ll always be that kind of ride. You may always come off it with a bruise and the exhaustion in your mid-section of struggling to stay upright, no matter if the restraints were perfect.
It is possible to reduce the pressure to your legs. Arguably you shouldn’t have to, but in a strange way, doing so enhanced the ride in other ways. By gripping either side of the over-the-shoulder bars that hold the lapbar in place, and pulling upward, forcing your body down into the seat firmly, I found I could avoid the pain. And in doing so, pay attention to a world previously unseen, as I bounded around and over the lake below. SkyRush’s layout is arguably an uninspired mess, like a spooked, bucking rodeo horse. There’s not a sense of quality design, but of a fluke. I have a thing about coasters that feel poorly designed, and I like how I’m never sure whether the sense of chaos is intentional or genuine. And perhaps only because this chaos is so rare, I enjoy it. Other participants in the ERT session found various ways of dealing with the leg pressure, likely due to varying body shapes. Some would prefer the inside seats and push against the floor. Others held their legs out stretched. Whether you choose to fight SkyRush, or let it treat you like a rag doll, you won’t ever truly win. And even after countless rides and a familiarity with the layout, I was still never quite prepared for the physical onslaught.
So, is SkyRush good or bad? It’s… incredible? But that doesn’t answer the question, does it? I think time will have to be the judge. If chaotic coasters like SkyRush were more common, maybe it wouldn’t be anything special? It’s power is impressive, but is there more to it? Is there a quality to it? And it’ll be interesting to see if/when they replace the restraints it makes a real difference. SkyRush shot into many people’s favourite spot for its unbridled airtime, but I personally think it’s less about the airtime and more about the chaos of a ride experience that still, after all these years, made me shit my pants a little. I was scared throughout that ERT of being thrown out, truly scared of my restraint failing. Worried that me pulling on it was contributing to the likleyhood of that happening. This is not a mindset I’m familiar with. Basically, I’m really not sure how I feel about it. I think it’s almost definitely the best ride the park now has to offer. But Hersheypark is my favourite park, regardless of their attractions not really blowing me out of the water until now, so I will certainly be going back. Maybe one day there will be a follow up review that deals with the ride more objectively instead of this waffling expression of emotion you almost certainly didn’t come here for.