ZDT's is a Family Entertainment Center in Seguin, TX - just about half an hour east of San Antonio. It opened in 2007, named "ZDT" for Zac, Danielle, and Tiffany, the park owners' three children. It had just five attractions at that point, but the family-friendly atmosphere and owner Danny Donhauser's passion, customer-centric attitude, and hands-on style proved to be a hit with the locals and things grew quickly.
The setting is odd for an amusement park. It's in a fairly industrial part of the town with old buildings, warehouses, and such. ZDT's makes use of what's there, including the brilliant idea of sticking a rock climbing attraction on some old silos. The place is packed with video games, all of which are on "free play", meaning you pay your admission price to get in and then you play all you want without the need to keep feeding the games with money.
Speaking of playing... there are multi-level go-karts, a water coaster, water slides, and all kinds of fun things to do. That right there should be enough reason to make a stop by whenever you're in the area, or if you're traveling to and from San Antonio.
But what I'm about to show you gives you reason to go to Seguin even if you had no plans to do so before.
This is a stick of wooden coaster track reaching up into the sky, nearly vertical, looking like it's just waiting for someone to come along and finish it. News flash: it is finished. This is Switchback, the first-of-its-kind wooden coaster that dominates the ZDT skyline and literally stops traffic. If you're driving near the park and there's a train going up the lift, keep your eyes on the road because the people in front of you have probably hit the brakes and are sticking their heads out the car window to see how this thing works. You can't blame them, really, since nobody has ever seen one of these before. It's the world's first (and currenly only) forward/backward wooden shuttle coaster.
The above photo shows park owner Danny (left) and Chad from The Gravity Group (right) in the middle of a very long day of work. If you're a regular reader of ElloCoaster, you know how much I love The Gravity Group. If you're unfamiliar, have a look at the articles on Wooden Warrior or Boardwalk Bullet or The Voyage. Any time you've got The Gravity Group involved, you know you're in for something special.
Now, I need a disclaimer here: at the time of this writing, the coaster is not yet open. It will be open as of October 17, 2015, but as of this moment, it is still in pre-opening state. The employees are being trained to run the coaster, the ride vehicles require many laps to break in, and while it has been fully inspected and safe to run, there are still t's to be crossed and i's to be dotted before its grand unveiling to the public. This is why, unlike other ElloCoaster articles, the pictures of the coaster have empty trains or trains full of blue test dummies or even people standing alongside the track.
I should also mention that wood coasters run best after they've broken in, after the track has broken in, after the grease in the wheels has warmed up, preferably on a hot day, and with the trains full of people for maximum weight. Switchback greeted me with fresh new track, an empty train, and wheels that were getting grease added when I arrived. In other words, it was the worst-possible scenario for getting a good ride. I didn't care, though, I was excited to have the opportunity to ride it at all... but I kept my expectations low.
See that knowing smirk on park owner Danny's face? Yeah, he knew what I was about to experience. That low bar I set for my expectations was about to be blown to smithereens. This thing rocks!
Firstly, LOOK AT THESE TRAINS! Have you ever seen any wooden coaster with trains as wickedly awesome as these?
No, you have not.
These are custom-themed Timberliner trains made especially for this coaster. The name "Switchback" is an homage to the first-ever wood coaster, LaMarcus Thompson's Switchback Railway that opened at Coney Island in 1884. That ride was named (loosely) after the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway from 1827, an actual railway from a mining operation that ended up becoming a tourist attraction where people would pay to ride the cars from the top of the mountain to the bottom. It's a great idea to name a first-of-its-kind coaster after two other "firsts" and the railroad-themed trains really suit it. They're also comfortable and able to navigate the insanely tight corners in the layout.
The first of those tight turns comes right out of the station. Then there's another one and suddenly you're staring right up the lift hill. At 65ft, the coaster is on the short end of the "mid-sized coaster" spectrum, but The Gravity Group is quite adept at getting big thrills from smaller coasters.
As you go up the lift, you are pointed away from the rest of the ride. All you can see from here is the upcoming first drop, which looks crazy steep.
Once at the top, you're greeted with a really, really tight corner. This is where the Timberliner trains come into play, as traditional wood coaster trains would not be able to handle this small of a turning radius. It's almost like a wild mouse turn - glance up from the queue line to see just how tight this is:
You round that turn, stare over the brink of the first drop, and take a deep breath. Here we go...
Now you'd expect, with such a short train, that there wouldn't be much difference in a front-seat ride and a back-seat ride... and you'd be wrong. This is the first point where Switchback takes what you expect and stomps all over it. The front seat lingers ever-so-slightly over the precipice and then drops to the ground. The back seat grabs you by the throat and yanks you over the edge like a cartoon coyote. Airtime? Yes, please.
The train roars across the flat expanse of the switch track (more on that later) past the loading station and you see this bunny hop ahead:
You expect to get airtime here - and you do. You expect to go up, over, and down the other side in a straight line. Screw that. At the top of this hill, you're floating out of your seat, enjoying the delicious moment of weightlessness, and then the car you're riding in decides that LEFT is the flavour of the day and it swings sideways and drops down while your butt is still airborne and now you're looking at a freaking BUILDING right in your face and somewhere under that structure, the track is just sitting on the ground and there's another piece of the building in the way, but then there's a turn and all of it is just right there in your face, all at once, it all happens in a split second and you don't even have time to think about it because you're still floating.
Look at that picture, then look at the one above it. Can you imagine going up the hill in the first picture and once at the top, seeing what's in the second picture?
No, you cannot.
The sight lines of this section are absolutely perfect in that you see a normal bunnyhop, your body prepares for a normal bunnyhop, then it just isn't what you prepared for. It's a fantastic moment that takes several rides to really comprehend. No time for contemplation right now, though, because we're rocketing around this crazy turn shoved under, through, and around this building.... and you know what they say: one good turn deserves another.
That is "The 104" (one-oh-four). It's a turn that's banked at 104 degrees, making it just past vertical. It looks wrong in every good way possible and you race at this thing with gusto.
No, that picture isn't turned sideways. Have a good look, because when you're on the ride this is all just a speed blur. You scream around it and end up going back through the corner of that building you just left.
Loads of positive Gs from the turn are transformed instantly into floating airtime over the next hill, which is also twisted and unique because of course it is. Why would Switchback do anything normal at this point?
A zig-zag turn with more airtime leads you to The Grand Spike. If you hadn't already had your mind blown by what came before, this sight is going to do it for you:
The track rolls up into a nearly-vertical spike and just ends. No reassuring bumpers to make you sure you won't sail off the end, no brakes between the rails, no nothing... it just ceases to be. Aaaaaand you are hauling serious butt as you approach it. If you look very carefully, you'll see a pair of numbers written on the crossties. The first one is 82.7 and the second one, a bit farther up, is 85.6
These are the degrees of steepness on the Grand Spike. When the coaster has broken in and running at full speed, it should hit that 85.6 mark - and that will make Switchback officially the World's Steepest Wooden Coaster. It almost gets there now, with an empty train and not even close to being broken in. None of that matters at this point, though, because you're still freaking out that you can see the end of the track and you're still going really fast!
The steepness of the Grand Spike means that the trains decelerate very quickly. It also means that you're going full speed right at that spike until you're not. There's no appreciable sensation of slowing down as you head up into the abyss, it's just one moment of rocketing toward the end of the track and then suddenly you're stopped. This is the other moment when the front seat and back seat offer totally different experiences. In the front, the end of the track looks as far away as it really is. The Grand Spike is taller than the first drop, so it's completely impossible for the trains to get very near the top of it... but in the back seat, sight lines are totally different and the end of the track looks like it's really, really close.
In fact, it looks close enough that if the riders in the front seat stick their arms out in front of them, they appear to grab the tops of the rails. It's a neat effect - for another neat effect, try closing your eyes just before the Grand Spike. You don't really feel the transition from horizontal to nearly-vertical, so you think you're still sitting on flat track... then you stop and you feel weightless as the train drops backward down the Spike. It's pretty surreal. Open your eyes again right after that, though, because you don't want to miss anything from here on. This is where things get wonky.
All that stuff you just did is going to get done again in reverse. The zig-zag turn gives you some backward, twisting, floating airtime as does the bunnyhop after that. Then comes The 104.
You're going quite a bit slower than on the forward trip and that means that all those strong G forces from this turn are no more. It is still, however, beyond vertical banking. Yeah. You're going to start "falling" sideways while lifting from your seat a bit while going around this crazy turn backward. It's a weird, unsettling, completely unnerving sensation that is unlike anything I've ever experienced on a wood coaster before. It caught me off-guard and I don't recall what I said at that moment on the first ride, but I'm pretty sure it would garner an "R" rating from the MPAA. As the coaster breaks in and gets faster, this sensation might be diminished greatly, since faster speeds will keep butts in seats the way it does on the forward trip. But on the rides I took, the slower speed was a definite advantage because it really delivered the goods on this turn. My suggestion would be to make a trip out to the park very early in the season on a cool day and be on the first train out of the station. In other words, try for a day and situation where the trains will be as sluggish as possible. It'll be worth the effort for this one moment, trust me.
After traversing back through the building and over the weird bunnyhop (which doesn't feel weird at all in reverse), you hit the switch track section and previously-disabled brakes slow the train down considerably. A short trip backward up the first drop goes just far enough to clear the brakes, which then fully kick in to stop the train as it reverses direction again and rolls forward. That's when the genius of this ride becomes fully apparent: there is a second train in the loading station. Once this train rolls out toward the lift hill, the switch track moves sideways and lines up the rails to get your train back into the station while the second train climbs the lift.
Once your train is safely back home, the switch track moves back into the original position before the second train gets to the top of the lift hill. So you have a forward/backward shuttle coaster that still has a traditional lift hill and big drop and has the ability to run two trains seamlessly. Have you ever seen anything like that before?
No, you have not.
It's another first-and-only-one-of-its-kind element on this coaster that really sets this ride apart from everything else in the world.
Oh, and you'll want to stick around and ride after dark, too. It's even better then, since lots of it is dimly lit, if at all, and everything seems to come at you faster.
So load up your maps app, find Seguin Texas, pinpoint ZDTs Amusement Park, and figure out how you're going to get here and ride this thing. Because, seriously, have you ever in your life ridden a coaster as unique, surprising, exciting, and FUN as this Little Engine That Could?
No, you have not.
...but you should.
The above article was written before the coaster opened to the public. It was new, hadn't broken in, and the trains were empty. I went back to ZDT's in June 2017 and got to experience it on a nice hot day with full trains. It did not disappoint.
ACE CoasterConXL included ZDT's on the itinerary and it was the first time on the coaster for many of the participants. With nearly 450 ACErs in attendance, the line for Switchback was the longest in the park's history!
This is the halfway point of the queue, by the way. There were as many folks behind me as in front of me when I snapped the pic. Even so, Switchback's genius two-train design combined with stellar operations from one of the best ride op crews anywhere, means that the wait was only about 20 minutes. No, really. Some big parks should seriously take some lessons from the ride crews at ZDT's.
So what did the die-hard coaster fanatics think of the "Little Coaster that Could?" Most people I talked to loved it. One well-traveled friend even mentioned that he was going to have to 're-arrange his top five' - high praise, indeed!
ZDT's played a great host as well. Pizza, live music at lunch, exclusive ride time on Switchback, and a nice Q&A with Danny (park owner) and Chad (from The Gravity Group). A couple of people snarfed down the pizza and went back for more rides while everyone else was still at the lunch pavilion. It's the unspoken rule of almost any ACE event: exclusive ride time is great, but if you REALLY want to rack up a bunch of rides, hit the coaster during meal time!
Many thanks to Danny and Sarah Donhauser (nice to finally meet you, Sarah!) and to the whole staff at ZDT's for making my return visit so fantastic. Can't wait to come back!