Playland’s iconic Wooden Roller Coaster turns 65

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      “She has been celebrated by Hollywood and studied by scientists. She’s been the site of marriages, first dates, a lot of double dates, incredible joy—and I’m not going to lie, a ton of tears.”

      Shelley Frost isn’t talking about a person, or even an animal—she’s talking about Playland’s Wooden Roller Coaster. Which just turned an impressive 65 years old.

      “When British Columbians were asked what their favourite memories were from the last century, the Wooden Roller Coaster was one of the very top items on that list,” says Shelley, president of the PNE, at a press event for the ride’s birthday.

      Opened in 1958, the coaster soon became one of the most popular attractions at Playland, and is now considered one of the greatest amusement rides ever constructed. It’s also lovingly called a living coaster, because unlike typical rides that are made from steel, this one is built from BC Douglas fir.

      A $2 million restoration was completed last year, including adding a second 16-person train to reduce wait times. Which is no small thing, considering over half a million guests ride it every year—adding up to about 32 million riders since its inception.

      via PNE

      And while there are undoubtedly superfans who have been on the coaster hundreds of times, even those who’ve only experienced it once or twice will likely remember the dramatic rise up the first hill, along with the clicking sound right before the stomach-churning drop. What many may not realize is that the initial drop has enough force to power the rest of the ride, making the coaster a true feat of engineering.

      When architect, engineer, and designer duo Carl Phare and Walker LeRoy first proposed that the entire ride could be driven by the momentum from the first hill, they were met with disbelief. Legend has it, a group of engineers came out to inspect the coaster and laughingly said it wasn’t possible.

      Confident in his vision, LeRoy bet the engineers $100 (the equivalent to over a thousand dollars today) that it would work. Needless to say, he won, and the coaster remains Playland’s longest running attraction. It is also the last remaining ride in the world constructed by LeRoy and Phare. Before his death, Phare called the coaster his greatest design achievement.

      For the coaster’s 65th birthday, Phare’s family donated the original architectural blueprints for the ride to the PNE. The blueprints are dated December 10, 1957 and are the only remaining original drawings in existence.

      The original blueprints.
      via PNE

      “We consider these drawings to be both a city and a provincial treasure, and just want you to know that they will be kept in the PNE archive and given the respect and care that they deserve,” Frost shares. She adds that digitized versions of the blueprints will be on banners by the coaster, alongside photos from the ride’s history.

      PNE board chair and city councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung also took the occasion to announce, on behalf of the City of Vancouver, that August 2 will now be known as Playland Wooden Coaster Day. To celebrate, the PNE launched a new hotdog, aptly named the ‘58 Special; as a nod to the pieces of Douglas fir used to build the coaster, the hotdog is topped with Hickory Sticks. It’s also wrapped in the front page of the Vancouver Sun from early 1958, which features a photograph of the coaster getting ready to launch to the public. Parallel 49, a longtime partner of the PNE, has also crafted a new commemorative beer called Coaster Crush.

      Bridget Stringer-Holden

      For roller coaster enthusiasts, there is a VIP experience that for the first time showcases the inner workings of the coaster—including the motor and belts that take the ride up its first hill. Included in the tour are photos, a souvenir button, mini donuts and a drink, as well as a Thrill pass to the rest of the rides at Playland.

      “Over half a million people come and ride this coaster every summer, and I’m happy to be able to say that I’m one of them this year,” says BC Minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport Lara Popham. “Happy birthday, Wooden Roller Coaster. Let’s ride.”

      Minister Popham (left) and Councillor Kirby-Yung (right) sit in the front row of the first ride on the coaster's 65th birthday.
      Bridget Stringer-Holden

      Wooden Roller Coaster VIP Experience

      When: August 6, 13, and 16

      Time: 9:45am to 11am (Thrill pass is valid from 11am to 5pm)

      Where: Playland

      Tickets: $65, available here