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The Last Day for the Big Bad Wolf, A Personal Account

**This story was originally written and posted on BGWfans July 30, 2009.

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September 7th, 2009: Labor Day for all, D-Day for the Big Bad Wolf

The Big Bad Wolf had an amazing run of 25 years. Considered the best of its kind by legions of coaster enthusiasts, this classic suspended coaster’s reign of fright was now coming to an end on Labor Day of 2009.  Busch Gardens Williamsburg Executives announced a mere six weeks ahead of this horrid date that due to high costs of maintenance the ride had reached the end of its service life. The replacement attraction of the Wolf would remain unannounced apparently. Now I love the theme park dearly, but all I can say is …BOOOO!!

Shakespeare once wrote that “The robbed that smiles, steals something from the thief.” Sadly, I could not smile and move on once I heard the news; nay, I wept and begged, and never stopped fighting.

For those of you unfamiliar with the ride, The Big Bad Wolf stood at a mere 99 feet; small in coaster standards. It made up for it’s lack of height by thrilling riders with a unique experience of being dangled in a black cradle cars that had the ability to swing the riders back and forth at a maximum 110 degree angle during the entire ride. A rippling motion of the coaster cars was the beauty of the Wolf, as it swung through a well themed Bavarian town and took a sweeping plunge over a river below.

The relatively slow speed of 48 miles per hour was irrelevant. Much like what the humidity does to the heat index factor in Virginia, the true speed of the ride was deceiving. Being carried on the Wolf seemed as if you reached speeds closer to 80 mph. This was due to the sharp banking while being swung at extreme angles throughout the ride, or as Busch Gardens called it, “traveling at the speed of fright”.

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Frightening was indeed the key word with The Big Bad Wolf. Everyone knew it was the one coaster in the park without industrial-powered-airport-standard spotlights to shine up on all the riders. (Seriously, there is no reason to use the Bat Signal on any coaster folks). This lack of lighting left you completely in a pitch-black quiet during those late night rides. The buildings that you swung through and around; the trees that bent oh~so close to the coaster tracks, and the cold shimmering moonlit river that waited for you below that final drop, were only sensory dangers as you flew by.

Another frightening aspect of the ride is that it was set farther away from the park. The red tracks were found nestled in dense foliage; making the rider feel alone on their adventure. So well hidden was the ride, the isolation fear factor could be likened to any one of Steven King’s novels…no one can hear your scream!

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Of all the fine coasters at Busch Gardens, my love of the Big Bad Wolf was the most intense and the loss has hit me tremendously hard. The thrill of riding it never faded over time. Each twist and turn made me laugh and cheer. When I heard the news, it hit me like a terminal illness or catastrophic loss of a dear friend and I went through the five stages of grief:

  1. Denial: “They can’t be removing this ride. It is a classic, irreplaceable; it has to be a hoax!”
  2. Anger: My hate was uncontrollable and aggressive. I attacked with swarms of letters and petitions; emotional, passionate language flowed to everyone I could think of. “How could you?  Why are you doing this to a great coaster?” etc.
  3. Bargaining: The closer the end date arrived, the more panicked I became. I wrote letters with solutions, hope of saving my dear ride, begging them to please consider alternatives!
  4. Depression: No longer believing there was hope, I knew there was nothing more I could do. Crying, obsessing, I drove my husband crazy. I began to write poetry and artwork. (A sure sign that I was deeply distraught and inconsolable over the inevitable end.)
  5. Acceptance: I did all I could do. I gave everything I had to help Save the Wolf, nothing was going to change that fact. I began to make peace with the realization that I would never see that beautiful coaster ever again.

It was only after acceptance that I decided to bid on the final ride of the Big Bad Wolf; an idea I was fervently against at first because of ethical reasons. Ultimately, I caved to my inner demons and decided to risk my hard earned dollars for a chance to say the final – final goodbye. My goal was to be in the top six bidders at least and thus securing a spot on either the front or back car; the most prized positions of any coaster fan.

Surprisingly I won the 6th spot and relief ran through me. I would be on the very last ride of the day. I would be one of the final people to say goodbye to the Big Bad Wolf forever. It was a rare instance of crying for two completely different reasons at exactly the same time.

Now begins my tale of the quest for the first and last ride of the Big Bad Wolf:

8:30 am

Waking up early with a clenching nausea in my stomach, the dreaded day had arrived. I donned my outfit that was designed to show the world my complete enthusiasm for the Big Bad Wolf. I looked ready sporting a vintage 1984 “I survived the Big Bad Wolf” (complete with the old original logo on the front), hanging wolf earrings, a wolf necklace, and an actual Big Bad Wolf Puppet to carry around for amusement purposes.

OK, perhaps the outfit made me look a little unbalanced and demented to anyone not inclined to such a show of passion; but as long as my tomfoolery made them smile… it was worth it!

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The day was gloomy. My husband called the day, “Pure Bummage.”

Dark rain clouds hung ominously overhead; ready to pour their bounty on all who dared venture out of their homes.  No amount of rain could stop me boy howdy! Only the threat of lightening could thwart the operation of coasters that day.

Thus, I threatened all those evil clouds that they better not produce one single lightening bolt or I would find a way to fly up there and personally kick each and every one of their fluffy rain laden butts! I think it worked.

Despite the fact that my whole aura was as dark as the morning sky, my husband still came with me on this quest.  His sworn duty was to act as my personal cameraman and designated cheerleader when emotions ran high.

10:25 am

We arrived at the Busch Gardens early enough to be there when the Germany (Oktoberfest) section opened to the general public.

And older fellow, perhaps in his late 50′s, stood watch at a pitiful looking rope that kept a hoard of drooling coaster hounds at bay. He shouted at the crowd. “People! Germany opens at 11:00 and the Wolf opens at 11:30!” No one budged.  Instead, we all looked at each other; sizing up the competition. Who would win out for the first ride? One thing for sure, the fight would be nasty.

The goal was located about 150 yards away across the San Marco Bridge; the wet, slippery monstrosity that connected the two areas of the park. At the end of this bridge is a slight incline for those who are fit or a Sisyphean challenge for people like me. (Sisyphus- look it up kids).

At 11 am sharp, the man released the rope and pounced spryly out of the way. The crowd rushed forward. Little kids sprinted ahead and I growled in frustration. My 30+ year old-out-of-shape body with wobbly knee joints cried out in defiance. Still, I was set on winning. No snot nosed kid would beat me that day.

Then a miracle happened. This miracle was called X-box and Playstation. Those TV induced, lazy punks started dropping back. My steady and determined gate passed each and every one. Secretly, I taunted them all.

I saw the entrance ahead. A new-found energy overtook me and I doubt I ever ran faster in my life. The ground was slick and dangerous, and I prayed that I wouldn’t slip and break anything.

In the end there were only a few folks that made it ahead of me. Counting quickly to make sure I was in the top 28, I released a primordial howl of relief and then clutched my sides in pain. Looking back at the swiftly increasing line, I did an awkward victory dance.

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My husband, who walked patiently across the long bridge that has just served as host to the geriatric 100 yard dash, approached me laughing. “You should have seen yourself! God that was hilarious!” He then asked me if I pushed down any kids along the way, and I denied the accusation. I did mention to him that yes, I had thought about it.

A staff member announced that they would open the ride as quickly as possible.

11:16 am

For the second time of the day, the rope swung open. The line of people crowded in. With much success my husband and I found ourselves in our coveted back seat, ready to howl and scream on the first ride of the day.

Leaving the ride, I was stoked. Even if it rained all day, nothing could change the fact I would be the first and last ride of the day. It was so worth the shin splints and sore ankles that were already plaguing my aging body from running like an obsessed loon.

12:03 pm

After getting some amazing footage of the coaster, the bottom dropped out of those pesky rain clouds. My husband and I retreated to the safety of the Festhaus (a very large dining area of Busch Gardens) and relaxed with a nice lunch and a glass of wine.

The rain started to break, and we both ran out for more rides on the Wolf. All and all, the weather gratefully allowed us at least five rain free rides so far. I felt no need to ride the other roller coasters. I mean, they would all be running the next day; for the Wolf…this was it baby.

5:15 pm

I had to meet the park officials at 5:30 pm in front of “Wolf Gifts”, the sparsely stocked Big Bad Wolf gift store found outside the Ride’s exit. The staff kept this information on the down-low so there were no onlookers and harassment from other park goers. So tight was the security around the Big Bad Wolf, I became slightly paranoid that one slip of the tongue would somehow result with me being banned from the park.

The winning bidders had to stand in line at the Wolf Gifts Merchandise Stand and pay their auction money. I proudly handed over the cash and received a lime green wristband; the brightly colored badge of honor. People around this area quickly learned that whoever wore a bright green wristband were the last riders of the day.

I was constantly receiving sly looks of envy and for a moment I was worried someone might pin me down in order to saw of my hand. In response, I fingered the little paper wristband and whispered, “Mustn’t hurt the preciousssss.”

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After securing my final ride, I spotted a news crew roaming around those waiting in line for the Big Bad Wolf. In all my “Wolf” garb, I must have looked like easy prey because the news crew swooped down on me like a mosquito and asked me for an interview. The reporter, Jeremy Crider, a pleasant and professional young fellow, asked me a few questions and I tried very hard to not become an emotional wreck in my responses.

I heard shouting which broke my focus from the news crew. Upon turning around, I realized with horror that MY ride had already boarded and the gates had closed! My husband, smirking, was waving a sarcastic goodbye. I returned the sentiment with a plea to open the gates and brought forth my ultimate power of sad puppy-dog eyes and an undeniably large pouty lower lip.

The crowd in the station witnessed the whole ordeal started to scream wildly for the operator to stop and reopen the gates. Touched at the care of complete strangers, I started the rallying cheer of “BIG BAD WOLF! BIG BAD WOLF!!!”

EVERYONE in the entire station joined in the cheer until the gates reopened (strictly for wacky me)! Hopping into my seat, I started HOWLING at the top of my lungs. Then station crowd all began to howl with me in unison until the coaster left the station. I found out later that this whole event was captured on film and was played on the 11 o’ clock news that night. Bless you Channel 3. You made my day.

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6:50 pm: The Big Bad Wolf’s Final Goodbye

The park closed at 7pm and it was well known that any rider in line could ride the Big Bad Wolf in whatever seat they wished, no matter how long this took. As if on cue, the rain began to pound down at exactly 7pm.

Now, since Busch Gardens announced they were closing the classic coaster, it has rained every single time I have gone to the park. Seriously, each and every time. It is as if the Coaster Gods are weeping for me. Either that, or the atmosphere could sense my mood and therefore, reflect my feelings in some weird mutant like power.

The final riders gathered around in a silent vigil, awaiting the inevitable. While trying to find a dry location, we all shared stories about our favorite ride. This included a serious discussion and debate if we should all handcuff ourselves to the coaster and then say some “crazy Big Bad Wolf did it.”

A few of us even took a poll of how far we could go if we started grabbing mementos of the actual roller coaster before being caught and arrested. None of us acted out our verbal and perhaps, mental rebellions thankfully. So it is true. No arrests were made that night. This surprised most of my friends and family the next day as the expected to see me on the news chained to the Big Bad Wolf in protest. Yes, it had crossed my mind.

The park’s general manager, Jon Reilly, came to speak with us during the tantalizingly long wait. He congratulated us on being the final riders of the day and expressed his gratitude for our dedication and love for the Big bad Wolf. He spoke with such fondness of the ride and sincerely regretted that the Big Bad Wolf could not continue to be operational. I looked back to my husband who watched it all with tears in my eyes.

Another park official also mentioned that the auction money went towards Busch Gardens conservation fund to help Mexican gray wolves survive in the wild. Right at the end of the speech, a thanks went out to all of us for providing a great contribution to such an important cause and after a long pause by the speaker, I shouted; “WELL IT IS A GREAT COASTER!!!”

A roar of cheers and applause arose from the crowd that had gathered around our little huddle. Darn straight! It needed to be said!

With that, the group photo of the auction winners was taken.

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7:36 pm

We were then told that the last ride would go like this: Riders would be called out individually by highest to lowest bidder. Each rider would then go through the line and click the turnstile one last time, then select their seat. Once all the riders are ready, the gates would open and the last ride would begin.

Ironically three of the highest bidders where a no show.  Therefore, I went from the 6th highest bidder to the 3rd! I was not expecting this, so when my name was called, I shrieked and spun around in circles clutching my face in surprise if as if Rod Roddy said “Nora, come on down, your the next contestant~ since your Price was Right for the Big Bad Wolf!”

Skipping carefully down the rain covered, slick path of glory, I certainly did not want to look stupid and fall right in front of the news media. My happiness soon faded as I halted in front of the turnstile, the metal device never looked so menacing. This was it; no more will I pass this point. Tears began to well; butterflies circled my stomach. I forced myself through the barrier and looked at the empty seats.

Heartbreak. The empty stares of employees, the lonely dim lighting of the station, the smell of the grease from the coaster’s breaking system, and the slight echo of murmurs from onlookers will be burned into my memory forever.

I noticed that the two highest bidders took the front seats; as expected. Which was fine. I wanted my favorite seat in the back anyway. (The best seat on the Big Bad Wolf; don’t even deny it!).

I clung to the silver metal handrails, for the last time; I touched the pole that held the roof of the station securely for the last time, and I leaned heavily on the gate to peer down into that empty coaster car…..for the last time.

Emotions rampaged through me. Excitement, nervousness, joy, sadness, anger, and heartache; the sensations reflected in my eyes and face.

The final ride on the final car; the 7th car, September 7th, at 7:45pm.

The people riding along with me exchanged handshakes and expressed our sincere feelings to each other. The rest of the empty lines quickly filled with the other riders and we heard the dreaded words, “Boarding guests, please take the seats and pull down your harness over your heads so they may be checked for you….” The gates opened.

The world felt it was in slow motion as it had to be the slowest crawl of any group of riders in a coaster. My legs felt light weights stepping over that black car with its red and yellow stripes in order to sit down in the front right seat of the back car. The harness, felt like and anchor dropping on me. I looked up to my husband, who was perched above the station on a walking platform. He was filming me. I made a “falling tear” gesture and waved a sad farewell.

The ride operator shouted, “Is everyone Ready??” The response was a sad lifeless cheer. The operator continued. “Come on now, is everyone one ready to ride?” This time, we mustered the real applause the Wolf deserved; pushing our disappointed spirits away to give the ride true heartfelt appreciation. The coaster cars jerked forward and with the familiar sounds of the breaks releasing, the final ride of the day left the station followed by howls from everyone riding or watching.

As if my questionable weather-induced-mutant-power prayers were heard, the rain had stopped as soon as we all left the station. The Park had been closed for about an hour at this point, and the night was completely dark. We could barely make out the outline of the trees and tracks as it made slight dip out of the station and into the night to complete the little turn to the left and then to the right to climb the first hill. Murmurs of “I’m going to cry” were mixed in with constant cheers as the coaster approached the first hill. A few flashes from cameras were seen in the distance.

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With the first click of the lift chain, tears began to fall. I sobbed and cheered all the way up to the top. I vaguely remember looking at the hazy lights of the Festhaus and the Autobahn bumper car house that was eerily Ghostown empty.

We had reached the point of isolation. No more could we hear the cheers of other watching us go up the hill. We were alone with the Wolf.. as it should be.

I felt the first car slide off the guide rail and begin to pull the rest of the cars down. We were yanked left through a German building, swooped right, and then left in a matter of seconds. Little lights flickering in windows were the only giveaway that a Bavarian style town was even there. I swore I heard a haunted wolf howl and a church bell ringing that was once part of the Wolf in years past.

At this moment I felt the true soul of the ride.  Yes. I believe wholeheartedly that coasters have a soul.

It is plausible that people are able to imprint bits of themselves on inanimate objects once they become emotionally attached to them. It is all about perspective. The Big Bad Wolf was designed by one of the best coaster engineers of all time and had thrilled over 29,000,000 riders. With so much love and appreciation, this ride had developed it’s own distinct personality; a collective soul filled with projected emotions.

So perhaps in some way, the Big Bad Wolf knew this was the last ride of its long life. If so, I hope it sensed the appreciation from everyone that night.

I touched the side of the car and gave it a fond pat.

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Swinging around the horizontal loop and slowing to a near stop as it turned slowly to the right; the last hill was approaching. A hush came over the riders. The jerk of the coaster hitting the lift chain caused us all to snap out of our reveries and we started a loud chant of “WOLF! WOLF! WOLF!” which continued all the way to the top.

I could see the lights of the Loch Ness Monster, the Griffon,  Apollo’s Chariot, and the Alpengeist. Suddenly, visions of each and every ride I took on the Big Bad Wolf played in my mind. It was almost as if the Ghost of Christmas Past was allowing me to see various stages of my life.

In 1984 the coaster opened two days after my seventh birthday and I was there in line; eyes shining brightly up at the tracks. Hundreds and hundreds of times I must have rode this coaster from age seven to thirty two. Like the story the “Giving Tree”, this great ride saw me as a child, as a teenager, and as an adult. And the girl loved the roller coaster… very much. And the ride was happy.

Despite my tears, the pull from the front cars let me know it was about time to plunge down the last hill. Because I was siting in the very back, I experienced that wonderful stomach dropping swing to the right, then to the left before the coaster cars rushed swiftly to the bottom. In a blink, the coaster swung over the water and with a quick snap to the left and then to the right, and then to another pull to the left.   …… the final ride was …..over.

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It seemed like the fastest 3 minutes and 30 seconds of my life. Even though I cheered along the other riders, I knew that this was the last time that I would see the familiar glow of the approaching station house.  I even thought about how I would never again experience the slight jerk back when the breaks locked down on the wheels below.

Oh Lord, how getting out of that black beautiful coaster car was so hard. I did not want to lift up the harness and I doubt I was the only one. Chants rang out for another ride.

No such luck.

We all pried ourselves from our beloved coaster and just looked at it. Many of us wiped tears from our eyes.

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The whole house went quiet with contemplation. I leaned over and hugged the pivoting fulcrum that hung from the coaster car’s wheel assembly and said a mental goodbye. Slowly, the last riders started to leave the station. Walking over the bridge that allows riders to exit, I howled again. I shared twenty five years with the Big Bad Wolf. Now it was over.

Shaking hands with various people, the remaining crowd marched along towards the main gates of the park. Once we started across the bridge I started to look back to see if I could spot those red tracks in the distance and instantly I had to stop. My husband pulled me into an embrace while I quietly sobbed and repeated. “It will be gone next time.”

Glancing over my husband’s shoulder the rain began to fall again. As if the coaster called out to me, I suddenly recalled something: “Remember me and smile, for it’s better to forget than remember me and cry.”

I have thought about this classic coaster every day since September 7th. Perhaps with the passing of time, I will be able to cry less and smile more when I think of my dear friend; the Big Bad Wolf.

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Faded Tracks of Red
by Nora Marien
July 30, 2009

Written in Honor of the Big Bad Wolf Coaster
based on the poem: THE FADED COAT OF BLUE
by J.H. McNaughton

Oh the mighty Wolf sleeps in its faded tracks of red.
All lonely and alone, it awaits its day of dread.
The cars are all still, and what more can be said,
That the twists and turns all remain engraved in our heads.

Thank you strong coaster, for all the years of delight,
the engineers who made you, really got it right.
You always gave us thrills in both the day and night,
and we always enjoyed “traveling at the speed of fright.”

No more will we hear screams of joy caused by you,
rest noble coaster, I wish there was more for you to do.
Your fate was out of our hands, for if we all could choose,
you would stay here forever, and end our coaster blues.

Though you are not the oldest coaster here, there is no disgrace,
the feeling of the swinging cars, can never be replaced.
You are as beautiful now as we all saw you then,
we so wish that your time here with us, would never, ever end.

And even when many years pass, and you have long been gone,
Your majesty and legacy shall forever continue on.
We all say goodbye and in sorrow, bow our heads.
For we shall never see your tracks again in that glorious shade of red.

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4 Comments

  1. Gary Terrell says:

    I really enjoy reading your stories and the way you can convey your thoughts and emotions. We were very saddened by the closing of Big Bad Wolf. Later in the same year that the Big Bad Wolf was built, a movie came out called ” Amadeus ”. In the movie Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ‘s wife would affectionately call him “Vulfy” and since seeing the movie, my wife and I often called the Big Bad Wolf by this nickname. We miss you “Vulfy”.

    • noramarien says:

      Thank you Gary. That means a great deal to me and I am so glad you have enjoyed my stories. Amadeus is one of my favorite films and ironically, my husband and I were just talking about that movie only two days ago! I hope both you and your wife do not mind, but I think I may adopt the nickname of “Vulfy” for my Big Bad Wolf plush toy from 1984. He’s been with me all these years and I’ve just called him “Mr. Wolf.” I think after 28+ years, he will be OK with dropping the formal title and having a term of endearment bestowed upon him at last. 🙂

      • Gary Terrell says:

        I think that would be great for him to carry on with the nickname. I often watch the news from that area on the Internet and I had seen the clip of the last ride. When you all gave a howl as you were leaving the station, that gave me chills! It gives me chills just thinking about it now and to think you were one of the last few…. Wow! 🙂

  2. Rich Smith says:

    Great writing as always Nora. As you know, I too grew up with the Wolf. I remember when I listened to it’s grand opening on the radio that summer. I was just entring my teen years when it opened, and it was a right of passage to have ridden it that summer.

    There was something else you mentioned, about coasters having a soul. That struck me. I thought, someone else feels that too? There are other rides in the park that have a soul too, Loch Ness, comes to mind of course but there are also smaller experiences and places, Der Whirblewind at night, the floating pier on the Rhine, the last ride back to England on Aeronaut (at night of course). Who hasn’t taken thier date up in that skybucket for a quick smooch? How many kids have leaned over that pier to feed those turtles stale popcorn over the years? Oh, and the viceral experience of a ton’s worth of coaster train barreling down at you then swooping up and away still brings chills to me. There is one ride however that stands apart from all the rest for me, LeScoot…
    I’ve built so many memories on that ride. From riding with my brother when I couldn’t even see over the log, to my first real girlfriend leaning back into me on the lift hill, or riding with my crazy cousins singing “rock the boat, don’t rock the boat baby!” as we lean side to side trying to scare each other, and recently taking my son on his first plunge out of the saw mill. I’m guessing that someday it will be replaced by a shiny new attraction but will that thing have the soul of the original? Will this new generation of riders; our sons and daughters give it that soul? I can only hope so… Until then I’ll keep singing “rock the boat” as loud as I dare, embarrasing my sons as they hide their faces, and try to stop giggling. Knowing full well that they/we are building memories. Ones that they will carry with them through their lives and their childrens lives, in turn giving good ol’ Le Scoot its soul…

    So the next time you’re walking through New France hold a hand to your ear, you just may hear a crazy old man and two nutty kids floating high above singing like idiots and laughing.

    See ya in the park,
    Rich

    Keep writing Nora, you are far too talented not to.

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