Chance’s Zipper, 50 years of thrills for a king of the midway

AT: B. Derek Shaw

WICHITA, Kan. — Golden Wheel Amusements has called it, “The most requested midway ride of all time!” 

Ask any seasoned carnival midway enthusiast what their favorite ride is and many will cite the Chance Zipper. 

“The Zipper is arguably one of the most popular thrill rides in America for teenagers and thrill seekers,” states Talley Amusements, while Butler Amusements, Inc. feels it “…is a must for all adventure seekers.”

Birth of a company

Building small trains for the Ottaway Amusement Company since 1946, Richard “Harold” Chance incorporated Chance Manufacturing Co., Inc.  in 1961. Located in Wichita, Kansas , and now known as Chance Rides, Inc., the company’s initial ride offering became its flagship ride: the C.P. Huntington Train. It continues to be found in amusement parks, zoos and other amusement locations. 

Today, the third generation operates Chance Rides as it manufacturers numerous roller coasters, carousels, trains, trams, wheels and other amusement rides including the Yo-Yo, Pharoah’s Fury, Freestyle, Revolution and, of course, the Zipper.  

What is it?

Skelly’s Amusements describes the Zipper as “a giant rotating chainsaw that flips riders in all sorts of directions.”

Popular at carnivals and amusement parks in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the Zipper has a long, rotating, oval boom with a cable around its edge pulling 12 cars. Seating a maximum of 24 passengers, the 80 foot tall, trailer-mounted ride features dual loading, strong vertical G-forces, numerous spins, and a noted sense of unpredictability. 

While it may not be in the modern-day spectacular category, the Zipper delivers thrills that haven’t been duplicated. The sling around the end of the oblong frame creates a sudden burst of speed, sending the compartments flipping end-over-end.         

Birth of a thrill

Duane Weichman, Carnival Sales Representative with Chance Rides, explained the ride’s conception: “In 1968, an employee named Joe Brown had a large piece of plywood that was to be used for a frame and as it sat on a pin that went directly through the center of it, the plywood was spinning. He sat a blank piece of paper on it with his pen and it spun making a very interesting design. He had an idea to stand the plywood up and try the same thing and it worked. That is when they started to develop the Zipper.” 

The overall general design was based on an earlier ride called The Swooper. It was invented in 1928 by Sellner Manufacturing, the company that introduced the Tilt-A-Whirl two years earlier. The Swooper also featured a series of cars being pulled along a cable around an oblong framework. The main difference is the ability of the Zipper’s frame to rotate as the cars travel along by cable.

“Building the first proto-type, they didn’t know the seat was going to flip upside down, so they put an open seat on it like a ferris wheel seat,” shared current Chance Rides Owner and CEO, Dick Chance. “My dad and his chief designer at the time, Joe Brown, got in it and it went round and round and it never flipped over. Then they got off it and put some sandbags in it, afterwards [the Zipper] put the sandbags out [of the ride]. My Dad said, ’I think we better build a cage around this!’ He then came up with the cage seat.” 

“I guess it seemed like a catchy name,” offered Chance when asked about the origins of the ride’s name. Early advertising used the catchphrase, “How many ways can you revolve around yourself?” “Head Whirling” was another slogan that appeared with a picture of a first generation Zipper. 

Zipper number one went to Bob Hammond Shows, Houston, Texas, with the second unit going to Bill Hames Shows, Fort Worth, Texas. During the inaugural year, 19 Zippers were sold with 16 more the second year and 14 in 1970. To date, Chance Rides has manufactured 222 units in the past half-century. Only the one sold to Galaxyland at the West Edmonton Mall, Edmonton, Alberta, was specifically for  an amusement park.

Trimpers Rides, Ocean City, Md., currently operates one that came off of the portable circuit.

 It should be noted, most Zippers were manufactured by Chance Manufacturing and Chance Industries, Inc. from 1968 to 2001. In 2015, a Zipper was built for Skinners Amusements, Marengo, Ill.

Tragedy brings reform

The Pennsylvania ride safety inspection program grew out of an August 1977 Zipper accident at the Bedford County Fair. Due to the cotter safety pin in the door unexpectedly becoming loose and the door opening mid-ride. The two riders were tossed out, taking the life of a 14-year old teen rider (head injury) and breaking the tailbone of her ride partner. The following year, the ride had an extra latch on the side, in addition to the one on the front of the cage. 

In 1978, there was an industry-wide effort to draft standards for American rides with Mary Ellen Gilbert, mother of the teen who lost her life, joining as a non-industry representative. 

“What happened then was the accident in New Jersey, the Fun House fire at [Six Flags] Great Adventure,” said Joe Filoramo, supervisor, Amusement Ride Safety Division, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.  On May 11, 1984, a fire in the Haunted Castle walk-through attraction killed eight teenagers. “When that happened, the bill turned into an act and was passed,” said Filoramo. 

After years of Gilbert’s lobbying efforts, Pennsylvania empowered its agriculture department to regulate the industry within the state. The department has inspected and registered amusement rides under the Amusement Ride Safety Act since 1986 and regularly participates in education and outreach seminars that include classes and hands-on demonstrations. Forty-four other states now have ride safety inspection programs.

Through the years

Early Zipper rides spun at higher speeds. The potential safety hazard was quickly discovered and mechanical rpms were lowered to the ride’s current speeds. Manufacturing of the Zipper continued through the next few decades. 

“There were several peaks and regressions over the years,” Weichman said. “In the early to mid-1970’s, the drive system was redeveloped and the ride started selling again like it did when it first came out, remaining steady for several years after.  By 1988, there was an average of nine being sold per year.”

New and improved

The iconic midway ride still features the same action that has drawn fans for generations, with revisions that make it easier to own and operate. 

“Seating was redeveloped to have an open-facing seat with [over-the-shoulder] harnesses to hold the riders, made for two people, and a front panel to keep the body from getting hit with anything,” said Weichman. In addition to the redundant safety features, new programmable LED lighting upgrades are available that really showcase the Zipper on the midway. 

A cult following 

Thrill seekers have been known to visit a carnival midway just to ride the Zipper. If it isn’t there, these “Zipperheads” are soon gone to the next venue that may have one in operation.  This ride was Michael Jackson’s favorite at his Neverland Ranch. He boasted that one time he rode it for 35 minutes straight. (Butler Amusements now has that ride.)

In 2012, an independent documentary, Zipper: Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride by filmmaker Amy Nicholson featured one that was run by an independent operator, Eddie Miranda, at Coney Island after coming off the portable circuit in the early 1970’s. The 77-minute documentary is about the amusement area redevelopment and land disputes forcing the ride (and others) to close in 2007. That one re-emerged 3,000 miles away, now owned by carnival operator, Atracciones Montoya Aguilar, Tegucigalpa, Honduras. 

The Zipper has been named by Popular Mechanics as one of the strangest amusement rides in the world.

While some carnivals have considered retiring the Zipper, public sentiment keeps the ride as a midway mainstay with occasional factory refurbs and enhancements.  

The next half century

“It was one of those rides that kind of revolutionized the carnival industry, because it was one trailer, about 40 feet high, had lots of lights on it,” said Chance, reflecting back on the early years. “It had new action that nobody had ever seen before and could be set up by a carnival guy in two or three hours. Everybody had to have a Zipper. 

“I think it has become the country’s most popular carnival ride, with maybe the exception of the Tilt-A-Whirl. It’s quite an iconic piece on every midway.” 

Long live the Zipper, a ride that continues to exhilarate each generation of thrill seekers.

This article appears in the JUNE 2019 issue of Amusement Today.
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