Great Coasters International, Inc., celebrates 25 years in 2020

AT: Tim Baldwin

SUNBURY, Pa. — Over the past quarter century, Great Coasters International, Inc. (GCII) has created 29 wooden roller coasters. In all instances, these were highly marketable attractions. But in many cases, they stand as a park’s most signature ride.

In December of 1994, GCII officially began, and in that winter of 1995, work began in earnest on the company’s first project. One constant from its two founding partners to its staff today is passion. It’s not just hard work, but the love of what the company does. 

GCII President Clair Hain Jr. founded the comppany with coaster designer Mike Boodley. Boodley was a coaster enthusiast from a young age, and his zeal would lead him to the right people in the industry. His formative years had him doing work at Philadelphia Toboggan Company where he absorbed everything like a sponge, particularly from legendary designer John Allen when he would visit PTC in his retirement.

Hain and Boodley met in their work with Custom Coasters Inc. (CCI) in the early 1990s. Boodley was brought on to do coaster designs, but Hain was the company’s construction foreman supervisor, a more permanent position with CCI. The two were introduced at an IAAPA trade show.

“I knew Clair was a hell of a guy right then and there. He had a great personality, knew how to do stuff, just a hands-on guy,” Boodley said.

CCI’s first project in 1992 was at Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, Pennyslvania. Boodley came to know Hain better on the construction site. “He was a workhorse. We immediately hit it off,” said Boodley. Although small, Dutch Wonderland’s coaster had differences than past work. “Clair was immediately interested.”

CCI’s second project was Outlaw at Adventureland in Iowa. Outlaw’s design started using compound curves. Boodley, long a fan of Harry Traver’s historic coaster designs, liked the use of curving drops. That didn’t necessarily gel with CCI’s mode of thinking. “Clair got it. Without him, the ride may never have been finished,” Boodley told Amusement Today. The two began collaborating.

Fate, however, intervened. 

Looking to work with someone more consistent with the type of construction they wanted, CCI brought in another designer. Hain, meanwhile, suffered a tragic fall on the company’s 1994 project. With Hain critically injured, CCI assumed he wouldn’t be returning and let him go. Boodley, however, with a sincere friendship established, flew out and stayed at Hain’s side during recovery. Hain had no intention of giving up, and the two began discussing going into business together following Hain’s physical therapy.

Prior to incorporating that December, the two attended the IAAPA trade show and had casual conversations with management at Hersheypark, not knowing at the time the theme park was looking to add a major new attraction to anchor the Midway America section under development. Having met the duo, Hersheypark soon asked GCII to submit a proposal for a nostalgic coaster. The curving drops had the style and feel the park was looking for, and GCII landed its first project.

“It looked timeless,” recalled Boodley. “It was a series of events — persistence, not wanting to give up, a series of lucky breaks and the right people.”

Taking a risk, Hersheypark had faith in the new company.

“I wasn’t scared. I was excited,” said Hain. “I felt confident with my background, and I felt confident with Mike because of his.”

Hersheypark negotiated a unique contract. Staggered payments and continual ownership of completed work minimized the risk from both sides.

“Our contract [was] a beautiful thing,” Boodley told AT. “It was all about cooperation and obligation to one another. Nothing like that contract exists in the world we live in now. It was tremendous.”

Opened in 1996, Wildcat — named after Hersheypark’s original roller coaster from 1923 — was a home run. It was big — 106 feet tall — crossed over and under itself 13 times and had a style and feel that enthusiasts immediately embraced.

Attendance surged.

“The profit we made [off Wildcat] kept us operating until we got our next project,” said Hain.

With a big success to the company’s name, the pair did a lot of traveling to get the next job. Along the way, they did some consulting jobs and some track work.

New projects did come. The graceful fluidity of Boodley’s designs created an image that parks were drawn to. In time, GCII made some notable “fashion statements” with its coasters. The curving drops were followed by racing and dueling coaster installations. The station fly-by and fly-through elements became a signature move. And when train manufacturers didn’t show interest in single bench trailered cars to negotiate the tight turns of the design, the company introduced its own style, the Millennium Flyers, in 1999.

“In the beginning, I lived on site — project manager, foreman … — I worked out in the field with the guys,” said Hain.

Hersheypark returned in 2000 to do the massive Lighting Racer. Work with Six Flags, Cedar Fair, Hershend and others populated GCII coasters across the American landscape. Along the way, Boodley experienced health issues. He was needing to step away in 2000, but he continued to support the company through 2004 with plans, profiles and banking.

“It was a tough decision, but I knew I was probably going to die if I kept going,” said Boodley.

To make it through the transition, GCII was fortunate enough to have brought on new people that shared the same zeal as the company’s two founders.

“I was a kid who always wanted to make roller coasters,” said Jeff Pike, who was brought on after he had interned with Morgan Manufacturing. As a kid, he had researched manufacturers in the libraries and wrote endless letters. Pike met designer Curtis Summers as a teen who encouraged him to ask questions and get an engineering degree and to take any work in the industry. Following his internship, he met Boodley. The two instantly clicked. 

Pike’s initial work was on foundation drawings for the 1999 projects Gwazi and Roar.

“I loved the looks of the designs Mike was putting together,” said Pike. “When he did Outlaw at Adventureland, it was such a cool-looking coaster. It was so different. I remembered those curving drops from Harry Traver’s coasters thinking they were so great, and here was someone who was actually doing it. Everything about a CCI coaster was utilitarian. It was a functional machine. But there was something about the way Mike was designing these rides that had an elegance to it that no one else was doing.”

Pike soon took over for Boodley and became vice president of sales and design for GCII.

GCII’s first overseas job was at Power Park in Finland. It, along with Kentucky Rumbler at Beech Bend, became Pike’s first true designs.

“I love the way Mike’s structures look. The first ride I ever designed was Thunderbird in Finland. I put a lot of effort into the look of that ride,” said Pike. “It was originally designed for a pier in Long Island, New York, that never ended up happening. The pier coasters [of the past] had something about them. The stark contrast between the flat, angular pier structure and the graceful curves built on top of it… I wanted that Power Park ride to capture that feel.”

“Jeff has far eclipsed any rides I’ve ever done,” Boodley said of his protégé. 

Chris Gray came aboard first because of his expertise in model building. He was given the title assembly and procurement director, taking over the role of streamlining how things were done in the office. His main job was to oversee the production of the trains and order parts for trains and rides, but Pike credits Gray for being the heart and conscience of the company while he and Hain could focus on selling and designing rides.

Gray feels the development of the Millennium Flyer trains was instrumental in getting GCII to where they are now. 

“When they were designed years ago, they were the only ones that could do the crazy articulation — the twisting and turning,” Gray told AT. “The lower cost of maintenance was a factor to the success; there wasn’t a whole lot that needed replacing each year. It was one of those things where you take it apart, check the welds and then rebuild it.”

GCII has made a global impact with installations in the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, Belgium, Poland, England and China. Pike was instrumental with “boots on the ground” as the company worked through the international process.

Along the way, Great Coasters International picked up some Golden Ticket Awards with its projects. Thunderhead at Dollywood debuted in the top ten in 2004 and snagged the Golden Ticket for Best Wooden Roller Coaster the following two years. Prowler (Worlds of Fun) took Best New Ride in 2009 and Mystic Timbers (Kings Island) did the same in 2017. The latter has joined the likes of Gold Striker at California’s Great America, along with Hersheypark’s Lightning Racer and Dollywood’s Thunderhead for long stints in the top ten.

Within the new millennium, GCII has made great strides in the development of the wooden coaster. The durability of the Brazilian ipe wood has contributed to a smooth ride and reduced maintenance. The mid-sized family coaster produced for Fun Spot America in Orlando has found great favor as it has been duplicated twice overseas. At the recent IAAPA Expo, Hain unveiled steel track for the high stress pull out areas on his wooden coasters if the customer wants to explore those advantages. Also, new Infinity Flyer trains have been developed that allow riders to travel through inversions. 

When asked how the industry has changed over a quarter century, Hain noted he learned his lesson in how contracts are written, as designs are constantly changed in the project process.

Even when the company is not involved with completing new projects, they are heavily used by parks to come in and refurbish existing rides. Knott’s Berry Farm’s GhostRider made a significant leap into the Golden Ticket top ten following a total GCII revamp in recent years.

“I love it; I love it 100 percent! We did the same thing at Lake Compounce. That makes you feel good inside. We know we can fix the problems once the park wants to go that route,” said Hain, who is also proud of his company’s work on Coney Island’s Cyclone at Luna Park.

“I think it is that shared goal of preservation of wooden rides,” said Hunter Lawrence, engineer and project manager, GCII.

In 25 years, has there been a favorite time in Hain’s memories?

“My most favorite moment would have been the Wildcat,” he said. “I was being criticized by my competitors. They said, ‘You can’t do it. And if you do do it, we’re going to put you out of business.’”

“One of my favorite spots on any coaster we ever built was on Thunderhead from the bottom of the first drop to the top of the second turn. You changed direction three times in fractions of a second,” said Gray. “As time went on, I was pushing for us to do more of that — the twisting first drops that switched back and forth. I was a big proponent of Valleyfair’s Renegade getting the S-turn on the way down the first drop.”

While Pike and Gray have started a separate company, Skyline Attractions, to design various types of rides, they still continue to partner in design work for GCII.

“There’s a place for technological things that do whiz-bang stuff, and there’s a place for something that has classical art to it. A wooden coaster is a piece of art,” said Pike. “I think some of the bigger parks sometimes think about how they are going to market [a new attraction] instead of the product offering. They try to match a product to a marketing hook.”

“I think the new inventions that we have now — with the steel track and steel structure and the ipe — we’re going to see a pretty good future once the coronavirus goes away and the economy gets better in [other countries]. I think there will be a lot of business outside of America with new parks putting in woodies,” said Hain. “Parks look at the maintenance needed on a wooden coaster which is why we have come up with new features to prevent unscheduled maintenance — things that we can do can solve those problems.”

“I don’t feel the record breakers of the early 1990s were the right role for woodies,” said Boodley.
“I hope wooden coasters get back to their role of a wide demographic of a fun and thrilling ride. Wooden coasters are the purist form of fun.”

As mentioned, passion is a driving force with GCII. So is style.

“Clair was kind of lucky he had people like us who really loved what we were doing. You kind of get married to it. We were so proud of it. There’s not a single Great Coasters project that I was involved with that I’m not proud of,” said Gray. “Everything evolves. You stay up with the times. I feel Texas Stingray is one of the best wooden roller coasters out there. Period. I think you will continue to see that evolution of a wooden coaster.”

“I feel fortunate to be working for a company that is building some of the best wooden coasters,” said Lawrence. “Personally, my passion has been specifically wooden rides, so it is really satisfying to be on site and see what you’ve done a lot of work on reach completion.”

“You can still see it today; Clair lives for the business,” said Boodley.

“There’s not a soul in the world who can tell Clair he can’t do something, because then he will go do it,” said Pike.

This article appears in the MAY 2020 issue of Amusement Today.
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