Ride enthusiasts beat a path each summer to ride the world's best wooden coaster in one of the most unlikely of places: a small amusement park located halfway between New York City and Boston that bills itself as the oldest continuously operating amusement park in the United States.
I made my pilgrimage this summer to Lake Compounce in Bristol, Conn., to ride Boulder Dash, ranked the top wooden coaster by an industry trade publication for the last four years in a row.
I rode Boulder Dash twice, once in the front and again in the back. I preferred the front where I could anticipate the seemingly endless stream of airtime hills that sent me bouncing out of my seat over and over again. The back was a rougher ride with more lateral movements. The train kept up a relentless pace that whipped riders around turns and over whoop-de-do humps.
The $6 million coaster was built in 2000 by the now-defunct Custom Coasters International and outfitted with Philadelphia Toboggan trains. The 4,725-foot-long out-and-back terrain coaster traverses a hillside covered by trees and craggy boulders on the edge of the park.
Most of the coaster is hidden from view as I approach Boulder Dash. Leaving the station, the train climbs the hillside through a canopy of trees before reaching a clearing where the track makes a sweeping 90-degree right turn. A swooping 115-foot-tall first drop shatters the calm. We race 60 mph past the station on a 2 1/2-minute journey that never lets up. The outbound trip tackles a relentless sequence of double-up hills that generate repeated negative-G airtime moments. After a 180-degree turnaround, we navigate bunny-hop hills and even more off-your-seat double-ups as the train races along the lake. The ground-hugging track rarely reaches more than 10 feet above the hillside.
"It's got to be the fastest coaster from start to finish," bragged Lake Compounce general manager Jerry Brick in a phone interview with the Los Angeles Times. "It never slows down."
Over the years, coaster enthusiasts have showered Boulder Dash with praise. Coaster Critic calls the ride "relentless and thrilling." Coaster Grotto deems it "simply awesome." The most common refrain from Theme Park Critic user ratings: "Amazing." The only thing that makes Boulder Dash better is riding it at night when the dips and turns seem to come out of nowhere in the pitch darkness.
Boulder Dash has won the Golden Ticket award for best wooden coaster the last four years (in addition to claiming the prize in 2004). The Golden Tickets, dubbed the Academy Awards of the amusement park industry, are presented annually by the Amusement Today trade publication.
Wooden coasters tend to hold on to the Amusement Today top ranking for several years in a row. Holiday World in Santa Claus, Ind., was home to the world's best wooden coaster from 2000 to 2003 with Raven and from 2007 to 2011 with Voyage. Thunderhead at Tennessee's Dollywood held the title in 2005 and 2006. El Toro at New Jersey's Six Flags Great America was No. 1 in 2012. Phoenix at Pennsylvania's tiny Knoebels amusement park has hovered in the Top 5 since 2000.
Those six rides – Boulder Dash, Raven, Voyage, Thunderhead, El Toro and Phoenix – have dominated the Amusement Today poll since 2000. The relatively low turnover rate is in part because of the dearth of wooden coasters built on an annual basis, six or fewer per year during that period. The last big year for wooden coaster construction was in 2000, when Boulder Dash debuted. Of the 17 wooden coasters built that year, 11 of the rides have since been retired, relocated or mothballed, according to Roller Coaster Database.
History dictates that coasters start high in the Amusement Today poll and drop each successive year as newer rides debut. Boulder Dash has bucked the trend, thanks in part to a $3 million retracking during the 2007, 2008 and 2009 off seasons. Another round of retracking last winter smoothed out a few rough patches, all in hopes of keeping coaster enthusiasts thrilled and coming back for more.
"Our goal is to keep it No. 1," Brick said.
The only new wooden coaster capable of knocking Boulder Dash from the top spot is Dollywood's Lightning Rod, which experienced delays and downtime during its 2016 debut. As fate would have it, this year's Golden Ticket awards will be held in September at Lake Compounce and nearby Quassy park in Middlebury, Conn.
Lake Compounce traces its roots to 1846 when the park attracted picnickers, swimmers and boaters to the lake. In 1890, a carousel was added and soon after more rides were introduced.
Lake Compounce's other wooden coaster, the 1927 Wildcat, also got some much-needed attention during the off season. Crews from Martin and Vleminckx Rides replaced the lift hill and renovated four other spots along the track. Millennium Flyer trains from Great Coasters International were also added.
So is Boulder Dash really the best wooden coaster in the world? To me, it's a worthy reigning champion and certainly capable of retaining the title after its recent rehab.