The Story Behind Holiday World’s Thunderbird | From Idea to Opening Day

Lauren Crosby and Leah Koch - Holiday World
Lauren Crosby (left) and Leah Koch (right)

Holiday World’s Thunderbird was my top pick for the best-looking New Roller Coasters of 2015. So, I thought that it would be interesting to get a behind-the-scenes look at how this launched winged coaster moved from idea to opening day. Thanks to Holiday World, I was able to interview two people who helped bring the ride to life.

Here’s my interview with Park Directors and 4th generation amusement park owners, Lauren Crosby and Leah Koch.

In the Works for Many Years

Joel – Holiday World’s last new roller coaster was The Voyage in 2006. How long have you been planning for Thunderbird?

Lauren – My dad, Will Koch, started working on a steel coaster design with B&M in 2007. He went back and forth with them on several designs, but never felt that it was the right coaster so he never moved forward with it. The winged coaster design came out after my father passed away, but as soon as we saw it we started to wonder if this would be the right fit. In 2013 we started up talks again with B&M, this time with a winged coaster. We spent the next year tweaking and finessing my dad’s original plans to work with this new coaster technology.

Wing Coaster Test Flights

Joel – Why did you choose this type of roller coaster? Had any of the staff ever ridden one before you chose it?

Lauren – We went with a winged coaster mainly because of my dad. In his dreaming of a steel coaster, he wanted something that would fly low to the ground, through the woods, nearly missing trees. The winged coaster design seemed to fit pretty well with that image he had. A few of the staff had already ridden a winged coaster, and my mom, along with park president, Matt Eckert, VP Eric Snow, and I decided to take a fieldtrip to Six Flags Great America to ride X-Flight before we made this big decision. Once we got off the ride, we knew this was the right fit.

Why Launch?

Joel – How did you come to the decision to include a launch? Was that a recommendation from the designers (Bolliger & Mabillard) or an idea from the staff?

Leah – By 2013, the Midwest was home to B&M Wings. If you drove 6-8 hours Northwest, Northeast, or Southeast, you could find another wing coaster that was likely to be longer, faster, or taller than what we had in mind. Part of our “secret weapon” with coaster design is that we build them in our woods, to add some extra excitement, but we needed even more to distinguish Thunderbird. When we heard B&M was looking to build their first [B&M-provided] launch, sorry Hulk, we knew it was the perfect element to set our coaster apart.

Curvy Scurvy & The Name Game

Joel – How did you come up with the name “Thunderbird”? Can you share any names that didn’t make the cut?

Leah – So many names! We found a way to make Thunderbird work in our Thanksgiving section of the park (we were pretty sure “The Voyage” was the only good Thanksgiving-related name and had to really dig). We knew we wanted something exciting and a bit mysterious—without being scary.

I have always been fascinated by the story of the Lost Colony at Roanoke, so I wanted something tied to that. The short story is: settlers landed on Roanoke, set up a town, and when boats came back for them the entire colony was gone. All that was left was the word “Croatoan” carved into a tree, and “Cro” carved into another. There are all kinds of theories about what happened and I love a good mystery. Then somebody pointed out that nobody would ever say it correctly, and that it wouldn’t make any sense on a t-shirt (which is actually pretty important). So we went on looking (as a consolation prize we created a company in my name to secure the trademark for Thunderbird, and named it Croatoan Inc.).

After the Lost Colony venture didn’t seem to steer us anywhere, we started brainstorming more names, consulted a few professionals, and out of all of that, Thunderbird soared to the top.

Versions of two of the names on our short list ended up at other parks this year: Fury and the Tempest. One of my personal favorites from the rejected name pile was Curvy Scurvy. We didn’t think it would be appealing on a t-shirt though.

Choosing the Color

Joel – What was the process for picking the Thunderbird’s color scheme?

Lauren – This was quite a process! We were really lost in the beginning on what colors to make the track and the supports, so we turned to (design firm) PGAV for a color recommendation. When we first got their recommendation, we were all unsure of this choice.

After some time, I understood the color choices made by PGAV and stood firmly behind them. The rest of the team was not convinced, so we had mock-ups done in the different colors that everyone else thought the coaster should be. We had a meeting where we looked at the different color choices and we each defended our own.

In the end, I was able to persuade everyone over to the orange track and brown supports. (They all tell me I was totally right on this one now.) Once we had the color picked for the track, I had a clear image in my head as to how I thought the train should look. I thought that the train needed to look like a stormy sky with bolts of lightning, so we did a few mock-ups and landed on the teal, green, and yellow combination.

Bonus Question

The Koch Family Riding The Raven

Joel – What was your first roller coaster? What was the experience like; if you can remember?

Lauren – Looking back, I don’t think that I made a big fuss about my first coaster, The Raven. I did however, make a huge fuss about riding my first steel coaster, Alpengeist. It took me forever to summon up the courage to ride, but in the end I loved it so much that I had to ride it twice!

Leah – The Raven in 1995. I hated it. Didn’t ride another coaster for five years. Then I rode The Legend, and soon after I rode Dueling Dragons at Islands of Adventure. Then I loved them.

Take-Aways: Holiday World’s Secret Weapon

I didn’t know that Holiday World had been researching a new roller coaster as far back 2007. I remember the impatient groans when other types of rides were announced, but now we get a glimpse into the planning and thought behind-the-scenes. They were focused on a ride that utilized their natural terrain and would fly through woods, whizzing riders past trees. I was very happy to hear that they were intentional about making a terrain roller coaster as they are my favorite. Terrain coasters distinguish themselves from similar coasters since their use of the topography that they’re built on makes them unique.

It was neat to see the idea of B&M creating another launch coaster come full circle. In 2010, at a Q&A session with Bob Mampe, he stated that the company may create another launch coaster some day. Often these things take time to develop, but here we are with the first B&M-provided launch system. The launch system on Incredible Hulk was not created by B&M.

I also found the naming and color processes fascinating. We don’t usually get a lot of insight into these aspects of roller coaster development. While I’m sure they would say that it’s a fun process, there’s a lot more work involved than we know. I bet those of us who play coasters simulators or are dreaming up ride names don’t consider how the names would look on merchandise. Consider that the next time you’re playing No Limits or Roller Coaster Tycoon.

Now, watch Lauren and Leah ride Thunderbird:

What’s Your Take?
What was the most interesting thing you learned from the interview? Are you planning on riding Thunderbird this year? Leave a comment below.