Thunderbird’s initial reveal announcement is one of my favorite memories. The first steel roller coaster at Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana was also the first launched wing coaster in the United States. I truly don’t know why, but the idea of such a record-breaking ride got my inner geek so excited I proclaimed “launched wing coaster” out loud… multiple times. You could say I was hyped for the new addition, even embarrassingly so.
However, fast forward several years and Thunderbird wasn’t even on my radar when my dad and I departed for our midwest coaster trip. My expectations and hype had fallen as time passed. I had heard of many people suffering from “antici-pointment”–the let down when a ride doesn’t meet high expectations–and my expectations fell similarly. It was in this absence of anticipation that I experienced Thunderbird. And in the end, I was thoroughly surprised.
Driving South from the Interstate, the orange-and-brown steel monster is a notable contrast between the many trees and its wooden coaster brethren. The color scheme is somewhat subdued and not very vibrant. However, it actually works well to complement the ride’s surroundings.
Although you can see the coaster from the road, it’s more difficult to see from within the park. This is largely because of the ride’s location, which is also my chief complaint about Thunderbird. It is not just all the way in the back, it is almost completely detached from the rest of the park. A long path that winds by the former home of Giraffica/Pilgrim’s Plunge and a similarly ill-placed water slide complex connects Thunderbird to the main park. This results in a long walk just to get to the ride.
But the journey is well worth it once you reach the ride’s highly-themed area. The designers, PGAV Destinations, did a great job of place-making to fit the story, which revolves around the mythical Thunderbird creature. This winged bird-like giant, according to Native American legend, saved the Pilgrims from the throes of a mighty storm and steered them towards America. Since then, the Thunderbird has allegedly been spotted in parts of the midwest. This is where the station’s architecture comes from: 1820s Indiana, not colonial New England. There are numerous tools, machines, and stage coaches which further cement the authenticity of the place-making. Signs in the queue not only provide more backstory, but also include references to former Holiday World employees. And on top of that, there are a few more surprise effects keen observers will note. Very impressive for a regional park!
Once you’re strapped in, and you’re squeezed pretty tight thanks to B&M’s new vest-like restraints, a ride op scans the station and you are dispatched.
The Immelmann is beautifully paced, and if you look out to the side while you are inverting, you are treated to a crazy sight: seemingly endless stretches of green hovering above a canvas of blue and white. Seeing a vast landscape completely flipped upside down is so cool, and one of my most memorable experiences on a coaster.
A Unique Ride Experience
The train rolls forward into a holding room, which is full of fog and dominated by thunderclap sound effects. Again, this is a great job of theming by the park and PGAV and really builds the anticipation.
Right as you’re taking in the scene, the launch happens! You are propelled out at a pretty forceful 60 miles per hour. It is very fun; it’s intense but not too intense. The launch shoots you straight into the first element: an Immelman maneuver.
The Immelmann is beautifully paced, and if you look out to the side while you are inverting, you are treated to a crazy sight: seemingly endless stretches of green hovering above a canvas of blue and white. Seeing a vast landscape completely flipped upside down is so cool, and one of my most memorable experiences on a coaster. Thunderbird doubles down on this by sending you through a vertical loop next, which gives you a similar sight. So unique.
Following the loop are a pair of turnarounds, almost forming a figure-8. Upon exiting these you flip through a tasty B&M zero-g-roll. Following that is a little s-curve, and then you drop down nearly to ground level as you approach a dilapidated barn and Thunderbird’s grand finale.
Save The Best For Last
Somehow, you squeeze through a hole in the structure as the flash of an on-ride photo goes off nearby. The track takes a tight left-hand turn only a few feet off the ground. To maximize the adrenaline rush, I recommend sitting on the left-side of the train here. The ground truly feels inches away as it whizzes by. Once the train has completed the 90 degree turn, you are now perpendicular with the barn you just passed through. As soon as you make this observation, however, you begin to flip to the side in what has to be one of the best slow roll elements on any roller coaster. While nearly hitting the structure, you are gradually tilted upside down. The feeling this generates is one-of-a-kind. You are completely at the mercy of your restraint, and it seems to last an eternity. It is pure bliss!
Finally, the train hits the brakes and the ride is over.
My Take On Thunderbird
I found Thunderbird to be the sleeper hit of my coaster trip, and I think it is underrated in the “coaster community” as well. It gives multiple one-of-a-kind experiences while being incredibly well-paced and smooth. My opinion of it has completely changed; it really is the star attraction of the park for me. I even prefer it over The Voyage (gasp… I know, coaster heresy).
Having experienced two other B&M wing coasters in addition to Thunderbird (Gatekeeper and Wild Eagle) I believe that the shorter 5-car trains are better than their standard 8-car counterpart. Less rows means less weight, and that means the shorter trains can travel with more momentum and not slowly trudge through the ride’s course like a caterpillar.
Not everything is perfect; the location within the park is a downside, and the brief ride time is also a shame. But of what the ride does offer, it delivers. Don’t let those minor negatives fool you—the Thunderbird at Holiday World is arguably the best wing coaster in the United States.
Final Rating – 9 out of 10 (Excellent)
Here’s a video containing both the right-side and the left-side point of views!
Those are my thoughts about Thunderbird. Do you agree? Think I’m overrating it? Share your thoughts below! We’d love to hear what you all think.