When the new millennium rolled around, it seemed everyone was trying to capitalize on the big event. Hersheypark joined the fray by opening Lightning Racer. It’s no Millennium Force, but this wooden dueling and racing coaster is still pretty fun. The second Great Coasters International woodie at the park, it is much better than the first, Wildcat. That one is more on the rough side, as Joel noted in an older review (and to me, it still isn’t good). GCI definitely learned from those imperfections when designing Lightning Racer.
One awesome feature Lightning Racer and Wildcat both offer, though, is aesthetic impact. There’s always been a charm to wooden roller coasters and their sweeping structures, and having two of them in one corner of the park is quite picturesque. This visual gets even better at night, when the rides’ twisted layouts become traced by a multitude of lights. It really is a beautiful sight.
Unfairly Low Ridership
I definitely think Lightning Racer is underrated — not just within the coaster community, but even by most park guests! I went to Hersheypark over 10 times this year, and never once did I have to wait more than 5 minutes for this ride. Unfortunately (or for us enthusiasts, fortunately), near-empty queue lines have become an unofficial trademark of the Racer. I really don’t understand why though. I’ve never heard a bad word about it. It’s accessible to a broad audience, which is meaningful in a family-oriented park that isn’t all about thrills. Despite these positive qualities, ridership seems to be low. Maybe it’s location; the park is very long, and Lightning Racer is as far as you can get from the entrance without jumping the fence. Sitting in the back of the park, it might be the “odd coaster out” and skipped by many guests. Maybe the high capacity — it is essentially two coasters in one, after all — tricks the mind into thinking it has low ridership when it really doesn’t. Either way, the cause for the short line is most curious given the quality of the ride, as many guests rank it right up there with Great Bear and Storm Runner.
Thunder v. Lightning
Now, after a quick breeze through the queue (make sure you buckle / unbuckle the demo seat belts), you have to pick a side. The green one is Thunder, while the red is Lightning. I’ve heard a lot of superstitions about one side being rigged to win and being the go-to, but (as far as I know) this is pure fiction. The winner varies from day-to-day and ride-to-ride based on outside factors like the weather or train load. So no secret tips or anything here — no matter which side you pick, you’ll have a similarly fun ride. There are no exclusive-to-one-side elements on Lightning Racer.
The Ride Experience
After a simultaneous dispatch and a brief meandering section of track, you are climbing up one of the twin, staggered lift hills. The staggering of the lifts is unique, and may make it difficult for you to trash talk your rivals on the opposing side. Before you know it, you are careening down a classic GCI curved drop which always seems to feel steeper than it is. The first element following the drop is a twisting and tall s-curve-like hill, which rises up just enough to give a small taste of floater air. Next, you pop into a double up before a sweeping turnaround leading into the tunnel. The tracks turn towards each other here, allowing for great rider interaction. Falling into the tunnel, darkness is contrasted with the sudden flash of the on-ride cameras.
The track begins to turn at the end of the tunnel, and the real close-quarters interaction begins. You come out racing alongside one another, both barreling over a hill before taking a tight, banked turn towards a taller, helix-like turnaround. Here the rider interaction is unavoidable again (and fantastic), as you go right past your racing counterparts. Coming out of that turnaround, the tracks split and begin to cross over. Lightning dips down while Thunder floats over top, and vice versa. These elements are very fun — again, equally so on either side.
Lightning Racer gives you one more helix-like turnaround before rising towards the final stretch with a hop. Here, though, there is a long straightaway leading up to a “Finish Line”, where the winner is decided. Bearing down on that, with both trains side-by-side in a down-to-the-wire photo finish, is quite the exhilaration. It doesn’t always work out that way, but enjoy it if it does. Of course, you might feel either jubilation or dejection depending on the result. A quick glance towards the station reveals that result, through a pair of color-coded lights for each side. The sight of your color flashing around confirms a victory. A nice touch to conclude the ride, especially given that you’re able to interact with riders on the other train all through this final section!
Again, Lightning Racer is another one of those underrated coasters that is lots of fun, but falls just short of being great. The dueling and racing combination is pretty unique and can really get the rider invested. It broadens the experience to being more than just about G-forces alone. Often times, I find myself attempting to locate where my rivals’ train is instead of looking ahead at the course I’m about to follow.
It’s got the typical pops of airtime GCI gives, which throw you (comfortably) into the lapbar. One thing to note: Lightning Racer was actually kinda rough this past season. I don’t think that is a problem, though, as it seems out of character given the ride’s smooth past. And since the park already had wood on-site, I would expect some more re-tracking. Still, something to keep an eye on.
There is really nothing bad about Lightning Racer, but there’s nothing truly outstanding about it, either.
Final Rating – 8.0 out of 10 (Great)
What’s your take? Have you been on Lightning Racer? We’d love to hear your stories and thoughts!