Review: Big Dipper at Camden Park

Roller Coaster Reviews

Located in West Virginia’s only amusement park, Camden Park, the Big Dipper is a lesser-known but classic wooden roller coaster which can deliver a fun ride if you’re willing to trust it. Built back in 1958 by the National Amusement Devices Company, it is still standing as an ACE roller coaster landmark (while sporting some stylish trains as well).

Ladies and Gentleman, I present to you: the “ig Dipper!”

Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover…?

Right off the bat, the “ig Dipper” gave off some sketchy vibes. When I visited, the first thing you could see was the sign, nearly covered by hedge overgrowth, conspicuously missing a letter. Hopefully this wasn’t a sign of things to come…

Unfortunately, though, it kind of was. Once you enter the station and take a look around, you realize there is only one worker operating the ride. One! Talk about old school, sheesh. Obviously, this led to less than stellar capacity, but the wait wasn’t bad enough to where it seemed egregious. It’s quite the sight, though–a one-man-ride-op-crew. For one cycle, he had to cross over the track & unlock the single entry gate (not a row of gates like at most parks), check every row’s lap bar, walk back over and dispatch the train using a manual handbrake, sit there and wait until the train came back, walk over to the exit area and manually unlock every lap bar and finally, unlock the exit gate. And that’s right, I said manual handbrake.

Well that’s doubly one-of-a-kind!

This handbrake had a little, uh, extra assistance, holding it together. Seeing the device that controlled the train’s stopping and starting being held in place by a rope is not the most reassuring sight. And it’s funny, because otherwise manual handbrakes are so cool, and even rarer than they are cool. At my home park, you can still spot the old handbrake on the Comet coaster, but it hasn’t been used in decades. On the Dipper, the handbrake actually operates the ride.

Speaking of lovable vintage coaster accessories, this coaster is still running its original NAD Century Flyer train. These babies are hot stuff in the coaster community, due to the nostalgic aesthetic and rarity, as they are only used by two other rides: the Thunderbolt at Kennywood and Blue Streak at Conneaut Lake Park. Though the Century Flyers on the Thunderbolt look great, the Flyers here on the Big Dipper are showing their age. Overall, it’s not terrible, but it’s still kind of sad to see one of the famous front lights knocked out.

Looks like the ig Dipper didn’t watch A Christmas Story…

Now that you’re in the station, you also can look out into the coaster structure… where you see semi-rotten wood mixed with re-tracked sections. Some of the support bents got quite the shakedown as the coaster traversed the layout. Again, not the best sight for oncoming riders. Once you board the trains, if you’re at all tall you might find the seats a bit of a squeeze, as me and my dad found out–both of us having to angle our legs sideways to even fit inside! After all this build up of uncertainty, the one-man-band ride op releases the handbrake and you begin to roll out of the station, looking up at a crooked lift hill.

Ride Experience

The lift hill in background, bottom of the “big dip” in foreground.

After a short climb, the train disengages from the chain lift and you go down a modest dip before rising back up to about the same height as the lift. A wide panoramic turnaround follows, and then you drop down the “Big Dip” of the ride. Going down that actually can provide some ejector air because of the Dipper’s lack of seat belts. That’s right, it’s lap bars only here, ala the Phoenix at Knoebels, and that does add a lot to the ride. You certainly don’t bounce up and down to the extreme that you do on Phoenix, but it does give the Big Dipper a little of the throwback, out-of-control sensation that wooden coaster enthusiasts crave.

After that main drop, you take another wide, slow turnaround before a second larger dip into an enclosed turnaround. This elongated tunnel section is kinda cool–again, another feature that adds to the ride experience. Following this, you hop over one more bunny hill and then coast into the brakes. That’s it from this relatively short, figure-8 layout coaster.

Geek shot of the support structure, showing additional beams used to prop up the track in lieu of rotted old sections.

My Take

Because of the apparent state of the structure and the operations (of the ride and the park), I can’t say I really let myself go on the Big Dipper–aka I couldn’t trust the technology and enjoy the ride like I do on most roller coasters. Once on the ride, the lack of seat belts and old rumbly wooden feel were fun, as long as I kept the visions of the support structure out of my mind. I do believe the park has continued to re-track more sections of the coaster since my 2017 visit, so maybe it looks more solid now. I don’t recall it being rough, just appearing as if it could use some TLC. I know a lot of people have praised this ride for having a classic, old-timey feel, but when I visited I got more of a negative run-down vibe than positive nostalgic enthusiasm.

Because we were only there for a brief time before moving westward on a big midwest coaster road trip, and because of our experience on the first ride, it was my only one. This rating is based on that, but if the park does continue its upkeep maybe I’ll have to give it another shot sometime. It wasn’t a bad experience, it just was one of the few coasters to make me uneasy. Big Dipper scared me more than Kingda Ka ever could. In a positive way though? Eh.

Final Rating – 5.0 out of 10 (Average)

Honestly, this video is a better portrayal of the ride’s nature than my words could ever be:

Always get permission from the park before filming on rides!

Your Take

I’m very curious to hear your opinion on this classic coaster. Is it a sketchy accident waiting to happen, or a gem from a bygone era? Let us know with a comment below.

This was a part of our 12 Days of Coasters special! Every day from Christmas until January 5th, we gave away a roller coaster review for you to enjoy. You can check them all out here. We thank you for reading, hope you’ve had a merry holidays, and wish you a happy New Year!

Hi, I'm Jon! I have many interests, but chief among them is a love of roller coasters and theme parks. I love rides and parks that deliver cool, unique, and meaningful experiences. I try to capture as much of that experiential goodness as I can in my writings!

3 Comments

  1. The only coaster I’ve ever seen with a manual handbrake is the venerable Coney Island Cyclone (and it’s getting up there in its years, too). Old wooden structures definitely give me the heebie jeebies; when I rode Kennywood’s Jack Rabbit I thought for sure it was going to collapse at any second. Great review of an aging, seldom-ridden coaster!

    Reply
    • Wow, totally forgot to mention Coney Island Cyclone having a handbrake—that would be the obvious example. Funny b/c the Cyclone still looks pretty nice, whereas Big Dipper will make even seasoned enthusiasts a bit skeptical.

      And oh boy, Jack Rabbitt is a B&M compared to Big Dipper.

      Reply
  2. I rode this a few years back and honestly really enjoyed it. It’s the best coaster in West Virginia! Sure, it looks a bit sketchy, but that first drop is awesome.

    Reply

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