The Big Dipper at Camden Park Review
This is the coaster that started it all for me. I rode this for the first time when I was probably seven or eight years old. 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.
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Camden Park was my home park when I was I kid. I grew up in Huntington and Camden Park was only about eight or nine miles away. What was even cooler is every summer Ashland Oil, where my grandfather was a big wig, would have what they called family days. They would close the park down just for the Ashland Oil employees and their families and we would have a picnic, they would make boring speeches, and on and on. This is the first time I even learned about exclusive ride time, or ERT as it is known in the coaster community and we could ride the rides as much as we could handle, it is worth mentioning that in the 1970s the pronto pup (what you guys call corn dogs) stand was right next to The Big Dipper. These were not your ordinary corn dogs, these were foot long and I would slather these bad boys with a gallon of mustard.The Big Dipper is a lesser-known but classic wooden roller coaster which can deliver a fun ride! Click To Tweet
On our second annual rock n roller coaster tour, Michele and I went about as big as you could go. We flew down from Alaska to Denver and started driving east in a rented Ford F150. By the time it was all said and done we had ridden more than 100 coasters and visited parks from the Rockies to New England, to Texas, and everywhere in between. When It was all said and done we put more than 7500 miles on the brand new truck and started an annual tradition.
This trip included a trip to Camden Park. I had not been there since those days when I was a little kid. The last time had to be back in the late 70s. I know right?!
Anyhow, we were here and there was the Big Dipper!
Right off the bat, the “Big 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.
This handbrake had a little, uh, extra assistance, holding it together. Seeing the device that controlled the train’s stopping and started 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. 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 The Cyclone at Lakeside in Denver. 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.
We were practically the only people in the park. It was later in the evening when we arrived, and it was raining pretty good. Robert pulled up and had me jump out and run up and ask the girl in the ticket booth if the Big Dipper was even open. They assured me it was and we bought our tickets.
We were the only ones to ride the coaster that day and Robert sat in the front car. I quietly asked the ride attendant if I could film the whole thing. He said sure. In most parks, this is a big no-no. You can get thrown out of most parks if they catch you with your phone out, much less recording. I settled in the seat behind Robert and started to record.
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 for me and Robert found out–both of us having to angle our legs sideways to even fit inside! After all this buildup 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.
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.
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 as I do on most roller coasters. Once on the ride, the lack of seat belts and old rumbly wooden feel was 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 2016 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. That’s too bad. I know Robert felt the same way, right? Yes….
Because we were only there for a brief time before moving westward on a big coaster road trip to come, 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. The Big Dipper scared me more than Valravn at Cedar Point ever could. In a positive way though
Robert, what are you giving this coaster on a scale of 1 to 10 with one being the worst ever, say an old concussion ride like an Arrow clone at any number of parks or a ten being, say Banshee or the Voyage?
I am going to give it a four. While it was my first coaster and one that started it all. I am surprised it is still standing, and I am glad we got to experience it, especially all these years later. It sure did bring back a lot of memories.
Ok, guys, that’s the show for today! We hope to be back on the road later this summer in 2021 if all goes well with the COVID vaccine and we have plans to visit Dollywood, Holiday World, Kings Island, Kentucky Kingdom, Sea World San Diego, and maybe a few more. If we do, we plan on doing a live show and of course a full podcast after our visit. Please be sure to follow us on social media. Just search for Coaster Geeks pod.