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Hard Rock Park 4: “Whole Lotta Love”

In 1968, a small rock band called The New Yardbirds started turning heads for their heavy rock sound in the London music scene. Keith Moon of The Who, who collaborated  with the group early on, said their career would “go up like a lead balloon”. So to prove him wrong the band changed their name to Led Zeppelin. In 1995, the group was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. Thirteen years later, Hard Rock Park opened in Myrtle Beach with their signature roller coaster: Led Zeppelin The Ride.

In Part 3 of Theme Park University’s series on Hard Rock Park, we took a look at Jon Binkowski’s mission to keep families together. Each environ was designed to have elements that would appeal to everyone. Even if a party wanted to split up, they wouldn’t have to go far to find something to entertain each individual before reuniting again. Jon’s park reflected a wide variety of attractions, however no theme park is complete without a roller coaster. Today we go behind the scenes and look at what it took to put together a one of a kind attraction.

Hard Rock Park Led Zeppelin Marquee

Photo by Josh Young

Generally speaking, when you’re at a mall or a theme park that plays popular music in the background, that business is using an ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) or BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) license for the rights to play those tracks. The license is a membership fee that allows you to play nearly any popular song that was ever broadcasted on the radio. Most importantly, the record label, artists – and their lawyers – get a tiny piece of that fee. If a particular song or artist is specifically being used to draw people to your business, you need to draw up a contract and deal directly with all the parties involved.

Once Hard Rock was on board to build a theme park, Jon had an idea of what bands would best represent the brand. Led Zeppelin was near the top of a short list of artists from the very beginning. As soon as the park secured funding, Jon reached out to the band members to see if they wanted to be immortalized in a theme park attraction. The problem was the band wasn’t exactly together anymore. Jon Binkowski and Steven Goodwin had to fly back and forth to England to talk to band members individually to get their blessing and input. Because the former drummer John Bonham, had passed they had to work with his family, who owned his estate and his piece of the Led Zeppelin empire. In total it took three years and thousands of frequent flyer miles to get everyone to sign on the dotted line. An interesting stipulation in the contract was that no matter what song was used in the attraction, every guest had to experience the entire song.

Led Zeppelin The Ride - Hard Rock Park

Photo by Josh Young

Even though all the contract negotiations were done separately, everyone was on board with the idea of a roller coaster from the beginning. Jon and Steven originally pitched “Stairway To Heaven” to be the soundtrack that played from onboard speakers during the ride. Jimmy Page was adamant that the song was inappropriate for a roller coaster, much less a theme park. As it was often used at funerals, he felt it would be too much of a downer. Jimmy won, and “Whole Lotta Love” wound up being the track that was used instead.

“Whole Lotta Love” clocks in at five minutes and thirty-three seconds. Frankly, a steel looping coaster that lasted over five minutes could potentially kill people. Hard Rock Park didn’t have the money, land or insurance to cover that expense. A compromise was reached where riders would experience a multimedia pre-show hearing the first four minutes before they set foot onto the coaster.

Hard Rock Park Queue

Photo by Josh Young

Before boarding, guests were grouped into rows and led into one of five rooms. Once inside, riders watched custom edited concert footage of the group performing “Whole Lotta Love” on overhead monitors. The long term goal was to have a new Led Zeppelin track added to the attraction every year and guests could choose from five pre-selected songs. Secretly, Jon and Steven were hoping that by year five, they could prove that the concept worked and they could finally add “Stairway to Heaven”.

Stairway To Heaven Interactive Fountain

Photo by Josh Young

“Stairway to Heaven” wasn’t completely absent from the attraction. Jon Binkowski wanted guests to stumble across inside jokes, music facts and interactive elements that were in the park, but not advertised on a map. One of these discoveries was a fifteen foot tall cement guitar that was positioned near the entrance of the queue of Led Zeppelin The Ride. Water streamed down from elephant trunks inside the guitar, forming the strings. As your hand sliced across “water strings”, the guitar would play an instrumental version of “Stairway To Heaven”. Even if someone was too short or too scared to ride, they still got a chance to experience one of Led Zeppelin’s classic songs.

Coaster junkies often blasted Hard Rock Park for not having rides that were as tall or fast as what you could find at Cedar Point or King’s Island. The harsh reality is, they were as tall as the law would permit. Myrtle Beach International Airport was less than three miles from the park. The flight path of the planes was directly over the park and specifically Led Zeppelin The Ride, which was thirteen feet below the FAA maximum height requirement. If you timed it just right, and you crested the 155 foot lift hill as an aircraft was in it’s final descent for landing, you’d swear you could reach up and rub it’s shiny metallic belly.

Myrtle Beach Airport close to Hard Rock Park

Photo by Josh Young

Most roller coasters with an on-board sound system are in enclosed spaces, meaning there are no gusts of wind inside Rock N Roller Coaster so the sound is always sharp. Wind is a problem when you are listening to any kind of music outdoors. Don’t believe me? Next time you are riding in a car (not driving – don’t sue me), stick your head out the window and see how well you can hear the radio. The designers of Led Zeppelin The Ride took an extra step and filled the box base of the footers with sand at the factory to ensure there is as little reverberation at possible, which means a smoother ride and sound. In addition, the speaker system provided by JL Audio was intense. Each train featured over 2000 watts of power going to 32 individual speakers placed directly in front of each rider’s seat.

Led Zeppelin The Ride

Photo by Josh Young

The Bolliger & Mabillard coaster was 3,738 feet long and reached a top speed of 65 miles per hour. It featured six inversions including: a vertical loop, cobra roll, zero-G roll, vertical loop, and a corkscrew. Blabbity blah blah blah. Want to take a ride? I am not the owner of this YouTube video, but it is the best version I have seen on the web. Enjoy.

Led Zeppelin The Ride didn’t break any records for being the fastest, longest or first of any kind. But that sound system blasting “Whole Lotta Love” straight into your eardrums was bad ass. Next time we will take a look at a few attractions that were unique and couldn’t be found anywhere else in the world including my personal favorite dark ride of all time – Nights in White Satin The Trip. Until then, let me know your thoughts about the coaster and Hard Rock Park in the comment section.

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One Comment

  1. Posted March 29, 2013 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    I’ve enjoyed reading this series thus far. I had a chance to visit HRP and enjoyed the unique creative vision brought to the park by its small team of “auteurs”. It’s really unusual that term could be applied in the world of theme park design, and it saddened me that the second year owner’s strategy was primarily to depersonalize everything. In some ways it was a Pyrrhic victory for me to see Freestyle Music Park fail after one year as well.

    Something specific I want to comment on for this part is the line: “Coaster junkies often blasted Hard Rock Park for not having rides that were as tall or fast as what you could find at Cedar Point or King’s Island.” I’m not sure which coaster enthusiasts you talked to, but having spent some time around those communities during the construction and opening of Hard Rock Park I never heard a single list the height or speed as complaints about the coaster. For comparison’s sake against your specific example, in 2008 Led Zeppelin would have been the second tallest and fastest coaster if it were built at King’s Island.

    What most people did complain about was the total lack of originality in pretty much all of the mechanical ride hardware. As far as I can tell Binkowski and Goodwin only knew that B&M was one of the most respected manufacturers in the industry, and then ordered the most vanilla design in their catalog and devised a layout based only on what would most easily fit the plot of land and be the correct running time to match the song. The sequence of elements was the most generic arrangement of plug-and-play maneuvers each placed in the most obvious location (my impression was it was a good layout for beginners to try in RCT or NoLimits), and there wasn’t a single maneuver on the ride that hadn’t already been built multiple times before. It was especially not a great idea since the Southeast theme park market is already flooded with B&M designs, and even while enthusiasts complain that many of these aren’t original enough, by my count every other B&M in the region has at least one or two maneuvers or layout ideas that were totally unique to that ride, at least at the time they were built.

    I was in the minority opinion that Led Zeppelin more than made up for that deficiency by the inclusion of music on the attraction. I’m surprised you didn’t talk more about the synchronicity of the music to the overall ride experience structure, as what HRP accomplished in this regard was really special and could teach quite a bit to many much larger theme parks. Having the music start before you even boarded the vehicles, slowly starting the build-up in anticipation that continued uninterrupted (!!! That was a huge technical gamble due to the variability of dispatch times) until the point when you crested the lift, the guitar hit the big note, and you could view the entire layout all at the same time, was a masterstroke of genius. I think the only coaster that does music synchronicity with the layout any better is the score Michael Giacchino composed for the Anaheim and HK Space Mountains, but even that song doesn’t emotionally engage riders before the the coaster has departed. I’m surprised more parks haven’t caught onto this technique. I find the music in the like-minded Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster doesn’t add very much since it doesn’t emotionally highlight any specific points in the layout, and the J-Pop on Hollywood Dream at USJ made it seem even more flat and repetitive than it actually was. 😉

    Anyway, with all of that Led Zeppelin was probably still the second most original ride in the park despite earning my vote for the least original (but still custom) layout ever designed for a B&M coaster. Most of the other attractions were just catalog orders from a handful of manufacturers, placed on the blueprints like rubber stamps and then dressed with a nice facade and paint. Maximum RPM! was the only other coaster that tried something original, and that piled all the creative effort into the lift system. There’s a problem if your expensive new coaster’s biggest selling points are how you get to the top of the first hill (which also caused extensive technical delays), followed by what you get to do while waiting in line. (Random note, “Round About” was the only new name from Freestyle Music Park that I preferred over the original name as Hard Rock Park, although maybe that’s just because I enjoy some Yes.) Eagles was the worst, not that it was a bad ride, but wayyy too much steel wasted on a long, uneventful layout that was directly copied from several better coasters that could afford the themed landscaping that was originally intended to cover the ugly design. Most of the other flat rides throughout the park were tamed versions of carnival attractions, bumping up infrastructure and overhead costs way more than I think they ever added to the overall marketing push.

    Meh, this reply ended up longer and more rant-y than I intended. Hope you don’t mind. Looking forward to NIWS, I agree with your ranking although I’ll be curious to see if we share the same reasoning.

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