Last summer saw the debut of the biggest roller coaster in history, the Top Thrill Dragster of Cedar Point in Sandusky, OH. Reaching a height of 420', it gives riders the feel of falling off a 42-story building.

Robert Daniels, IALD, principal of the Miami firm Brilliant Lighting Design, faced the challenge of not only lighting a very tall tower but also creating interest in the loading area. “I also wanted to use light to show the effect of speed upon the riders,” he says.

Working with Cedar Point's design crew, headed by architect Rob Decker, Daniels illuminated the 420' tall tower with two sets of fixtures. Approaching the triangular tower with fixtures on three sides, he emphasized the main face seen from the loading platform. Twenty-nine Ruud 1,000W narrow spot metal halide fixtures provide a lot of firepower for the first 300' of coaster track. The upper 120' are lit with Space Cannon 1,200W units.

The Top Thrill Dragster has a countdown mechanism, which launches the car down the rail and up the tower. Cedar Point management wanted similar countdown lights on the tower, insisting that LEDs be used. “The solution involved using a black sunshield snout and a black frame on all four sides,” says Daniels. “The finished assembly was integrated into the catwalk rail system that served each level of the tower at 50' height increments.” Working with Howard Eckstein of MCD Electronics of Albequerque, NM, Daniels obtained the 7-12" diameter traffic light disks that were used to build each of the 3' diameter master disks. Daniels designed the LED housing assemblies and had them fabricated by Doug Real of DECA Lighting, of Atlanta GA.

Unlike most roller coasters, the Top Thrill Dragster operates hydraulically, like a giant slingshot. The car is accelerated from 0-120mph during the first 900' of level run. The momentum takes it up the 420' tower without any cable assist. At the top, it makes a corkscrew move, then freefalls, held in place only by track couplings.

Lighting emphasizes the acceleration, with 400W MH GE Turnpike dropped-lens floods placed at equal distances along the track. As the car accelerates, the time between light fixtures shortens, eventually becoming a blur. When the car decelerates at the end of the ride, three aluminum banners pass overhead, causing a blur of light for the passengers.

“The loading area was the biggest artistic challenge,” says Daniels, who adds that guests can wait for 30 minutes or more. The cantilevered arch inspired him to shovel light up onto the ribbed metal roof from the column positions. He visualized blues and reds working together to form purples in the middle. “Because dichroic glass filters were used, a halation effect occurred that added yellow and green to the red filter,” he says.

LAM 400W elliptical forward-throw fixtures were used with remote ballasts to keep the head size reduced. The fixtures were outfitted with special colored dichroic filters by Special FX Lighting. A non-glare downlighting system was built into the cantilevered beams so that the fixtures had extra light cut-off. “Careful attention was placed on creating safe levels of light for loading the cars, as well as low glare so the attendants would not get eye fatigue,” says Daniels. “The p ark insisted that the lens be made of glass to prevent yellowing. I found that the Ruud MCL fixture met this requirement while being cost-effective.”

The lighting of the coaster's tower creates a imposing visual statement and the use of bright, cheerful colors helps dispel some of the anxieties experienced by people anticipating the wildest ride of their lives.