Review: Thunderbird at Holiday World

How does the first and only launched wing coaster in the United States stack up?

Thunderbird’s initial reveal announcement is one of my favorite memories. The first steel roller coaster at Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana was also the first launched wing coaster in the United States. I truly don’t know why, but the idea of such a record-breaking ride got my inner geek so excited I proclaimed “launched wing coaster” out loud… multiple times. You could say I was hyped for the new addition, even embarrassingly so.

Thunderbird Review - Station - Holiday World

Thunderbird’s highly detailed, barn-themed station. One of the best at a non-Disney or Universal park!

However, fast forward several years and Thunderbird wasn’t even on my radar when my dad and I departed for our midwest coaster trip. My expectations and hype had fallen as time passed. I had heard of many people suffering from “antici-pointment”–the let down when a ride doesn’t meet high expectations–and my expectations fell similarly. It was in this absence of anticipation that I experienced Thunderbird. And in the end, I was thoroughly surprised.

The Setup

Driving South from the Interstate, the orange-and-brown steel monster is a notable contrast between the many trees and its wooden coaster brethren. The color scheme is somewhat subdued and not very vibrant. However, it actually works well to complement the ride’s surroundings.

Although you can see the coaster from the road, it’s more difficult to see from within the park. This is largely because of the ride’s location, which is also my chief complaint about Thunderbird. It is not just all the way in the back, it is almost completely detached from the rest of the park. A long path that winds by the former home of Giraffica/Pilgrim’s Plunge and a similarly ill-placed water slide complex connects Thunderbird to the main park. This results in a long walk just to get to the ride.

Will Power - Thunderbird Holiday World

“Will Power”—a great nod to the late Will Koch. He was the oldest of the 3rd generation of Koch ownership, taken too soon.

But the journey is well worth it once you reach the ride’s highly-themed area. The designers, PGAV Destinations, did a great job of place-making to fit the story, which revolves around the mythical Thunderbird creature. This winged bird-like giant, according to Native American legend, saved the Pilgrims from the throes of a mighty storm and steered them towards America. Since then, the Thunderbird has allegedly been spotted in parts of the midwest. This is where the station’s architecture comes from: 1820s Indiana, not colonial New England. There are numerous tools, machines, and stage coaches which further cement the authenticity of the place-making. Signs in the queue not only provide more backstory, but also include references to former Holiday World employees. And on top of that, there are a few more surprise effects keen observers will note. Very impressive for a regional park!

If you’re interested in learning more of how this ride’s story came to be, I recommend checking out this interview by Joel, this blog post from the park, and episode 317 of the Season Pass Podcast!

Stagecoaches and other theming in the queue. These serve to transport you to a different era, while also distracting from several large steel supports.

The story is also told through signage. The sign on the right is not a nod to Lightning Rod at Dollywood, but rather a two-fold reference. One, the “lightning rods” are actually an allusion to the Thunderbird creature, which can control the weather. Two, “Hevron’s Mercantile” is dedicated to a former employee, the late Joe Hevron.

Once you’re strapped in, and you’re squeezed pretty tight thanks to B&M’s new vest-like restraints, a ride op scans the station and you are dispatched.

“Dispatch!”

The Immelmann is beautifully paced, and if you look out to the side while you are inverting, you are treated to a crazy sight: seemingly endless stretches of green hovering above a canvas of blue and white. Seeing a vast landscape completely flipped upside down is so cool, and one of my most memorable experiences on a coaster.

A Unique Ride Experience

The train rolls forward into a holding room, which is full of fog and dominated by thunderclap sound effects. Again, this is a great job of theming by the park and PGAV and really builds the anticipation.

Right as you’re taking in the scene, the launch happens! You are propelled out at a pretty forceful 60 miles per hour. It is very fun; it’s intense but not too intense. The launch shoots you straight into the first element: an Immelman maneuver.

The Immelmann is beautifully paced, and if you look out to the side while you are inverting, you are treated to a crazy sight: seemingly endless stretches of green hovering above a canvas of blue and white. Seeing a vast landscape completely flipped upside down is so cool, and one of my most memorable experiences on a coaster. Thunderbird doubles down on this by sending you through a vertical loop next, which gives you a similar sight. So unique.

Thunderbird Launch - Holiday World

The post-launch straightaway transitions into an Immelmann maneuver. The launch has a nice kick to it and the inversion is well-paced!

Following the loop are a pair of turnarounds, almost forming a figure-8. Upon exiting these you flip through a tasty B&M zero-g-roll. Following that is a little s-curve, and then you drop down nearly to ground level as you approach a dilapidated barn and Thunderbird’s grand finale.

After the loop, the ride crosses over the Voyage and traverses a pair of turnarounds. Look closely and you can spot the zero-g roll in the background!

Save The Best For Last

Somehow, you squeeze through a hole in the structure as the flash of an on-ride photo goes off nearby. The track takes a tight left-hand turn only a few feet off the ground. To maximize the adrenaline rush, I recommend sitting on the left-side of the train here. The ground truly feels inches away as it whizzes by. Once the train has completed the 90 degree turn, you are now perpendicular with the barn you just passed through. As soon as you make this observation, however, you begin to flip to the side in what has to be one of the best slow roll elements on any roller coaster. While nearly hitting the structure, you are gradually tilted upside down. The feeling this generates is one-of-a-kind. You are completely at the mercy of your restraint, and it seems to last an eternity. It is pure bliss!

Finally, the train hits the brakes and the ride is over.

Riders catching their breath and processing their ride on Thunderbird. Also, look in the background. Even the transfer shed is themed!

My Take On Thunderbird

I found Thunderbird to be the sleeper hit of my coaster trip, and I think it is underrated in the “coaster community” as well. It gives multiple one-of-a-kind experiences while being incredibly well-paced and smooth. My opinion of it has completely changed; it really is the star attraction of the park for me. I even prefer it over The Voyage (gasp… I know, coaster heresy).

Having experienced two other B&M wing coasters in addition to Thunderbird (Gatekeeper and Wild Eagle) I believe that the shorter 5-car trains are better than their standard 8-car counterpart. Less rows means less weight, and that means the shorter trains can travel with more momentum and not slowly trudge through the ride’s course like a caterpillar.

Not everything is perfect; the location within the park is a downside, and the brief ride time is also a shame. But of what the ride does offer, it delivers. Don’t let those minor negatives fool youthe Thunderbird at Holiday World is arguably the best wing coaster in the United States.

Final Rating – 9.0/10

Here’s a video containing both the right-side and the left-side point of views!

Your Turn

Those are my thoughts about Thunderbird. Do you agree? Think I’m overrating it? Share your thoughts below! We’d love to hear what you all think.

Hi! I'm Jon (without the h). 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. And getting to write about them is fun as well!

4 Comments

  1. Very good review, Jon! Makes me want to ride this. I’ve ridden 3 wing coasters – Wild Eagle, Gatekeeper and X-Flight – and only 1 blew me away. The sensation of near misses on X-Flight was pretty extreme; no matter how many times I rode it I still felt that a collision was inevitable so I would expect to like Thunderbird.

    Reply
    • Thanks! Highly recommend it. Yes, near-misses on B&M wing riders are fantastic. When they become multi-dimensional near-misses, as in interacting with both a structure and the ground, it makes it even better! And that’s why I love the end of Thunderbird so much.

      Reply
  2. Nice post Jon. T-Bird has been on my radar ever since I read about Furious Baco @ PortAventura (Intamin-built, but the only other launched wing coaster nonetheless). Big fan of that lingering sensation though the in-line twist on X-Flight at my hometown park, so I know exactly what you mean. But liking T-Bird MORE than Voyage?! *gasp* heresy indeed! 😛

    Reply
    • Yup, the “lingering sensation” is pure bliss… forgot that it’s on X-Flight! On both banshee and T-Bird its amazing, but especially T-Bird.

      As for the Voyage, it was so intense I couldn’t fully enjoy it. Trains felt like they were ripping up the track. Wasn’t “rough” like, say, The Boss… but I felt that I had to ride defensively so I couldn’t truly enjoy it. I liked it, but it wasn’t great. Put some Timberliners on it and could be a whole different story!

      Reply

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