2.12.2005

Thrill Merchants

The Herald Journal — 1.31.05

LAS VEGAS — A chilly wind blew across the Nevada desert as the sun rose over the mountains east of Las Vegas. High above an uncharacteristically quiet Strip, a dozen men in blue jump suits anchored safety cords from their midsections to the side of the Stratosphere Tower. Their white helmets poked out from under a ledge as an 88-foot long skycrane helicopter slowly rose from a parking lot below to hover just above the nearly 1,000-foot-high ledge, dangling a 12,300-pound piece of neon green painted steel just yards above their heads.

Janos Lakatos directed traffic behind the white helmets, talking on a radio to the helicopter pilot as the piece of steel — the base for a ride built in Logan called "Insanity" — listed in the 30 mph gusts. The men in blue jump suits grabbed tethers hanging from the helicopters cargo, but even the grip of 12 men couldn't subdue the swinging piece of metal, and the red Sikorsky helicopter eventually backed off with its heavy load.

Lakatos, a founder of Interactive Rides, hopped on his cell phone, side by side with fellow founder Clay Slade as the two negotiated another attempt. Two hours later, Las Vegas Strip below was still shut down and the helicopter made another lift, but the desert wind — even calmed down to around 12 mph — once again preempted the day's plans.

"It's still too gusty, that's what the biggest problem is," said Lakatos, taking off his blue helmet and shaking his head at the setback as the installation crew retreated into the Stratosphere to peel out of their jump suits and return to earth.
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The first impression of Cache Valley during the descent from Wellsville Canyon is one of calm — quiet fields, not a skyscraper in sight, the soft glow of the Logan Temple the brightest light on the horizon. It's far from the neon lights of Las Vegas, literally and figuratively. But the success of two local companies has meant that visits to the top of Vegas — as well as locales in California, Argentina, and Italy — have a distinct Cache Valley feel.

Interactive Rides and S&S Worldwide, Inc. may be headquartered near each other on the west side of Cache Valley, but those few miles are far from the closest the two industry leaders get. They compete atop the Stratosphere Tower, where the "Insanity" ride will go alongside Interactive's "XScream" and the "Big Shot" tower ride made by S&S. Both have built multi-million dollar rides at major U.S. parks like Knott's Berry Farm in California and Paramount's Kings Dominion in Virginia. At a trade show in Europe the last weekend of January, they set up displays across a conference room from each other, two of only nine U.S. companies among the 245 participants. In fact, listings on most industry websites acknowledge less than a dozen major manufacturers of thrill rides across the country — including the two from Cache Valley.

"A lot of people come from all over the world, and always ask, 'Why here?'" said Stan Checketts, CEO of S&S Worldwide, Inc., the ten-year-old North Logan-based producer that has built roller-coasters and rides across the world.

Checketts doesn't have an exact answer to the question. He even admits it's fairly unique that S&S has enjoyed such success in a far corner of Utah, isolated from a major airport to transport employees and product around the globe. But there are certain circumstances that have fostered the local industry and make the thrill ride phenomenon a bit more understandable.

Cache Valley has experienced subcontractors who understand the tightly regulated specifications both companies adhere to; there is a valuable pool of engineering knowledge to draw from — including a strong engineering department at Utah State University; and a legacy of building extreme rides was started years ago by Arrow Dynamics of Clearfield, which one Interactive employee called "the grandfather in the industry."

"In fact, it's quite natural," said Lakatos, a Hungarian native who began his career in the roller coaster business with S&S after leaving an industrial manufacturing business in Salt Lake City. "If you are in a trade, you will start a business in a trade that people already know."

The trade Lakatos talked about was one he learned at S&S, where he worked with Slade and Checketts in the early days of the company. S&S was founded in 1994, when it built the Space Shot, a vertical tower ride that went to Mexico City. That first vertical ride was powered by a compressed air technology S&S pioneered and Checketts still incorporates into rides like the Powder Keg ride at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Miss. which is scheduled to open in March. The company grew through the 90s, building edgy rides like the Turbo Drop, Screaming Squirrel, and Sky Sling in places such as Japan, England, the Middle East and across the U.S. With the eccentric Checketts at the head of S&S — for example, he would climb to the top of every tower ride S&S built for years — the company eventually gained the attention of magazines like Rolling Stone and Wired with its creations.

Lakatos and Slade left to found Interactive Rides in 2000, and were soon followed by several S&S engineers and staff members. The ride manufacturing business was added to an automation engineering business that Slade, Clay Carter and Val Potter had started a few years earlier, and the team set it sights on "high profile" jobs like the Stratosphere installation, said Lakatos. The 30-employee company still does engineering consulting and automated manufacturing in addition to creating rides, but according to Lakatos, the passion for all involved remains focused on the rides.

"It's kind of like a high-thrill sport," said Lakatos, the project manager for the Insanity installation. "These two rides are our diamonds. There is not one other amusement ride manufacturer that can claim this job."

The company history that led to so much fun for both has a bit of an edge, however. When asked about the competition with each other, both Checketts and Slade decline to speak about that aspect of the business. Slade and Lakatos don't elaborate much on why they began their own company other than for a new opportunity, and Checketts chose not to talk about the relationship nor a past lawsuit between the two. Both companies, rather, said they want to focus on their own projects than watch the competition, and both said innovation is what keeps them at the top of the roller-coaster world.

"I always think we're the creators and not the imitators," said Checketts during an interview at the S&S offices this week. "Too many will wait and see if Stan builds it, then they copy it."

"We have to come up with new concepts to test the market," said Val Potter, vice-president of sales at Interactive. "We bring something to the industry because we have new and unique ideas."

Those statements are backed up by roller-coaster enthusiasts, who are well-acquainted with both company reputations. On industry websites and trade magazines, upcoming projects are rumored and gossiped, and the two companies are critiqued alongside European competitors with decades of experience building rides.

"What I like about the rides coming from S&S Power and Interactive Rides is they are unique," said Duane Marden, who runs the website Roller Coaster Database. "There is a lot of copying in this business. These two companies produce unique products, which I respect."

On www.thrillnetwork.com, a website that tracks the amusement ride industry, there are forums dedicated to rides S & S and Interactive have built, including specific threads on upcoming attractions like the Powder Keg and Insanity. There are ongoing debates about a recent lawsuit filed against Interactive by a Pennsylvania theme park (with a majority of opinion on the side of the manufacturer, incidentally), comments from hard-core thrill seekers that range from promises to visit the Stratosphere's newest attraction to fawning posts that call Checketts a "genius." On one thread about the world's best manufacturers, both local shops are mentioned right up with their European competition.

"You guys totally forgot about one of the biggest uprising companies out," wrote a poster called Eastcoastn7. "Yeah that's right, I'm talking about S&S Power. ... Also, Interactive rides has a few nice ideas, it's too bad not that many people have purchased any of their rides. Seems like the Stratosphere tower is the only place interested in their work."
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Lakatos, Slade, and other Interactive officials on the observation deck of the Stratosphere earlier this week may have been disappointed following the missed opportunity. The timeframe had closed on the project — Las Vegas Boulevard and the Stratosphere Casino, both of which had closed for the project, had to be reopened in the late morning — but the enthusiasm of a group of men that get giddy like teenagers when they talk about thrill rides couldn't wane for too long. Lakatos was busy calling for a weather report for the coming days, and other Interactive officials began to work through the red tape to set up another attempt. The project is scheduled to happen again next Tuesday, and Insanity is scheduled to be swing riders 64 feet off the edge of the Stratosphere Tower at up to 40 mph, looking straight down.

"The goal is to keep the business, keep it healthy. We're going to be here," said Lakatos.

There's also no doubt where Checketts will be as his roller-coast empire expands — "I wouldn't move out of Cache Valley no matter what," he said. Completion of a local park along U.S. Highway 89-91 is nearing, S&S acquired Arrow assets after it folded and recently purchased a wooden roller-coaster company in Ohio called Custom Coasters as well, and a recent unofficial survey by Checketts on ridership for the 100 towers S&S has built in 27 countries reminded him why he still does it.

"We've thrilled over 300 million people," Checketts said. "To me, that is interesting. That's quite an accomplishment for people from a little farm town."