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The History Behind Playland’s Ancient, Iconic Wooden ‘Coaster’


by Stevie Wilson | Whether you love a good rush of adrenaline or prefer to just sit on the sidelines and watch, there’s no denying that the Wooden Coaster at Playland is a true Vancouver landmark. Towering over the eastern end of the fairgrounds, the ride has been serving up thrills for guests for 56 years, remaining one of the PNE’s most popular attractions to this day. What’s more, it’s an interesting piece of civic history, one that has not only stood the test of time but has also been accessible to (nearly) all ages.

Renowned coaster architect Carl E. Phare designed the coaster in 1958, one year after the original PNE amusement park, Happyland, was closed. The wooden coaster was intended to replace his earlier model, The Giant Dipper, which had been demolished in 1948 to make room for the Hastings Racecourse. Phare was an extremely knowledgeable builder; before he created this new ride for Playland he had worked on 28 other major coasters and had also overseen operations at Seattle’s own Playland Park.

Born in 1885, the Missouri native had been a well-known player in the roller coaster industry since the beginning of his career shortly after the turn of the century. He was widely acknowledged as having been one of the greatest minds in the trade. This wooden coaster was the last design of his career, and stands as a testament to the incredible quality of his designs and engineering skillset. The construction cost over $200,000 at the time of its completion and relied on a building team that was said to have been comprised of 300 Norwegian shipbuilders. When the ride opened it was the largest in Canada, drawing thrill-seekers from across the country and the world. The winding track is built of fireproof Douglas fir and features the original 1900’s-style rider trains. Compared to its modern steel competitors, this ride is known for its variable ride times and louder operation. The coaster was constructed on-site, which is quite a feat considering it measures about 22 metres high, and is recognized as a “coaster classic” amongst the aficionados at American Coaster Enthusiasts, who in 2009 awarded the ride a Coaster Landmark Award.

The coaster’s track spans 1 kilometer in length and reaches speeds of up to 80km/h. It also boasts a maximum drop height of 20 metres. Movie and television buffs will recognize the ride from the (classic) thriller Fear, the film Riding the Bullet (it played the Bullet), and the TV show 21 Jump Street. But it isn’t just adrenaline junkies who recognize the importance of this unique site. In 2003, it was listed on Heritage Vancouver’s “Top Ten Endangered Sites”, and in 2013 was included in the Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s “Places That Matter” commemoration. If you’re ready and aren’t afraid of heights, let it take you for a ride. It might just be the most fun you’ve ever had with history.

  • Playland
  • Wooden Coaster at Playland (195-)
    Wooden Coaster at Playland (195-)
  • Some wise advice for riders that goes without saying
    Some wise advice for riders that goes without saying
  • Dipsy-doodle
  • The Giant Dipper (Happyland)
    The Giant Dipper (Happyland)
  • Yeeeeeahhhhh!
  • Location of Happyland adjacent to Hastings Track,1947 (copy)
    Location of Happyland adjacent to Hastings Track,1947 (copy)
  • Wooooooooot!
  • Coaster at PNE (Date unknown)
    Coaster at PNE (Date unknown)
  • Click-click-click-click
  • Tight top corner
    Tight top corner
  • Practicing for the descent in the ascent
    Practicing for the descent in the ascent
  • Still alive
    Still alive

Special thanks to Amanda Ribeiro & Colleen Dunbar at the PNE