Dueling Dragons

Overview

One of the park’s opening day headliners was Dueling Dragons, a set of dueling steel inverted coasters depicting a fire-breathing dragon and an ice-breathing dragon in fierce battle.  At three different points in the ride, the two dragons would nearly collide with each other adding even more thrills to an already thrilling attraction.  The attraction closed in 2010 and reopened months later as Dragon Challenge along with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Patent for Dueling Dragons’ train weighing system

Statistics

Status: Re-imagined into Dragon Challenge

Opening: May 28, 1999

Location: Lost Continent

Ride type: Dueling steel coasters

Manufacturer: Bolliger and Mabillard (B&M)

Model: Inverted Coaster

Seating Configuration: Eight rows of four per train

Dueling Dragons’ layout based on the previously mentioned patent

Attraction Height: 125 ft

Drop Height: 115 ft (Fire), 95 ft (Ice)

Inversions: 5 each

Duration: 2:25

Theoretical Hourly Ride Capacity: 3000+ (over 1500 per dragon)

Height Requirement: 54”

Queue Reservation Available: Yes

Single Rider Available: No

History

“Dueling Dragons, because we wanted the coasters to meet and actually duel and intertwine…the idea of showing courage by riding on the back of dragons and dueling in the air was really kind of the basic idea behind Dueling Dragons.”

– Dale Mason

Lost Continent model

Originally, the Lost Continent area of Islands of Adventure was divided into three areas.  There was the Lost City, home to Poseidon’s Fury and Mythos Restaurant.  There was Sindbad’s Bazaar, with The Eighth Voyage of Sindbad and the Mystic Fountain.  Finally, there was Merlinwood, home to the Enchanted Oak Tavern, the Flying Unicorn, and towering over the forest was Dueling Dragons.

Designer Warren Riggs working on the model for Dueling Dragons

The attraction’s concept was a bold one.  Dueling coasters were nothing new at the time, but the way the dragons dueled was exceptional.  First, the Fire and Ice Dragons each had their own unique layout.  Typically, dueling or “racing” coasters would either run alongside each other or have mirrored layouts in order to have the trains meet and follow.  The dragons of Dueling Dragons separate and “attack” at three different points in the attraction.  Secondly, the dragons were each massive Bolliger and Mabillard coasters.  Taken separately, each is its own intense coaster.  Together, they make one incredibly thrilling attraction.  Finally, the coasters are inverted, leaving riders’ feet vulnerable to the frighteningly close surroundings.  Beyond the minimum allowable clearance for the trains, designers added only 18 inches of clearance, meaning that riders with particularly long legs could come just a foot and a half away from hitting the castle’s wall and the opposing dragon.

Frozen in Battle

Fire and Ice dragons, frozen in battle

Dueling Dragons featured arguably the most epic attraction entrance of all time; two massive statues of the Fire Dragon and the Ice Dragon, frozen in battle, angrily sneering at each other.  The Ice Dragon on the left, perched on its stone pillar of ice, glared downward on the Fire Dragon, perched on its own pillar of fire, snapping back up at its opposer.  Framed perfectly between the dragons were the near-misses of the coasters, providing a fantastic photo opportunity.

Merlinwood

Overview of Dueling Dragons and Merlinwood. Note the extended exterior queue.

As guests passed the statues, a large expanse of land was visible as the battleground for the dragons.  The dogfight was an impressive distraction from walking through Merlinwood, the village in which the dragons wreaked havoc.  Adventurous guests continue through the village, past the villagers’ warning signs.  The path lead guests to a castle, derelict and foreboding.  In the first room of the castle, guests could watch an enchanted stained glass window which told the story of the dragons.

Stained Glass Pre-show Transcript

Shattered glass.  Crumbled stones.  What is now hallowed and ruined was, in distant days past, a castle, so fair beyond words, that a sorcerer of great renown here settled, to pass in peace in the twilight of his years.  Until they came.  Descended like a winged curse, a twin plague of demonic dragons.  The king’s army quickly fell, and then, in desperation, the entire kingdom turned to the sorcerer.  Alas, he was too old to long oppose fiends so fierce and powerful.  And so the castle fell, its riches plundered, its land scorched, and its people scattered like ash upon the wind.  To this day, the dragons remain – and so too, the sorcerer – to discourage foolish knaves such as yourselves, yearning for a chivalrous challenge, such as a ride upon dueling dragons!  How do I come to tell this tale?  My name is Merlin.

Guests then continue through the queue to find a tower with Merlin’s spell book on a pedestal.

Concept art for queue.  Art by Unknown.

Merlin’s Spellbook

Serpent of Fire, Obey My Command

Abandon Your Hold Upon This Land…

Morrow’s Moon You’ll Not Withstand

For With Anguished Syllable Spoken

I Decry Your Powers Forever Be Broken

Dragon of Ice, Abominable Scourge

From This Blighted Land, Diverge

Your Frigid Stench Commence to Purge

Or Let These Mournful, Magic Words

Compose Your Final Loathsome Dirge

Fire Dragon’s Victims

Guests then passed down another hallway and into an open room.  All along the walls of the room were the dragon’s victims.  Each victim depicted a knight that tried to conquer the Fire Dragon, but in vain.  Poems were etched all around the knight’s armor describing his death.

“Sir Egbert of Wessex was quite a man, 

but burned much faster than he ran”

“Sir Alley entered without his troops,

His final words were ‘Alley, oops!’”

“Immortal Sir Gilles was thought to be, 

Until he wore out his warranty”

“‘Slay the dragons’ Sir Thomas boasted,

and boasted and boasted and boasted and roasted”

“Once next in line to inherit the crown,

Prince Hubert’s prospects are looking down”

“Newlywed was Young Prince Craven,

Think of all the trouble I saved him”

Concept art.  Art by Unknown.

Ice Dragon’s Victims

In the next room, guests see the Ice Dragon’s victims.  The room was a narrow corridor with candles lit all around the rafters.  Knights were frozen to the roof of the structure, and ice covered all surfaces.

The Catacombs

The entire remainder of the long queue was the catacombs.  The cavern-like environment showed the skeletons of the dragons’ victims.  The skulls and bones of those “foolish knaves” seemed to cover every surface of the passageway.  The bones of the victims often spelled out interesting phrases for guests to read.

“Don’t Be a Bonehead”

“Enter in Peace, Exit in Pieces”

“Heed Me”

Dueling Dragons’ “Choose Thy Fate” sign

Decision Time

Being a set of dueling coasters, the attraction required guests to choose which dragon to conquer at this point.  A large sign urged guests to “Choose Thy Fate”, or for those fluent in Latin, “Convocae Fortitudinem Tuum.”  Fire Dragon was to the left, and Ice to the Right.

Interview with Catherynne A. Jean

JM: What is your name and what was your role in the development of Dueling Dragons? 

CJ: I am Catherynne A. Jean, and I was the creative director/field art director for this show attraction.  The exterior of the castle was directed by Eric Jany, and we collaborated on things that were shared by both interior and exterior.  I art directed the large Dragons that created the entry portal, as well as many of the small signs and prop vignettes that were in the queue.  

JM: What was the status of the Dueling Dragons project when you joined? 

CJ: I had just come home from Japan, where I finished working on Porto Europa in Wakayama for Universal.  The team was losing some early members and that is where I came in.  There was a loose concept that we further developed and guided through the many changes that happened in the early stages.  I collaborated on the concept development with Dale Mason, the parkwide executive Creative Director and our writer, Ross Osterman.

JM: What is the story of Dueling Dragons?

CJ: I will do a brief summary, for I do not have the actual old script.  But Blizzrock and Pyrock, which were their names, were two dragons who were vying over the kingdom and loot of the castle of this land, of which the elderly Merlin was the protector.  He was no longer a strong and powerful wizard, for this was after Nimue, who Merlin had fallen for, tricked him and stole much of his power.  So, these dragons found it easy to attack the land and fight one another for possession of it.  They would cease their own fight momentarily to vanquish any foolish human who came to try and vanquish them.  They would only allow you free to live if you had the courage to ride on their back (and not try to kill them!).  Over the years they slowly destroyed the castle from countless battles with each other, and momentary pauses to freeze or burn a knight or two.   They burrowed down into the catacombs and further into the basement of the castle where most of the treasure was hidden. In these catacombs they arranged scenes of warning with the bones of their prey so that all newcomers would either turn back or face their fate.

JM: What inspired the architecture and story for the attraction? 

CJ: Many things did, but of course a big one was the story of the aging Merlin, and the loss of his power to protect the land.  Dale loved the book “The Once and Future King” and we read it at the time, to discuss some of the ideas there.  The attraction wasn’t based on that but some inspiration came from the book.  The rest was collaborations of many story meetings with our small team and our writer, Ross Osterman.  It developed from there, went through cuts and changes, and eventually became the attraction we built.

JM: When guests entered the attraction, they were greeted by two large dragon statues.  What was the thought process in designing such an iconic attraction entrance? 

CJ: We wanted to do something dynamic and different than a ‘usual’ marquee – and walking between the two Dragons who are about to strike one another was a very exciting idea to us.  Later, it was Dale’s idea to make the heads turn to red stone (carnelian) for the Fire Dragon, and Cobalt for the Ice Dragon.  I remember thinking it was odd at first and then I painted a color board for it and started to think it was really a fun and different take on the stone.  That is what we ultimately built. Adirondack Scenic built and painted the big Dragons.

JM: There has been some recent discussion about the origins and mentions of the dragons’ names.  Did the dragons officially have names, and if they did, what were they and were they mentioned in the attraction? 

CJ: I don’t remember completely how the names evolved, for they were in the early treatment.  We didn’t focus on them, for their names were never very important.  We didn’t call them by name in the attraction (partly because I didn’t really like their names, but it wasn’t important to the story, really. ) Fire and Ice was the predominant idea.

JM: Dueling Dragons opened with one of the longest queues in any theme park attraction.  Some sources even say it held the world record.  Why was the queue designed to have such a lengthy queue? 

CJ: I will never understand that – but the Universal Operations group of that time had done calculations that lead them to believe that would actually be needed!

JM: What is the relationship between the village of Merlinwood and Dueling Dragons? 

CJ: As I explained before, Merlin was the wizard of this land, he was the beloved but now feeble protector of the castle and the land.

JM: The castle was filled with fantastic details, such as Merlin’s book, the dungeons, and, of course, those poor knights that tried to slay the dragons.  My favorite one has to be “Sir Egbert of Wessex was quite a man, but burned much faster than he ran.”  Can you give us a tour of the great details of the castle? 

CJ: Well, my memory is sketchy of these details now!  I don’t think I can remember all the rhymes we made up.  In the Foyer of the castle were the broken stained glass windows which come to life and give you the background of the once lovely land, and then the dark days when the dragons came and started battling for the land and castle, and they killed or drove off all who tried to vanquish them.  At the end of the animation (made by Pixel Factory in Orlando!) you go into a small tower and around Merlin’s spell book, which gives you a little more information about the castle, and the way to get out alive (ride the back of the dragon) Next, you move down the corridor and into two chambers just before the Hall of the Dead. There are a few burned knights in the walls, and later frozen ones up in the rafters of the Hall of the Dead.  We worked with a Florida scenic company in Gainesville, and they made all the faux candles and many props. There is a low rumble of the breath of the Dragons that rolled across the hall every few minutes and the candles would flicker with the ‘roll’ of the breath travel.  Next there was a small chamber with a broken fireplace and a few distressed pieces of furniture, and it is here that Dragon’s tails broke through the walls and into the catacombs.  Ross and I made up a many little rhymes and then I had a lot of fun fashioning small scenes out of the bones pretending to have the dark humor of the Dragons.  The scenes portray the hubris they thought the humans had to dare to come and try to vanquish them. You then go into a low cave chamber and see more bone scenes and finally the darkest corridor was sculpted to feel like you had touched the skin of the dragon – and later saw the eye of the dragon peering at you.  Bob McCrobie, the audio director put a lot of sound fxs into place, the breathing walls, the rumble of the dragons as though they might be just in a corridor next to you – that sort of thing is what we wanted to achieve.  The lighting designer, Marilyn Lowey, did a fantastic job achieving the moods in all of the scenes.  (She by the way, is doing some amazing fine art work right now – light paintings!  Please check them out at  www.marilynlowey.com/page_11– they are amazing!

JM: What was the creative process in designing the stained glass pre-show? 

CJ: I explained briefly the concept – but I worked with a young team at Pixel Factory (who would all be senior designers/artists now!) and Stan Johnson is the principle there.  They took my basic storyboard drawings of each panel and then worked hard to animate them and a young woman did the painting.  I would go every few days and take a look at what they were doing, give notes, sit for a while with the animator to work on getting the flying dragon shadows right. They did a great job in a short amount of time and not a huge budget.  They gave it a lot of love!

JM: At the end of the castle portion of the queue, guests are instructed to “Choose Thy Fate”, “to freeze or burn”.  What was the symbolism in boarding the attraction? 

CJ: Steven Oliver helped develop this design (and all our Lost Continent graphics).  The symbolism, as explained before is that Merlin has told you this is your only way out alive – so you have to make a choice as to which Dragon you will try to fly.  It is a last talisman of protection from Merlin- it is his last protection that he can give you.  Now you have to have the courage to move forward to one side or the other!

JM: The dragons duel over a large body of water which some refer to as Dragon Lake.  Is this the official name of the lake, and was it really made to look like a dragon?  

CJ: I don’t remember the lake having any official name – but we did play with having a dragon shape – although it had to evolve with the needs of the other areas.  Perhaps employees have named it Dragon Lake, for it becomes their playground and day to day focus.  They often create additional lore beyond what we may have left with them.

JM: Bolliger and Mabillard manufactured the coasters of Dueling Dragons, as well as The Incredible Hulk Coaster and others at international Universal Studios parks.  B&M are almost as well-known for producing smooth and intense coasters as they are for insisting upon creative control of the coaster’s layout.  With such a creative and ambitious project, what was the relationship between B&M and Universal?  Was there a conscious effort on either party’s part to have the near-misses line up with the vantage point at the entrance? 

CJ: They were excited by the concept, but didn’t want to be responsible for the art sculpting.  So we did macquettes and had a lot of design reviews, and then when the company who won the bid to do the hulls, Kern Sculpture Gallery, began work, we made many review trips.  The young man who was the lead engineer came out to meet Joe Casey (Universal’s technical director on the project) and I at Kern’s to check each step of progress and make sure we had caught everything we could involving clearances, weight requirements, etc.  The near miss was OF COURSE an intentional feature for the guest!  If you looked closely, we made some ‘scrapes’ on the exterior stone of the castle wall as though some contact had already previously been made with the stone!

Original name and logo. Art by Scott Sherman.

JM: Surely the basis of the attraction was declared at its inception, but were there any major rejected concepts or last-minute changes?  For example, there are some original logos showing the original name of the attraction as “Merlin’s Duelling Dragons.” 

CJ: Every attraction goes through changes from the original concept.  It even goes through changes later in the game (as Dueling did) because of budget issues, political issues and the like.  We had some larger effects and the lower chamber was going to have a lot of treasure and a shadow effect of the Ice Dragon and Fire Dragon entering the chamber – but it all went away as budgets were cut.  But Marilyn Lowey, Cindi Baker ( the team technical wizard), and I invented a Fire and Ice water projection device for this chamber at Ron Griffin’s company, Attraction Services when it still was in the plan.  It was going to be a very cool effect.  That scene in fact, was the one remaining scene from the earliest concept that existed when I joined the team – but alas, it was cut.

Concept art of queue, showing dragon silhouette projection effect.  Art by Unknown.

JM: Back in 2010, the Merlinwood area of the Lost Continent was transformed into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and with it, Dueling Dragons became Dragon Challenge.  In 2011, some incidents influenced the decision to stop the dragons from dueling each other anymore permanently.  Have you experienced the attraction since these changes took place, and as a designer, what are your thoughts on the changes? 

CJ: They did a great job on the family style Unicorn coaster, I loved it!  I know the changes were made on the big coaster for safety – and that is a must.  Of course I am happy to have ridden many times the original version, but the second version was still pretty great!

JM: Do you have any funny, interesting, or anecdotal stories regarding the attraction?

CJ: There are many of them!  But one funny one: Bill Repas was the big gentle giant of a man who was the project foreman for the GC (Whiting Turner) company.  We had an Irish company, Mivan, who did all the cement work, and all the great carving.  Martin Fettes was the lead for this work, and he had a strong Northern Irish accent, and a soft spoken voice actually.  So it was near impossible to understand him over a walkie talkie.   So, when Martin would call and ask a question trying to avoid having to come all the way over to the castle, Bill would just hold up his walkie talkie looking at the rest of us with a face that expressed, “Can you understand him?” and then he would just say, “no” to Martin – no matter what the question.  This would force Martin to come over to consult with Bill in person.  We would all smile when we saw or heard Martin come zooming over in his golf cart!          

Another quick story, Pascaline Doucin-Dahlke is a wonderful designer, fine art painter, and architect who helped me complete the package in Florida after we had some serious reduction cuts to the attraction.  She then helped me in the field, and on the morning we worked on the concrete pour for the base of the attraction (which would double as the show floor which was the result of a show budget cut made by the project manager).  I had Whiting Turner just do a concrete pour and rough trowel it (no broom finish).  We allowed it to settle that way, which showed some of the aggregate and we chucked color powders and rock salt to give it more texture and color interest.  Pascaline, a lovely French lady, had never done this kind of work and was a little tentative as most of the workers were twice her size and a little daunting.  We were supposed to have paper suits, but none materialized and we had to get started, so we just did so in our work clothes.   In a few hours, Pascaline’s face and arms were covered with the dark charcoal color dust she was sprinkling onto the surface of the concrete, and the guys were teasing her that it would never wash off.  She came to me with tears welling in her eyes, but I told her they were teasing her.  But it did take a few scrubbings before her skin was clean later that day!  The whole crew fell in love with Pascaline, she has lovely almond shaped eyes and a soft French accent and a quick wit.  Early on the project, one of our vendors used to call her with slightly unnecessary questions so that she would call back and leave an answer on their machine that they could play over and over.  I thought that was pretty funny (I won’t name names on this one!)

JM: Are there any other details about the attraction that you think guests might have overlooked, and what details were your favorite? 

CJ: Well, I cannot think of exactly what guests may have overlooked?  There are many details, and they were there partly to make sure there are rich discoveries each time you might return.   It is hard to ask me which was my favorite, for I loved them all – I truly did!  (It was my baby for several years!)

JM: What was your favorite dragon? 

CJ: They were both great, but I was slightly partial to the Ice Dragon.

JM: Have you recently been involved with any projects that might be familiar to those in the themed entertainment community?  Are you involved with any projects that the community is allowed to know about yet? 

CJ: In April of 2011, I had just finished and came home from working on the Universal Studios Singapore project.  I was the Creative Director/Art Director for the DreamWorks land, which had a Madagascar section and a Far Far Away castle and town/Shrek section.  It was great fun, and there is a wonderful version of the Shrek attraction there, and then two new attractions, Donkey Live,  and the Madagascar Boat Ride.  I understand that the Madagascar ride is well liked.  I really did fall in love with those characters.  Our show director, Brent Young of Super 78, and our show producer, Rick Hinton, and I gave this show our all!  Brent directed Donkey Live as well!  I am currently working for the Walt Disney Imagineering company, and am working on the New Shanghai project.  It is very exciting, and in my land there are two new attractions, and a new twist on two existing ones.  I am not at liberty to speak too much about this, as we are in early design phase now.  But I am totally in love with my land (again!).

Thanks very much to Catherynne A. Jean for speaking to me.

Entrance sign for Dueling Dragons when the queue was redirected to Jurassic Park.

Changes

When Universal announced the attractions that would be part of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the plans involved re-imagining Dueling Dragons into Dragon Challenge.   Since the new attraction, while still involving dragons, would be re-themed to the Triwizard Tournament from the Harry Potter stories.  All of the queue and theming would be redone to reflect the changes.

During the construction of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Dueling Dragons was left operational for as often as possible.  The entrance to the attraction was redirected towards Jurassic Park, using Flying Unicorn’s old entrance sign.  For more on the attraction, see the Dragon Challenge page (coming soon).

Credits

All content on this page provided by Parkpedia.

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