Back in the 50’s, Rotor rides were the end all thrill ride. Up until that point, there was nothing like it. The concept was simple but ingenious: riders stand in a large barrel and it spins, pinning them to the walls. The floor would then drop out leaving riders stuck to the wall thanks to centrifugal force. The ride was so unique for the time that not only did people pay to ride it, but paid to simply watch people ride it! Rotor was more than just a ride…it was a spectacle.
Eventually, the novelty of Rotor wore off. Newer thrills and smaller counterparts (Chance Rotor, Gravitron) made the older models obsolete. Many were scrapped while others were re-themed to attract a new generation of riders. Several of these Rotors dropped the novel ‘Rotor’ name in favor of a darker, more edgy theme. These Rotor rides were known as Hell Hole.
The history of Hell Hole rides is tough to come by. There were at least three under the Hell Hole banner: 12th Street in Coney Island, Sportland Pier in Wildwood, NJ, and Conneaut Lake Park. They were likely all re-themes of original Rotor rides. Conneaut Lake Park’s model was bought used and debuted in 1976 with the Hell Hole theme. Sportland Pier’s model went through an identity crisis of sorts. It was first known simply as ‘Rotor’ before being re-themed to Hell Hole by at least 1967. Soon after, it was shortly re-themed to Whirlpool in the early 70s before reverting back to Hell Hole for good. Coney Island’s model was installed by the early 80s. I can’t find anything about its origins. A fourth model likely existed at Martin’s Fantasy Island under the name Devil’s Hole which debuted at the park in 1975.
The manufacturers of these rides is also kind of hazy. Older Rotors were produced under license of two patent holders: the original designer Ernst Hoffmeister (patent) and an improvement made by Max Myers (patent). In the US, Velare Brothers and Anglo Rotor Corporation handled the production of touring and stationary Rotors respectively (after a patent dispute, that is.) Outside of the US, an assortment of companies built the models. Basically, old school Rotors were rides without a common manufacturer but built using a common design. That being said, I’ve heard the company Mack being thrown around when discussing Hell Hole. Whether they built one or all of them is really anybodies guess. Perhaps Mack handled the re-theming of the rides?
Hell Hole, and all old school Rotors for that matter, were massive. Let me rephrase that: the structure was massive. The actual barrel that riders stood against was relatively small in comparison. Rotor was intended to be part ride and part show. Most of the space inside of the buildings was used for tiered observation galleries encircling the barrel. The main, circular structure was hidden behind a giant facade, making it look like an even larger building.
From the outside, Hell Hole looked more like a dark ride than a traditional Rotor. The Coney Island model in particular had artwork much like Dante’s Inferno at Astroland. It looked really neat, but badly faded over time. I’ve even seen photos where the ride’s paybox clearly stated that it was not a dark ride to curb confusion. A common feature of Hell Hole rides was a large, hulking demon holding a pitchfork while looking down on potential riders with an evil smirk. Sportland Pier’s Hell Hole didn’t feature this decoration, rather it was used in other applications on the pier (photos are at the bottom of the linked page.)
While I’ve seen blurbs about other Hell Hole rides, the Coney Island Hell Hole seems to have quite a bit of stories attached to it, many of which touch upon the fact that the ride was absolutely ferocious compared to other Rotors or Gravitron rides. Several posts from different people over the years on rec.roller-coaster noted that the force at which the barrel rotated made it hard to even breathe. The ride was run on a long cycle with the operator slowing the ride while the floor was still down which would result in the riders sliding down the walls. This is something many Rotors did in the past but would never fly in the US today thanks to our lawsuit happy nation. I’m not going to lie, this particular Hell Hole sounded like a blast and was just so…Coney Island.
Each Hell Hole ride met their demise in some some fashion or another. Sportland Pier was sold in the 80s and the ride was left to decay for some time. Eventually the structure was razed while just leaving the barrel behind on the pier (as seen here, near the bottom of the page.) Conneaut removed theirs after a ride auction in the early 90s. The ride was reportedly in bad condition and failed to sell. It was eventually scrapped. Devil’s Hole in Martin’s Fantasy Island was removed around 1994 when new ownership took hold. Like Conneaut’s Hell Hole, this ride had also fallen into disrepair. In 2011, the park added a Wisdom manufactured Gravitron ride themed as Devil’s Hole as a little throwback.
Hell Hole in Coney Island ended up being the most well known of the lot, but not for the right reasons. The ride had a major accident on the night of July 29, 1995 that injured 13 people. One of the metal straps holding the barrel together essentially snapped, leading to part of the barrel breaking away. One woman suffered severe leg injuries while many others were injured after the e-stop was pushed, sending riders tumbling to the lowered floor. The ride never reopened and was eventually removed. Its spot is currently home to Ghost Hole, a more traditional ride through haunted house.
There seems to be some confusion, so let’s make this clear…Ghost Hole is not Hell Hole!
While no Hell Hole themed Rotors seem to exist anymore, there is one that looks very similar. German showman Pluschies hauls around a massive Rotor ride that was manufactured by Siemens and based off of the Hoffmeister patent. It’s probably the only large, Hoffmeister patented Rotor still on the road. In typical German funfair fashion, the Pluschies Rotor has had some upgrades done. Most notably, the facade has been replaced by a three floor funhouse that riders walk through before going inside. That’s really an awesome idea!
Here’s a video of the Pluschies Rotor in action. It seems to spin at a reasonable speed unlike every Hell Hole story I’ve come across. They also let the riders slide down the walls at the end.
If anyone has memories about the Hell Hole rides, by all means leave a comment! Also, if anyone has photos of the rides, I’d love to see them!
- History of Rotor Rides – National Fairground Archive
- Hell Hole – Images of America Conneaut Lake Park
- You’ve got a date with the devil – Buffalo.com
- Various Hell Hole discussions – rec.roller-coaster
- Vintage photos: Coney Island in the 1990s – Untapped Cities
- CI Hell Hole photos circa 1985 (1, 2, 3) – Steven Siegel | Flickr
- Sportland Pier page featuring Hell Hole – Funchase
- Sportland Pier Hell Hole photos (1, 2, Hell Hole when it was just ‘Rotor’) – Sportland Pier Fans Facebook
- Sportland Pier Hell Hole building (circular red structure on the left side of the pier.)