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Wooden roller coasters are making a comeback

As a member of the theatrical and popular Branson, Mo.-based country rock group, The Haygoods, Patrick Haygood is no stranger to feeling butterflies in the stomach. But after riding the new Outlaw Run roller coaster at nearby Silver Dollar City -- one of the latest in next generation wooden coasters parks are rolling out and boasting a groundbreaking three inversions -- he has a new perspective on anatomical anomalies.

“It feels like a classic coaster experience, and then, holy moly, you’re upside down and you feel your heart in your shorts," said Haygood.

Thanks to new technology and better engineering, several parks are hoping to redefine the wooden coaster ride experience with their new thrill rides.

“Riding a wood coaster is very psychological,” said Robb Alvey, creator of the fan site, “People look at a steel coaster, see it’s rigid and just trust it. With wood, what’s planted in your brain is the idea that it’s going to shake itself to pieces.”

These new rides essentially split the difference between the two types. Some, like Outlaw Run, feature wood tracks inlaid with steel, while others, like Iron Rattler at Six Flags Fiesta Texas, are considered hybrids because they feature steel rails on a wooden structure.

Either way, they combine the traditional appeal of wood — sway, flexibility, ride variations based on weather and temperature — with the smoother ride and more intense elements of steel, including faster speeds, tighter turns and those stomach-churning inversions.

Clearly, these are not your grandfather’s wooden coasters.

Outlaw Run
Although it’s not the first wooden coaster to send riders upside-down — that honor belongs to the defunct Son of Beast at Kings Island — Outlaw Run offered a glimpse of the future when it opened on March 15. Constructed of wood but smooth as steel, it offers a surprisingly quiet ride even as you plunge down the 162-foot, 81-degree first drop and through three inversions, including a 720-degree barrel roll.

“It’s so quiet, you can hear the wind and the sounds of nature,” said Haygood. “You start thinking, boy, this is nice and then you get to the loop-de-loops, find yourself flipping over and it just scares the crud right out of you.”

Gold Striker
When this new coaster at California’s Great America was first announced last summer, managers at the park claimed it would be the tallest and fastest wooden roller coaster in Northern California thanks to its 103-foot first drop and top speed of almost 54 mph.

Apparently, such elements weren’t considered hair-raising enough as the ride will now open with a 147-foot tunnel set at the top of the lift hill. Think dropping into a mine shaft at a 50-degree angle and you get the idea, although the dominant reaction is unlikely to include anything resembling rational thought. Between the subsequent banked turns, multiple headchoppers and high-speed station fly-by, sheer terror is probably closer to it.

Scheduled to open early May.

Iron Rattler
Originally opened in 1992 as an all-wood coaster called Rattler, this anaconda of adrenaline at Six Flags Fiesta Texas is currently shedding its wooden track for steel rails that will allow it to climb higher, drop steeper and fly faster.

“The idea behind these hybrid coasters is to take what the old ride did and make it do things it couldn’t do before,” said Alvey. In Iron Rattler’s case, that means raising the lift hill from 124 to 171 feet, increasing the pitch of the first drop to 81 degrees and boosting the top speed to 70 mph. And that doesn’t even include the 360-degree barrel roll which promises to make the trip truly barf-worthy.

Scheduled opening: TBD.

Hades 360
As the owner of the Mt. Olympus Water & Theme Park in Wisconsin Dells, Nick Laskaris says he’s dreamed of having a wooden coaster that would “make people go upside-down” ever since the park debuted the original Hades ride in 2005.

That dream is about to become an uneasy rider’s worst nightmare as Hades is being reborn as Hades 360, complete with a 360-degree barrel roll, a 110-degree over-banked turn and a top speed of 70 mph. Still, according to Laskaris, the scariest part remains the 1,400 feet of tunnel that passes under the park’s parking lot. “It’s pitch-black in there,” he told NBC News, “and it just roars.”

Scheduled opening: Memorial Day weekend.

Considering all the above, it’s safe to say that 2013 as shaping up to be a watershed year for fans of wooden coasters.

“We’re going to go from not having any wooden coasters that go upside down to having two of them,” Alvey told NBC News. “If they’re successful and they hold up over the years, it’ll be very interesting to see where things go over the next 5 to 10 years.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.