The Legacy of New England’s Tallest Wooden Roller Coaster
Excalibur at Saco's Funtown Splashtown USA offers riders a dose of nostalgia—and a genuine thrill—all at once.
Few mornings pass in which Cory Cormier does not find himself one hundred feet in the air, balancing atop the wooden tracks of the Excalibur, New England’s tallest and longest wooden roller coaster. He describes it as a nice half-mile hike—Excalibur’s length is 2,700 feet long, with its highest peak reaching 100 feet, the steepest drop at 82.
“Nothing runs here that hasn’t been looked at,” says Cormier. “And a broken fastener is what you’re looking for.” He tells me that maybe every day, one or two of these hot-dipped galvanized steel nuts or bolts will snap, but it’s not a big deal. Because of the nature of the ride—wood—the roller coaster moves; it bends, it flexes, and things break. “You have a fastener every foot; if you lose one, they’re engineered so that if something happens there is more than enough support and hardware that it’s perfectly safe.” Cormier calculates that Excalibur, one of the main attractions at Saco’s Funtown Splashtown USA amusement park, located behind Route 1’s car dealerships and one-story motels, gets anywhere north of 150,000 to 200,000 riders every season. During a normal summer, the park is typically open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week, from Mother’s Day weekend through Labor Day. The Excalibur runs a cycle every five to six minutes.
Cormier is 42 and vigilant, with silvering hair and youthful eyes, a look that allows him to appear simultaneously like a dad and a kid. He’s a third-generation descendant of the founder of the amusement park, Ken Cormier, who passed away in Celebration, Florida, in 2013 after launching the Funtown venture more than 50 years ago. Ken and his wife, Violet, bought a plot of land and set up a drive-in hamburger stand named the Marvel Drive-In. Little by little, the Cormiers began adding onto the joint—miniature golf, batting cages, go-karts. They soon realized that rides made a lot more money than hamburgers, and along came the SkySlides, Swinging Gyms, Zipper, Tilt-a-Whirl, the Scrambler, bumper cars, and a gift shop.
In 1978 they installed their first roller coaster: the Galaxi, an Italian-designed, mass-produced, steel-single car coaster made to be transportable and easy to take apart—essentially the kind you’d find in fairs and traveling ride companies. Reaching nearly 40 feet in height, with a track length of 335 meters, and a speed of 50 miles per hour, it was the only roller coaster in the entire state of Maine until 1994, when another Galaxi opened at Palace Playground in Old Orchard Beach.
In the mid-1990s the family started putting together plans for the Excalibur. “Once you have two coasters, it brings you into a different playing field,” says Cory Cormier. “You put your name on the map.” There were two major players in the roller coaster industry at the time—Custom Coasters (CCI) and Great Coasters. “CCI had recently finished ‘The Raven’ in Holiday World, and it was considered one of the best in the world. We wanted to make a splash,” says Cormier, who was in school for mechanical engineering at the time. Beckoned back to Funtown during the construction of the newest coaster, he never finished his degree. “I thought, ‘They need help, and I’m in the family so this is probably what I’m going to do with the rest of my life. I might as well start now,’” he says. Custom Coasters got to work. They visited the park, in-house engineers designed the roller coaster, topography was inspected, loggers cleared the land, foundation work was laid, and materials for the ride were ordered.
But why wood? This was the same decade when Cedar Point, Kennywood, Busch Gardens, and Six Flags were whipping bodies around on steel roller coasters with harder bankings, more thrills, greater heights, and speeds that could make a stoic man nearly soil himself, which was the point. Cormier’s reason: “A good woody offers you a lot of nostalgia.”
Of the 2,398 documented roller coasters on our planet, only 164 are woodies. The Excalibur, Cormier believes, takes people back in time to the trolley parks of the roaring ’20s, when there was either a beach or a park at the end of a trolley line. “You’d go for a day off, you’d ride the trolley all the way to the last stop, and you would end up at a lake or a pond or something.” It was this original roller coaster design that Funtown had in mind when they birthed the Excalibur. The cars on the wooden coaster are made by Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters, which has been around for over 100 years. “A lot of people don’t realize that the car panels are meant to rattle,” says Cory, the design idea being that it makes the ride sound rickety. “It adds to the thrill,” he says. Structurally, the woodies are the same as they were when they first came out, but engineers have modernized the heavy banking, making the angle of the turns steeper and faster.
Riding the Excalibur is an answer free of a question. It’s a personal event nothing short of an out-of-body experience, a thrill and an awakening at once, and it’s all over in less time than a song. To ride a wooden roller coaster is to terrify yourself by choice, to laugh and scream in one breath, to grip tightly while letting gravity upstage you. Cormier recommends riding both the front and the back car of the Excalibur to experience two completely different thrills. My father and I chose the back cart; we could only handle one ride that day. The anticipation and clinkity-clink of the sound of the coaster riding up to the first hill is a giddy eternity. You drop, and your stomach floats up to your throat. I myself couldn’t stop laughing. My 72-year-old father used words I haven’t heard him say since the last time he hammered his thumb. The rattling cars mixed with the elated screams, the wind in your face, the speed. All of it was like a fast-forward holiday, worth the wait in line. The Excalibur made me feel more alive than I have in years. There are no better three words to describe it than pure joyful thrill.
The line inches forward, another group of Mainers get off the coaster, another gets on. Everything in life is cyclical, Cormier believes. Woodies were popular once, and at this moment in time, they’re a main attraction at Funtown. In 2026 Funtown will celebrate its 60th season. There’s talk amongst the family about opening a spooky, Halloween-style ride, a second water park, even a third coaster. But the Excalibur is special. It remains a Mainer’s treasure. “We managed to keep a lot of the natural trees when we created the site for the it,” says Cormier. “Keep that Mainey feel, like you’re out in the woods when you’re flying around on that thing.”