Why Katoomba’s Legendary ‘Orphan Rocker’ Roller Coaster Never Opened To The Public

Why Katoomba’s Legendary ‘Orphan Rocker’ Roller Coaster Never Opened To The Public
Image: Christopher Kelly / Hunter and Bligh

In 1983, a daring project began in the heart of Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains. Helmed by Phillip and Harry Hammon, the Orphan Rocker was designed to be Australia’s scariest and most advanced roller coaster, with enough pin-point turns and sudden drops to really put hairs on your chest. But despite being ‘in development’ for more than 30 years, the Orphan Rocker never opened to the public. Instead, it’s sat as a rusting sentinel within Katoomba’s Scenic World theme park for decades.

If you’ve ever visited Scenic World in Katoomba (about two hours west of Sydney), you may have noticed the remnants of this attraction wreathing the local carpark. While it was once a promising attraction, it now sits rusting in the bush. Several pieces of the ride have also been dismantled over the past few years, seemingly removing the possibility the ride will ever open at all. After three decades in the Australian sun the entire body of the steel coaster is rusting away, creating a safety hazard — and an eyesore — for site visitors.

While Scenic World remains in operation and provides countless tours for visitorsinterested locals (and overseas tourists pre-coronavirus), the Orphan Rocker remains a strange reminder of a future that never eventuated.

Originally, the ride was planned to be a must-see attraction for Scenic World. Roller coasters were still a relative rarity in Australia in the 1980s, and the Rocker would’ve been one of the first of its kind. It was envisioned as a hybrid monorail-coaster with long drops and twists around the hilly Katoomba area.

Work began in the early 1980s, with every part of the design and build formulated in Australia by Phillip and Harry Hammon, working with an engineer in Melbourne to ensure the safety of the ride. Testing was reportedly a slow process and work continued on the behemoth into the later 1980s and 1990s. But despite being completed, eventually, the Orphan Rocker allegedly ran into trouble — first, with Australia’s Amusement Rides and Devices safety legislation, then with local residents.

According to a letter sent by Phillip Hammon in 1999, safety issues are what ultimately delayed the original opening of the Orphan Rocker. “What started out as a relatively simple idea has become quite a complex exercise, needing to comply with the Australian Standard AS3533 which was being worked up as we were developing the ride,” he said in the letter. “Consequently quite a few revisions had to be made as we went along.”

The letter later stated the Orphan Rocker was in the last stages of being approved, with the final step being to rebuild the passenger car gimbal bearings. According to Hammon, the Rocker had achieved nearly 500 safe circuits as of 1999 — but it appears even after this replacement, the coaster never achieved full approval.

While the exact reasons are unclear, several possibilities have been discussed over the past few decades.

The Orphan Rocker’s history is plagued by rumour and urban legend, with speculation online it caused sandbags to go missing over the edge of a ravine and that cars would frequently dislodge from the track during testing. These claims have been rebuked by park officials, who put these theories down to the mythology and intrigue behind the ride.

It’s more likely the tightening Australian safety standards for amusement park-style rides contributed to its neglected opening. As Hunter and Bligh uncovered, there were also significant concerns about its operation from residents at the time. Noise complaints appeared to be common for Scenic World and its surrounds, with residents concerned the roller coaster could cause aggressive noise pollution in the area.

These factors delayed the opening of the Orphan Rocker and ultimately led to its downfall. After several years out in the open, the main body of the ride soon began to rust and weaken in places. The ride had been expensive to make, and maintenance became less frequent as the struggle for approval wore on. With each passing year, it seemed less likely the ride would open until eventually, pieces began being taken away.

According to the Scenic World team, the Orphan Rock’s maintenance and development was ultimately halted due to the need to focus on other projects within the site. “The roller coaster has never publicly opened due to demands for redevelopment elsewhere on site,” a spokesperson for Scenic World told Hunter and Bligh in 2017. “The attraction was completed in the 1980’s but would require additional investment to open.”

It’s likely this additional investment would include a complete restructure and refurbishment, including a replacement of the Orphan Rocker’s entire body. With ride safety restrictions tighter than ever (particularly in the wake of the Dream World disaster in Queensland), a rickety roller coaster not built or designed by a professional development team is unlikely to ever be open to the public. The circuits the Orphan Rocker completed in testing will now be the only circuits it ever completed.

As it stands, the Orphan Rocker is now a relic of decades long since past. While it was originally created to be one of Australia’s first and biggest roller coasters, a tumultuous history, lax safety standards and a slow development process meant it was never able to achieve its destined glory.

Instead, the Orphan Rocker will remain a very strange footnote in Australian theme park history.