Napa family builds Matterhorn-inspired roller coaster

The alpine-themed roller coaster was built in five months.|

The COVID-19 pandemic led Napans to take up all kinds of new hobbies and projects. Some locals got into sourdough bread baking. Others got hooked on puzzles or gardening.

The LaRochelle family of Napa can top that. They built a roller coaster. An alpine-themed roller coaster — inspired by Disneyland's Matterhorn — in their Carneros backyard.

Called the Matterhorn Alpine Escape, the ride became a family project for the LaRochelles, who come from a family of engineers and makers.

Sean and Michael LaRochelle are the masterminds behind the ride, which was built in the Carneros backyard of their parents, Jacques LaRochelle, a retired Napa city public works director, and Diane LaRochelle.

"Growing up, Disneyland was something I loved," said Sean LaRochelle, an architecture graduate student. "I've always wanted to create a roller coaster."

"We always encouraged our kids to do creative things," said Jacques. He admitted that when Sean and Michael first announced their plan, he envisioned a slightly smaller roller coaster. "I'm impressed with their ingenuity and creativity," he said.

From March until August, the LaRochelles, including sons Sean, Michael and Mark and daughter Nicole, worked pretty much full time on the coaster build.

It shows. The Alpine Escape is about 20 feet tall and the track is about 400 feet long. The ride itself takes about 50 seconds, including the "lift hill."

The steel roller coaster features a "snow" covered exterior and "rock" walls. The ride has two main sections, a waterfall, fountains, an original soundtrack, lights, and even a "flame" effect. A lift brings the solo car up an incline where the rider twists and turns inside and above the haunted mountain. There's also an encounter with an animatronic Snow Monster/Yeti named Jarold.

"We were trying to be as authentic as possible," said Sean.

"It just kept growing," said Jacques.

Usually, the four LaRochelle kids are studying at their respective universities — all outside of California. But when COVID-19 hit, "we were just kind of stuck" at home with not a lot to do, said Sean. On top of that, Sean and his wife Emily recently had a baby — now 6 months old.

After watching a video of a family that created their own pirate-themed roller coaster, Sean was equally inspired.

Knowing that Disneyland is temporarily closed due to the pandemic, "we wanted to do our own version" of a Disney ride, he said, and the family roller coaster project was born.

The group even came up with a story that goes with the ride. Set in a mountain in the Himalayas home to a ferocious Yeti, "you're an explorer trying to find your way through it," Sean described. "You happen upon the Yeti and he's not very happy that you invaded his home and when you see him, he makes his presence known."

A crew of about 30 people contributed to the build, including friends and family. A video made about the ride credits them all including "Meal Planning and Prep" by mom Diane LaRochelle and "Support Crew" including Florence, Liam and Vienna LaRochelle, Sean and Emily's kids.

Building a real roller coaster was definitely a learning experience. The first seats didn't work out. The coaster was originally built out of PVC pipe, but then they decided to rebuild it using steel. Learning how to work with stucco was another challenge, they said.

"It was by far," the most creative project he's ever worked on, Jacques said of Sean.

Sean admitted that after the track and mountain were built, he felt stymied by the thought of finishing the rock work.

"I said, 'I think we should stop. It's going to be too much work.'" But his wife Emily convinced him to keep going. "She got me through it," he said.

Sean didn't estimate the costs for the materials, but his father thinks it cost close to $15,000.

Now that the coaster is done, "there's just a sense of joy and pride," said Sean. "We built something that not everybody could do."

"There are a lot of terrible things about COVID," he said, but the silver lining for Sean and his family was that by being forced to slow down and be present, they were able to invent a very creative and fulfilling project.

"It was really a labor of love," said Sean.

"It worked out pretty well, I think," said Jacques.

Sadly, roller coaster and Disneyland fans can't visit or ride the coaster. It's just for the LaRochelle family, they said. And it's not permanent, either. The coaster will eventually be dismantled, likely to be replaced by yet another exceptional project.

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You can reach reporter Jennifer Huffman at 256-2218 or jhuffman@napanews.com

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