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SCREAM, AND KEEP SCREAMING TILL IT STOPS—that’s the way to have the most fun on a roller coaster. You have to become one with it, and the way you do that is by “orchestrating” its every rattle, turn, and downward swoop. Well, that’s my theory, at least.
I’ve had plenty of chances to test it lately. Thanks to new technologies that allow coasters to perform heretofore impossible feats, the country is going scare-crazy. According to Susan Mosedale, who monitors “thrill rides” for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, there are 56 new roller coasters operating in the United States this year, up from 39 last year and 27 in 1997. Texas is in the forefront with 5—Batman the Ride at Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington, Serial Thriller at Six Flags Astroworld in Houston, the Steel Eel at SeaWorld San Antonio, and Poltergeist and Boomerang at Six Flags Fiesta Texas, also in San Antonio. As many as 50 are due to open next year. This is the most activity since the golden age of the roller coaster, about 75 years ago.
Many recently built coasters have elaborate themes and do amazing, stomach-flopping things that not everyone will appreciate. “In the seventies just going upside down was considered earthshaking,” notes Tim Baldwin, a regional representative for the Texas-Oklahoma-Louisiana branch of American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE), a 5,800-member group of die-hard riders. “Now they have coasters you ride standing or in cars that run under the tracks, so your feet are dangling free. I’ve heard that next year there’s going to be one you ride lying down.”
Indeed, Superman, the Escape, which opened in 1997 at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Los Angeles, stands 415 feet tall and hits one hundred miles per hour. This year Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, launched Medusa, the first floorless, frontless, sideless coaster; riders are secured to a seat by a shoulder harness, and hurtle along directly over the coaster’s wheels at speeds of up to 61 miles per hour. At Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, the brand-new BuzzSaw Falls offers both a traditional rip on the rails and a flume ride, dropping nine and a half stories (nearly one hundred feet) into water, then splashing atop some river rapids before hooking back up to the tracks for another long climb and fall. Gwazi, at Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, Florida, is a “dueling coaster”—two coasters, actually, that weave around each other, separated at times by only a few feet.
As a lifelong fan, I wanted to experience the state of the art in Texas, and so I rode. I rode nearly thirty roller coasters, all but the kiddie coasters, at Texas’ four major theme parks, and I rode many of them twice—once in the front, where I got both a smoother ride and a better view of what was about to happen to me, and once in the rear, where the whiplash effect was greater.
My favorite new ride proved to be Poltergeist at Six Flags Fiesta Texas; like Mr. Freeze, which opened last year at Six Flags Over Texas, it is a LIM (linear induction motor) coaster. The LIM was first developed as a launching mechanism for rockets and was used in President Reagan’s Star Wars military defense program. As explained by Jay Crisler, a projects engineer for Premier Rides, which adapted the LIM to coasters, the cars have metal fins on the bottom that fit between two parallel tracks of electromagnets. The train is powered by a fluctuating magnetic field created by currents surging through the tracks. He compares it to putting one magnet on top of a table and another below the table; when you move the lower one, the upper one follows. This means that a LIM coaster doesn’t have to clickety-clack on a chain up a steep hill in order to gain speed by plunging downward. No, Poltergeist blasts out of the station, going from 0 to 60 in 3.4 seconds, with riders pinned to their seats briefly by the ride’s peak G-force of 4.5 (1 G is your normal body weight, the natural pull of gravity). By comparison, astronauts feel about 3 G’s on liftoff, and fighter pilots trained specifically to handle such force usually black out around 8 G’s; 3.5 G’s is optimum for a coaster, while 4 G’s is considered dangerous if it lasts more than about ten seconds.
Poltergeist’s peak doesn’t last anywhere near that long, of course, but after getting your attention with the launch, the ride just keeps getting hairier. It runs on a fiendishly compact 2,705-foot track known as a spaghetti bowl, whizzing relentlessly through an astonishing number of hard loops, hairpin curves, and corkscrews, with the train often spinning around the tubular track as it moves forward. There’s an early, zero-G “cobra” roll that combines a corkscrew and a vertical loop, and the final barrel roll happens so quickly it just plain forces you to laugh out loud. By the time Poltergeist comes to a sudden halt and then eases you into the station, your grin still glued to your face, it has turned you upside down and inside out more ways than you thought possible.
For my money, nothing else touches Poltergeist, though not for lack of trying. Arlington’s Batman the Ride is an inverted coaster, which means you ride in cars that are suspended under the track, like a ski lift gone ballistic. This one climbs just over 109 feet at the beginning—think of it as a ten-story building—then careens at fifty miles an hour into a gigantic vertical loop, a dandy “heartline” spin, which creates a feeling of weightlessness in which your heart seems to be standing still while your body spins around it, and then another massive loop, which came and went so fast I wasn’t sure it had happened until I watched the next group of riders. Somewhere in there I went through two long corkscrews and a host of other spins, S-curves, and mini-loops, all with my feet whipping free over and under my head; sometimes my car would even swing out to the side of the track or rotate around it as it rushed forward. But the scariest thing about an inverted coaster is the sense you get, hanging under the track, that you are always about to be splattered against one of its girders. That’s also part of the, uh, charm of the Serial Thriller, the new coaster at Six Flags Astroworld, which hits slightly higher speeds on a more spaghetti-tangled track. This creates an abundance of “side action,” or flopping back and forth in the car, another prized effect for the connoisseur (though I think the Serial Thriller could use a little less of it).
The Steel Eel at SeaWorld San Antonio is a “hypercoaster,” so called because its chief attraction is the giddy feeling of weightlessness that’s created when, cresting a hill at high speed, the rider is lifted out of his seat (“airtime”). The Steel Eel builds its momentum from a monstrous initial fifteen-story (150-foot) drop at 65 miles an hour, then roars through a long and satisfying series of camelback humps that are indeed uplifting. If you like getting your thrills right side up, this is the ride for you.
AND THOSE ARE JUST THE new coasters. During my forays into the four Texas theme parks, I found other instant favorites, particularly the Texas Tornado at Six Flags Astroworld (which leads the state with eleven coasters) and Mr. Freeze at Six Flags Over Texas. The former is a German import designed by Anton Schwarzkopf, the father of the vertically looping roller coaster. The Texas Tornado rips around no fewer than four loops. The ascent of the first hill was so comfy, I had no idea how high we were until we got to the top—and then shot almost straight down so recklessly I thought we might turn upside down right then and there. The subsequent hard-angle curves and loops came in such rapid succession that I had nary a moment to collect my wits; the train moved like a snake riding a bull in a monsoon. When the coaster came to a stop and then chugged slowly into the station, I heard more nervous laughter than on any other coaster I rode.
Mr. Freeze, a LIM that hits 70 miles an hour 3.78 seconds out of the station, provides an out-of-body experience. Just watching this one is intimidating, and the excruciatingly long lines don’t help; more than a few people get to the front and then opt for the “chicken exit.” Mr. Freeze is basically two modified loops, with a few twists and turns, followed by a long, torturous climb up a ninety-degree incline; there’s a brief hesitation at the top, then the train drops straight down and repeats the track backward. This takes all of 45 seconds.
My other favorites in Arlington are the indoor Runaway Mountain, a short but frantic dash through the dark with serious G-force and one big drop at the end, and Shock Wave, which provides a nice view of Interstate 30 and a lot of airtime, plus two vertical loops. In Houston Ultra Twister sends you flying face-first down a terrifying 90-degree first drop, then enters a cylindrical, steel-bar “cage” inside which the train spins 360 degrees around the track while still hurtling forward; then it reverses direction, completing two backward 360’s while returning to the station.
With the exception of Gwazi at Busch Gardens, which is a wooden roller coaster, all of the above are steel rides, which were first introduced in the fifties. But Texas also boasts two world-class woodies, and a third that comes close. They can’t flip you upside down around a loop, but they jostle on their tracks more than the steel machines, and they are much bigger than the nostalgia-inducing wooden coasters of yore. The Texas Giant, at Six Flags Over Texas, which repeatedly tops polls as America’s best woodie, offers astonishing airtime; after a brief pause near the middle, it concludes with a wicked series of short—but steep and sharp—drops and curves. The Rattler at Six Flags Fiesta Texas is billed as one of the tallest (180 feet) and fastest (65 miles an hour) woodies, though enthusiasts grumble that it seems to slow down a little more each year (you couldn’t prove it by me). The Rattler, which rattles on the tracks (like a snake—get it?), swoops over the limestone canyon walls of the park and then drops down into a tunnel through the stone. The Texas Cyclone at Six Flags Astroworld is a larger replica of the original Cyclone at New York’s Coney Island, and while its dips and curves aren’t truly challenging, there are a lot of them, making for a kinetic one-minute ride.
I have to admit that I met my match a couple of times, though not enough to leave attendants any “protein spills” (another rather colorful trade term) to clean up. The Flashback in Arlington, which negotiates a short track with three dizzying loops, first forward and then backward, left me feeling legless and gasping for water—and needing a long break before I felt like riding again. This was puzzling, since I hadn’t been fazed by similar coasters at Six Flags Astroworld (the single-loop Greezed Lightnin’) and Fiesta Texas (the new Boomerang), and the Flashback is basically a smaller, slower, and easier version of my old pal Mr. Freeze. But the simple truth is that I rode the Flashback the first thing one morning, when I was still waking up, and I got lazy and forgot to scream. I paid for my omission. Then there was the Joker’s Revenge at Six Flags Fiesta Texas, where I rode most of the coasters with my nine-year-old friend Sam Shahin. He couldn’t wait to get to this ride, his favorite from previous visits. It departs from a Batman-themed station full of sound, flashing light, and “laughing gas,” then undertakes a loop, two corkscrews, and a helix—all backward. I learned from this experience that I like my backward to take place in conjunction with some forward.
WHICH BRINGS US TO THE INEVITABLE QUESTION: Why? I have, after all, just described being jerked, spun, pinned down, tossed upward, jostled sideways, and repeatedly turned upside down at whiz-bang speeds. And, yes, I want more. Some people think they know the reason, with explanations that range from scientific to simplistic. According to geneticists, some of us may have “novelty genes” that keep our nerve cells from properly absorbing the brain chemical dopamine, which heightens pleasure; those people will unconsciously gravitate toward thrilling experiences that boost their dopamine levels, however briefly.
Says Tim Baldwin of ACE: “The roller coaster has always been and always will be the king of the midway. Maybe it’s because you can feel like you’re taking a wild risk, but in the back of your mind you know you’ll be safe. But the main thing people like is that they’re fun, just great fun.”
I agree with Baldwin—but with a bow to New Age physician Andrew Weil. In his 1972 book The Natural Mind: An Investigation of Drugs and the Higher Consciousness, Weil argues that getting high is a natural human urge, citing as an example children who spin themselves in circles until they get so dizzy they fall down. Maybe that’s why I’m such a fan of free-fall tower rides like Scream (Six Flags Fiesta Texas), the Wildcatter (Six Flags Over Texas), and especially Dungeon Drop (Six Flags Astroworld). They take you slowly to the top of a tower about two hundred feet high, then drop you to the ground in seconds. If you ride coasters for the rush, these are for you.
By the way, I’ve also found some support for my theory on screaming. “This is just a guess, but the wooziness people feel on a roller coaster may be related to low blood pressure, and the dizziness may be as well,” says Dexter Speck, an associate professor of physiology at the University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Medical Center in Lexington. “When you yell and scream, you increase abdominal pressure. This redistributes blood throughout the body, preventing pooling in the extremities. Also, when you focus on something else, like screaming, you’re less influenced by the dips and curves of the ride.”
Universal Studios, which recently opened Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida, hired Cambridge, Massachusetts, psychologist Brian Newmark to help coasterphobes overcome their fears. The Harvard-trained Newmark had people scream as they watched a Ridefilm simulating the experience of being on a roller coaster and reached two conclusions. The first: Screaming helps the rider breathe in a more regular pattern; otherwise, he’ll tighten up and become uncomfortable. Second, “Screaming gives expression to the inner turmoil you feel by releasing it,” Newmark says. “It short-circuits your flight-fight tendency. When you scream, you don’t scream out of fear; it’s more like an affirmation. You’ve got to give yourself over to the ride to enjoy it.”
I can hardly wait for the one that you ride lying down.