Over the Top With Roller-Coaster Zealots
I MAY never set foot in one again, but I'm still boosterish about roller coasters.Skip to next paragraph
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When I grew up in southwest Oklahoma, my father wouldn't let me on a coaster. It was a protective instinct. He had suffered a terrible experience in Oklahoma City during the Depression. Someone succeeded in coaxing him onto a roller coaster without warning. Expecting it to be child's play, he lost eyeglasses and an overcoat on the first plunge.
When the car returned him to the loading zone, Dad was apparently so frozen with fear he couldn't move or even speak. Attendants told him it was time to get off, but he just stared straight ahead. Giving up, they sent him off for another ride....
It was only this summer that I learned enough about coasters to be interested. And that's why I went to ride Cyclone.
Most of the folks you hear screaming overhead at amusement parks don't know what they're experiencing. They don't realize that the 20th century has perfected an art form that began with relatively crude 15th- and 16th-century Russian ice slides. The modern coaster combines the simplicity of those rides with the technology of a trolley and the manipulation of a magician.
Once launched, the movement of a coaster is impelled solely by gravity and momentum. Only so much speed is possible, depending on the total "drop" of the coaster from its highest to its lowest point.
Coaster builders exact maximum excitement by anticipating the riders' experience and taking full advantage of staged effects. For instance, it's no coincidence that cars are usually cranked up from the starting platform to the first drop at a tantalizingly slow pace, giving passengers plenty of time to size up their seemingly precarious position.
You know how the cars in front of you disappear when they plunge? This makes you think the tracks go straight down. That is certainly not the case. The angle of the drop is usually 45 to 50 degrees. The awesome first drop of the Cyclone at Coney Island is reportedly 53 degrees.
You know how the cars whip back and forth next to those tinkertoy structures that support the tracks? Seeing a coaster's wooden ribs flash by your face makes you think you're moving faster than you are.
Wind is important, too. Windshields wouldn't greatly affect the actual speed of a coaster, but they could significantly reduce riders' perception of speed.
You know how a coaster never seems to slow down? That's because designers create diversions - a sharp curve or a dark tunnel wherever the cars' flagging momentum might be noticed. Even on a slow coaster, a tight curve can be hair-raising. (All this and much more is contained in a book called "The Incredible Scream Machine," by Robert Cartmell.)
I took my first coaster ride last August at Riverside Park outside Springfield, Mass. The big Cyclone at Riverside doesn't open till noon, but the relatively benign Thunderbolt accepts passengers at 11 a.m. To ride Cyclone, children have to be at least 54 inches tall. For Thunderbolt, a mere four feet will suffice.
I felt foolish, standing in line for 20 minutes with a group of giggling schoolkids. All the more so because it was a hot, humid day, and steam heat seemed to roll off the treeless asphalt. But my friends, a pair of coaster zealots, insisted on taking the very first ride.