VALENCIA, CALIF. — When the cold war ended, where did all the "soldiers" go?
Strapped like a shivering lab mouse to an upright metal pod, I am about to find out. As I wait, green-haired crewmen tug at my shoulder harness, and a fearsome voice renders a countdown. The man on my right is mumbling nervously in German; the Aussie on my far left is furiously popping gum. My 11-year-old daughter at my left elbow is wearing her bravest smile.
So riddle me this, I ask myself as we slide closer to launch: Will we survive this latest in roller-coaster technology, Magic Mountain's "The Riddler's Revenge"?
Handily, answers Paul Ruben, editor of Park World, an international theme-park magazine. "The high-tech types that got laid off from aerospace and defense firms are back in business," he adds. "They've created a roller-coaster arms race."
This newest stand-up adventure (no sitting allowed) will drop us 156 feet, and race at 65 miles an hour through six corkscrew inversions at 4.2 times the force of gravity. Contemplating these facts is enough to melt down my foursome before we take the ride. But then the group in front of us goes, and there is no turning back.
I try to turn my head, however, and the space-age foam headrest, designed to cushion me along the 4,370 feet of contorted green steel, holds my gaze rigidly forward.
As we swoosh forward, I realize this is not from your father's, or even your older brother's, world of roller-coaster rides, where arms and torsos bounce wildly around. As Mr. Ruben predicted, I feel so secure I could fly to the moon.
As we glide effortlessly upside down, flipping side to side, I find it's actually relaxing. For someone who couldn't even stand beneath the old woody roller coasters for sheer terror value, I have to wonder, how can this be?
"People are naturally thrill seekers," opines Del Holland, president of Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, Calif. While some do it directly by jumping on the latest rides, others stand back and watch. Yet a whole other group simply gets a kick hearing about it from TV or radio or friends."
Mr. Holland states cheerily, "This is safer than playing golf."
Golf? Try piloting a stealth bomber. This generation of roller coasters is actually designed at a whole new level of technology from yesterday's woodies.
Many of today's designers, those refugees from the cold-war arms race, are essentially high-tech types, applying their cutting-edge knowledge of acceleration, design, materials, and braking to the fundamentally simple science of the falling body.
The ferocious theme-park competition is predictable, laughs Ruben, noting that the new "race" is fueled by the simple fact that today's generation has more leisure time than any in history. Now that the race is on, "Everybody wants the bragging rights." For the moment, at least, he muses, they belong to The Riddler's Revenge.
"It's smooth, it's fast, and it's wickedly paced," he enthuses. Never one to hold back, he adds, "it's simply one of the best roller-coaster rides ever."
All coldblooded analysis aside, we settle into home base at the end of the three-minute ride, an eternity in theme park timetables (Riddler promises to transport 1,800 riders an hour on an average park day), and I can't wait to go again.
We dash through the futuristic warehouse, designed to be the laboratory lair of Batman villain E. Nygma (a.k.a. The Riddler), and soon my daughter, now swelled with well-earned pride, is strapped in beside me for another trip into the future.
The ride is just as graceful as before, but by the end, two times in a row is more than enough at six full-body inversions per trip. My daughter, at an age when she tests her opinions against mine, doesn't utter a peep when I suggest we are done.
As we totter through the exit, a pair of girls and their parents voice the opinions of many who'd ridden the ride that day. "It's so cool," gushes young Chelsea Hassman. Are you taking another spin? "Oh, well, not right now...." Ditto for her dad, an admitted "coaster junkie." "But, we'll be back. Absolutely."
As we gather in the shadow of Riddler's twisting rails, I find a new emotion rising within me. I can feel a slight sensation in my hands. What could it be? Golf, the idea comes to me. Play a round of golf? I listen to the voice within and realize, no, the word is actually ... stealth. Fly a stealth bomber, that's it!
But alas, I am miles from an airfield and at least a few careers away from being a jet pilot. I turn my gaze skyward to the latest pod gliding across the green rails. Not to worry. Tomorrow's bombers are here.