Over the Top With Roller-Coaster Zealots

I MAY never set foot in one again, but I'm still boosterish about roller coasters.

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.

They tried to hop on the last car - which offers the wildest ride - but we were told to fill the cars from front to back, according to our place in line. To my relief, we wound up in the middle. As we fastened safety belts, there was a lot of nervous laughter. Someone shouted, "Raise your hands when you go over the top!"

To my consternation, Ian and Peter did exactly that. Every time the coaster came to a precipice, they held their hands above their heads and shouted with joy. No one could have pried my hands from the lap bar. The very first drop terrified me, and I started screaming bloody murder. Nonetheless, I still expected to recover my wits and enjoy the rest of the ride. But things only got worse. Fear turned to panic. I couldn't stop screaming. I can't describe the coaster's rapid contortions; it was all a blur. But I do know that I wanted off that contraption more than anything in the world. When it stopped, I was exhausted.

"How was it?" Peter asked.

"Terrible," I replied. "Did you like it?"

"Not much, really."


"Not much of a coaster - too tame."

"You're kidding?"

"What'd you think?"

"It terrified me!"

After a quick conference, it was decided that Peter and Ian would go for another ride on Thunderbolt while I tried to recover. I cooled off with a giant ice cream cone, but I couldn't calm down, in part because I was still determined to ride Cyclone. I knew that, beyond its "Scream Machine" dimension, a coaster ride could be enjoyed intellectually and aesthetically.

The portion of the park dominated by Cyclone's undulating laticework was blocked until noon by a miniature train. When it finally chugged away, most of the crowd sprinted to line up for tickets. I let Peter and Ian compete for the first ride. I was in no hurry.

When it was my turn to board Cyclone, I was grateful to be alone. I didn't try to be nonchalant. This time, I was going to be prepared. And I think I was until a young man on the public-address system cautioned all passengers to secure any "loose objects." I felt for my spectacles. They seemed to fit snugly, but I remembered my father's ride....

As the cars began to slowly ratchet their way up the first precipice, I took the glasses off and held them in my right fist. But I wanted my hands free to hold on. I couldn't make up my mind what to do. There was no pocket in my T-shirt. My jeans were too tight.... Finally, just as the lead cars began to disappear from view, I thrust the glasses between my legs and forgot them. It was survival time!

A ride on Thunderbolt, I found out, does not prepare you for Cyclone. It's like training for the Indy 500 by taking a ride on the swan boats in Boston Public Garden.

When the beast finally rattled to a stop, my glasses were gone, which was a minor concern. I was glad to be alive....

Back on the steaming midway, Peter and Ian assured me that this Cyclone was a dog, compared to the truly great coasters. I didn't care. I was in a daze, thinking of Dad - and suddenly grateful for the weather. At least I hadn't lost an overcoat!

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