Summertime beckons in the American capital of theme parks. That's the season when legions of southern Californians put aside perennial preoccupations - immigration, affirmative action, school funding - and shell out large sums of discretionary cash on pressing leisure matters.
Like: What's going on at the cutting edge of thrill rides?
Debuting with an appropriate dose of hyperbole, the first theme-park ride in the world to break the 100 m.p.h. mark (previous record: 82 m.p.h.) has opened here at Six Flags Magic Mountain. Clearly, we're not talking Chuck Yeager's shattering of the fabled sound barrier, but among aficionados of acceleration, "Superman The Escape" represents a quantum leap in joy-ride propulsion technology.
"This is far different than any ride in the history of the outdoor amusement industry," says Paul Ruben, North American editor of Park World, a trade publication for the industry. "Its appearance opens a whole new era for amusement parks."
Unlike traditional coasters propelled by gravity and creaking chains, the new ride uses electromagnetic Linear Synchronous Motors (LSM). Such motors can accelerate riders from 0 to 100 m.p.h. in seven seconds. As the promotional literature notes, that's 2.4 seconds faster than a 911 Turbo Porsche.
While the ride has now been turned over to the masses, its first runs were the province of a select few. Bruce Hinds, a former Air Force test pilot and the first to fly the B-2 stealth bomber, stepped from the hurtling piece of machinery with nothing but praise for the Superman experience. "Until now, I have never duplicated anywhere else the kind of awesome acceleration I feel from inside a jet fighter cockpit," he says.
It was something besides speed, however, that attracted me to Superman The Escape. After being shot down horizontal tracks and whooshing up the side of the 415-foot tower (twice the height of Niagara Falls for factoid buffs), riders experience 6.5 seconds of weightlessness on the way back down. With fanciful images of floating free from the "surly bonds of earth," as the poet said, I made my way out to this desert park.
Regrettably, the immediate popularity of "Escape" produces an endless (one to three hours) queue that is not waitless. The resulting fatigue and impatience disallow many, as they did me, to sufficiently heed the warning visages from those exiting the ride.
"I'm glad I did it," said one man with a hollow, ashen stare that looked as if he had narrowly survived a tribal exorcism. "But I'll never do it again."
Another woman was holding her ears while her mouth was frozen in an "O" reminiscent of the subject in Edvard Munch's famous painting "The Scream."
The good news is that this ride takes off so fast, you don't have time to think, wail, or moan. In 26 seconds it's over.
Head thrust against the headrest with no warning, you rocket out of a small (100 ft.) tunnel, teeth chattering and head bobbing like a strutting chicken. At the moment you are tempted to squawk, the car's sudden, upward thrust makes you swallow instead. Suddenly you are approaching stars and the horizontal figure of Superman, which juts out from the top of the tower.
Next, silence and the freedom of zero gravity. Eyeglasses raise off noses, buttocks lift off the seats (stopped by lap bars), and unsecured objects such as clip-on sunglasses float out of breast pockets and flutter into the thin night air. For just a few seconds, all is well. Then the noise, shakes, jitters, and speed all return - only backward, ending in a bone-crunching stop with the squeal of brake pads against steel.
But is all this really necessary? According to Mr. Ruben, theme parks around the country have to outdo each other year after year, or suffer loss of reputation and customers.
"Every park in the world competes yearly to have bragging rights to the tallest, fastest, wildest rides," he says. "This year, Superman The Escape has won all the bragging rights."