There’s nothing like it, no matter how many times you do it. The clickety clack of the lift chain as it pulls you higher and higher. The smell of hot grease on the slippery track. The wave of panic in your stomach that says no turning back. Then the calm before the storm. The silence when you’ve reached the top, and isn’t the view terrific? Then it happens: that horrifying, magic moment when gravity, slowly at first, then fast, faster, pulls you down an impossible drop at a rate of speed that leaves you breathless, weightless, screaming for mercy. The rest is a blur: Up. Down. Sideways. Round and through. Then, two or three eternal, agonizing minutes later, it’s over. The train rushes into the platform, stops, the lap bars snap up and you stagger off, glad to be alive, like a small animal freed from the talons of a hungry eagle. No, there’s nothing quite like a roller coaster, America’s most kaleidoscopic, thrill-seeking invention.
This summer is the 100th anniversary of the modern roller coaster, which debuted in 1884 at New York’s Coney Island. Its designer, LaMarcus Thompson, ran a single passenger car over an undulating track. From then until the Depression, the competition to build the ultimate coaster was furious. Coasters had their heyday in the 1920s, when there were nearly 2,000 of the pretzel-shaped monsters in amusements parks across the country. When the stock market crashed, roller coasters plunged too. Today only about 150 of the original beauties stand, though interest in coasters is at a new high. Since 1970 a major revival has been going on. New coasters are being built at an average cost of $3 million and old ones preserved. The 1,200-strong American Coaster Enthusiasts travel the country riding coasters, rating them and savoring each ride as if it were a glass of bubbly.
There are two kinds of roller coasters, wood and steel. Those made of wood (with steel tracks) are preferred by buffs—wood is more flexible, giving the ride a rickety sensation. The new coasters, whose entire structure is made of steel, are smoother, though not necessarily less scary. They can do tricks wooden ones can’t, such as loop-the-loop. Believe it or not, it really is a matter of gravity: Cars are merely tugged by chains to the top of the first hill, the highest, then let go to roll their way down, up and around a track, at speeds from 45 to 60 mph. Believe it or not again, they are safe. There are wheels under the train that press against each side of the track, making it virtually impossible for cars to take flight. A consumer Product Safety Commission rated billiards as more dangerous than roller coasters. When accidents do occur they tend to be caused by drunks or show-offs rather than by equipment failure.
Coaster lovers prefer the front seat, which heightens one’s sense of vertigo, or the backseat, which is like being on the tail end of Harrison Ford’s whip. The fastest time to ride is at night, after a rainstorm, when the track is slickest. One complaint of coaster buffs is that more and more of the rides are being tamed by brakes, usually around the curves. That’s not done for safety, but for maintenance. Without brakes, tracks wear out faster. And another problem with coasters is their popularity: One can stand in line for more than an hour on weekends.
All across the U.S. folks brag that their local amusement park has the ultimate roller coaster. So, donning my tux and white scarf, I set out on an up-and-down journey to find out which was best. I met remarkable people such as Ruth Voss, a 55-year-old grandmother who rides the Beast, near Cincinnati, first thing every morning the park is open to loosen up her rheumatoid arthritis. And Carl Eichelman, 44, a computer operator for the IRS, who’s ridden that same roller coaster more than 4,200 times but can’t tell you why, exactly. How about Betsy Abrams, a meteorologist for Cable’s Weather Channel, who rides Atlanta’s Mind Bender every day, doing karate moves and screaming the whole way? Or Mike Boodley, 26, who spent 45 hours making 1,001 continuous trips on Coney Island’s Cyclone? I rode dozens of coasters, judging them on such qualities as first drop, smoothness, stomach rolls and overall bouquet. Finally, the most important test: Was it a scarier ride than the New York subway? Here then, is PEOPLE’S list of the nation’s 10 Best Roller Coasters:
10. MIND BENDER
Six Flags Over Georgia, Atlanta
Down ‘lanta way people take their time. But at Six Flags they like their rides mean as ‘gators. The Mind Bender, opened in 1978, is a steel coaster that has three full-circle loops. One is inside a gully, where you whiz around willow, pine and oak trees, dodging twigs. Another, the worst, is at the end of the ride, which leaves you staggering down the exit ramp totally discombobulated. The best seat is the back, where the G-force is phenomenal. Be careful, though: Too much sun, humidity and upside downness can leave you drained, as if you’d spent the day birthin’ babies.
9. THE THUNDERBOLT
Kennywood Park, near Pittsburgh
Here’s a coaster that’s truly good to the last drop. That’s because the last drop, heh, heh, is the steepest, 90 feet. Andy Vettel designed the ride in 1968, incorporating sections of another, older coaster, the Pippin. Thus, the first drop of the Pippin is the final drop of the Thunderbolt. This unique, hybrid job follows the hilly terrain of Kennywood. You soar down lush green valleys full of vines and wildflowers. The smell of cut grass and grease fills the air. Shouldn’t tell you this, but after leaving the boarding platform you hit a surprise first drop. The folks at Kennywood take pride in the Thunderbolt. They nixed an offer by the producers of the 1977 disaster film Rollercoaster to blow it up. Good thinking.
8. FIRE DRAGON
Lagoon Amusement Park, near Salt Lake City
This little devil may look harmless, but, oh, my! Since it’s a steel coaster without side rails, you keep thinking the train is going to topple off the track. Although a short (1:45) ride, every second is thrill-packed, sassier than Joan Rivers. No foreplay. No afterglow. Just wham, bam! Immediately out of the boarding platform you climb a super-steep hill. After turning a corner, you plunge down a stomach-wrenching 87-foot drop, followed by two back-to-back upside-down loops. Brain meets stomach. Are you with me? Whoopie!—at 55 mph you enter a series of helix curves, each one spinning you closer to the pavement, as if you’re about to bore your way to Beijing. Backseat is the best as it’s the fastest. The Germans built the Dragon.
7. THE BEAST
Kings Island, near Cincinnati
This ride boasts 7,400 feet of track, making it the world’s longest wooden roller coaster—the trip lasts almost four minutes. At the halfway point, when most coasters are getting ready to quit, this one takes you up another hill, and it’s goodbye, cruel world. The wooden coaster was built six years ago to outdo all the competition. The first hill is an astounding 135 feet leading into a series of three tunnels, the last of which has a 540-degree helix. Sprawled out over 35 acres, the ride is meant to be a scenic surprise, so take your hands off your eyes, Mom. As you plummet through wooded hills you feel as if you’re aboard a runaway train. Try to ride the first trip in the morning. In order to loosen up the track they run the train without brakes. On that run only, it hits an unbelievable 70 mph—an experience to be savored, especially in the backseat.
Six Flags Magic Mountain, near L.A.
This is the Arnold Schwarzenegger of roller coasters: Big. Beefy. Wooden. Lots of ambition. It features two tracks—one of the trains on the ride has been turned backward, though Los Angelenos may not be able to tell the difference. Leaving the station, you take a long, laid-back, leisurely climb up the first hill. Then you’re suddenly hurtled down a 115-foot drop on a ride that refuses to say uncle. It’s a beautiful combination of curves, drops and rolling camelbacks that keeps you hanging on for dear life. Best seat is the back as it really whips, the top wheels lifting off the track several times. Ride it at night, when fireworks are shot off over the park. Californians in search of a new therapy might give Colossus a whirl. You’ll leave more mellow than Mahatma Gandhi.
5. THE CYCLONE
Riverside Park, Agawam, Mass.
In a world where all good things are being turned to rubble, a deluxe wooden coaster was built last year, modeled after the Coney Island and Texas Cyclones. It’s a dandy, too, painted snow white with shiny blue and red trains. The unique aspect of this Cyclone happens as you’re descending the first drop, which is 99 feet. Halfway down you suddenly veer to the right into a 47-degree speed bank. You feel as if you’re on a toboggan whizzing over the Alps with Mr. Magoo at the helm. Plenty of hills, curves and a bumpy track keep the action from flagging. It wins best view, too, of the Connecticut River, with Springfield to the northeast. Front seat is best as the top wheels on the front car keep leaving the track as you traverse the hills. Because of a heart condition, designer William Cobb has never ridden it.
4. KING COBRA
Kings Island, near Cincinnati
America’s first stand-up, looping roller coaster is more fun than a roomful of stand-up comedians. To board, you straddle a bicycle seat, then slip your arms through a locking shoulder harness. As you start picking up momentum for the first drop, you feel as if you’re about to go over Niagara Falls. Then the 95-foot, stand-up descent begins, and your terror suddenly gives way to euphoric joy—you’re flying! Right side up. Upside down. Then sideways round a helix curve over a lake with a geyser in the middle. Best position is front-right as there’s no guard rail on that side and no one to block the oncoming view. Peter Pan, eat my dust!
3. MISTER TWISTER
Elitch Gardens, Denver
You’re familiar with the runaway mine car sequence in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? This is it, only better. Built in 1964, the white wood structure buckles and sways as it tries to absorb the force of the cars hurtling along its intricate, maze-like track. As you leave the lift hill, you encounter a horseshoe curve before hitting the first big dip. You pick up such momentum around that loop that you swear the train is going to topple over or the structure is going to crumple like a house of cards. Then—at breakneck speed—you soar down the first hill, then up, round a bend and over another hill. As you twist your way through the structure, you instinctively duck as you pass under cross beams. At the bottom of one hill you enter a crescent-shaped, pitch-black tunnel, the scariest tunnel on any coaster. The backseat is the wildest, though in front or back you’ll stay a foot out of your seat the whole ride. If this doesn’t give you that Rocky Mountain high, nothing will.
2. THE CYCLONE
Astroland Park, Coney Island, N.Y.
Built in 1927, this is the harrowing dinosaur by which all other coasters are measured. You sit in red vinyl seats that have none of the modern safety accoutrements—headrests, seat belts, seat dividers—just a lap bar. You can even ride unaccompanied, which means you’ll be slammed from one side of the car to the other. The wooden, figure-eight ride has a first drop that, according to an ACE member who recently measured it with a compass, hits an astounding 58.7 degrees. As you start to descend the first hill, the track suddenly veers, giving the impression that you’re plunging wildly out of control. It’s brilliantly paced, with steep drops, slam-bang curves and a pause or two for false security. The backseat is best, but beware: You’ll leave feeling as if you’d been a stand-in for Mr. T’s punching bag. Marquis de Sadists take note—some trains have been turned backward.
1. TEXAS CYCLONE
It’s noon. 102 degrees. Thunderclouds hover like vultures. The sticky, cotton-candy air is coated with the screams of petrified passengers. Built in 1975, by William Cobb, this wooden, figure-eight coaster is a mirror image of the legendary Coney Island Cyclone, only nastier, with taller drops and hairier curves—plus a track as rough as Tom Selleck’s stubble. As you wait to board, trains swoosh past you like kamikaze pilots. You’re no sooner over the first drop—53 degrees, 93 feet—when pow! you hit another, equally as awful. Since the ride is brakeless, you round its curves with unbelievable force. A twisty track and speed hills that spurt like gushers make the front and back car “out-of-seat” experiences. Forget the mechanical bull at Gilley’s. This is akin to riding a bucking bronco while on amphetamines. Y’all come back—if you dare.