It’s not the speed, the heights, the manipulation of risk, the lack of control, or the cramped spaces that get me. I mean—it is—but that’s not the very first feeling that comes to mind. My most vivid anxious memory involves my high school girlfriend, who I’ll always regard as “the one,” or, more specifically “the one of many.” Whichever “one” she is depends on the day I’m asked about her: she’s the first one I fell in love with, the first one who broke my heart, the first one who insisted on going to Six Flags Amusement Park in Massachusetts as a date. Though, at age 15, Six Flags was on par with the kind of high-class orgy seen in Eyes Wide Shut.
I remember standing with her, hand-in-hand, in line for the legendary Superman Roller Coaster. At every step, she begged me to ride the roller coaster—a behemoth, a monster—with her; a move that would have surely gained her love and admiration. As much as my heart longed for the attention, my stomach longed to expel its contents through my pursed lips as I stared at the goliath beast of a ride. Hyperbolic language aside, I saw this roller coaster as a murderer worse than the Bubonic Plague.
Six Flags is a damn tilt-a-whirl next to theme parks like New Jersey’s Action Park—arguably one of the most dangerous amusement parks in history: A perfect storm of malfunctioning rides, drunken patrons, and disinterested teenage employees. Did you know that at least six people were killed during the park’s 18-year history? Including three drownings, an electrocution, and a heart attack allegedly caused by the shock of frigid water beneath a rope swing. Had I known these tidbits at the time, my refusal to ride the rollercoaster with “the one” could have been a bit more well received—as it was, I had no such excuse.
At the very front of the line, I decided there were plenty of methods to win her over post-terrifying roller coaster, and told her she’d be riding alone. She responded like any logical 15-year-old would: with a searing slap across the face. I remember hearing the laughs and jeers from the rest of the crowd behind us. I walked away embarrassed, but thankful I’d be safe from decapitation or electrocution—a stray slap pales in comparison to 10,000 volts. I was safe, my heart was bruised—life goes on.
Of course, there’s the other side of the spectrum: the nostalgia factor that we all feel for amusement parks.
It happens when the dull glow of the Ferris wheel makes itself seen behind the trees. As you get closer, you smell that distinct mixture of caramel, spun-sugar, fried dough, gasoline, and just a little bit of puke. The muted carefree screams of children and adults remind you how fun it can be to be afraid.
I remember a balmy summer in Connecticut, where I came upon a park that had sprung seemingly out of nowhere—the kind of place you felt had to have been Frankenstein’d together from disassembled parks and wheeled out to the public for the sole purpose of making a few bucks. You’d get that “you’re in the wrong part of town” vibe the moment you walked in, which quickly dissipated after eating a caramel apple. Sometimes I think that park was nothing more than a fever dream—just a side effect of the mononucleosis I had come down with that month.
There’s always been something inherently forbidden and mysterious about amusement parks. In the 18th century, fairs would showcase magic shows, freak shows, and cabinets of curiosity. A cacophony of the unknown, and more than likely lacking moral standards and legal attention, leaving a particularly awe-inducing impression. Since the theme parks’ glory days in the 1920s, we’ve reached a non-verbal agreement with those who spend the time setting up rides and doling out cotton candy.
2015 is here and there’s no more exploitation of uncertainty—all we’re left with is nostalgia and excitement—but there’s still that element of mystery. Coney Island popularized amusement parks as major tourist magnets and began incorporating early incarnations of the rides that are now synonymous with these parks, by turning things like failed aircraft systems into rides, like Sir Hiram Maxim’s Captive Flying Machine. Decapitations and electrocutions aside, we all maintain an unspoken deal with those pulling the lever—they’ll let you live, just don’t ask questions. We keep our judgments to ourselves and they let us live. There’s still uncertainty today, just a more controlled uncertainty.
At its root, the amusement park is a microcosm of your entire life in one place at one time for a nominal fee. There’s excitement, screaming, laughing, crying, food, vomit, and the occasionally grown men dressed as Mickey Mouse. Whether your stance on rides is undetermined or planted firmly in your head, the roller coaster in front of you is your life. Full of literal (and metaphorical, I guess) twists and turns and leaps of faith. Like the newborn babies we see in movies, immaculately pulled from their mothers, they enter the world like I exited the line for the roller coaster that day: with a slap.
Rules for the Ride
Written by Peter Bosche
You must be taller than 5’8” and shorter than 6’4” to mount this ride.
Like all the best islands, Coney rose to prominence as a site of buried treasure—following a seafaring mutiny in 1830—then went on to become the quintessential American amusement park. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, the popularity of the beachside location grew as the bathing costumes of its patrons shrunk. The earliest fun parks, like Steeplechase Park, were places that subverted the rigid, traditional social mores of the day, and enabled intimate yet socially acceptable contact, allowing both men and women to partake in “sanitized sexual fantasies,” or so said Judith Adams in The American Amusement Park Industry: A History of Technology and Thrills.
Patrons of the park became the spectacle, with most rides incorporating voyeuristic observation ports and viewing windows through which guests could watch the other visitors as they gyrated and got hot and bothered on the various mechanical rides. When Luna Park opened at Coney Island in 1903, it took the unusually maternal step of including amongst its attractions a fully operational premature baby incubator facility. By modern standards, an unlikely place to visit after a roller coaster ride, but a stark reminder that the most amusing amusements can have serious consequences.
You must not be pregnant, have high blood pressure, heart problems, neck or back troubles, or a rational fear of your own mortality.
You know when your stomach drops down to the ground while your head feels like it’s hanging out with the seagulls overhead? Much of the sensory experiences that make rides fun comes from the kinaesthetic senses of the vestibular system (the sensory system that provides information about balance and movement) disagreeing with the motion perceived by the eyes. The leading hypothesis for the cause of motion sickness is that the brain gets addled into thinking that it has been poisoned. It is postulated that the brain interprets this discrepancy as a hallucination, assumes poison, and precipitates a heave to clear out the toxin. No word yet on the brain phenomenon that causes you to eat all that funnel cake.
Please remove personal affects like hats, glasses, cell phones, handbags, and dignity.
In 1999, Fabio—the Italian model and romance novel cover hunk—came afoul of an airborne goose whilst riding in the first car of Apollo’s Chariot during a promotion to honor National Roller Coaster Day.
In front of a shocked press pack, Fabio’s face and the goose connected during a rapid 210-foot, 70-mile an hour drop. The goose was killed instantly, and Fabio suffered a one-inch cut to his beak. While the white-robed women behind Fabio were spattered in enough goose to make a fine pâté, there were no other injuries reported. No other goose strikes are known to have occurred at Busch Gardens.
All restraint systems must be fastened and positioned properly.
Unlike the Indy 500, roller coasters rely on momentum, and most do not use any sort of engine or motor for sustained propulsion. Usually the only motor is the one that pulls the cart to the top of the first drop, though sometimes there’s a launch system that flings the cart on its merry way, making roller coasters one of the greenest ways to get an adrenaline fix.
8,133 feet; “Steel Dragon 2000,” Nagashima Spa Land, Japan.
6.3 G; “Tower of Terror,” Gold Reef City, South Africa.
418; feet “Kingda Ka,” Six Flags Great Adventure, United States.
14; “The Smiler,” Alton Towers, United Kingdom.
149 miles per hour; “Formula Rossa,” Ferrari World, United Arab Emirates.