With a slow tick-tick-tick, your car creeps to the very top of the peak. You hover there for a millisecond, then SWOOSH! Down you fly, careening around a curve at top speed, arms waving overhead.
If it’s been a while since you went on a roller coaster, then this summer is definitely the time to get back into the groove. Whether you go with the kids, with your best squeeze, or on your own, you’ll never forget the heart-pumping adrenaline rush that comes from shooting down a roller coaster.
American theme parks boast the fastest operating coasters in the world. (The very fastest, clocking in at 134 mph, is no longer operating at the Nürburgring Park in Europe). The very fastest coaster you can ride is at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey. The Kingda Ka coaster takes its hills and turns at a blistering 128 mph. Other coasters that rocket down the track at 100 mph or faster include the Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point in Ohio (120 mph) and Superman The Escape at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California (100 mph). From Arlington, Texas to Kennywood in Pennsylvania, you’ll find top-rated roller coasters that are built purely for speed.
The very first roller coaster, designed in 1884, was basically a set of railroad tracks that rose and fell to make hills. In 1887, the term “roller coaster” was first used at a theme park in Massachusetts where a toboggan-like sled ran along a track that held hundreds of rollers. All roller coasters derive from the “Russian Mountains,” massive ice-hills built near Saint Petersburg. In the 1600s, these slides were built at 70 or 80 feet with 50-degree drops. People rode in toboggans and flew down the course, much the way modern luge athletes zip down their icy tracks. Russian Mountains were very dangerous, of course, but the idea caught on. Roller Coasters are still called Russian Mountains in many countries.
In 1884, the first roller coaster in the U.S. opened at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. Coney Island had been a get-away resort and pleasure center since the Civil War, and it went on to have an even bigger boom in the years leading up to World War II. Hotels and amusement parks sprang up all over Coney Island, offering New Yorkers a chance to play at the beach and gamble on horses and Three-card Monte.
Between 1880 and WWII, Coney Island was the biggest amusement area in the U.S. Several million people headed there every year to take in the famous hot dogs, cotton candy, and outstanding roller coasters.
To ride Coney Island’s first coaster, passengers had to climb a tall platform. The ride took them down a steep hill and up the other side, then they rode the same u-shaped path back again. From that day forward, a roller-coaster war of sorts was on at Coney Island with developers constantly trying to out-do one another by producing faster coasters that offered bigger thrills. In 1927, the great Cyclone coaster opened at Coney Island, drawing thousands of riders.
In 1959, Disneyland’s Matterhorn was the first roller coaster to introduce a tubular steel track. This design quickly surpassed the old-fashioned wooden railroad tie construction, since steel tracks can be bent in a wide array of shapes. Soon coasters started taking riders in loops, corkscrews, and whirls. It’s now ordinary for a car to go upside down during a ride. New innovations involve the way riders sit in the car, with some coasters positioning riders standing up, riding below the track, or reclining.
With all this great history behind them, roller coasters have become a fundamental part of the American amusement park landscape. This summer, as you head out to have fun at your local city center, park, or state fair, why not climb aboard a roller coaster and experience some old-fashioned thrills? The ride will have you shrieking with delight!