For most of my life I have just accepted the fact that I am obsessed with roller coasters. I love riding them, I love figuring out how they work and how they’re built, and I love watching them go, but recently I’ve been asking myself why. Why did I get so captivated by, let’s face it, such a randomly specific machine of recreation? Why not a more socially accepted hobby like sports or music? Why roller coasters?
I had to do quite a bit of mental digging into my past to figure this out since I had never really thought about it before, but it was kinda fun to go back in time, and I mean way back…
According to my parents, I was a thrill seeker even before I could speak in full sentences. My parents got me a Johnny Jump-Up when I was a toddler, and I loved the thing. I would apparently jump quite high, certainly higher than what my parents would’ve expected. I also loved swinging on my backyard swing set. I would ask my mom to push me really high and I would giggle with delight every time I got that tickle of weightlessness, so my brain was already seeking sensory stimulation at a very early age.
Then when I was somewhere around 3 or 4 years old, my family went to Six Flags Over Georgia for a charity event that took place in the park’s picnic grove area. My older sister was healing from kidney cancer at the time, so we were invited to attend. This was my first visit to an amusement park, and since I was so young I obviously don’t remember much at all from the event, but I do remember that the picnic grove sat right on the banks of a large pond, on which sat this particular roller coaster…
It was the Ninja. A giant mass of tangled twisted steel red track supported by big white columns that sat quaintly on the water. The trains were black with a solid red stripe going down sides, and raced around the track with such power. I was totally mesmerized. The curving and looping lines of the red track were striking against the blue sky, and the trains followed the track so effortlessly. It was so visually mind blowing for my 4 year old brain. I just couldn’t stop watching it. I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted more.
Around a year later, my aunt took me and my sisters and cousins to Opryland USA where I rode my first roller coaster, The Mini Rock-n-Roller Coaster. It was a small kids coaster about 10 feet high that simply went in a big circle with some small hills thrown in for fun. I couldn’t get enough. I rode it over and over and over since it was the only coaster I could ride being a kid, and from that point on, I was officially hooked. I lived and breathed roller coasters.
I was thankfully able to channel my newfound love of roller coasters in several ways, including my hot wheels toys, roller coaster VHS tapes, the Roller Coaster Tycoon PC game, K’nex roller coaster sets, and of course going to amusement parks every summer.
The two parks my family went to the most were Six Flags Over Georgia near Atlanta and Kings Island near Cincinnati since we had extended family living in both places. I had ridden many kids coasters and other rides during those times, but by the summer of 1999 when I was almost 8, I hit 52″ in height, and decided it was time to ride some BIG roller coasters, so I started at Six Flags riding Georgia Cyclone, Great American Scream Machine, and Dehlonega Mine Train. The first two in particular were a little scary at first but I ended up loving them. Then at Kings Island, I tried The Racer and Adventure Express for the first time and loved those two as well.
At the time I was too afraid to go upside down, so I only liked to watch those steel roller coasters with inversions from the ground. I can remember spending a good amount of time watching rides like Vortex at Kings Island, and Batman and Georgia Scorcher at Six Flags Over Georgia, but after some convincing by my sister and cousins, I decided to brave the loops, starting with the SFOG Schwarzkopf classic, Mind Bender.
It’s a very simple coaster. 80 feet tall, 50 mph top speed, and two vertical loops, a perfect start to looping coasters. On my way up the lift I couldn’t stop staring at that first loop. It looked so menacing and prepared to throw me out of the car, but I had no other choice, so I just held on. We dropped down and went through that first loop. Positive g’s crushing me into the seat, but I loved it. Suddenly the rest of the ride was a cakewalk, and I faced that second loop head on and enjoyed every second. From that point onward I knew I could ride anything.
Well, almost anything.
There was one category of coasters I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to try: Hyper coasters, those that had a huge first lift and drop, and many large hills after. I was pretty afraid of heights at the time, and the idea of going up so high and dropping so far made me tremble.
Interestingly, the first hyper coaster I came across in person was the one and only wooden hyper coaster: Son of Beast at Kings Island. The ride was freaking huge and menacing, and it even had a vertical loop! I never had the courage to ride it until maybe 2002 when I was 10 or 11.
The previous year, 2001, was the first year my family went to Cedar Point after I had begged them to take me. There I first layed my eyes on the iconic Millennium Force, a coaster so impossibly huge I swore to never ride it (at the time at least). It wasn’t until two years later (2003) on my 12th birthday that I reluctantly decided to try it.
I had never been more nervous to ride a coaster in my life. Each train flew into the brakes with so much speed it spooked me half to death. By the time we reached the station to board the train, I was physically shaking. Heading up the lift I wouldn’t dare look to my left or right. The trains were so open and free and I felt so exposed. The only way I could tolerate the height was to stare straight ahead at the apex.
As soon as we reach the top I just shut my eyes and hold on for dear life. I’ll never forget experiencing that first drop for the first time. I had never felt my stomach lurch like that on ANY coaster I had ridden. I honestly hated the feeling, but once we bottomed out and hit 93 mph, All that tension was released, and I suddenly found myself in a giant cathartic high that lasted all the way to the final brakes, and the next hour or two after.
I consider Millennium Force to be my biggest milestone coaster. After I rode it, then I REALLY knew I could ride anything. To this day, Millennium Force remains my sentimental favorite steel coaster. Every time I ride it, it brings a huge grin to my face, and I will always enjoy it.
I still can’t really crack down exactly what it is about roller coasters that I love so much. It could be the exhilarating yet safe ride experience. It could be the beauty of the leading lines of track precariously supported by a wood lattice structure or steel columns. It could be the remarkable and precise carpentry and machining work behind the construction of a wonderfully mechanical and structural piece of engineering. It could be all of the above.
All I know for sure is that roller coasters are a part of me, and always will be. =)