Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Fear of Flying

The high-tech roller-coaster boom of the '90s has yielded exactly one new machine in New England. Welcome to the most extreme 30 seconds at Riverside Park.

By Chris Wright

JULY 5, 1999:  There used to be something reassuring, almost tender, about the names of amusement-park rides: Tilt-A-Whirl, Tumble Bug, Waltzer. The rides themselves made gentle sport with their patrons, eliciting merry squeals -- a far cry from the existential howls churned up by today's breakneck ordeals. The Demon, Serial Thriller, Blazing Fury, Rampage, the Chiller, the Nightmare -- and it's not just the names. Amusement-park rides have gotten ugly, and roller coasters are the ugliest rides of the bunch.

When it comes to getting their kicks, however, Americans seem to feel that the uglier the better. All over the country, people are lining up by the millions to experience the sensation of having their teeth clatter, their hearts lurch, and their eyeballs smack the back of their skulls.

"This has been a record year," says David Escalante, public-relations director of the advocacy group American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE). "The parks are really pushing coasters as a big draw."

There are currently about 430 roller coasters operating in the US. So far in 1999, 60 new coasters have been built, up from 39 during all of last year. It's the biggest coaster boom since the 1920s, and these aren't just any coasters. The steel coasters that have developed in the past 20 years are a different breed of beast: bigger, faster, and loopier than their wooden predecessors, using computer-age technology, postmodern whimsy, and boom-time money to frighten seven shades of shinola out of the bravest of coaster buffs.

In the midst of all this manic development, though, New England has largely been bypassed. The mammoth theme parks all get built elsewhere: California, New Jersey, Virginia. With its tradition of low-rent, family-owned amusement parks, this region has remained a redoubt of the Tilt-A-Whirl, the Zipper, and the Caterpillar, and has been thrilled -- or terrorized -- by none of the major new technology.

Well, almost none.

Riverside Park, in Agawam, was owned for 50-plus years by Boston's Carroll family. The last time the park boasted anything near state-of-the-art equipment was in the early '40s, when Boston movie-theater owner Edward J. Carroll installed a carousel, Ferris wheel, and bumper cars.

That changed in 1997, when Riverside was bought by the theme-park developer Premier Parks; the following year, Premier acquired an industry giant, the Six Flags chain, and dubbed Riverside "a member of the Six Flags theme-park family."

In effect, the park had been made. Premier promptly sank $80 million into Riverside, building 30 new rides and transforming the seedy old park into a corny new one. The public loved it. Attendance topped the million mark in 1997 -- the year the park unveiled its $10 million coaster, the Mind Eraser -- a 30 percent increase over the previous year.

Of the battalion of new rides that Premier built at Riverside, the Mind Eraser is far and away the biggest gun. "It's a new generation of theme-park excitement," gushes Riverside's PR manager, Jerry Gretzinger. But even with 2170 feet of steel track rising to a height of 115 feet, the Mind Eraser isn't the largest coaster in the park. That distinction belongs to the Cyclone -- a neotraditional wooden coaster built during a brief construction boom in the '80s -- which boasts 3600 feet of track atop a structure of Himalayan grandiosity. What makes the Mind Eraser special is the way you ride it. It's a "suspended looping coaster," which means riders are dangling from the track rather than sitting on it, and not always feet down.

Despite its relatively modest size, the coaster certainly stands out, especially this gloomy Thursday afternoon, the sky as colorless as cabbage water. Painted blood red and propped up by teal pillars, the track looks like the spine of a scoliotic dinosaur, scribbling its way through a manic convolution of corkscrews and coils. If wooden coasters aspire to the sublime, their steel counterparts seem content to go for sheer menace. And the Mind Eraser is no exception. "Aaaargh!" yell the riders as they sweep by, legs kicking at the air.

But the spectacle lacks a sense of immensity, and I begin to suspect that this thing might deliver more of a shock to the system than heart-chilling awe. That's certainly the way some coaster enthusiasts see it. "I'm not a big fan of that one," moans local ACE member Rick McEachern. "It's over so quickly. You can't even enjoy it," he says. "You ask yourself, 'What the fuck did I stand in line for?' "

I put this down to coaster snobbery and go in search of someone unsullied by expertise. A couple of teenage girls emerge from the Mind Eraser exit. "Oh, it's pretty scary," says one girl. "Kind of scary," says her friend.

And so, emboldened by their ennui, I take my place in the Mind Eraser corral, where a relatively short line of teeny-somethings stand about in arm-folding, gum-snapping anticipation. After about a half hour, I am strapped, buckled, chained, and yoked into a harness, and cranked up to the coaster's highest point. The Connecticut River is to my left, the park to my right, my feet dangling directly below, and ahead of me -- in the parlance of the trade -- is a cobra roll: two inversions, a twist loop, and double hartline flips. How scary can it be?

As McEachern points out, the Mind Eraser is not a lengthy ride -- 30-odd seconds from the time you start hurtling until the time you stop. What McEachern neglects to point out, though, is that 30 seconds is more than enough time to drive your fingernails through your own palms. Not only are you shooting through space at cheek-rippling speed, you're being whipped to the left, to the right, up, down, around and around and around. Only now -- hooting like a choirboy -- do I see that the nonchalance of those teenage girls was bravado, the kind of understatement that might lead one to describe a nuclear explosion as "kind of loud."

"It's a bit rough," says local coaster enthusiast Joseph White. "It's not a smooth ride." Quite. I remember once watching an alligator with an antelope in its jaws, maniacally spinning itself in order to tear off a piece of flesh. Riding the Mind Eraser gave me a sense of how both the alligator and the antelope must have felt.

Even among people who consider that kind of feeling a good thing, the Mind Eraser is not without its critics. Roller coasters inspire a peculiar breed of enthusiast, many of whom travel the country in search of the latest thrill. ACE's David Escalante reckons he has ridden about 300 coasters in his time. "And that pales," he says. "Some of our members have ridden them all."

In the eyes of coaster enthusiasts, the Mind Eraser is guilty of an almost unforgivable sin: it's a "cookie-cutter ride." Manufactured by the Dutch company Vekoma, the Mind Eraser can be found at a half-dozen other venues around the country. There's one at Darien Lake, in New York, and another in Colorado.

"It's like, yeah, you know, ridden that one already," says Escalante.

Nonetheless, the Mind Eraser does have its fans, and ACE member Brad Walters counts himself among them. "I thought it was one of the better inverted coasters I've been on," he says. "It's a very visceral experience, a very lasting experience." After getting off the Mind Eraser, he says, "for a half-hour I could still close my eyes and picture myself flying over the treetops. It gives you a good aftertaste."

What concerns amusement-park owners, though, isn't that the Mind Eraser might be short, or violent, or mass-produced, but that it's teetering on the edge of obsolescence. "People talk about computers: you get them out of the box and they're outdated," says Gretzinger. "It's the same thing with amusement parks."

The same year Riverside introduced its Mind Eraser, Busch Gardens promptly one-upped it with its own inverted looping coaster, Alpengeist: six loops instead of five, a vertical drop of 170 feet instead of 100, a top speed of 67 miles per hour instead of 55, and a price tag of $20 million instead of $10 million.

"It's an arms race," says Joseph White. "The big companies that design the rides, they try to keep them under wraps. They don't want competitors to know maximum drop, how many loops."

The Mind Eraser is one of the most popular rides ever built by Vekoma, but the company is already casting an eye toward newer innovations, such as linear induction motors and linear synchronous motors, which accelerate coasters at a much faster rate than mere gravity. "People want a ride to be safe in the end, but still want to be scared beyond imagination," says company spokesperson Sabine van Doorn-van der Leeuw. "This explains somehow the need for a faster, higher ride."

Today's state-of-the-art ride is Superman the Escape, at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California. Using the imposing-sounding linear synchronous motors, this coaster thrusts riders around at speeds of 100 miles per hour and drops them from a height of 415 feet, generating a G-force of 4.5, enough to knock many a fighter pilot on his or her ass. But that's nowhere near the limit. "For roller coasters, a vertical load of up to seven Gs is acceptable," says van der Leeuw, though she allows that "it is not necessarily better or preferable to expose people to G-forces of this level. In many cases, restricting the maximum G-level to five is adequate."

"I don't know where it's going to end," says coaster enthusiast Peter Allen. "I guess the ultimate coaster would be one where everyone comes out unconscious. Maybe they're preparing us all to be astronauts."

Maybe. The force generated during liftoff of the space shuttle peaks at about three Gs. The Mind Eraser hits you with nearly six Gs.

"It's very disorienting," says Allen. "I prefer the Cyclone. It feels even more dangerous."

When you boil away the money, the technology, and the physical wallop that these rides pack, one thing remains: mortal dread. Danger, or at least the illusion of danger, is the real key to a good coaster ride.

"It's about facing your fears," says Allen. "Life is so uncertain. Tomorrow, you could be hit by a car." In a sense, roller coasters represent little more than an elaborate, modern-day memento mori. In a world crawling with peril, you get to scream in the face of death, and then laugh about it afterward.

Sometimes, however, the danger gets a little too real. "I went on the Coney Island Thunderbolt," says David Escalante of the now-defunct wooden coaster. "It was the most frightening ride ever because I was worried for my safety. They shouldn't have been running it," he says. "Nails were sticking up; we barely made it around."

That's not quite the kind of fear amusement-park owners, or safety inspectors, like to hear about. Actually, amusement parks are pretty safe; according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety, Riverside reported no accidents at all for the years 1997 and 1998. That same period saw nine fatal roller-coaster accidents nationwide -- a sobering number, to be sure, but one that represents a minuscule percentage of all riders.

Of course, the appearance of barely making it around, not the reality, is what coaster designers are aiming for. And that's where steel coasters -- sturdy, shiny, and sleek -- fall short. Joseph White, who describes himself as a fan of the "extreme" roller-coaster experience, does not consider the Mind Eraser to be New England's most extreme ride. That honor goes to its massive neighbor at Riverside. "The Cyclone's much more interesting," he says. "Wooden coasters create the illusion of near misses."

The Cyclone is less than 20 years old, but it looks ancient and rickety. The thousands of wooden beams affixed almost haphazardly, the absurd scale, even the peeling white paint, are all calculated to inspire both awe and insecurity. And that's before you get on the ride.

As with most coasters, the Cyclone ride starts off serenely enough. A chain hauls you and your fellow riders to the top of the first hill with a regular tink-tink-tink. Despite the nagging fear that the cars could disengage and go hurtling backward, this part of the ride is actually quite pleasant, offering a commanding view of the paaAAHHHHH!

The "coaster" part of the term "roller coaster" is a complete misnomer. In the couple of seconds it takes to plunge the 90 feet down the Cyclone's first drop, you've not only had time to consider this point, you've also taken stock of your rapidly rearranging innards and noted the 60-degree right-hand turn waiting for you at the bottom of the plunge.

Physical laws as I understand them dictate that we should keep rocketing forward, smashing through the coaster's oversized matchstick structure. But physics are being meddled with here. There isn't just one wheel keeping us on the track, but three (one on top, one underneath, and one on the side). And the track banks around the turn, so centripetal force overrules the law that would have us hurtle into oblivion (or at least litigation). And so -- ta-dah! -- we're alive. As sure as the proverbial rabbit is pulled from the hat, the fear we feel is the result of a trick -- albeit a very elaborate one.

All too real, however, is the feeling of being shaken, stirred, and beaten with hundreds of small sticks. Whereas steel coasters generally use a special metal-plastic compound for their wheels, which makes for a smooth ride, wooden coasters run on metal wheels, on metal tracks. Not only is this very noisy, but every infinitesimal flaw in the track is amplified and sent clattering through your bones, with the result that speed is vastly exaggerated and physical pain becomes something considerably more tangible than the prospect of a terrible accident. By the time you get off the ride, you feel like you've been thrown down a short flight of stairs. "I'm surprised they don't get sued," McEachern says. "I got a big bruise. It's awesome."

I don't believe I've ever had every muscle in my body tense up at the same time before -- on the Cyclone, I was stricken with a sort of premature rigor mortis. It's a truly terrifying ride, infinitely more so than the Mind Eraser, but not entirely unpleasant. As Joseph White points out, when it comes to roller coasters, "Terrifying and unpleasant are two different things."

Terror, however, isn't the only primal reflex stirred by a good coaster ride. As the Cyclone shudders to a halt, a young couple in the car in front of mine are doing a fair impersonation of Siamese twins joined at the lips.

In his book Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements (Harvard University Press), author David Nasaw points out that the romantic urge has long been a major incentive for amusement-park patrons. "One of the chief attractions of these pleasure rides," he writes, referring to the early coasters, "was the not-so-subtle way they induced couples to hold on to one another as the cars careened around curves and down embankments."

The day I visit Riverside, the place is seething with teens: boys loping about bouncing basketballs; girls simply bouncing about. The average age is probably 17, and the place is a mess of flirting and flexing, of fluttering lashes and flashing skin. Even today, you get the sense that for many of these kids, a fleeting brush of an elbow or a thigh can get the heart beating faster than a hundred killer rides.

Which brings me to my major criticism of the Mind Eraser: it's fast and it's thrilling -- heck, it may even be safe -- but it's not very romantic. Wedged in the ride's bucket seat, swaddled by a veritable straitjacket of restraints, the only thing you'll come into contact with on this ride is your mortality. And no one, after all, wants to face death alone.

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