Sunday, May 4, 2014

I'm Not a Roller Coaster Person. Yes I Am.

Gwazi at Busch Gardens, Tampa, courtesy of Theme Park Review
I don't know about you, but half of my anxiety dreams involve heights, ridiculously steep inclines, sudden falls, and sharp turns (which of course are woven through the heights, the steep inclines, and the sudden falls).  This goes back to childhood for me.  As you might imagine, gazing at a beastly roller coaster like the one on the right, therefore conjures up that exact kind of anxiety.  So I am not a roller coaster person.  Ahem.

When I was a kid, I liked *watching* thrill rides.  I liked that immensely.  But I did not like going on them.  Actually, I never even gave myself the chance to find out if I liked going on them; I avoided them altogether, especially if they involved the four horsemen of my personal apocalypse named above.  Now Scramblers and Gravitrons were no problem; they hardly leave the ground.  But Enterprises and Roller coasters?  Eff that 11 different ways and upside-down.  Nope.

For my 12th birthday, I went went to Valleyfair (why did I choose that?) and rode on three roller coasters just to shut my friends up, and about a decade later I went on some more rides to impress a young lady I knew. But that was it.  I wouldn't have to go on any more if I didn't want to, and from 1995 through 2010 I went on exactly zero.

But, now I have two boys, and I'll be damned if I am going to infect them with my limiting neuroses, right?  And as the eldest hit about age 8, he went on his first legitimate coaster.  A year later he went to a friend's birthday party and rode on the Rock Bottom Plunge (shown at left), which climbs straight up, has a greater-than vertical drop, and inverts three times.  He loved it, and talked about it constantly.  His little brother started getting interested too.  It was only a matter of time before the little heathens would turn on me.
And so one evening in February 2013, it happened.  I had to ride that light blue abomination in the picture.  (Why's it have to go straight up like that?)  Anyway, it was fine. I enjoyed it.  I didn't look forward to doing it again, but it was exhilarating to be sure.

The following summer, the kids and I cashed out our "fun bucket" and went to Mt. Olympus in Wisconsin Dells.  We had been there in the in the early spring of 2011, but only at the indoor waterpark, which was unspectacular.  From the parking lot though, we had glimpsed the armada of wooden-framed roller coasters that would be operational in the summer.  I knew that taking a summer trip there meant I was going to have to face some serious music.  Both kids were expecting to go on roller coasters, and neither would do it without me.  At 10 and 6, you can't exactly blame them.

The park's signature ride is Hades 360, which requires you to go way into the sky, before dropping into pure blackness for several seconds and then going upside-down.  The line for it was about an hour long, which is perfect for building anxiety.  I kept wishing it would move slowly so the park would close before we could ride. This wishful thinking made me feel like a crappy father and person, but I soon realized I wasn't alone.  I was able to observe all the chumpy ways other parents let fear get the best of them, saying things like:
  • "You know, it will be a lot more fun if you go on it, so I can watch you!" (hilarious, because you cannot really do that...the cars disappear from sight quickly and for most of the ride) 
  • "We can't wait another 20 minutes because then dinner won't be until...(20 minutes later than it would have been, one supposes). 
  • "I think my allergies are getting worse."
And then there is the feigned interest in something else.  "You know, I really wanted to see the plastic giraffe statue.  I better go check it out before it gets dark."

Nobody will come out and say they are freaked out, and are not wanting to confront their largely irrational fears.  I actually, while in the line for Hades, had to tell my oldest son to stop asking me questions about how high the big hill was and how fast it goes.  And no, I do not feel like timing how long it takes for the cars to climb up the lift hill. I was in the bad kind of zone, trying hard not to let on. But he picked up on it.  "Scared. You're scared."

But I made it. The lift hill on that ride definitely seemed like a sign of the devil, but I made it, and found the ride to be insanely thrilling, and totally worth both the wait, and the torture I put myself through while waiting.  I went on all four of their roller coasters that day, and enjoyed each of them.  It felt like a victory.  When we got back, I kept telling people the story.  "I'm not a roller coaster person, but...!"

Life is funny.  I have anxious dreams about heights and drops and whatnot, and I now have not one, but two kids who, since our trip to Mt. Olympus, have become obsessed with roller coasters  And I mean obsessed.  They know all of the stats--which are the tallest, the steepest, the fastest.  They know the layout types, the frame construction types.  They know the models (the light blue one shown above is a "Euro-Fighter"). They know the different elements, the different kinds of inversions.  Sheesh, they even know the designers and manufacturers, along with the bizarre history of mergers and acquisitions among them. The youngest is planning to own a theme park, and he already has designed over 100 roller coasters, many of which would be record-breaking.  These kids like roller coasters.  And I am their father.

So, in April of 2014 I went to a conference in Tampa.  Busch Gardens is in Tampa.  It has several well-known roller coasters.  The kids knew it. They insisted that I go.

So on the last day, I decided I would. "I am not a roller coaster person.  I am doing this for my kids."  I kept telling people that.  I was going to Busch Gardens all by myself, to ride on roller coasters.  For my kids.

Now, for those of you who are like me, before you even get to the park, you see this bag of nightmares pictured on the right.  It towers over everything. It's called SheiKra. It reminds you that human beings are fundamentally ill and that there is really no hope for us. The park has several other classic rollercoasters, including two that go upside-down seven times each. I went on those.  I went on Gwazi, which is the violent, essentially broken rollercoaster shown at the very top of this post.  I went on Cheetah Hunt, and I went on SheiKra, which you might think simply does what the picture suggests it does, but it's actually worse: when you get over the crest of that straight-down drop, rather than actually dropping, you just hang there for a five-count.
After the trip, my storytelling about the roller coasters ramped up, because in truth, it was really fun, and damn was I proud to have done that! But I maintained the I'm-not-a-rollercoaster-person narrative, which started to reveal a flaw: if true, why did I even let Mt. Olympus on the table?  And extra-why did I go to Busch Gardens solo?  Was it purely for my kids?  Sure, it's a convenient explanation, but maybe, just maybe I was holding onto an old story about myself--one that not long ago was true, but no longer was now.

Roller coasters are designed to scare the crap out of you.  And it worked on me for many years, scaring me so much I wouldn't even touch them. But now, my recent experiences have me wondering how many of the things we say and believe about ourselves are really just unchallenged notions leftover from who and how we were at a different time.  What else do we tell ourselves just because it *had been* true?  To me, this is worth considering.

In the meantime, while I'm considering it, my kids and I are planning our summer roadtrip to St. Louis, which, by the way, has a Six Flags park boasting several roller coasters as or more challenging than any we've ridden.  The kids are looking forward to it almost unhealthily.

And I am pretty jazzed too. Because dammit, I am a roller coaster person.

Yes I am.

November 2014 update: Since I wrote this post, we took our roadtrip that included Six Flags St. Louis, and made a surprise stop at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. Later in the summer, as part of a camping and family-visiting trip, we "stopped by" (read: stayed all day at) Mount Olympus, and also visited Bay Beach in Green Bay, home of the classical rebuilt/restored Zippin Pippin, on our way back from Door County. We went to Valleyfair on a chilly post-Halloween night, and the next week, I cashed in a free plane ticket and went to San Antonio, which is a phenomenal city, and also has Six Flags Fiesta Texas. These experiences exposed me to over 20 new (for me) roller coasters, some of which I cannot shut up about. (I mean seriously, Iron Rattler is barely to be believed. People just laugh the entire time. It's that fun!)

The kids have interviewed their idol, legendary designer/engineer Alan Schilke for a brains on! podcast (still in production), and we all feel we have enough to say about our still young but intense love of roller coasters, that we are dedicating a website to it.

So yeah, I am a roller coaster person indeed.


  1. I had the opposite experience at Busch Gardens... I THINK I am a roller coaster person, but really I am NOT. It's not that I'm scared, but I get nauseated and headaches.

    I also went there during AAG - I have a friend who works there, got us free passes!

    1. Ruth, has it been a progression, like mine? I've heard a lot of people say they used to be (roller coaster people) but now they're not. Maybe I'm just making up for lost time, but soon enough it will catch up with me!