If memory serves, I rode my first roller coaster sometime in the late 1990s on a trip to Oklahoma to visit my aunt and uncle. Bell’s Amusement Park was located on the Tulsa State Fairgrounds, with a large wooden coaster designed by John C. Allen as its main attraction. Zingo stood eighty-six feet high and featured trains that reached speeds up to forty-six miles per hour. Admittedly, I don’t remember much about that long-ago ride, other than that I didn’t feel the need to ever repeat the experience.
Bell’s Amusement Park closed in 2006, after which its marquee crowd-pleaser was dismantled and put into storage. So I’m not able to subject my current constitution to the ups and downs of Zingo even if I wanted to. But it turns out that Allen, who is credited with helping to revive North American roller coasters in the mid-twentieth century, designed many others, including an iconic woodie at Cedar Point, the sprawling haven for adrenaline junkies in Sandusky, Ohio. Blue Streak, which is only a tad shorter and a tad slower than Zingo, continues to run on the shores of Lake Erie, and that’s where I spent my supposed summer vacation this year — against my will, in the heat and the sun, remembering why I was so indifferent to roller coasters from the very start.
I happen to live with a roller coaster enthusiast, someone who studies facts and figures associated with magnetic launches, over-banked turns, G‑forces, and inversions the way others study baseball statistics or the results of bygone elections. And while Canada’s Wonderland may have one or two more roller coasters than Cedar Point — to say nothing of being just down the road from our house — it is “America’s Roller Coast” that boasts the best. Or so I’m assured.
If I once found an eighty-foot drop less than ideal, I now know all too well what it’s like to go upside down 170 feet in the air (GateKeeper), to plummet straight to the ground at fifty-seven miles per hour (Maverick), and to experience a record-setting 27.2 seconds of airtime (Steel Vengeance) while people from all over the place seem to be having way more fun than me. I also now know what “giga-coaster” means, because I have lined up more times than I can count for Cedar Point’s Millennium Force, a 310-foot monster that is consistently among the top-rated rides anywhere. I could probably see Pelee Island from Millie’s pioneering 45‑degree cable lift hill if the thirty-six-passenger open-air train weren’t about to fly down at ninety-three miles per hour — and if I had my eyes open.
Forty-five years ago, the Globe and Mail sent its arts journalist Stephen Godfrey to Sandusky to cover the debut of Gemini, Cedar Point’s state-of-the-art racing coaster. The ride consisted of “enough wood to build 25 bungalows and 10 dog houses, combined with enough nails to nail 50,000 coffins.” At the time, it was among the fastest wooden coasters in the land, and at 125 feet it was among the tallest, “compared to the CNE Flyer’s paltry 62,” Godfrey pointed out.
Back then, Gemini was “the biggest mind-bending, stomach-lurching roller coaster thrill there is” and “the best way to turn a brain into tapioca.” These days, a 2:40 spin around its 3,935-foot track is almost pleasant compared with whatever happens on the neighbouring contraption that requires walk-through metal detection before boarding — lest you have coins or keys in your pocket that could fly out and strike a passerby some 200 feet below.
In 1883, when the Chicago Tribune reported on the construction of a “curious structure” to be known as “the Roller Coaster,” the newspaper observed that “the objects claimed for it are health and amusement.” The health benefits were certainly overblown, as later epitomized by the Crystal Beach Cyclone, built in 1926 on the Ontario side of Lake Erie. Before that ninety-six-footer was shut down (and Allen repurposed its wood for another ride, still in operation), a nurse was always on call, to revive those who fainted and to attend to injuries. As for amusement, I find little of it in so‑called amusement parks or in the emotional roller coaster that this past summer has proven to be. As with twenty-first-century thrill rides, the peaks and valleys of division, conflict, and especially climate change all seem to be getting more extreme. I’m not cut out for this, I keep thinking, even after leaving Cedar Point and its anxiety-inducing midway.
“You don’t need a degree in engineering to design roller coasters,” John C. Allen once argued. “You need a degree in psychology.” What does psychology say about all of those people — young and old alike — who voluntarily seek out diversions with such names as Corkscrew and Magnum XL‑200? And what does it say about all the rest of us who are on this other increasingly frightening and violent ride, unwilling or unable to slow it down?