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A parents' guide to helping your kids learn to love roller coasters

Written by
Published: November 10, 2009 at 10:04 AM

As we move into the off season for theme park fans who don't happen to live in Central Florida or Southern California, I'll be writing more pieces about planning for next year's theme park visits and vacations.

Let's talk to the parents today. How many of you are in this situation? You're a roller coaster fan, but your kids, who are elementary-age, look at roller coasters like they would a live dinosaur - they're awesome, but terrifying enough to fuel parent-waking nightmares for weeks to come.

Not much of a choice there, eh? Skip your beloved coasters, or welcome the bawling kids into your bed every night at 1 am. How do you get your kids to share your love for roller coasters?

Roller

Ultimately, all my advice reduces to one suggestion: patience. Push your kids to try a ride they're not ready for, and you're just asking for a hysterical child who will demand to be taken home right now - no matter that you paid $70 per person for those theme park tickets.

1) Stay positive

You can suggest rides, but the ultimate decision to ride must be your child's. Whatever decision they make, it's the right one. If they say no to something, don't try to talk them into it; offer a suggestion. If they say they want to go on a specific ride, work it into the itinerary and tell them what a great idea they had.

You want the entire visit to become a positive experience. A) It's the best way to ensure that your kids keep wanting to come to theme parks, and B) that's the surest way to ensure that you get your money's worth.

Remember, the point of the visit is not to bag the largest number of rides - it is to have a good time. And if your kids aren't having a good time, trust me, they will ensure that you aren't, either. If that means letting your third-grader crawl around the kiddie playground, so be it. Fun = value.

Don't get passive-aggressive, either, overly complimenting older siblings who agree to join you on coasters or thrill rides, while not doing the same for younger kids' choices. The younger kids will read that as criticism of their choices, as they should. And they'll soon be taking you on a side trip into Miseryland.

On our summer roadtrip, my 12-year-old fell in love with coasters. But my nine-year-old wasn't ready yet. That's fine. He became my go-to critic on 4-D shows (which he loved), as well as my assistant photographer, snapping some great shots that I later used in several TPI reports, while Natalie and I or Natalie and her mother rode the coasters.

2) Start small

When you were a kid, theme parks didn't have floorless dive coasters. Or inverted coasters with seven loops. You didn't fall in love with coasters riding those behemoths. And your kids likely won't, either.

Start smaller. Don't introduce your kids to roller coasters by adding a day at Universal's Islands of Adventure on next Orlando trip. The child who rides Incredible Hulk or Dueling Dragons as his first coaster is a person who will never again utter the phrase "roller coaster" without preceding it with the word "emotional."

Your kids are keeping a list of everything you make them do which ticks them off. And payback's coming when they hit puberty. :-) No need to add roller coasters to that list.

Let your kids decide when they are ready for the kiddie coasters, and ride with them without complaint. In fact, praise their bravery each time. Again, stay positive.

3) Work your way up

Let your kids see you riding bigger coasters, and having a great time on them. But also let them see you having just as good a time riding on attractions with which they're comfortable.

When they express interest in riding with you on the bigger rides, be careful which ones you ride with them on first. I steered my daughter along a deliberate procession:

  • First, we moved up in size, going from Junior Coasters like Gadget's Go-Coaster and the Flying Unicorn to larger wooden coasters such as Ghostrider. My idea was to get her used to gradually larger drops and longer rides, without having to worry about inversions or funky cars or track layouts. Ultimately, we moved up to Bolliger & Mabillard hypers, riding Diamondback at Kings Island and Apollo's Chariot at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

  • Next, I introduced her to inversions, riding the first looping coaster I experienced as a child, Loch Ness Monster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. It's a great first looping coaster, because it has two loops - one at the beginning of the ride and the second toward the end - and both are over relatively quickly. I prefer a two-loop coaster for a first time "upside down" rider, because the second loop really allows you to build your confidence, while a third might overwhelm many inversion rookies.

  • Finally, it's time to move on to different trains and tracks. After Loch Ness, we rode the now-shuttered Big Bad Wolf, a suspended coaster that introduced Natalie to the idea that roller coasters don't have to be traditional cars sitting atop a track. From there, we moved onto inverted and floorless coasters, with Natalie embracing each new experience along the way. Personally, I'd leave head-scrambling inverted coasters and 4-D coasters for last. (She still hasn't ridden X2 yet.)

    4) Did I mention staying positive?

    Remember, sometimes kids regress, and decided they want to move back down to smaller rides for a while. Again, that's a great idea! Even if you kid decides to bail out at the load platform, after an hour-long wait, stay positive. Sometimes a few minutes watching trains go from the child swap wait area is enough to allow a kid to build up the confidence to go. But if not, that's great, there's plenty of fun stuff to do elsewhere in the park. Look forward toward that, not backward at the hour wait.

    The more positive and comfortable you make kids' days, they more likely they are to catch your love for theme parks... and thrill rides.

  • Readers' Opinions

    From Anthony Murphy on November 10, 2009 at 10:11 AM
    As having two younger brothers and many young cousins, 2 and 3 are really big!

    Most places have a smaller one and you can work your way up. Thats how I and everybody else I know did it.

    From Ray Schroeder on November 10, 2009 at 11:12 AM
    What about parents who hate them, but the kids love them?
    I took my 18 yo niece, who loves roller coasters,(she must get that from me) on a road trip to Sandusky. My Mom, her Grandmother "did not approve" because she watched that show The Doctors when they did a story about roller coasters causing brain damage. We went any way and had a blast. My memory is shot, but we had fun. My memory is shot, but we had fun. I seem to repeat myself lately. Coincidence??? ;)
    From Robert Niles on November 10, 2009 at 11:21 AM
    Hmmm. Methinks I have another story idea! ;-)
    From David Kildal on November 10, 2009 at 1:10 PM
    My first coaster was King's Island's Racer on the backward-facing Racer when I was five, and I was almost shellshocked for life. Completely agree about the whole "funky car avoidance" Thankfully I rediscovered the awesomeness, but to a little kid, it's pretty much the closest thing to falling off a skyscraper
    From Raymond Sydowski on November 10, 2009 at 2:56 PM
    It amazes me how many parents are willing to make a visivly upset child ride a coaster.

    If you kid is crying at load, the kid shouldn't be going on the ride.

    From Nick Markham on November 10, 2009 at 5:13 PM
    I was going to try this with my sister in July when she said she would only ride Gold Rusher at SFMM and Jaguar at Knotts. Amazingly enough, she forgot every fact about Viper and did not see that it had 7 inversions and was 180 feet tall and actually rode that as her first big coaster! She even instantly begged to ride every coaster in the park as many times as possible afterwards! That is most likely a rare (and lucky) experience, but it was a great one!:D
    From Betty Rohrer on November 10, 2009 at 8:45 PM
    i do not know if things will change when young grandson is finally tall enough to ride most coasters. he is small for age but right now he cries when he cannot ride. we do not try to get him on but it sure can ruin a day, we just hope he makes the heightfor the kiddie coaster which usualy helps.
    From Steven Lee on November 11, 2009 at 12:38 AM
    Great tips Robert!
    From Bob Miller on November 11, 2009 at 7:13 AM
    This year while in Florida, Zachary and I were at IOA and I asked him if he wanted to try The Hulk, and he said no. He has been on woodies and likes them and non looping steel coasters too. I didn't push the point since it would be his first inverted coaster.

    So I told him maybe next year when we go to Hershey. Like you suggested Robert, I'll see if he wants to try Super Dooper Looper since it has only one loop to deal with. If he likes it, fine, I won't try to trick him into going on one of the others there. If he wants to go on one, fine, if not there's always another year to mature into a coaster nut like me.

    From Mark Fairleigh on November 11, 2009 at 7:17 AM
    I guess this can work for wives trying to get their coaster-chicken husbands on one of those hideous beasts....what?...who said that?
    From Andy Guinigundo on November 14, 2009 at 7:31 AM
    I've created a coaster maniac I think. My daughter is 7 yrs old. Here was her progression:

    Age 4 The Flying Unicorn (Universal Orlando)

    Age 5 Little Bill's Giggle coaster (Kings Island, short kiddie coaster)
    Age 5 The Fairly Odd Coaster(Kings Island, Small woodie)
    Age 5 Runaway Raptor (Kings Island, kiddie suspended coaster)
    Age 5 Shamu Express (Sea World Orlando, steel kiddie)
    Age 5 Journey to Atlantic (Sea World, Hydrid steel, water ride)


    Age 6 - The Racer (Kings Island, out and back, wooden)
    Age 6 - The Beast (Kings Island, big wooden)
    Age 6 - The Stunt Coaster (Kings Island, previously The Italian Job)
    Age 6 - Vortex (Kings Island, steel inverting)
    Age 6 - Space Mountain (Magic Kingdom, steel dark ride)
    Age 6 - Expedition Everest (Disney's Animal Kingdom, steel)

    Age 7 - The Voyage (Holiday World, wood)
    Age 7 - The Legend (Holiday World, wood)
    Age 7 - The Raven (Holiday World, wood)
    Age 7 - Son of Beast (Kings Island, wooden death machine, joking)
    Age 7 - Rock 'n Roller Coaster (Hollywood Studios, indoor steel).

    As Robert said, be positive, only do what they want to do. She was begging to ride all of these. She wanted me to "stretch" her so she could ride the Diamond Back - yeah right honey 6 inches? That's a stretch all right!

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