Travel tips: How to ride a roller coaster
Written by Robert Niles
Many regular readers of Theme Park Insider are roller coaster veterans: folks who've learned how to ride even the scariest, fastest and most stomach-churning roller coasters without fear.
This post is for the rest of us.
What do you do when you're visiting a theme or amusement park and everyone else wants to ride the Big Coaster but you're, well... ? I'm just gonna say it:
If you really want to ride a roller coaster, there is a way to overcome your fear, concern or worry and do it. You don't have to spend part of your day at a theme park watching everyone else's bags and purses. You don't have to kill time in the shops or on a bench while the rest of your family and friends have fun. You can learn how to ride a roller coaster.
And, even, to enjoy it.
First, allow me to assure you that if you follow the park's safety rules, the odds are overwhelming that you won't get hurt riding a roller coaster. I've been tracking theme park accidents for more than a decade now, and know that millions of people ride roller coasters every year without incident. Now, I won't lie to you - some people get injured, or even die, on roller coasters. But of those who have died, almost every one of them either had a health problem that should have kept them from riding or did something colossally stupid that put themselves in grave risk. And even that number of incidents represents a tiny fraction of a fraction of the total number of roller coaster rides in this country.
You're taking a far, far greater chance getting in a car to drive to the amusement park than you are by getting on a roller coaster. So if you're cool getting into an automobile, you ought to be okay with climbing into a roller coaster seat.
Of course, riding a roller coaster doesn't feel like riding a car. (And if it does, you need to find a better driver - or a better roller coaster.) Let's acknowledge what happens to your body on a coaster. The dips, jumps, twists and speed will subject you to a variety of gravitational forces. Those forces are part of what make a coaster fun to fans: the pressure of a high-G turn, followed by the liberation of zero-G "air time" as the coaster crests a hill at high speed.
Those forces are why parks prohibit people with certain health conditions from riding. If you are pregnant, or have any heart, neck or back problems, you're not supposed to ride, and you shouldn't.
If you're overweight or out of shape, a park won't keep you from riding its coasters (assuming you'll fit in the seat), but I'll tell you from personal experience that you'll have a much better time on the coaster if you drop some pounds and get in shape. Why not consider an upcoming theme park trip as incentive? You'll not only feel better flying down a coaster track at 60 mph, you'll feel better every moment of your life.
Comfort's important. If you're uncomfortable sitting in your seat in the coaster's loading station, you're gonna be uncomfortable out on the ride. Many parks now put a couple coaster seats at the queue entrance for their roller coasters, so visitors can sit down and give them a try before investing the time to wait for a ride. Different roller coasters have different seats, so don't assume that just because you were comfortable on one type of roller coaster, you'll feel fine on all others. Give the seats a try before getting in line.
If the seat works for you, take a moment to find the "grab bar." This is a metal handle or pair of handles that you can hold while you're riding. I've found that many coaster newbies feel more secure when they've got their hands on the grab bar during the ride. If the coaster is one with "over the shoulder" restraints, you'll usually find the grab bars there, at about chest level, on either side of the restraint. If you're in a more traditional "mine car"-type coaster seat, you'll find the grab bar on the side or front of the car.
Once you're comfortably seated with your hands, reassuringly, on the grab bar, be sure to keep your eyes open as you leave the station, and throughout the ride. Don't give in to the temptation to close your eyes.
Your eyes tell your body what's coming next on the ride, allowing you to subconsciously adjust to every change on the track ahead. That's why coaster designers up the thrill factor on relatively tame coasters by building them inside and running them in the dark. If you can't see the track ahead, and your body can't prepare, that makes the ride feel wilder than it really is.
You're trying to make the ride feel more manageable, not out-of-control. Keep those eyes open.
Here's the best tip I can give a roller coaster rookie: If you're over 16 and have a driver's license, just pretend you're driving the coaster. As you go down the first hill, or launch out of the station, mash your right foot forward like you're pressing the gas pedal. If you feel like the coaster's going too fast, slam that accelerator harder. Gas it. Steer the thing with the grab bar. Put yourself in control.
(If you're not a driver, think about a video game controller instead. Push that acceleration button hard!)
This is driver's ed. Just as you needed practice to learn how to drive a car well, you'll need practice to learn how to ride a roller coaster. Don't give up after one ride. Get back on that same coaster and try to drive it better this time. And again, until you feel like the IndyCar champion of that track.
Then try other coasters. Be the world champion race car driver on one. The Air Force stunt pilot on another. Or, a broom-riding Quidditch player, too. The more your mind and imagination is actively engaged in the ride, the more comfortable and in control you will feel.
Ultimately, if you get really good at this, you'll change to doing things to make yourself feel less in control, such as closing your eyes, or looking at something behind you on the track to divert your attention. (Google "goat trick" for an example.) Whatever you do, though, never break a park's safety rules. They are there to protect you.
I hope that this encourages a few folks with roller coaster phobia to give one a try. For the rest of you, the roller coaster pros, why not help your fellow readers by offering a few tips of your own, in the comments?
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