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Evolution of a roller coaster junkie: How I overcame fear and skepticism

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Published: September 17, 2013 at 9:43 AM

I wasn’t always a roller coaster addict and I wasn’t always fearless. As a kid, I enjoyed riding coasters but as I grew older I more or less forgot about them unless one of them made the news. I knew that coasters were becoming increasingly bigger when Dorney Park filed suit in federal court against Six Flags Over Texas for claiming that the Texas Giant was the tallest wooden coaster, asserting that their Hercules held that distinction. (Both parties ultimately settled, agreeing that Texas Giant had the tallest lift hill and Hercules had the longest drop.) In any event, Hercules came and when without my ever venturing up to Allentown to ride it. The last coaster I rode while still in my youth was the Coney Island Cyclone, in the early 1970’s. I had first seen the Cyclone when my Uncle Adam drove right by it on a trip to the 1964 New York World’s Fair and forbade me to ride, saying that roller coasters weren’t safe because “They’re put together by a bunch of drunks.” When the Cyclone was scheduled for demolition, before it was declared a national landmark, I seized the opportunity to ride it and that was that. It wasn’t until 2010 that I gave serious thought to taking up where I left off.

How I got deeply involved in this hobby goes back to when I was engaged to a Brit. He would pick me up at Heathrow airport and on the way back to his flat we would pass Chessington World of Adventures. On one occasion I brought up the subject of roller coasters and he told me in no uncertain terms that we - both pushing 60 – were too old to ride coasters because this would result in internal injuries. What rubbish! This struck me as highly improbable and I was determined to prove him wrong, not to show him up but to prove to myself that I wasn’t too old and infirm to withstand the G forces on a coaster. Few things motivate me more than being told that I can’t do something.

At this point I began to wonder whether I would even have the nerve to get on a coaster after all this time. In surfing the web I discovered that there was a pretty interesting looking coaster called El Toro at a park about an hour away from Philadelphia and I decided to go for it. I set up an account with Zipcar (“Wheels When you Want Them”) and set off an adventure which changed the course of my life forever.

A more cautious person might have started off with something a bit more moderate, such as Rolling Thunder. But no, I had to jump off the deep end. It was El Toro or nothing. I remember this day as clearly as if it happened yesterday, from the long wait to get on it to freaking out because I was going over my car reservation time, didn’t want to pay a $50 late fee and couldn’t call Zipcar because my cell phone was in a ride locker. (Fortunately, someone ahead of me in the queue let me use his phone to extend my reservation.) The ride itself was quite an experience although not necessarily a great one from my point of view. El Toro knocked the wind out of my sails. I don’t know what I expected but certainly not this. El Toro was clearly no Coney Island Cyclone.

Over the next several months I continued to struggle with El Toro. On my next visit to Six Flags Great Adventure, I rode it four times but during the visit after that, I simply could not bring myself to get on it. I would look at the first drop and become panicked when I saw how steep it is. This made me extremely frustrated; I kept asking myself what is wrong with you? Despite my trepidation I was determined to conquer this monster although it wasn’t until I made another trip to the park that things magically clicked. There is no logical explanation for this, but whereas the first drop had previously been a hurdle to overcome, it suddenly became the route to euphoria. I was hooked.

EL TORO photo eltoroscenicview_zps87f1a8a1.jpg

The battle was far from over, however. One thing I could not bring myself to do until almost a year later was get on a steel coaster. Steel coasters were an alien concept to me. After all, I grew up with woodies and there is something reassuring about the fact that they have guardrails and an infrastructure. Looking at only a steel track with no visible means of support other than the poles in the ground was like looking at something from outer space. Thinking that I really should ride Nitro, I sat in the test seat near the entrance numerous times and found the restraint inadequate. Accustomed to the tight restraints on El Toro, I found it difficult to believe that a less than snug lap bar would prevent me from being ejected from the coaster. So I continued to ride only woodies, applying for a Delta Sky Miles credit card offering a mileage bonus, in order to finance a trip to Indiana to ride The Voyage.

My 60th birthday marked my debut on a steel coaster. A staff member at Six Flags Great Adventure said “If you can handle El Toro, you can handle Nitro.” I wasn’t so sure about that but being in a good mood after ten rides on El Toro – thanks to the pricey Platinum Flash Pass to which I treated myself to celebrate a milestone – I was game. Nitro turned out to be a great way to finish a day at a theme park. My least favourite part of the ride was the hammerhead turn, as this is the point at which I felt most vulnerable. Still, I could cope with it and sixty rides later, I am a convert.

Alpengeist at Busch Gardens Williamsburg was my first invert and I absolutely hated it. With everything topsy turvy and my feet over my head as if I were performing somersaults at an unusual altitude, I thought omigod, can anyone actually be enjoying this? I simply wasn’t prepared for this type of ride. Griffon was a different story although the thought of getting on it initially scared the hell out of me. A dive coaster was another new concept. The idea of hanging over a precipice 200 feet in the air did not particularly appeal to me so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually enjoyed hanging over the edge, taking in the breathtaking scenery before the abrupt 90-degree drop.

ALPENGEIST photo alpengeist_zpsa7cb72e4.jpg

The next challenge was to ride a giga coaster. I’d seen videos of Millennium Force on YouTube and ended up going to Cedar Point. 300 feet was going to be a long way down so I wasn’t sure whether I could stomach it. That was another surprise. On the first drop I found myself grinning from ear to ear, saying YES, YES, YES! This was doable and I could handle it. The next 12 rides were hands in the air.

By this time I was becoming somewhat sophisticated about roller coasters and their elements. My goal was to ride as many as possible on top ten or top twenty lists. At about the same time I decided to set up a roller coaster blog. Even so, there were certain types of coasters that I still refused to ride because they inspired me with fear. At Kings Dominion I was not the least bit nervous about riding Intimidator 305 but felt extremely apprehensive about riding Volcano The Blast Coaster and Flight of Fear. The rollout at 155 feet – a record for longest inversion on any coaster until broken this year by Gatekeeper – looked pretty scary. It was only after a pep talk from a park employee that I took the plunge. It wasn’t until my second visit to Kings Dominion that I got up the nerve to tackle Flight of Fear. Going through four inversions in the dark was almost unthinkable. Anyway, my rides on both Volcano and Flight of Fear rank among the best I’ve ever had.

VOLCANO photo volcano_zpse3f7a6f6.jpg

The last frontier was hydraulically launched strata coasters. I might never have ridden Kingda Ka had I not gone to the park with a date from hell who wanted to ride it. This will never be in my top ten list because there are far better coasters but I always ride it when at SFGA because I enjoy the rush of adrenaline from the launch and now that I’m no longer scared out of my wits, I can enjoy the spectacular view of the parking lot from 456 feet in the air, lol.

Montu at Busch Gardens Tampa did more than any single coaster I’ve ever ridden to alter my perception of inverts. This coaster was a blast from start to finish, especially the batwing element. I only wish that I could get back to Busch Gardens Williamsburg, as I suspect that I would now have a completely different opinion of Alpengeist.

A self-confessed roller coaster junkie, I have ridden coasters 386 times during the past three years and conquered my fear although on some coasters I still worry about the restraints not being tight enough. I will ride anything with a few exceptions. I don’t do standup coasters for medical reasons and prefer not to do coasters with highly unconventional riding positions. Superman: Ultimate Flight was OK but uncomfortable. Riding face down just feels too weird and I wouldn’t expect to enjoy Batwing at Six Flags America because going up the lift hill while flat on my back would probably feel even weirder. Other than that, I’m up for just about anything. In looking at the 2013 Golden Ticket awards, I see that I’ve ridden 9 of the top 10 wooden coasters and 6 of the top 10 steel coasters – so I’ve made some strides in accomplishing what I set out to accomplish. For someone who used to have panic attacks at the sight of El Toro, I’ve come a long way, baby.

Readers' Opinions

From 173.189.12.117 on September 17, 2013 at 10:41 AM
Interesting story. I find it interesting how different people have their elements that scare them and another person could have a completely different thing to be intimidating to them. I didn't like high, stomach taking drops where you feel confined and forced to look down.... but I remember steel inversions did not really bother me. My first coaster with inversions it was like an instant high that I had to do again. The hill that led to the inversions was always the challenge of the ride for me. Sounds like the drop might actually be the high for you!

I also hate any drop rides. I use to go to the park with people who were afraid of the pirate ship that hangs you upside down (that did not bother me at all) but who would ride those drop towers (which I will not do after my trauma that was the Free Fall at Six Flags Over Georgia. Different people just see things differently sometimes. I'll take hanging upside down as an easier challenge compared to being dropped off to free fall down the side of a tower any day!

From N B on September 17, 2013 at 11:52 AM
Great story, thanks for sharing.

Edit - I forgot to add, even though I don't have a fear of mega rides or heights, I did second guess myself when the arm of the Insanity on top of the Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas rotated out over the edge of the tower with the street 900 feet below. By the time the ride started spinning, it turned from doubt into adrenaline.

If you go to Vegas, you should ride each one of the three they have up there. If you really want to test your limits of putting your life in someone else's hands, do the Sky Jump.

From O T on September 17, 2013 at 12:55 PM
Thank you for sharing this fun story.
I myself am afraid of heights, have been my whole life. So when I wanted to go in my first coaster I went in the Efteling who had the biggest European coaster at that time. It has 2 loopings and a corkscrew. Not much but I was very scared. When me and my friend arrived there at the end of the day (I didn't want the ride to ruin my whole day) they were filming a commercial. We went on the ride and they told if we didn't want our head in the commercial we had to leave so we stayed. We went once, eyes closed squeezing the restrains as hard as I could. When we rolled back into the station they asked if everyone wanted to go again and no one said no so there I went again and again and again... I road that sucker 10 times in a row ending up with my eyes wide open and hands in the air.
Unfortunately, due to osteoporosis (I'm 47) I'm not allowed to ride coasters ever again. My back or neck could snap due to the pressure. Fortunately I still can ride Spiderman at IOA and I think from beginning to end it's actually more fun that a coaster but I sure miss it. I loved the looping at Kraken or the launce at Hulk...
From James Koehl on September 17, 2013 at 5:11 PM
Bobbie, you write the best articles! It's always a treat to read them. Thanks!
From Annette Forrest on September 17, 2013 at 5:15 PM
I just love your articles Bobbie. You and Amanda Jenkins are my favorite writers. Something about your columns. They just make me laugh and I feel like you wrote it just for me, like it's an email from a friend.
From Brian Emery on September 18, 2013 at 6:38 AM
Thanks I really enjoyed this.. You had me at
"After all, I grew up with woodies "...

Just kidding...

From Serge Boucher on September 18, 2013 at 12:01 PM
Another great review from Bobbie! I love them and I hope that more are coming. It would be great to see a weekly column or something. I've known Bobbie for over a year and I love reading her reviews here, on her blog or via email.
I was afraid of coasters before knowing Bobbie, now I love them. Coasters are something that needs acclimatization, so I can certainly relate to this article.

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