Forget politics, football, and religion. If you really want the quickest way to start an argument this holiday season, ask a couple of theme park fans for the definition of a roller coaster.
Be sure to keep your hands and legs inside the vehicle at all times for this discussion, because it's gonna be a wild ride... well, at least by theme park geek standards.
With parks demanding unique experiences to stand out among other out-of-home entertainment options for cash-strapped potential visitors, designers are mashing together formerly separate concepts to create fresh combinations. That's how we got motion simulators on wheels, robot arms on tracks, and live musical shows in the middle of a queue.
Roller coasters have seen plenty of innovation over the past generation, too. Where we once had wooden coasters and steel coasters, now we have steel tracks on wooden frames and even a few wooden tracks on steel frames. Coaster trains now can spin or go backwards, and soon Disney will debut a "yaw" coaster that moves to point toward show scenes at the side of the track. Track sections can even drop or change direction while trains are on them.
Even with all these changes, fans continued to call these rides "roller coasters." But now more than a few fans are wondering if some changes to the roller coaster formula have gone so far that we shouldn't continue to use that term to describe these rides any longer.
Take the Larson Loop. While it runs on what looks like a single-loop coaster track, its train runs on a driven rim within the loop. Does that make it a coaster or a track ride?
Or what about a Skyline Skywarp? It looks like a figure-eight coaster track, with two trains. But again, the trains, which are actually connected, are pretty much always in contact with drive tires, leading some to consider it a powered track ride, albeit on a coaster-style track.
How about the Gringotts ride at Universal Studios Florida? It definitely contains coaster-like elements, but with.a motion base under the track at certain points under the ride, calling this unique experience a "roller coaster" grossly oversimplifies it.
And this doesn't even yet get us into the category of water coasters, such as Volcano Bay's Krakatau Aqua Coaster, which use magnetic launches and a twisty roller coaster-style track... but where passengers ride in a boat upon water rather than a train on wheels.
Are any of these hybrids or derivative attractions still roller coasters? I know that many of us prefer to describe attractions using their specific manufacturer and model names, rather than catch-all category names such as "roller coaster." But for the casual fan, such well-known terms still resonate. Your average theme park visitors probably have no clue what a B&M Dive Machine is. They do understand "roller coaster," however.
My $.02? To me, the obvious requirements would seem to be that a roller coaster, well... rolls, and that it coasts. That's the classic design — a vehicle that is hauled up to some high point by a chain or other mechanism, that then rolls on its wheels, coasting down and up a track, as its potential energy from the high starting point is converted by the pull of gravity into kinetic energy.
If a ride maintains contact with a drive mechanism throughout, even if it runs on wheels, it might roll but it doesn't coast. On the flip side (no pun intended), a water coaster "coasts," but running on water instead of wheels, it doesn't roll.
And even if it rolls and coasts at some point, does a ride that is engaged on a motion platform or powered track still count as a roller coaster if it only coasts for a small percentage of its ride time? If there is a cutoff point, where is it?
As a writer, vocabulary matters to me a great deal, so this isn't an irrelevant discussion... at least not to me! I want to use words that correctly and effectively communicate precisely what I am trying to talk about. But communicating effectively also requires using words that the audience understands... and understands in the way that I intend them to understand. So while "roller coaster" gets us a long way to that meaning, are there other terms that the fan community should be using — that the general public can understand — to describe the new types of unique attractions that we are seeing in more and more parks around the world?
I don't have the answer to this yet. But I am interested in hearing your thoughts and suggestions.Tweet
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