What is the definition of a roller coaster?

December 20, 2018, 5:17 PM · 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.

Replies (11)

December 20, 2018 at 9:46 PM

Aren't there some legitimate roller coaster organizations out there? What does the American Coaster Enthusiasts define as a roller coaster?

December 20, 2018 at 11:28 PM

For me, there are four criteria a ride must meet in order to be called a roller coaster:

1. It must consist of a ride vehicle rolling along a track on wheels
2. It must operate solely by the principles of conservation of energy for a majority of the ride
3. It must contain at least one valley point (a low point where a ride vehicle starting from rest would not be able to complete the course even in the absence of friction)
4. It must be listed on the Roller Coaster DataBase

Larson loops are disqualified under all four of these categories. SkyWarps are disqualified only because they remain in contact with the drive tires throughout rather than coasting, though they could be considered a powered coaster (I personally think of them more like a Bayern Curve...a coaster-like flat ride). Gringotts technically doesn't qualify as a majority of the ride is driven by drive tires...I consider this a coaster-like dark ride. Lastly, Hydromagnetic slides fail to meet all four criteria, and while they may be the most coaster-like of these options they do not roll and are powered uphill.

To me, the more interesting debate is Intamin's shuttle coasters (such as Superman: Escape from Krypton or Wicked Twister), as these are commonly considered roller coasters yet don't strictly meet every requirement I list above (notably the absence of a valley point). Personally, I consider these to be coasters, but mainly due to convention and the fact that they often can't be filtered out on credit counting sites.

December 21, 2018 at 1:26 AM

I get a kick out of the fact that in 1988 SFGAm opened the worlds tallest and fastest looping coaster then 30 years later builds a lame carnival ride and advertises it as the "worlds largest loop coaster" as if people aren't going to notice.

December 21, 2018 at 12:15 PM

The term "roller coaster" has just 2 words, so IMHO, in order for an attraction to be deemed one, it must have elements of BOTH words.

Roller - The attraction must physically roll either on rollers, wheels (most typically), or belts. The rolling must be a majority of the experience. This is where Krakatau falls short of the definition, since it spends a majority of the experience sliding. Most log flumes, shoot the chutes, and slow-boat rides would also be discounted as well, since a majority of the experience, the vehicle is floating, not actually rolling. A ride like Journey to Atlantis would be the rare exception, and that is one of the few examples I can think of where a log flume-style ride could be considered a roller coaster.

Coaster - At some point during the ride, the vehicle must "coast", meaning it must freely move without any changes in velocity except due to gravity and friction. This is where the Larson Loops and other flat ride roller-coaster-like attractions fall short. At no point during the operation is the movement of the vehicle not impacted by the drive or braking systems. The vehicles are connected to blocks that form a continuous loop around the length of the track, so in reality while you can only sit in the "train", the vehicle itself extends the full length of the track and connects to itself on the other end. The coasting requirement also discounts powered kiddie rides that have motors along the entire length of the track (either LIMs or standard friction motors). There are some powered coasters out there that are powered up and then coast for a final section or dive/drop, so those could be considered roller coasters, but a lot of the really small ones that just go around in a circle or figure 8 with a few bunny hills are always in contact with a motor, meaning they're never actually "coasting".

In my eye, there's really not much of a debate to be had here. The term defines itself, so if an attraction doesn't possess both elements (rolling and coasting), it can not be called a roller coaster. I agree with AJ's rules, but I think it's a lot simpler than that. FWIW AJ, Wicked Twister and other shuttle coasters do have a valley point. If you power the train up and then stop applying power and brakes, the train will eventually valley somewhere near the station. Other shuttle coasters that have inversions or other elements may valley in different spots as well depending on specific conditions (Vekoma Invertigos or the Premier Sky Rockets). So I think the valley element is a function of any attraction that rolls and coasts, and that valley point doesn't have to be somewhere other than the starting point.

Now, if you want to really spark a debate, let's discuss how a shopping mall can be deemed a theme park.

December 21, 2018 at 8:40 AM

Wouldn’t you say “water coaster” is a newer term for the Volcano Bay and Holiday World type water rides? They do coast, and they are on water, so the description can be fair.
And I’ve seen the term “roller coaster hybrid” - which would describe Gringott’s and Revenge of the Mummy. Part of the rides are “roll” and “coast” thus “hybrid” would tell readers it’s not the full roller coaster experience the entire time.

December 21, 2018 at 11:59 AM

I am essentially in agreement with AJ and Russell although AJ's comment about the necessity of a listing in rcdb raises an interesting point. While writing a piece about roller coasters which opened this year I was more than a little reluctant to include Harley Quinn Crazy Coaster, a Skywarp. I don't consider it a coaster for the reason Robert mentioned but lo and behold, it's listed in rcdb as a powered coaster, so I said what the heck, I'll let it go. And yes, it utilizes RMC's T-Rex track but that in itself does not qualify it as a coaster.

December 21, 2018 at 1:00 PM

So based on these requirements, I assume a wild mouse is considered a roller coaster?

December 21, 2018 at 1:07 PM

@AJ "4. It must be listed on the Roller Coaster DataBase"

That list has Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts in it. Even Universal said from the start this wasn't a roller coaster but a thrill ride with coaster elements. I would say it's an exciting dark ride because if you review it as a roller coaster it's a let down but it also never wanted to be a roller coaster.

In the end I don't know and I don't care. I like more and more hybrid rides are coming.

December 21, 2018 at 1:34 PM

Gringott's is most certainly a roller coaster. The trains are roller coaster trains with standard wheels (from roller coaster manufacturer, Premier). The only difference is the ability of the cars to spin (which has been used on coaster trains for over a decade now). The track is standard roller coaster track with block sections that act like gimble-bases. Those sections are no different than transfer tracks found on virtually every roller coaster in the world, they just move in different ways and serve a different purpose from standard transfer tracks. I take anything that a theme park marketing department says with a grain of salt, and instead look at the attraction itself, which is far more of a roller coaster than Krakatau or a Larson Loop.

@Sarah - Wild mouses are definitely roller coasters. I'm not sure how you could define them as anything but.

December 21, 2018 at 3:27 PM

The origin of roller coasters are the Russian Ice Mountains that were constructed for amusement and trespassed via sled or wheeled cart. When the French were introduced to the idea they built the first tracked coaster and called it a Russian Mountain (Montagne Russe) as it is called in many languages. So originally it was a trackless ride and you could make the case that an Aqua coaster resembles the original Russian Mountain slides more than a tracked coaster.

December 21, 2018 at 7:14 PM

OT, it doesn't matter what a park decides to call their rides. Larson loops and some Disk'O rides are often marketed as roller coasters yet they aren't included in RCDB because they are more similar to flat rides. Mechanically, Gringotts is a roller coaster and is valid for inclusion on RCDB. Because the ride experience is not comparable to traditional roller coasters, however, I exclude this ride from my coaster rankings and instead have it ranked against dark rides. Dollywood's Blazing Fury is another attraction in the same category...it's technically a roller coaster, but the ride experience is more representative of a dark ride. On the other hand, something like Revenge of the Mummy is a roller coaster/dark ride hybrid that performs much closer to an ordinary roller coaster and is included in my coaster rankings.

Russell, the reason I don't consider there to be a valley point on a ride like Wicked Twister is because it is powered along the entirety of that horizontal stretch of track. If the train were to stop, LIM motors could be used to push the train back into the station. By comparison, a Schwarzkopf shuttle loop or Vekoma boomerang have spots where a train could be stranded and require outside assistance in order to return it to the station. It's definitely a gray area, hence why I generally yield to common enthusiast opinion on those rides.

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