LONG BEFORE LAP BELTS and inverted loops became amusement park staples, people had to suffer a chill before they got their thrill. The earliest predecessors of the modern-day roller coaster were merely blocks of ice that had been carved into sleds. Toss a little straw onto the seating area, warn the frosty guests to keep their hands inside the ride, and it was time to shove these 15th-century Russian contraptions down a frozen hill and no hot turkey leg stand at the bottom, either.
Today's coaster fans are living in a golden age, according to Robert Coker, whose book, "Roller Coasters: A Thrill-Seeker's Guide to the Ultimate Scream Machines," chronicles the history of the roller coaster, offers reviews of current thrill rides and peeks into the future of coaster design.
(Paramount's Kings Dominion)
Coker, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. home of Coney Island and its venerable Cyclone coaster has taken the plunge on hundreds of coasters. He's also a big fan of the roller coasters at the five major amusement parks closest to the Washington area (Paramount's Kings Dominion, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Six Flags America, Hersheypark and Six Flags Great Adventure).
"Each park has its own unique collection," Coker says. "Wooden, inverted, launch-style. There are some that you don't want to miss."
For starters, Coker praises Kings Dominion's lineup of 12 roller coasters, which includes three quick-launch, hold-your-lunch coasters: the air-compression-charged Hypersonic XLC (0 to 80 mph in 1.8 seconds); the inverted, continuous-circuit Volcano, the Blast Coaster; and the Flight of Fear, which features a 0-to-54-mph start and four inversions in complete darkness.
Coker also likes the park's wooden coasters, especially the Rebel Yell, a twin-racing roller coaster with 12 hills and a top speed of 65 mph.
"Riding in a steel coaster is like flying in an F-16," he says. "It's very smooth, and you're doing these acrobatic twists and turns. A wooden coaster, on the other hand, is more like a mechanical bull. They throw you around, and it's more about that loud, noisy experience."
Although Busch Gardens Williamsburg has no wooden varieties, Coker lauds its collection of steel-track roller coasters. Apollo's Chariot features a 210-foot drop and plenty of air time (weightlessness) as riders traverse a series of camel humps at 73 mph. Cars on the Big Bad Wolf are suspended from the track, the better to swing riders from side to side as they career through the surrounding forest. And the Alpengeist, which simulates an out-of-control ski lift, dishes up six inversions, a 170-foot drop and a top speed of 67 mph.
One of Coker's favorite Busch Gardens coasters is the 26-year-old Loch Ness Monster, which has two loops and a top speed of 60 mph.
"It's one of the prettiest coasters I've ever ridden," he says. "It drops over the river and features interlocking loops."
Moving on to Six Flags America, Coker singles out the Joker's Jinx, a launched coaster that serves up a 0-to-60-mph start and four upside down loops. Coker is also fond of Two-Face: The Flip Side, which features face-to-face seating and dangling legs. The wooden selection is also strong, with the Wild One, an 87-year-old coaster that dates to 1917 (its original location was Boston), and the Roar, a lengthy (3,200 feet of track) twister with a top speed of 50 mph.
"And then, of course, you have Superman Ride of Steel," Coker says, "which is a 200-foot-tall ride."
Both the tallest and fastest ride in the park, Superman riders plunge 20 stories as they traverse the mile-long track at a top speed of 75 mph.
Heading north, Coker is less than mild mannered in his praise of Superman Ultimate Flight at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J. This coaster, one of 13 in the park, offers a flying experience as passengers are strapped in while lying on their backs. They eventually fly headfirst, just like the Man of Steel, through the ride's spirals, banked curves and inverted loop.