A Coaster Connoisseur Finds Middle Ground
Sunday, August 17, 2008
After two days at Cedar Point, an amusement park in northern Ohio, I learned to let go of one of my most deeply entrenched beliefs about human nature: that you either like roller coasters or you don't.
If you like 'em, you're the one waiting in line with the hordes to try out the newest-fastest-tallest at any theme park you can get to. If not, you're stuck holding the backpack and sodas outside the gate, squinting up toward the sun, horrified by the Icarus-foolish steel hills, shocked that your loved one even considers going on that ride.
Well, apparently there is a gray area between coaster lovers and loathers. All it took was a trip to a park with 17 different coasters -- the most of any amusement park in the world -- to reveal that middle ground.
My sister and I always loved the thrill rides, and even as grown-ups we seek out roller coasters and water slides. A few years go, we scored VIP access to Kings Dominion in Virginia and realized why it makes good sense to wait in lines for coasters: Nausea grounded us after seven coasters in two hours.
This time, we figured we'd do things the sensible way. On a two-day trip to Cedar Point, we would wait patiently in line for the biggest, most popular coasters, giving our inner ears a chance to adjust before being hurled again around the loops and down the steep drops of the park's legendary collection of rides.
But on the first day's third coaster, near the top of the 310-foot hill on Millennium Force, something happened to my sister. Staring up at the summit as we clink-clinked our way skyward, this once-fearless daredevil turned into a quaking puddle of nerves. When the ride was over, she told me she had blacked out for a second on that hill, and she was still shaking as we walked from the ride.
No more coasters like that, she swore.
No more roller coasters , period? I wondered. Would she have to hold my backpack and soda at the base of the rides . . . forever?
Millennium Force is not even the tallest coaster at Cedar Point, a mile-long, 364-acre, 138-year-old amusement park on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Erie. Just an hour's drive from the Cleveland airport, it's a quick hop for true coaster fans, who'll eagerly wait two hours to ride its tallest coaster, Top Thrill Dragster, which shoots riders 420 feet high and as fast as 120 mph. Oh yeah, and the hill's shaped like a giant hairpin: You climb at a 90-degree angle to go up, then dive 90 degrees to go back down, twisting as you fall.
Although it's the roller coasters that give Cedar Point its cachet, the park also has lovely landscaped grounds, tons of kiddie rides, such live shows as BMX trick riding and a musical on ice, a variety of restaurants (sushi, anyone?) and even a nod to the area's history, with a cluster of transplanted log cabins hauled in from various parts of frontier-era Ohio, plus a barn full of old-fashioned farm tools and a petting zoo. (Pet the sheep! They're incredibly soft.)
But my sister and I hadn't flown all the way to Cleveland and driven an hour west to pet sheep. We'd done it because while we were pondering the trip, any time we mentioned Cedar Point, whether to enthusiastic kids or cynical adults, everyone who'd been there responded the same way: Their eyes lit up like we'd just told them Santa Claus had come over for dinner. It was a look of wonder and joy, and we figured, hey, why not get some of that for ourselves?
Our eyes did that same thing -- sproing! -- the minute we saw the park from the causeway: the huge, colorful, coiling loops of the coasters, the unbelievably blue water of Lake Erie on either side of the peninsula. Cedar Point's location -- on a limited swath of ground, sticking out in the water like a long finger -- has always proved challenging to its ride architects. There's just not enough land for big new coasters, let alone new pizza joints. The solution has been to weave coaster tracks around existing rides so that the cars of, say, Corkscrew pass right under the Iron Dragon track, making rides even more dizzying -- and terrifying.