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A Coaster Connoisseur Finds Middle Ground

By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

But after my sister's seeing-stars moment, we decided to take it easy. Instead of more wild rides, we opted to get our bearings (hence the petting zoo) and sample the latest park junk food (we both recommend the 100-percent-artificial "strawberry" smoothies). For a while I worried how we'd work off the calories, but then a park employee told us that a Cedar Point visitor walks an average of nine miles in a day. Nine miles.

Bring on the pizza and cotton candy!

"Maybe Millennium was just too high," said my sister as we drove to the park for our second day. "Maybe we could try shorter ones."

So we did. We were surprised by how many gentler coasters there were to choose from and how short the lines were. Two hours later we'd hit four coasters -- panic-free.

I rode a few others by myself. One was the rattle-your-brains wooden coaster, Mean Streak, at the far end of the peninsula with great views of Lake Erie. Then there was Wicked Twister, a giant U in the sky with 90-degree turns backward and forward. By midday it was time for the Soak City water park, which costs extra but was worth it for the lazy river, which meandered calmly while we floated on plastic inner tubes in waist-high water.

Later, we stopped by the beach, and I waded to the farthest point of the roped-off swimming area, the warm water reaching only to my waist. It was just like the ocean, except for the seagull cries being drowned out by the screams of roller coaster riders.

My sister and I split an ice cream and a funnel cake before leaving the park, and I looked longingly at Top Thrill Dragster, wishing the line weren't so long. I'd just have to come back and ride it next time, and I'd be sure to take my sister. I can picture it now: She'd be down at the bottom of the ride, holding my purse and my water bottle, chatting up someone else whose crazy sister was on the Dragster. When my ride was over, my sister and I would get in line for Wildcat or Raptor and scream our heads off on every hill, every loop.

After all, it's not that some people love roller coasters and some don't. It's just that some of us -- like the rides themselves -- have our own height restrictions.

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