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.
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.
"It's a spectacular ride," Coker says, "a ton of fun and both super-smooth and fast. It caps off a collection of several major steel coasters at the park."
Another one that shouldn't be missed in the New Jersey park is Nitro, a super-tall (230 feet) coaster that reaches 80 mph amid an array of horizontal loops, steep drops and tight turns.
As for coaster premieres, Hersheypark unveils its equine-themed Storm Runner this season, bringing its coaster collection to 10. A hydraulic-launched ride, the Storm Runner gallops from 0 to 72 mph in two seconds, making Smarty Jones look downright sluggish. If that weren't enough, the Runner also offers up an 18-story ascension and drop, along with barrel rolls and a loop.
"It's the first of the rocket coasters to have inversions and a more involved course after the quick launch," Coker says. "This is the one to hit if you're looking for something new."
Coaster enthusiasts are always looking for a fresh band of steel to scare the wits out of them. Coker says that roller coaster designers should have no problem taking riders even faster and higher than current rides. The one thing that may hold them back is cost. According to Coker, some of the biggest coasters carry price tags of more than $20 million.
"Even in a good economy, not many parks can afford that type of investment in a single attraction," he says. "Parks are also being much more tentative about building big, expensive rides since 9/11."
Roller coasters aren't for everyone. Fear is part of the experience, even for enthusiasts. Some people embrace the fear, while others choose to lounge by the Dippin' Dots stand.
"You want to be scared," Coker says. "That's what gets the adrenaline flowing and kicks in the endorphins and brings the heightened state of awareness. That's why they keep building coasters bigger and taller. You get used to it. I remember when a 100-foot coaster was a big thing, and now it's hard to think of a park that doesn't have one."
Despite the advanced speeds and loftier heights, coasters and other theme-park rides remain safe choices for a fast thrill. According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, the likelihood of suffering a ride-related injury serious enough to require overnight hospitalization is 1 in 20 million. The chance of being fatally injured is 1 in 760 million. The association says its numbers are based on federal government amusement-ride injury statistics, taking into account that U.S. parks with fixed rides hosted over 300 million visitors who took more than 1.5 billion rides in 2003.
Coker has certainly made his contribution to the number of rides taken each year. And yet, with so many experiences to draw from, he chooses the warhorse in his own back yard when asked to name a favorite.
"There are so many out there that are truly spectacular, it's hard to choose one," he says. "But my sentimental favorite is definitely the Cyclone, the Coney Island coaster from 1927."
SIX FLAGS AMERICA -- 3710 Central Ave. (Route 214), Largo, five miles east of the Beltway. 301-249-1500. www.sixflags.com/america. More than 100 rides, shows and attractions, including six steel and two wooden roller coasters. Admission is $36.99; $25.99 for seniors 55 and older and people with disabilities; $25.99 for children under 54 inches (ages 3 and younger free).
BUSCH GARDENS WILLIAMSBURG -- 1 Busch Gardens Blvd., Williamsburg. Three miles east of Colonial Williamsburg. Drive time from Washington is about three hours. 800-343-7946. www.buschgardens.com. More than 50 rides, shows and attractions, including four roller coasters. Admission is $46.95; $42.30 for seniors; $39.95 for children 3 to 6 (2 and younger free).
WATER COUNTRY USA -- 176 Water Country Pkwy., Williamsburg. Three miles west of Busch Gardens and about three hours from Washington. 800-343-7946. www.watercountryusa.com. Water park with rides, attractions, entertainment, dining and shopping. Admission is $34.95; $31.50 for seniors; $27.95 for children 3 to 6 (ages 2 and under free).
PARAMOUNT'S KINGS DOMINION -- Doswell, Va., Exit 98 off Interstate 95, near Richmond. About 90 minutes by car from Washington. 804-876-5000. www.kingsdominion.com. More than 200 rides, shows and attractions, including 12 roller coasters. Admission is $43.99; $38.99 for seniors 55 and older; $29.99 for children 3 to 6 (2 and under free). Discount tickets ($24.99) are available at Blockbuster and Giant food stores in the Washington and Baltimore area through June 14. After June 14, discount tickets are $29.99.
HERSHEYPARK -- 100 W. Hersheypark Dr. Hershey, Pa. About 11/2 hours by car from Washington. 800-437-7439. www.hersheypa.com. More than 60 rides and attractions, including the ZooAmerica wildlife park and 10 coasters. Also featuring the new Storm Runner roller coaster. Admission is $37.95; $21.95 for seniors 55 to 69; $15.95 for seniors 70 and older; $21.95 for children 3 to 8 (2 and under are free).
SIX FLAGS GREAT ADVENTURE, WILD SAFARI AND HURRICANE HARBOR -- Route 537, Jackson, N.J. About a 31/2-hour drive from Washington. 732-928-1821. www.sixflags.com. Home to more than 100 rides (including 13 coasters), shows, attractions, drive-through safari and Hurricane Harbor water park. Admission is $45.99 for theme park and safari; $60.99 for theme park, safari and water park; $29.99 (theme park and safari) for seniors 55 and older, people with disabilities and children under 54 inches; $45.99 (theme park, safari and water park) for seniors 55 and older, people with disabilities and children under 54 inches.
SESAME PLACE -- 100 Sesame Rd., Langhorne, Pa. About a 31/2-hour drive from Washington. 215-752-7070. www.sesameplace.com. Interactive park for children 2 to 13 based on the popular PBS television show and featuring play activities, rides, water attractions and shows. Admission is $38.95; $35.95 for seniors 55 and older (younger than 2 free). Twilight admission is $21.95.
"Roller Coasters: A Thrill-Seeker's Guide to the Ultimate Scream Machines," by Robert Coker (Metro Books, 2002). Coker also has two Web sites, www.thrillride.com, a clearinghouse for roller coasters and other thrill rides, and www.rideworld.com, which has message boards and contests.