Before I spent an intensely hot, sticky day at Six Flags America exploring the newly upgraded Hurricane Harbor water park, I was trying to reconcile my notion of amusement parks as places where only the fittest survive with their popular image as places of exhilarating fun.
My view of the Largo tourist attraction as an experiment in Darwinism has nothing to do with recent news events. (In June, there was a shooting in the parking lot, and in July, a woman died of cardiac arrest on the Shark Attack water ride.)
I was not worried about making it out of the park alive, but rather I dreaded once again having to mourn the passage of time and face the fact that my worldview has changed since childhood -- at least from high up. Three years ago, I realized I had developed a moderate fear of heights when I went to Six Flags with my brother Danny. Although we lived for our yearly swim-team trips to Kings Dominion well into our teenage years, neither of us had been to a theme park in more than a decade.
Back then, I could do a swan dive off a 15-foot diving board without thinking twice, so it was easy to follow in my older brother's daredevil footsteps to become a roller coaster enthusiast. But after Danny forced me to relive our youth by making me board every coaster, I was less interested in the physical feeling of stomach-dropping weightlessness than I was in living to tell about it.
And so it has been the past few times I've gone to Six Flags as part of my job covering Prince George's County entertainment. That is, until that muggy day last month when I explored the park's water section. Hurricane Harbor's main attractions are its two new towering rides, Tornado and Bahama Blast.
To get myself ready for them, I mounted an inner tube and soared down the Shark Attack, a partially enclosed water slide that drops 52 feet. Without twists or turns, it was definitely easy on my nerves while still exciting, especially as a refreshing dose of water poured on me in the tunnel.
Then my friend Tracy and I headed to the Tornado, a huge bright-blue and yellow ride with a checkerboard design. Riders spin every which way after they plunge from a 75-foot-tall platform through a tunnel and into an enormous funnel, which the park says is 60 feet in diameter.
Luckily, the most difficult part of the ride was walking to the summit carrying our heavy two-person tube. The kids in line told us that it was a really fun experience but that they hadn't expected the drop to be so steep. One 10-year-old said he was caught off-guard by the dramatic fall because the virtual tour online showed only the section where riders spin and glide from side to side through the massive funnel.
Tracy and I felt both exhilaration and fear, screaming and laughing until we landed in a pool at the bottom.
Tracy, a 30-year-old teacher from Olney whose students call her Ms. Renken, later proclaimed the Tornado her favorite ride of the day. "As somebody who's a little bit timid and not the biggest roller coaster enthusiast, the water rides were a nice change of pace and a little bit tamer for those of us who don't like the steep roller coasters," she said.
Feeling like a gravity-defying champ after the Tornado, Tracy was overconfident as we waited for Bahama Blast, a green and purple tube slide that starts at a 55-foot tower and twists for 517 feet, including three drops, before pitching riders into a pool. The little girls in front of us, in groups of two and four, all let out bloodcurdling screams just after they pushed off. Tracy boldly asserted that there was no reason for the kids' noise.
Then we discovered what they were shrieking about. Darkness enveloped us as we plummeted full-speed, riding a spinning tube. But we knew the only place we were going was into a pool of water, so by the time we got there, we were giddy.
After spending the day on both wet and dry rides, it was clear that for our money, we would always choose the former. Somehow, the slides made us feel brave again. So what if they weren't crazy enough to truly test our fearlessness? They showered us with water on a sweltering summer day and made us believe we could conquer other rides that, paradoxically, seemed much bigger and much higher than they had when we were young.
Six Flags America opens at 10:30 a.m. most days. Closing times vary between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. Admission, not including tax, is $39.99; for those 62 and older, the disabled and children shorter than 54 inches, $28.99; free for children 3 and younger. Parking is $10. Exit 15A off Interstate 495 (Capital Beltway), then five miles east on Route 214 to the park. 301-249-1500.