THE SECRET TO a great roller coaster goes like this: You've got the strap in. You've got the climb. Got the crest and dive. Got the hairpin curve. The velocity. The negative Gs. The bank. The binge. It's in the engineering, the design like an artistic creation figured down to Newtonian physics, quantum mechanics, contemporary entropy--all calibrated with the precision of a surgeon and the imagination of an epic narrator. The best ones for thrill alone are the deluxe hyper-coasters, supermodels of the millennium with their near-eternal airtime, horizontal helixes, and heartline corkscrews that have been known, according to rumors among the upper echelons of coasteer ranks, to induce the near-death experience in test-rider chimps.
Just talking about The Ride is a rush. Three minutes of mayhem. A 200-foot first plunge. A 74-mph speed envelope. A hundred-foot-high ultimate weightless zone. But talking about it from the armchair, says Randy Geisler, past president of American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE) from St. Paul, is like discussing a heart attack: so much hot air when the big one hits. For him and other pilgrims who have made Valleyfair's new Wild Thing a prime destination this summer, the whole history of coasters is about to be vaulted into a new era. "Enthusiasts as a rule go for intensity. It's like bungie jumping, skydiving, bronco busting, airplane acrobatics--all height, motion, and speed folded into a single adventure. Wild Thing down in Shakopee will be that, times 10. We're not talking about pony rides here. We're talking about the blazing, blindsiding, gonzo rush."
The summer Geisler joined up with ACE in 1979, he trekked 6,000 miles around the country and hit, "for pure kicks, total abandon without apology," more than 50 coasters. During the tour he met up with others on theme-park hajj who, safe among believers, confessed their cult-like obsession. One bragged a list of 500 survivals ("credits" in coaster lingo) on rides dating back to the so-called Golden Age in the 1930s when there were over 1,500 roller coasters across the country. Another had been married on one, with the wedding party and minister aboard a train pulled to the crown of the highest slope and "I dos" uttered before taking the matrimonial blur-speed plunge. And then, Geisler says, there are those he's encountered who haunt the fringe, addicts akin to Brando's Apocalypse Now character who cross into the coaster-circuit heart of darkness and never quite come back; it's a danger, sure, but he's known others who've "gone bonkers for a while before regaining their bearings."
Along the spectrum from nauseated no-goers to far-gone junkies, most manage to curb their appetites by migrating to annual conferences, workshops, and exclusive ridetimes hosted by theme parks around the globe. In the marginal culture that is ACE, their coaster lexicon sounds like a foreign tongue: There's "airtime," key word for the sensation of being ejected out of your cab, which occurs most intensely in the front seat on a crest and the back seat on a swoop. There's the "batwing," which features two inversions angled at 45 degrees in a mirror-image arrangement. There's the "bowtie" and the "boomerang," both loop design features with 180-degree bank-and-bends. There's the "camel back" series of hills, the "fine del capo" duck under an overhead support which simulates imminent decapitation, the "parabolic" continuous curve hill, the "wingover" similar to the corkscrew but more like the vertical loop. And then there's "negative Gs"--the sensation of suspended anti-gravity with serious airtime and, in most devotees' book, the formula for a supreme high.
The roller coaster as we know it is part of the modern version of medieval Europe's pleasure gardens, down-to-earth amusement parks that featured live entertainment (lion tamers, sword swallowers, hunger artists), fireworks, and primitive rides like ox-drawn carts. The American rendition sprang up after the Civil War, when electric-traction trolleys were all the rage. In 1893, the Chicago World's Fair introduced the midway, whose main attraction was the first patented Ferris wheel. The following year, Paul Boynton's Water Chutes opened on the city's south side and in 1895 franchised into Coney Island. By 1920, over a thousand roller coasters were in operation at American parks, a heyday that crashed with the Depression and revived a couple decades later, in the post-war upswing. In 1971, Disneyland, home of the Matterhorn, greeted its millionth visitor. In 1979, The Beast was erected at Kings Island and boasted rank as the world's longest wooden coaster, with 7,400 feet of track. In 1992, the first suspended inverted coaster turned mechanical design upside down at Six Flags Great America. Over the decades, dozens of coasters have fallen prey to fires, gotten struck by lightning, been subject to suits by perished riders' estates, and cost park developers over $300 million to construct. Wild Thing alone is slated to weigh in with a price tag of nearly $10 million.
With over 5,460 feet of steel track and the longest low-gravity weightless zone of any coaster on the planet, Wild Thing's the incarnation of what Geisler calls "every enthusiasts' idea of the dream machine." While ACE has in the past declined to rate rides or declare favorites--a system he likens to that of asking a mother to pick her favorite child--Geisler's description of Wild Thing makes it clear that this ride is destined to be a divine rite of passage. "We've been studying the look, poring over scene drawings, talking to the designers, and visiting the construction area," he says. "From our calculations, it's a classic in the making.