Spotlight – Roller coasters . dream or scream machines?

To be flung into the air at 70 miles per hour on a suspended roller coaster certainly gives one an incredible heart-in-your-throat adrenaline rush. This motion madness called the roller coaster has become a popular attraction and holiday hotspot.

Students take the roller coaster’s existence for granted, as if it has been here since the beginning of time. But hasn’t it? And whose bright idea was it to bring emotions of excitement and thrill through shock and fear?

It all started in Russia. During the 15th and 16th centuries, many of the primitive roller coasters were constructed out of wood and ice, and were basically simple ice slides at winter amusement fairs. The first wheeled roller coaster was built in the 18th century in St. Petersburg for Russian royalty as a form of entertainment. It was nicknamed Flying Mountain, which became a prototype for roller coasters to come.

From then on, the roller coaster epidemic caught-on all over Europe, and many companies fanatically built the colossal monsters. Several roller coasters were built in France, and new technology advanced their thrills. Belleville Mountains in France introduced the first coaster with cars locked to tracks. Mechanical advancements continued to open new possibilities for coasters. Cables were constructed to hoist cars to tops of drops and tracks formed loops to propel riders upside down. But the technology could not keep up with the peoples’ demand for better high-speed fun, and coasters became extremely dangerous.

Ten years later, La Marcus Thompson, an inventor from Ohio installed the Switchback Railway at Coney Island, New York in 1884.

Until 1884, roller coasters only went about 6 to 12 miles per hour. American John Miller, an important figure in roller coaster history, made over one hundred patents improving roller-coaster mechanics. Regarded as the father of the high-speed roller coaster, Miller opened the way for the modern-day mega-coasters. In the early 1900’s Miller patented many improvements to coaster safety, including upstops to prevent cars from derailing and another device that prevents coasters from rolling backwards.

With safety improvements and patents made by Miller in the early 1900’s, a roller coaster boom was evident all over America. From the Dip-lo-do-Cus to primitive versions of today’s Cyclone, roller coasters were becoming an important and prominent form of American entertainment.

GW students in search of high-speed fun do not have to look far. Three amusement parks in the area boast high-speed, up-to-date roller coasters that offer the thrill of a lifetime.

Paramount King’s Dominion is located in Richmond, Va., a two-hour drive from the District.

Our bragging rights begin with the best roller coaster collection on the entire East coast, according to King’s Dominion’s Web site. We’re talking ten of the wildest wood, steel and twenty-first century machines you’ll ever find anywhere.

The most popular King’s Dominion rides are the Volcano and the Outer Limits. The Volcano, the world’s fastest suspended roller coaster, shoots passengers out of a volcano at 70 miles per hour, according to the Web site. The Outer Limits is one of the few indoor roller coasters in the country enclosed in complete darkness. This high-speed coaster is based on the 1960’s science fiction show, The Outer Limits.

King’s Dominion offers the Shockwave, the Grizzly, the Rebel Yell and seven other roller coasters.

Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., also provides a plethora of roller coaster choices for thrill-seeking buffs. Apollo’s Chariot takes passengers through nine drops as big as 210 feet deep. The coaster races up and down drops at 73 miles per hour, giving riders an extra thrill as the seats elevate above the cars’ frame to give the feeling of free flight sensation, according to the Busch Gardens Web site.

The Aplengeist is popular coaster at Busch Gardens. This inverted roller coaster reaches speeds up to 67 miles per hour and features drops of 170 feet deep.

Six Flags is also around the corner in Bowie, Md. The park, whose slogan is America’s favorite thrills! offers more than 10 roller coasters for riders’ enjoyment. The Superman Ride of Steel is a three-minute, twenty-second ride that reaches speeds faster than 70 miles per hour and is the tallest and fastest ride at Six Flags.

Other thrill-filled attractions at Six Flags include the Mind Eraser, which is also an inverted roller coaster. This two-minute ride reaches speeds up to 55 miles per hour. The Joker’s Jinx, Two-Face: The Flip Side and the Typhoon Sea Coaster are other Six Flags roller coasters.It’s hard to say (which are more popular) rides, Debbie Evans, spokesperson for Six Flags amusement park said. The rides have different popularity with different age groups.

Rides are relatively safe and are shut down according to different maintenance schedules and routine inspections, Evans said. But despite efforts to keep coasters safe, amusement parks have had their share of tragic accidents.

In 1999 a major controversy about roller-coaster safety boiled over in the District. The Washington Post reported a story about Timothy Fan, a twenty-year-old college student from New York, who was killed on the Shockwave roller coaster at King’s Dominion in August. This standing roller coaster travels as fast as 50 miles per hour and spins through two loops, a side loop and an inverted loop as high as 95 feet above the ground.

Fan was not in the train when this two-minute ride ended, according to The Post. However, there was no error on the behalf of the ride’s operators, and the safety restraints didn’t seem to have malfunctioned according to The Post.

Spokespeople and park officials of King’s Dominion said the ride did not malfunction and did not cause the accident, according to The Post. Before each ride an operator checks to make sure each rider is securely fastened, they said. Spokespeople for the park said Fan might have wiggled out of his safety restraints and was flung out of the roller coaster.

A lot of the time it’s the people’s errors that cause this stuff, said Leonard Cavalier, executive director of the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials, according to the Post. On coasters, most of the time people are fooling around.

A few days before the Shockwave incident, a twelve-year-old boy fell to his death on the Drop Zone at an amusement park in Santa Clara, Calif. This ride goes up 200 feet and drops riders at 62 miles per hour to create the sensation of a free-fall.

The number of injuries on roller coasters has doubled in the last five years according to World of Coasters, a roller coaster rider enthusiast’s Web site. But parkgoers are more likely to injure themselves watching TV, using a garden hose or even driving to the amusement park than on the rides at parks, according to the International Association of Amusement. Eighty percent of injuries are the result of rider error, according to manufacturers, designers and safety experts.

But these stories and statistics are not keeping some GW students from riding roller coasters. Junior Andy Federspeil visited King’s Dominion and Busch Gardens several times.

They’re fun, Federspeil said. (People) ride them for the thrill and the rush.

Junior Ross Gronau said people ride roller coasters for a different reason.

When you’re trapped with family, it’s the only chance you can get to get away from your parents, Gronau said. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and you get a little bit of zero gravity there. I’d pay forty bucks to ride roller coasters all day.

Freshman Nicole Kaplan said she does not like riding roller coasters because they make her nauseous. Kaplan said she rode her first roller coaster at Six Flags in Massachusetts, and vowed to never ride one ever again. She said she doubts the safety of the rides because she has heard many horror stories about safety restraints coming loose and riders being flung off the coasters, sometimes to their deaths.

Most students will ride a roller coaster at some point in their lives. The heart pounding rush, thrill and excitement o
f plummeting hundreds of feet at speeds so fast one feels frozen and motionless will continue to grow bigger, better and faster. Roller coasters have been around for hundreds of years as a form of popular entertainment, and will continue to do so as technology improves their thrills and chills.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.