MASON, Ohio — It had been more than three decades since I last faced The Beast. Butterflies churned in my stomach as I approached, recalling the screams, the blend of fear and anticipation – and the exhilaration of surviving the chill-inducing amusement park ride.
How would the memories hold up after all the years? Was the roller coaster known as The Beast just as potent, especially when compared with the other creations looming nearby?
My 14-year-old daughter wasn’t particularly impressed as we stood in line to experience a ride that was the most intimidating in the world when it was inaugurated in 1979. On her cellphone, she had learned there are now much faster and higher rides with more acute angles of descent than The Beast, and she already had experienced a few.
That sentiment seemed to be mirrored by the group who rode just before us. We heard some screams, but they lacked the volume, enthusiasm and shrillness that I recalled.
With our cellphones safely stashed in wooden boxes to prevent them flying out of our pockets, the Kings Island staffers locked the security bar in place and made sure our seatbelts were latched.
The clack-clack-clack of the apparatus that pulled us up the initial climb built our anticipation and provided time to look around and realize just how high we were. Then we reached the peak and were suddenly plunging 43 meters (141 feet) while reaching speeds of nearly 105 kilometers per hour (65 miles per hour).
While the ride matched my memories – I chose it specifically for comparison with newer rides — my daughter gave me a slight smile and waved her hand, signaling that her grade was only a “so-so.”
We headed to the adjacent Diamondback, and I understood why. This roller coaster had no sides on the cars and provided 10 drops that create that sensation of leaving your stomach up in the air somewhere. My daughter chuckled as I embarrassingly admitted afterward that I wasn’t feeling so good and would sit out until I got my feet back under me.
It was daunting to think that when compared with other coasters – there are an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 worldwide – even the Diamondback sounds almost a little tame as park owners keep seeking ways to raise the thrill quotient.
Consider the records: The Formula Rossa at Ferrari World in Dubai has hit 240 kph (149.1 mph), one of six coasters in the world that are rated at 161 kph or faster. We may love to be scared while knowing deep down inside that the danger is minimal, but Formula Rossa has a real risk – eye protection is required because a flying insect or even a grain of sand can cause serious damage at that speed.
Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, has a drop of 127 meters (418 feet), nearly triple The Beast’s 43 meters. And two coasters are tied for the steepest angle of descent at 121 degrees. To put that into perspective, imagine looking down from the top of the plunge and not being able to see the bottom. I prefer not to.
Despite all the high technology that allows 360-degree loops and roller coasters where the cars are attached at the top, there clearly is still a place in the hierarchy for older rides like The Beast and newer ones designed to cater to America’s love of nostalgia.
From Russia with thrills
Take, for instance, Knoebels Amusement Resort in eastern Pennsylvania, whose motto is “Make new memories the old-fashioned way.” Not only are there no record-holding rides, there are no admission or parking fees – which can add up to hundreds of dollars for a family of four at some parks – yet it still manages to produce thrills. Knoebels sells ride and water park tickets by the day or even by the ride.
The park went through the painstaking process of creating a luge-like roller coaster, Flying Turns, that relies on wheels instead of rails, and brought in the aging Rocket coaster that was built in San Antonio in 1947 and rejuvenated it as, appropriately, the Phoenix.
Although America is largely credited for driving the global rise in popularity for thrill rides, historians say the original precursors were Russian ice slides that date back to the 17th century. Catherine the Great is reported to have had several. The first wheeled coaster was introduced around 1784.
Despite all of the dizzying plunges, neck-straining turns and zero-gravity “air” that my daughter enjoyed, her favorite ride at Kings Island wasn’t even a coaster. Water ride Congo Falls was the only one that she rode twice because on a hot, steamy day nothing beats a drenching splash.
Maybe I should stick to water slides.