get the drop
My stomach churning, the sun beating down on my aching cranium, I slowly uncurl my fingers from their death grip. My eyelids creak open. I’m lying on my back, with my upper torso restrained by a harness and my legs feebly kicking in midair.
“Sweet merciful savior,” I think, “it’s nearly over.” An old aphorism says that there are no atheists in foxholes. I’d amend that to include roller coasters.
I am near the end of my first run on X2, probably the most exciting (read: vomit-inducing) coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain. The signs in and around X2 have it right: Closing your eyes won’t make it go away. I know. I tried. On my first ride, I kept my eyes open maybe 10% of the time. My second ride, I managed 20%.
I’ve always felt sorry for those little rat dogs toted around in women’s purses, but trapped with my fellow riders and stuck to the seating apparatus as much by my own sweat as by gravity, I suddenly know what it means to be confined at the whim of an indifferent master. When we finally slide into the station, my mild claustrophobia has reached near-panic proportions. The seats rotate forward. I am once again sitting upright, and my feet are on the ground. The world is almost as it should be.
“Well,” my companion says to me with an evil grin. “Ready to go again?”
Whether the prospect thrills you or fills you with dread, Southern California’s theme parks have just rolled out a wave of new rides. Though Disneyland, the scene’s 800-pound gorilla, didn’t get in the act (other than adding an Indiana Jones live show), Magic Mountain and Knott’s Berry Farm are offering roller coasters in X2 and Pony Express, while Universal Studios is replicating the coaster experience virtually with its Simpsons Ride. And though these are the summer’s big three, there’s also a slew of other attractions (see sidebar).
But back to X2. The revamped version of the X coaster, which originally opened in 2002, is louder, meaner and scarier, thanks to “NASA-quality engineering” (it’s nice to see aerospace types finally putting their talents to good use). This translates to a new suspension system and trains that are about 20,000 pounds lighter. All the things I find appalling -- a hairy first drop, insane speeds, intense disorientation, countless flips and inversions -- are the features that coaster aficionados enthuse over. And X2 has them in spades.
Pulling out of the gate, riders are turned onto their backs. The gentle harmony of “It Had to Be You” is piped through the speakers as the coaster makes its initial 200-foot ascent. Take a moment to enjoy the beauty of the park from this sky-high vantage point, because a second later you’ll be unceremoniously flipped over and plummeting headfirst, face-down at 76 mph toward the ground. After that, it all gets blurry. You twist and hurtle through a 3,610-foot maze, flying around a 185-foot raven turn and whooshing past fire-spewing jets on the back straight until two minutes later, you finally get to shuffle off this metal coil.
Kurt Schneider, a member of the roller coaster appreciation and preservation group American Coaster Enthusiasts, recalls the first time he rode X2’s progenitor, X. “I was sitting on the outside of one of the cars. As it flipped on the last turn, I partially flew out and ended up hanging on by my harness.” Was he terrified? Angry? Preparing a lawsuit? “I was laughing so hard when I came into the station,” Schneider says. “I wanted to ride it all day long.”
That’s what separates roller coaster fanatics from terra firma-loving mortals. His experience on X2 was much the same -- except for falling out of the harness. “Everything you look for in a roller coaster, this is it,” Schneider says. “X2 has excellent pacing. The new colors say: I’m ominous and you can’t avoid me. It’s mayhem from start to finish.”
Those of us with an instinctive dislike for hurtling our bodies at high speeds (skiing, airplane landings, even Slip ‘N Slides) can still get a thrill on another new, albeit much tamer, coaster. Some may consider Knott’s Berry Farm to be on the B-team of Southern California theme parks, but it’s also the least overwhelming and possesses a certain old-school charm. It also boasts Ghost Rider, a wooden coaster (or “woodie”) that’s popular with casual riders and coaster enthusiasts alike, and the only two flywheel-propelled coasters on the West Coast, Montezooma’s Revenge and the new Pony Express.
To experience the latter, you climb aboard a streamlined, miniaturized version of a merry-go-round pony, lean forward and wait for the spine-cracking back rest to snap you into position. As the coaster’s hefty coil unravels and launches, Pony Express gives you 32 seconds of moderately paced, pulse-quickening action.
“It’s not very long, it’s not very high, and it’s not very fast, but it’s well designed and the pacing is very good. There are no slow spots, and it fits nicely with the western theme,” Schneider says.
It’s not just about speed and thrills, though. Theming is key to any successful ride. “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening, who describes himself as a huge amusement park fan, says he was recently asked by his children where he would go and what he would do if he could be transported to any place and era. “I knew immediately that I wanted to go to 1920s New York, so I could go to Coney Island,” he says.
His love for the golden age of roller coasters is apparent in every detail and reference embedded into the Simpsons Ride. Launched simultaneously at Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Florida, the motion simulator was conceived about two years ago, around the same time work began on “The Simpsons Movie.” “We had talked about doing a Simpsons movie using Sideshow Bob as the big villain, but we decided not to use him in the movie and saved him for the ride,” Groening says.
Universal Studios has plenty of rides but no real roller coasters, and the Simpsons Ride, with its shockingly realistic simulation of a 360-degree barrel roll, is as close as it gets. Built on the former site of Back to the Future: The Ride, it pays cheeky homage to its forerunner with a short video segment that airs (along with fake commercials and clips from the TV show) on screens strategically placed above the queue.
Designed as a theme park within a theme park, the ride experience begins when visitors enter Krustyland through Krusty the Clown’s gaping maw. His lolling tongue, made of a soft, squishy material, is probably the most comfortable place to stand in all of Universal Studios. If only the entire park were carpeted with the stuff.
It’s in the midway area where the ride designers’ devotion to detail becomes apparent. A cartoon-y version of a small-town carnival with purple as its signature color, it includes a booth for Madam Manjula, Future Looker Atter (closed and bearing a sign that says, “Sorry, didn’t know you were coming”), accident-prone Hans Moleman’s info booth (the kicker is that he doesn’t know anything) and a concessions stand (complete with simulated popcorn smell) run by Kwik-E-Mart guru Apu.
“We wanted the ride to have the same relationship to other rides as the TV show has to the rest of television,” Groening says. The ride satirizes the amusement park experience even as it fully exploits roller coaster traditions. “Standing in line you’re being told the story of the ride, but we’re making fun of that waiting period by including some risky jokes -- like misinforming people they have only 300 minutes left to wait. We had to be careful. We didn’t want to cause riots.”
The ride obeys the standard “Oh no, something’s gone horribly wrong” plot line, but it also contains gently subversive elements like a trip through Captain Dinosaur’s Pirate Rip-off, a faux ride that combines elements from Pirates of the Caribbean, Jurassic Park and the Teacup Ride, among others. But the aspect of the ride that makes Groening happiest is the cartoonishly violent safety video: “It does what it’s supposed to do, but it does it in an Itchy & Scratchy way,” he says.
As media saturation makes it more and more difficult to completely remove someone from the real world and transport them into a fantasy land, Groening loves that for a few, brief minutes the only respite from the Simpsons world is shutting your eyes. And even then, the second you open them you’re back in Krustyland. “I’ve only had one dream in my life where I’ve been in the Simpsons universe, and I’m very thankful for that,” Groening says. “But going on the ride was like being in a Simpsons dream. It was very unsettling and yet completely amazing.”