Amusement parks: Taking U.S. roller coasters for a spin
SANDUSKY, Ohio — As an amusement parks blogger, I have visited most of the big theme parks in Southern California and central Florida, but my roller-coaster résumé was a little thin when it came to the parks in between. So last summer my wife, Nancy, our 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, and I climbed aboard more than 70 coasters in 10 days at theme parks in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
We each had established a few rules for our journey across America’s Coaster Belt. Hannah was willing to ride coasters reaching 65 mph, topping out at 200 feet and going upside down three times. Nancy wanted to avoid any and all spinning rides (except carousels, her favorite). And I would leave no coaster unridden.
By the time it was over, the trip had taken us to eight of the world’s oldest amusement parks, where we rode nine of the world’s top-ranked coasters as well as an extensive collection of pre-World War II attractions.
Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio
The trade publication Amusement Today has voted Cedar Point the world’s best amusement park for more than a decade. With 16 roller coasters, it’s called “America’s Roller Coast.”
Cedar Point, established in 1892 on a picturesque peninsula in Lake Erie, more than lived up to its top billing with beautifully manicured grounds, a stunning waterfront setting and an assortment of world-class rides.
After flying to Cleveland, we checked in at the Breakers Express, one of three hotels on the Cedar Point property. The next morning, we took advantage of the park’s early entry for resort hotel guests and headed straight to Raptor, a looping steel beast with cars that hang from an overhead track.
I was glad to see that Hannah had set her limits early and exercised her prerogative to pass on Raptor, but I was surprised when Nancy jumped onboard, taking a head-first approach to our coaster trip.
Before our trip, I had picked Maverick as the benchmark coaster for Hannah with its modest height, speed and inversions delivering a high level of thrills for the tween set.
Fortunately I was right — Hannah and I both chose Maverick as our favorite coaster at Cedar Point. Nancy preferred the 300-foot-tall Millennium Force, which many aficionados consider the best steel coaster in the world.
Kennywood, West Mifflin, Pa.
The quaint Kennywood, which opened in 1898, is on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its collection of vintage wooden coasters and rare old rides; more than a dozen are pre-World War II.
Nancy voted Kennywood her favorite park on the trip. She loved the 1920 Jack Rabbit terrain coaster (as did Hannah), while I preferred the dueling 1927 Racer coaster with its ingeniously crafted continuous-track layout.
Idlewild, Ligonier Township, Pa.
In 2010, Amusement Today named Idlewild the world’s best children’s park, dubbing it the “King of the Kids.”
Hannah’s favorite ride was Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe, a one-of-a-kind attraction that takes visitors on a life-size trolley ride through the world of the beloved children’s TV show.
Nancy and I enjoyed the 1938 wooden Rollo Coaster, which has been the first roller coaster for generations of kids at the idyllic 1878 park.
Lakemont Park, Altoona, Pa.
We traveled to Lakemont Park for one reason: to ride the 1902 Leap-the-Dips, the world’s oldest operating roller coaster.
The rough, rickety and rundown Leap-the-Dips at the 1894 park was a throwback to the golden age of coasters when thrills were raw and wild. The 110-year-old ride represented everything I was searching for in my road trip across the Coaster Belt: history, tradition, rarity, excitement and fun.
Besides its age, the uniqueness of Leap-the-Dips was what it lacked: seat belts, a lap bar and any mechanism to keep the car attached to the track.
Hersheypark, Hershey, Pa.
Built in 1907 as a getaway for the chocolate company’s employees, Hersheypark has evolved into a candy-centric theme park that rivals Disneyland with its attention to detail and Six Flags with its coaster collection.
The 75-mph Stormrunner coaster with its distinctive 150-foot-tall vertical ascent proved to be Hannah’s favorite, marking her graduation to a new level of thrills.
Nancy preferred the park’s oldest coaster, Comet, which ran over a creek next to its newest coaster, the 212-foot-tall Skyrush that opens this year.
I’ll always remember my ride on the 1977 Sooperdooperlooper, which marked the first time I’d ever been upside down on a coaster without a seat belt or a shoulder restraint.
Dorney Park, Allentown, Pa.
Dorney Park was my least anticipated venue of the trip. But the low expectations helped make it an enjoyable day at a park that traces its history to 1884.
I had come mostly to ride the 1923 Thunderhawk, one of the world’s oldest coasters, and I was pleasantly surprised to find the park’s small collection of otherwise undistinguished coasters among the smoothest I’d ridden on our trip.
Although much of Dorney’s history is long gone, the park does have a few nods to the past, including a 1934 Zephyr train and a 1921 carousel. My favorite was the beautifully detailed Whip, a simple ride on an elliptical track that I had never encountered before.
My visit to Dorney was topped off by an impromptu tour of the nearby Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters factory, the oldest roller-coaster company in the world and a veritable museum of historic coaster cars.
Knoebels, Elysburg, Pa.
I fell in love with Knoebels as soon as we arrived at the park, built in 1926 in a remote wooded campground, declaring I’d found my final resting place. It was by far my favorite park of this trip.
Knoebels’ maintenance crew specializes in restoring vintage rides you won’t find anywhere else, turning the park into a greatest hits collection of golden-oldie amusements.
The highlight was a guided tour of Flying Turns, a 1930s-era trackless toboggan-style coaster Knoebels has been working on for more than five years.
I liked the Phoenix, the smoothest wooden coaster on our trip, but Hannah preferred the endlessly inward-turning Twister coaster. Nancy fell in love with the carousel in part because she had grabbed the brass ring.
Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, N.J.
Nancy planned to skip Great Adventure but changed her mind. The main draw: three of the world’s top coasters, which lived up to their top billing.
Kingda Ka felt as though we were launched off an aircraft carrier as we raced at 128 mph up to a world record coaster height of 456 feet. Nitro rocketed us over camelback hills as we sped past the picturesque panorama of New Jersey’s countryside. And El Toro, regarded as the best wooden coaster in the world, bucked with so much upward force that we spent half the ride with our thighs pressed against the lap bar.
After an afternoon lightning storm that broke the heat and humidity of the 100-degree day, the girls headed to the water park while I rode the rest of the park’s record-setting rides. My favorite coaster of the trip was also my last: El Toro.
Compared with the theme park destinations of central Florida and Southern California, the Coaster Belt parks felt trapped in amber. Although most of the parks on our journey are now run by corporations, they maintain a nostalgic quality that recalls their turn-of-the-century origins.
We arrived home happy. I’d ridden nearly 80 coasters (a few more than once). Nancy declared it the trip of a lifetime. And Hannah had experienced the dream vacation of any kid, or kid at heart.
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