Amusement parks think beyond the biggest, tallest and fastest
Gas at $4 per gallon. Airplanes ripping open mid-flight. Donald Trump for president.
Let’s face it, this summer is looking scary enough without this or that thrill ride raising the bar on near-death experiences. Instead, theme and amusement parks are rolling out new (and newly renovated attractions) that emphasis unique elements and psychological thrills over sheer speed and stupefying G-forces.
“Parks have wised up,” said Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com. “They’re not trying to appeal to record-setting coaster connoisseurs; they’re just trying to build something fun that a lot of people will want to ride.” For those who prefer to enjoy their adrenaline rushes while staying conscious, the following rides are worth a spin.
Cheetah Hunt, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
Opening on May 27, Busch Gardens’ newest coaster celebrates the world’s fastest animal with speeds of up to 60 mph, three pounce-like launches and a route that flies over a simulated Serengeti complete with hills, ravines and waterfalls. It debuts alongside Cheetah Run, a glass-paneled enclosure where the real deal will run sprints several times a day. The combination “takes the thrill away from ‘Let’s see how many times we can go upside down’ to ‘Let’s see how many different elements we can add to a ride,’” said Erik Yates, editor of BehindTheThrills.com.
Octotron, Belmont Park
As the newest addition to San Diego’s beachfront amusement park, this ride never leaves the ground yet still manages to provide a good gut-churning experience. Like the mutant love child of a Tilt-A-Whirl and a tea-cup ride, it features individual cars that circle around a ground-hugging undulating track. However, instead of spinning in flat circles, each two-person car spins forward and backwards with riders controlling just how much head-over-heels (or heels-over-head) motion they can stand. “We must’ve spun upside down like 50 times,” said Robb Alvey, owner/creator of ThemeParkReview.com. “I’ve never felt so sick in my life.”
Untamed, Canobie Lake Park
No one’s likely to confuse Salem, N.H. with Orlando, Fla. or Anaheim, Calif., but this amusement park just north of Boston is clearly on the hunt for thrill-seekers with Untamed, its new, grizzly-themed steel coaster. As just the fourth Euro-Fighter coaster in the country, it features that design’s vertical lift hill and a beyond-vertical first drop at a dizzying 97 degrees. After that, riders are whipped through a wilderness-themed layout, although it will likely be a big green blur given ride elements that include a vertical loop, zero-G roll and a vertical U-turn maneuver known as anImmelmann.(Opening early June.)
Texas Giant, Six Flags Over Texas
How does a 21-year-old wooden coaster make the grade as a Class of 2011 screamer? By undergoing a $10 million refurbishment that combines its existing wood structure with an all-new steel track. Considered a hybrid, it combines the wild ride of wood with the speed (65 mph), steep drops (up to 79 degrees) and intense banked turns (95 degrees) of steel. “The original was really powerful, but it was also rough as hell,” said Alvey. “You needed a chiropractor on the exit ramp.” By contrast, the new version “takes everything you think you know about wood coasters and flips it upside down. It’s completely bizarre.”
Green Lantern: First Flight, Six Flags Magic Mountain
It shares its name with another new ride in New Jersey and a big-screen summer movie starring Ryan Reynolds, but this coaster promises to be the most exciting of the bunch. As a four-dimensional coaster, it combines a vertically oriented zigzag track with suspended eight-person trains that rock back and forth and flip 360 degrees. The result is a two-minute ride along 825 feet of track, which means it’s more about the spins than the speeds. “It’s not just taller, faster or barfier,” said Niles. “It’s a completely unique experience.” (Opening mid-June.)
Superman: Escape from Krypton, Six Flags Magic Mountain
How do you refresh a 14-year-old coaster? If it’s Superman, which launched riders straight up an L-shaped, 415-foot-high track, it’s simple: Reengineer the front-facing cars so riders now go up facing backwards. It’s as fast as ever — riders rocket from zero to 100 mph in seven seconds and experience 6.5 seconds of weightlessness — but now you actually see the ground as it recedes and rushes back at you. It’s especially intense when two cars are launched on the side-by-side tracks. Said Yates, “It’s always fun to look over and see someone else freaking out just as much as you are.”
Dare Devil Dive, Six Flags over Georgia
The key word is “dive.” After climbing 100 feet up a vertical tower, this Euro-Fighter-style coaster pauses for a moment…and then plunges back down at a beyond-vertical pitch of 95 degrees. Hitting a top speed of 52 mph, it then twists and turns its way through three inversions and over a zero-gravity hill before depositing its dazed riders back at the station. “It’s a complete rush of confusion,” said Yates. “Am I going up? Am I going down? Am I going to die?” (Opening May 28.)
Gotham City Gauntlet, Six Flags New England
Old coasters don’t die; they just get moved and/or rethemed. That’s the story behind the Gauntlet, which previously operated as Road Runner Express from 2000 to 2009 at the now-closed Kentucky Kingdom theme park. Topping out at 49 feet, the ride lives up to its scary subtitle — Escape from Arkham Asylum — by putting riders through 17 hairpin turns in around 90 seconds. “It’s more psychological than physical,” said Alvey. “You’re thinking, ‘’Oh my god, is this car going to stay on the track?’”
Soarin’ Eagle and Steeplechase, Scream Zone
The transformation of Coney Island from freak-show funhouse to family-friendly destination continues with the debut of Scream Zone, which features not one, but two, new coasters. Originally built for Denver’s Elitch Gardens, Soarin’ Eagle is a flying coaster in which riders ride prone and parallel to the track. (Think Superman or, well, a soaring eagle.) “It’s not going to make anyone rearrange their Top 10 coaster list,” said Alvey, “but it’s going to be a good, solid ride.”
If Soarin’ Eagle provides a glimpse of Coney Island’s future, Steeplechase offers a nod to its past. It takes its name from Steeplechase Park, which opened on the beach in 1897, and from that park’s popular Steeplechase course in which riders raced separately controlled wooden horses around a steel track. On the new version, riders still straddle their saddles, but the trusty steeds are connected in two-across, 12-person trains. In other words, the only way to win the “race” is to be first in line.
Remember wave swingers, the old kiddie rides in which people sat in swings and got spun around a central pole or tower? Well these rides are like that, only on steroids. At least six parks are opening such rides this summer, with Cedar Point, Kings Island, Knott’s Berry Farm and Canada’s Wonderland all offering 301-foot versions that spin riders in two-person swings that hit speeds of 30 m.p.h. and flare out at up to 45 degrees. “Being that high up is pretty alluring to me,” said Niles. “but I can see where it’d scare the living daylights out of a lot of other people.”