Thursday, March 22, 2018
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From Disney's Space Mountain to SeaWorld's Mako: We're pushing the limits on roller coaster thrills


I n January 1975, Mickey Mouse donned a space suit to herald the newest attraction in Disney's Tomorrowland, the first roller coaster on Earth to be controlled by a computer.

Space Mountain's design evoked Stanley Kubrick's spooky 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its engineering evoked actual space flight, thanks to one of America's original astronauts, Gordon Cooper, a creative consultant.

But the first scary ride for millions of kids didn't hit warp speeds, just 28 mph. It didn't even go upside down.

Little did we know there would come a day when roller coasters would catapult humans with the same motors used to launch rockets. That a theme park ticket could buy the experience of g-forces and zero gravity. That like astronauts in training, riders would occasionally pass out but still come back for more.

In the 1980s there was no such thing as a hypercoaster, a roller coaster that reaches 200 feet or higher. Now more than 50 are around the world, including Florida's first, Mako, which debuted in SeaWorld this summer with nine designed moments of weightlessness.

Chalk it up to technological advancement and a global roller coaster arms race to have the tallest, fastest, scariest ride.

Tomorrow is here.

The climb

Study the history of extreme roller coasters and you'll understand why the arms race began not with Disney, whose parks already had worldwide commercial appeal, but with those that didn't have blockbuster movie licensing and had to rely on thrills alone.

The year Space Mountain opened, riders of the Corkscrew at California's Knott's Berry Farm experienced the world's first modern roller coaster inversions, where riders are turned upside down.

Almost every year after that, another roller coaster record has been broken. Loop-de-loops, extreme free falls, breakneck speeds — Florida attractions have played a big part in the chase to send hearts racing. This state has 49 roller coasters, second only to California for thrill seekers seeking one-stop shopping for an adrenaline rush.

But these records can spin away fast.

When it opened in 1996, Busch Gardens' Montu in Tampa was the world's tallest and fastest inverted roller coaster at 150 feet. Now it's dwarfed by just the second hill of SeaWorld's Mako.

In 2005, SheiKra at Busch Gardens broke records for the world's longest, tallest and fastest dive coaster. But the Tampa coaster held the title for only two years.

Mako opened in June to take its reign as Florida's first hypercoaster, but a strata coaster (with a height between 400 and 499 feet) is in the works for Orlando, aiming to set a world record.

Though record-breaking rides get a lot of attention and press, Scott Smith, an assistant hospitality professor at the University of South Carolina, said he's not sure this arms race is such a good thing for the theme park industry.

"We are creating a situation with these more extreme coasters where the market for people who can ride them gets narrower and narrower," Scott said. "It's taking a majority of the capital for a smaller and smaller percentage of the audience."

The riders

The extreme roller coaster audience may be narrow, but it's loyal.

Thrill seekers join groups like American Coaster Enthusiasts, a club with more than 5,000 members who meet for yearly conferences at host theme parks to compare lifetime logs.

They budget hundreds — sometimes thousands — of dollars per year for annual park passes and spend their vacations crisscrossing the country keeping track of coasters on spreadsheets. They can tell you precisely which seat on each coaster will deliver the best thrill.

Take, for example, the Incredible Hulk at Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure, with its explosive 4G rocket launch that mimics what astronauts feel when the space shuttle takes off. The back row, right side makes the twists and turns feel even faster, says Laura Garnett Sumner, a 63-year-old title closer for an Orlando real estate company.

She straps on her fanny pack and leaves her scared grandchildren waiting as she adds coasters to her lifetime log, now up to 325. At a recent coaster enthusiast gathering in SeaWorld, Sumner spoke quickly and knowledgeably about lateral g-forces, barrel rolls and inversions that give you the greatest sensation of floating and rolling at the same time. "I've always loved that floating feeling."

She settled into her favorite seat on Mako, in the fourth row, never bothering to grab onto the lap bar.

"You feel that?" she said, giggling, as she crested the second hill with her hands in the air. "It's way more airtime in this seat."

Hang out with this crowd and you'll hear about the occasional "red out," the sensation of seeing red caused by blood rushing to the head rather than away from it.

Then there's the "gray out," a momentary loss of vision or consciousness that happens because the blood that should be in the brain pools at the feet, according to the American Academy of Neurology. Simply put, the brain isn't getting enough blood or oxygen.

It happened to Chris Kraftchick, a spiky-haired 49-year-old who doesn't look much older than the teenagers in line. The Orlando computer consultant had a brief bout of tunnel vision when he rode Fury 325 at Carowinds amusement park in North Carolina, the tallest and fastest "giga coaster" in the world that tops out at 325 feet and launches riders into a barrel roll at 95 mph. But he still rode it a dozen times after that.

"One thing coasters do," he said, "is help you face your fears."

The fear factor

Fear, by definition, is an unpleasant feeling. It's what triggers our brain neurons to opt for fight or flight.

But then, chemicals kick in — adrenaline, endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, stimulating positive and even euphoric feelings. They can be highly addictive.

Glenn Sparks, a communications professor at Purdue University who has studied the effects of media violence and scary TV images, theorizes that despite what thrill seekers claim, scary experiences may not really be all that fun, at least at first.

Research dictates that the scarier something is, the more a person enjoys it, especially after the fact, Sparks said. Physical reactions to fear, anger and joy are virtually identical. But when you add to it the laughter and communal fun, negative feelings become positive, Sparks said.

"They can come out of a threatening experience and say, 'I conquered this, and it did not get to me.' "

Coaster fans say they're motivated not by fear but exhilaration. Their knowledge of how coasters work means they aren't afraid of mechanical failures.

A recent series of serious accidents, including one that killed a 10-year-old boy on a Kansas water slide, have prompted calls for more oversight. Large theme parks in Florida have their own safety staffs and do not undergo state inspections. But coaster enthusiasts like Laura Sumner have ridden enough times to experience safety procedures in action.

"Someone unbuckled their seat belt on Montu and we came to an abrupt halt. The computer system shut it down," she said. "It was my 10th ride of the day, and I still rode it 12 more times."

Of the dozen deaths at Florida theme parks in the past decade, none were blamed on ride malfunctions. All were attributed to medical issues.

The amusement ride industry has an extensive set of standards set by an international committee that are based on what the body can withstand, said Mike Denninger, a mechanical engineer and vice president of theme park development at SeaWorld.

"Don't forget, we have people like astronauts and fighter pilots who experience much greater g-forces than these rides with broad appeal," Denniger said.

Extreme coasters — the kind that can make riders briefly pass out — have g-forces of 4 or 5 for just a few seconds. Fighter pilots can handle up to 8 or 9 for long periods because of physical conditioning, training and special suits.

Not everyone is built like a fighter pilot, and the international committee, made up of 400 experts, takes that into consideration as it studies everything from zip lines to go-karts. Its warnings about pregnant women, heart patients and those with other limitations are posted on the signs at the entrance of every ride.

The final frontier

When the Skyscraper opens in 2019 on Orlando's International Drive, the "polercoaster" wrapped around a tall tower will set several world records.

At 500 feet tall, as plans currently call for, the giga coaster will be the world's tallest coaster. It will also break the 170-foot record for highest inversion in the world, and it will have the steepest drop in the world. It will be the only ride to have two beyond-vertical drops, meaning the coaster won't drop straight down but bend in like the letter C on the way down.

And the Skyscraper won't even be in a theme park.

Developer Joshua Wallack is using the thrill of a roller coaster as a marketing tool. Like a G-rated Las Vegas strip, Wallack's $500 million Skyplex project will include hotels, shops and the world's largest Perkins restaurant. He has lined up the company that built Cheetah Hunt and Falcon's Fury at Busch Gardens to build the roller coaster and a 450-foot drop tower called SkyFall, which will also be a record-breaker, more than twice as tall as Disney's Tower of Terror.

The extreme project required the approval of the Orange County Commission, which held a hearing Dec. 1 that was packed to capacity. Almost no one spoke against it, except lawyers and lobbyists for competitor Universal Studios.

Laura Sumner waited in line as other coaster enthusiasts begged the commissioners to let them have a chance to be turned upside down while dangling 500 feet in the air.

Then she stepped to the microphone and brought a burst of laughter to the room. "I am a 62-year-old roller coaster junkie," she declared, "and this is something I'm looking forward to."

She spoke of her fellow coaster fans and how they plan their trips, "and when they plan those trips, they look for what place is going to give them the most amount of rides on different coasters."

Orlando, she assured them, is the place.

Commissioners approved the coaster unanimously.

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected] Follow @SharonKWn.

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