I had the most amazing roller coaster ride in my life last week. I was vacationing with my wife’s family in Ohio, staying on South Bass Island in Lake Erie. Those of you who know where this is (both of you) will realize that it’s just a 15 mile boat ride (or 55 mile drive!) to Cedar Point, home of an outstanding amusement park. And Cedar Point is home to the Top Thrill Dragster.
The basic idea is that you ride a loop just over half a mile long (2800′, 850m), during which you ride 400′ (120m) straight up, then straight down, then back to where you started. But just like trying to describe chocolate as "really delicious," reality is soooo much more exciting. Now before I go much further, I have to say that unfortunately, they make you take off your eyeglasses, so some of these details might be a bit fuzzy (sorry, couldn’t resist), but what follows is hopefully as close as I can come to sharing the experience.
First of all, you are seated in a five-car train that is made to look like a dragster (you know, cars that are mostly engine, huge tires in the back, tiny tires at the front of a long nose, famous for flipping over the back wheels due to extreme acceleration). There are 16 seats in this train (which weighs about 10 tons / 4500 kg!) and there are two things that are very neat. First, the train has "stadium style" seating (meaning the rear seats are slightly higher than the front seats, so everyone has a good view). And second, unlike most roller coasters, you’re only held in place by a seat belt! There are no "over the head" bars so common to other coasters. You’re in a contoured seat that has a high back (for head support), with only a lap belt and a horizontal metal bar directly in front of you (to hold on to). Nothing else to mar the experience.
When you climb into your seat, there’s an assistant to make sure you (and 15 of your closest friends) are buckled in and ready to ride. The train then rolls down the practically horizontal track to the "starting point". Now, I’ve described the track as a loop 2800′ long; it’s actually a pair of straight tracks that are probably about 1000′ (300m) apiece, with semi-circle curves at the ends. (The mathematicians out there can correct me if I’m off a bit.) The last 400′ of this loop, however, goes straight up, curves around, and goes straight down!
So you’re at the starting point, they’ve got a cute dragster-style set of lights (vertical lights with red at the top, a bunch of yellows, and large green at the bottom), and after admonishing you several times to put your "ARMS DOWN!", the lights go Red-Yellow-Yellow-Yellow-Yellow-GREEN! Star Wars fans out there will know that when the Death Star was about to fire, there was a long low moaning sound that dropped probably half an octave. While the lights are flashing down, that exact sound came out of … somewhere, ending with the green light. And then you move.
Now, whenever you start moving, be it in a car or a plane or an elevator or whatever, you feel a push of acceleration. In normal, everyday circumstances, the push is momentary; the elevator starts, you feel the push downward, you quickly bounce back, and you’re moving up. The longest acceleration most of us feel is when we’re in a plane at take-off. The strongest acceleration most of us feel stopping in a car (okay, some might call it deceleration, it’s really the same thing.) This ride had the longest and strongest acceleration I think I’ve ever felt.
For four solid seconds, you are pressed back hard into your chair. When the green light went on, we were shot forward (as near as I could guess) 600′ (180m) straight ahead horizontally, reaching a speed of just over 120mph (nearly 200 kph). (Yes, they have a digital display of "Your Speed", and it frequently hits 123mph) Wind in your hair and eyes and face, you find yourself going faster than you can imagine, feeling pushed back in the chair for longer than your mind can believe, all the time as you rush towards this huge metal structure painted on the horizon … and the horizon is rushing towards you faster than you think possible. Just as the acceleration stops, and you’re not smushed back into the chair, the front of the dragster hits an uphill curve. The track starts climbing upwards in a nice circular fashion, until you are riding straight up for the sky. But being strapped in a chair and still in quasi-shock from the sudden speed (and change of direction), the only thing you can really see is the back of the seats in front of you and the metal structure to your left. You climb 100′ … 200′ … and then the track does a 90 degree clockwise twist. You’re still moving straight up, but the comfort of the metal structure is no longer in view, as it’s below your seat. Now all you can see is the sky and the front of the train, but even that is fleeting. Somewhere around the 300′ mark you hit the end of the oval, and the track enters a graceful parabola. While this means you’re nearing the top of the 400′ climb, it also means that most of the car(s) in front of you have "fallen" away, and the only thing directly in front of you is the sky.
Riding this parabola to the top also means that it’s time to start going down. Almost all of your speed has been bled off by the climb, and as you gracefully curve around from straight up to horizontal you might just catch a glimpse of the catwalk that suddenly appears at the apex of the track. But what your mind is probably seeing instead is the fact that the whole world is pitching forward, and as you watch Northern Ohio, Lake Erie, and eventually the Cedar Point park come into view. A heartbeat later they’re not just "in view", but dominating your world, for you are now pointed straight down and gaining speed. And just to make things "interesting," the coaster designers added yet another twist. Literally. As you are falling back to earth, the track does a 270 degree clockwise spin, so you get to see ALL of the landscape that’s now approaching faster and faster. Spin complete, you hit the curve that will take you out of the death fall and bring you back towards horizontal … still moving at over 100mph (160kph), of course, got to keep Galileo happy. Safely back down on a horizontal path, electro magnetic breaks kick in, and you are brought to a stop, your pulse still pounding, cold sweat still pouring out of your scalp, eyes still wide open, and still hardly breathing.
The entire ride takes about an hour and a half, but most of that is waiting on line. From the green light to the top of the arch is around 9 seconds, another nine seconds or so to come down, and about five seconds to bring you to a complete stop (more gently than the initial acceleration, thankfully). Even still, that 23 seconds of flight (fright?) was worth the waiting in line. (Okay, my wife waited in line while the kids and I went on other rides!) Definitely one of the best coaster experiences I’ve ever encountered, well worth the visit if you ever have the opportunity. If you can’t get there, check out the POV Gallery for a from the front seat video.
COMMENTS FROM theSpoke:
Sounds like fun. In fact you did such a good job of describing it I don’t even feel the need to ride it myself. Not a real roller coaster person myself. I did the Cyclone in Coney Island once and pretty much have enough memories there for a life time. 🙂