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  High Rollers

Monster air time. Heart-stopping G-forces. Punishing jolts and vibration. Take a deep breath and strap yourself in as we join two self-described "coaster freaks" on their 2002 summer tour.

Story and photos by Dale Keiger

It's a summer Monday morning at Chocolate World in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and Craig Kirkland and Darryl Carr feel just a little goofy. Each is wearing a T-shirt depicting a roller coaster that travels at expressway speed and exerts G-forces normally encountered only by fighter pilots. But they're seated on Chocolate World's "simulated factory tour ride," rolling at a walkabout pace through an elaborate promotional exhibit that portrays the journey of cocoa beans from jungle to Hershey's bar. The other cars are filled with parents shepherding young children who are wound up enough to suggest that one thing they don't need is more chocolate.

Kirkland, a concert violist and 1994 graduate of Peabody Conservatory, looks bemused. Carr, currently Peabody's stage manager, looks a bit grumpy. At the ride's conclusion, they pick up complimentary candy bars and stride purposefully into the adjacent Hersheypark, where they confer. What to ride first? Wildcat, Roller Soaker, or Lightning Racer? Comet, Sidewinder, or Trailblazer? Great Bear, Wild Mouse, or sooperdooperLooper? All are roller coasters, but the decision involves several considerations: wood vs. steel, track car vs. inverted, speed and air time vs. loops and Immelmans. Kirkland and Carr also ponder the park's hilly geography, their present coordinates, and how much life they have in their knees and backs, because they aren't teen-agers anymore and it's going to be a long day. They agree on sooperdooperLooper.

"This was the first looping coaster on the East Coast," Kirkland says. He checks with Carr. "We think 1977."

They're right about the date. These guys know that sort of thing. They know sooperdooperLooper was designed by a German named Anton Schwarzkopf. They know that Lightning Racer is a GCI coaster, that Great Bear is a B&M coaster, and they know why it matters. Name an amusement park anywhere in the country, and they'll tell you which of its coasters are knee busters (that's bad), which feature head choppers (that's good), which are mere "tick rides," and which are fast and smooth and make you feel like you're floating weightless. They own coaster shirts, coaster shot glasses, coaster key chains, coaster mugs, coaster magazines, maybe even coaster coasters to place under their coaster mugs. In their heads they maintain lists that rank favorite coasters by category: best steel looping, best steel non-looping, best wood (see Kirkland's Top 5 "Woodies"). They attend coaster conventions, where they ride for hours nonstop, 20 or 30 rides in a row, sometimes through rain. They play a computer game called Roller Coaster Tycoon that lets them design the rides of their dreams; Carr admits he once lost track of time and played the game all night.

It probably goes without saying at this point, but Craig Kirkland and Darryl Carr are coaster freaks. The formal term is "coaster enthusiasts," but that's too mild to encompass this sort of passion. "I do other things," protests Kirkland. "I play basketball. I have a job." But between them the two men have ridden several hundred roller coasters, and during the next 14 days they plan to visit 15 amusement parks in five states to ride dozens more. Starting here and now with Herr Schwarzkopf's sooperdooperLooper.

Kirkland, left, got hooked on coasters just seven years ago. Carr fell in love as a kid. Day One

As I slide onto the seat next to Kirkland, I am 13 years removed from my last ride on a roller coaster. But I'll be damned if I'm going to hold on to the lap bar and look like a wuss in front of these guys. Kirkland glances at my outstretched arms as we near the summit of sooperdooperLooper's lift hill. "All right!" he says approvingly. "Hands up!" We clank to the ride's apogee, crest, then hurtle toward earth. The people seated behind us scream. The initial drop is modest, a mere 57 feet, but not bad as the first adrenal rush of the day. That peculiar floating-stomach sensation from a coaster's first plunge makes me briefly close my eyes. Then we sail shoes-over-noggin on the ride's one loop, pressed back in our seats by basic physics. We swoop around some tight turns and slide to a halt about a minute later. Kirkland and Carr have notched the first ride of their 2002 summer coaster tour. "The loop crushes you down pretty good," Kirkland says as we walk off, but otherwise he's not that impressed. He promises bigger thrills to come.

The soundtrack of amusement parks is no longer the tootling organ-pipe song of the merry-go-round. Now it's thumping rock 'n' roll. At Hersheypark, the music comes from speakers disguised as rocks. The rides range from the familiar to the newfangled. Modern parks have bungee-cord contraptions that whip people 150 feet up in the air, and massive high-tech simulators that use film and lurching, rolling chairs to create the illusion of flying through an attack by space aliens. But they still have merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels and jerky little Wild Mouse coasters, and you still have to be taller than Scooby-Doo (or, in Hersheypark, above the level marked by a Hershey's bar) to ride some of the main attractions. Teen-agers walk around toting mammoth stuffed animals they've won at the whack-a-mole booth. Kids clutch cotton candy and slurpees. It's a hot day, already approaching 90, so people are showing a lot of skin, much of it already pinking up, and a lot of tattoos. Chubby teen-aged girls wear inadequate shorts with lettering that says BOOTYLICIOUS across their backsides.

Kirkland and Carr wear the uniform of the coaster enthusiast: comfortable shoes, baggy shorts with cargo pockets that button, and T-shirts bearing the images of coasters from other parks. A coaster freak's souvenir shirt must be from another park. Wearing a new, just-purchased shirt would be like wearing denim to a formal dinner; it's simply not done. Today, Carr has donned The Big Bad Wolf (Busch Gardens, Williamsburg); Kirkland wears Montu (Busch Gardens, Tampa Bay). An ex-girlfriend once accused him of having a mistress. He thought she meant another woman. She meant Montu.

Kirkland is 30 years old, easygoing and voluble, with very red hair. While studying viola at Peabody he played on a basketball team, and when everyone adopted nicknames he became The Red Death; his e-mail username is "lemortrouge." He lives in New Haven, Connecticut, and like many musicians cobbles together a living from an assortment of ensembles and teaching posts. He plays with the Vermont Symphony, the Goodspeed Opera House, the Connecticut Virtuosi chamber ensemble, and has subbed with the Hartford Symphony. He recently toured with blind tenor and international heartthrob Andrea Bocelli, and learned that the tour violist does not attract groupies. "I'm a poor musician who likes to ride coasters and watch Star Wars," he says. "I just reel in the girls."

Carr needles him. "You can't even get dates on the Internet."

Kirkland has been serious about riding coasters for only about seven years. "My first experience was awful," he recalls. "I went to Disneyworld with my family when I was quite young. We rode Space Mountain and I was terrified beyond imagination." But in 1995, friends at a music festival dragged him to Hersheypark, where he rode a few coasters and got hooked. He began summer coaster tours in 1998. He's now a paid-up member of American Coaster Enthusiasts (this makes him an ACEr, in the group's argot), and on this tour he will bag his 200th coaster.

Carr traces his own addiction to his first ride as a kid. He's lost count of how many coasters he's ridden, but he's sure it's 300 to 400. He's 50, muscular, a Philadelphia-born African American with a sardonic wit and a penchant for amusement park gift shops. He was in the audience at the original Woodstock music festival. He began running stage crews in the sixth grade, and for a time was stage manager for Baltimore's now-defunct Fish Market entertainment area. "I got paid to make people party." At Peabody he's been stage manager for 13 years. He's made about eight coaster trips with Kirkland, "once Craig admitted his addiction." His e-mail username is "coastnut." Like Kirkland, he is afraid of heights.

Son of Beast, at Paramount's Kings Island in Ohio, is the tallest, fastest woodie ever built. Fresh off sooperdooperLooper, we stroll to the adjacent Great Bear. Great Bear is an inverted coaster, which means that instead of sitting in a train on a track, we're clamped into seats that dangle from an overhead steel rail. Inverteds are cool because you swoop around the turns like a jet in a hard bank, but they rarely produce the weightless, floating sensation called air time that coaster freaks crave. This one sweeps us first into a helix, then drops us 124 feet, turns us upside-down a few times, and whips us around at 61 miles per hour. When we climb off, Carr says, "I need some wood."

He means a wooden coaster. In the Linnaean taxonomy of roller coasters, the species align in two major branches, one of them wood, the other steel. For decades, all coasters were trains that rode tracks mounted on soaring wooden trestles, reflecting their ancestry of the 19th-century mine cars that trundled ore out of the ground. Now many of the biggest, fastest coasters are all steel. But aficionados like Carr still value good wood. So we head for Lightning Racer, a twin-track wooden coaster that pits a pair of trains against each other in a race. It's only 2 years old. "This will be a classic woodie in 30 years," Carr says. As we climb aboard, he shows me how to "pooch" the lap bar. Coaster freaks hate tight restraints that nail them to their seats. They want room to float, to get air time. So they've learned to slouch and thrust out their bellies when the ride operators come by to tighten the lap bars. Once the ride starts, they sit up and enjoy precious inches of freedom.

Go to Kirkland's Top 5 "Woodies"

Lightning Racer is great: fast, smooth, and thrilling, with the added fun of racing. The trains start side by side, then diverge after the first plunge. We float over a pair of fast hills -- good air time. After we clatter through a tunnel (called a head chopper, because as you rush toward it you're convinced you don't have enough clearance -- coaster freaks love 'em) the tracks braid, so the trains swoop over and under each other at breakneck speed. When we cross the finish line first we hoot derisively at the losers on the other train, like the little boys we've momentarily become.

As proper enthusiasts, Kirkland and Carr usually make a point of climbing on every coaster at least once ("tick rides" -- you ride once, just to tick them off your list), including the kiddie coasters if the operators will let them. So we make the rounds. Carr is delighted to find that another woodie, Wildcat, which had been too rough the last few years, now feels newly restored. "She's back," he says, stroking the car after his first ride. "She's back." We spend a few minutes observing Hersheypark's newest attraction, Roller Soaker, a steel inverted. At several points along its track riders get blasted by large volumes of water. Kirkland and Carr don't fancy walking for hours soaking wet and decide to pass. As darkness falls, we ride Lightning Racer over and over. The first day's tally:

  • sooperdooperLooper: 1 ride
  • Great Bear: 2
  • Trailblazer: 1
  • Wild Mouse: 2
  • Wildcat: 2
  • Comet: 2
  • Lightning Racer: 11

  • Day Two

    At Dorney Park, near Allentown, Pennsylvania, Carr (in today's T-shirt: Islands of Adventure, Orlando) pauses in the parking lot as we hear the sort of screams that emanate only from a packed roller coaster. "Ah!" he says. "Music!"

    He and Kirkland (T-shirt: official blue American Coaster Enthusiasts) are excited. Dorney has two great steel coasters, Steel Force and Talon. Steel Force is what coaster freaks call a hypercoaster: a mile-long monster with a first drop of 205 feet, two tunnels, a 510-degree helix, and a top speed of 75 mph. We can see it from the lot -- massive, looming, waiting.

    And silent. Near the park's entrances are signs that say, STEEL FORCE CLOSED TODAY -- Sorry for the Inconvenience. I can't repeat what Kirkland says when he sees this, because some readers may not be as tall as Scooby-Doo, but he's crushed. Carr is no happier.

    To console themselves, they head straight for Talon. Kirkland knows from a glance that this is a B&M coaster; he points out the signature four-seat suspended cars, the gauge of the track, the relative quiet of the ride as we watch a train whoosh along the 3,000 feet of tubular steel. Talon has a 120-foot drop, an S-curve, a spiral, a 98-foot full loop, and other contortions that will turn us upside-down four times. The dangling trains swoop so close to the ground, their slipstreams have scoured the mulch, exposing bare earth in two or three patches. B&M's calculations for the design of Talon filled 4,602 pages. I look at the ride now and hope they checked the figures.

    We clamber aboard the front car, lower the restraining "horse collars" that keep riders from vacating their seats, and swing our legs as the coaster begins its long, clanking climb up the lift hill. Signs below our feet taunt us as we ascend: Getting Closer -- No Turning Back -- Almost There. And at the top: Good Bye.

    We sway drunkenly to the left as the train first swoops right and then plummets toward the ground. My stomach seems to float up into my chest cavity until I'm slammed back in my seat by the first 360 loop. We exit the loop and scream into an Immelman, named after the German fighter pilot who invented the rolling loop in aerial combat during the First World War. And here something happens. It's recorded this way in my battered notebook: 1st ride, front car, I blacked out on invert. I mean OUT.

    As I experienced it, the world went dark and silent for a moment, as if I'd stepped out of life. Then suddenly I was back, still on the ride, still barreling along, scared but jazzed on adrenaline. After we climb down, I ask Kirkland if I might really have passed out. He says yes, especially if the first ride of the day has a high G-force invert. Something similar can happen to the pilots of fighter jets. Whoa, I think. And then, Fighter pilots. Cool. We immediately get in line to ride again.

    Later, I learn that I'd probably experienced a syncopal episode: a spontaneous loss of consciousness caused by insufficient blood to the brain. Brains, blood, and coasters are at the center of a current controversy that has coaster freaks seething. Congressman Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts has been on a two-year campaign for legislation he has authored, the Amusement Park Ride Safety Act. Markey wants the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to be granted jurisdiction over thrill rides, and he wants a national limit on coaster G-forces. He has published figures that purport 58 cases of inertial brain trauma caused by amusement park rides (51 occurring since 1990, when coasters began to get really big), with eight fatalities. He's also stated that the fatality rate for rides is higher than that for planes, buses, or trains.

    Coaster enthusiasts have been howling in protest, and there is room for skepticism about Markey's numbers. Only 22 of the cited incident reports came from the medical literature; the other 36 are "unpublished cases," their provenance not discussed in the congressman's press releases. And the fatality rate Markey refers to is actually "fatality rate per distance traveled," which takes statistical advantage of the fact that coasters don't travel very far. The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions has mined data from the CPSC to point out that in 2000, there were 6,594 injuries involving park rides, with 125 requiring hospitalization. In the same year, 45,604 people injured themselves using golf equipment, and 627,164 were hurt on bicycles.

    It does seem logical that as coasters get faster and more strenuous, people with preexisting vascular or heart conditions will be more vulnerable to injury, and a coaster may be where they learn of their condition. Kirkland, like most coaster freaks, shrugs off these concerns. Carr notes that most serious accidents have been the result of riders doing something stupid, like finding a way to subvert the restraint system and stand up on a plunging coaster. Consider it natural selection, he says.

    We next self-select for Hercules, a Dorney Park woodie. There's a kid in line wearing an ACE T-shirt. He looks about 14 and is surrounded by three girls, one of whom spots Kirkland's matching garment and says to the boy, "Look, there's one of your people." The kid nods but doesn't come over. Kirkland laughs. "He's probably afraid we'll want to talk coasters for hours." Among ACErs, a pest who latches on to you at a coaster event and bores you to death with endless anecdotes is an "enthusiass."

    Hercules has become known among coaster freaks as "Hurt-Your-Knees" because its ride has become so rough. Wood coasters flex and shift over time and if they're not periodically retracked the cars jolt and bang riders unmercifully. Today Hercules lives up to its reputation, hammering us from start to finish. My head hurts when I climb off.

    All day, Steel Force dominates the horizon, taunting Kirkland and Carr with its silence. No one will say why the ride has been shut down, and there's no sign of it opening today. We console ourselves with Talon. We accumulate eight rides during the day, break for dinner outside the park, then return and ride it straight to closing time, eight more trips. The teen-agers operating the ride take note, peg us as coaster freaks, and begin asking about big coasters at other parks. We flirt with the girls, who are happy for anything that relieves their boredom. When Talon runs for the last time at 10 o'clock, we're on it.

    The count for Day Two:

  • Wild Mouse: 1
  • Thunderhawk: 1
  • Lazer: 2
  • Hurt-Your-Knees: 1
  • Talon: 16 (1 syncopal episode)
  • Steel Force: 0 (!!)

  • Day Six

    Four days later, I rejoin the tour at LeSourdsville Lake in Ross, Ohio, near Cincinnati. LeSourdsville first opened in 1922 and once had a popular dance hall called Stardust Gardens. The Cincinnati Enquirer notes that in 1974, 5,000 Teamsters attended a picnic at LeSourdsville and drank 44 barrels of beer. In 1990, fire destroyed Stardust Gardens, and in 1999 the park closed. But last May it reopened, and Kirkland and Carr added it to their list when they found out.

    When Le Mort Rouge and Coast Nut arrive, they're sporting paper ID bracelets. Driving into southwestern Ohio the night before, they'd realized that they would be spending the night near another venerable Cincinnati-area park, Coney Island. So they had raced off to snag a few rides there before coming to LeSourdsville. They admit to being a little tired. Since I left them in Pennsylvania, they've ridden coasters at Idlewild and Kennywood, near Pittsburgh, at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom, and at little Camden Park in West Virginia ("First in Fun Since 1903!").

    Riders of Chang, at Six Flags, Kentucky Kingdom, defy gravity galore.
    Photo by Darryl Carr
    LeSourdsville is a different proposition from something like Six Flags. Modern amusement megaparks are not cheap for your average family. Hersheypark charges $27.95 per person for a day pass and tacks on an additional $6 to park your car; once inside, you can buy a good three-dollar barbecue sandwich -- for six bucks. Tomorrow, Paramount Kings Island will nail us $41.99 each to get in, plus $9 to park. LeSourdsville admits us for a buck -- $1 -- with rides an additional $1 per ride. The guy at the ticket booth tells us that when all the park's attractions are up and running, it will begin selling day passes for $15.95, with parking thrown in. We watch as families stream through LeSourdsville's gate. One little boy stops in his tracks to look around, then says, "Wow! This is gonna be great!"

    The park is small, and Kirkland (today's shirt: the Phoenix from Knoebel's Grove in Pennsylvania) and Carr (Montu) don't mind the idea of a shorter day. Plus they appreciate the ambience. Big parks draw big crowds and long lines, bombard the customer with relentless marketing, and lack the soul of a more modest park that has been around for a century. Big parks do have the big coasters, but they can also have what coaster freaks call TPM: Theme Park Mentality. TPM, says Kirkland, is "when there are bizarre and overzealous rules designed for the insurance needs of the park rather than the enjoyment of patrons." For enthusiasts, this means multiple restraint systems that tightly clamp riders, headrests that obscure their view of the track, and mid-course speed brakes that degrade the coaster experience.

    The Beast is still fast and long, but now it's way too rough. Behind us, we hear Carr: "Ow. Ow. Ow ow ow. Ow!" Besides, LeSourdsville has the Screechin' Eagle, a historic woodie first built for Moxahalia Park in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1927. It was moved to LeSourdsville in 1938, and from 1999 until now it was what coaster freaks call SBNO -- standing but not operating. Enthusiasts know which SBNOs are in danger of demolition. Sometimes they lead preservation efforts. Screechin' Eagle was designed by John Miller, a god among coaster freaks, who built rides in the 1920s. The Eagle's return is good news for the coaster crowd and the main reason Kirkland and Carr are here.

    An ultra-modern ride like Talon has a computerized control panel housed in a glass booth. Screechin' Eagle has a two-button control box set in a simple wooden stand, with a fire extinguisher on the ground next to it. The Eagle's cars have no headrests, and single lap bars that we easily pooch. The ride is smooth for such an old coaster, and the second half of the track provides great air time. Kirkland and Carr love it. The trend now in coaster design, says Kirkland, is "anything goes." Steel Dragon in Japan has a 315-foot first drop. Kings Dominion in Virginia has a so-called "launch" coaster that reaches 80 miles per hour in two seconds. There are stand-up coasters, coasters with cars that spin, and coasters on which you "fly" lying prone. Screechin' Eagle exemplifies a modest, venerable ride that gets everything right. Says Carr, "You can make it great without making it great big." After our first ride on it, we shake Le Mort Rouge's hand. Screechin' Eagle is his 200th coaster.

    The day's tally:

  • Serpent: 1
  • Screechin' Eagle: 3

  • Day Seven

    As far back as 1650, some Russians figured out that if you built a 70-foot incline and slicked it with frozen water, there'd be people nutty enough to slide down it for fun. A Frenchman brought the idea to France, replaced the ice with an inclined carriage track, and in 1804 created the first roller coaster, which was called the Russian Mountains. In the 1870s, people started riding the brakeless cars of Pennsylvania's Mauch Chunk coal railway, for fun. That's pretty daring, but those folks would pale at their first glimpse of Son of Beast.

    Son of Beast (SoB, inevitably) is at Paramount Kings Island, a megapark near Mason, Ohio. It's the tallest, fastest woodie ever built, and the first wooden coaster to whip its riders through a full loop. You can see it from anywhere in the park, its trellises looking like the matchstick sculpture of a demented giant. Today is a Sunday, which means we'll likely spend far more time in line than on rides. So Kirkland and Carr head straight for SoB, figuring we'll only want to endure one multihour wait today.

    But the queue proves remarkably short. Carr (today's shirt: Six Flags Great Adventure) and Kirkland (Talon) look at me and Marian, my wife, who has joined the Ohio portion of the tour, and invoke the "virgin rule": If it's your first ride on a coaster, you ride the front car. So we let them go first, then climb into the front of the next train. As we clamp ourselves in (I've decided not to pooch any coaster more than 200 feet high -- Kirkland and Carr don't need to know), I recall my syncopal episode and wonder if this is really how I ought to start the day. Too late. We roll down a nifty little 50-foot preliminary drop, then clank up a seemingly endless 218-foot climb to SoB's first plunge. At the front we crest, hang in the air for a stomach-fluttering moment as the back end of the train tops the hill, then roar down the tracks at nearly 80 miles per hour, playthings of gravity. The clattering noise is deafening and the speed is exhilarating, but the ride punishes us with jolts and intense vibration. We roar down two more drops, the lesser of which is 150 feet, do the loop, and crash around for what feels like forever. When it's over, I have to catch my breath and note the early onset of a headache. We rejoin Coaster Guys at the exit. They judge SoB a bit rough, but big and fast enough to merit more attention.

    Hang on! Vortex, at Kings Island. Much smoother and more to my liking is an inverted steel called Top Gun. We also ride Vortex, and the Racer, and a remarkable steel looper named Flight of Fear, which is entirely enclosed in a vast building. The only lights inside are narrow-beam spotlights, so we can't really see what's coming as the track twists and turns back on itself in a demonic sort of origami. Every new turn and loop is a surprise, which makes the ride all the more thrilling.

    After a few hours, we board The Beast, SoB's forerunner and at 7,400 feet still the world's longest coaster. Back when my wife and I lived in Cincinnati, this was our favorite ride. We loved the front car at night and could ride it over and over. But we were younger then, and so was the coaster. The Beast is still fast and long, but now it's way too rough. Behind us on our one ride, we hear Carr's commentary: "Ow. Ow. Ow ow ow. Ow!"

    Throughout the day, he and Kirkland impart more of what they know to Marian. She finally says, "You have all this arcane knowledge. What can you do with it?"

    To which Carr grins and responds, "Go on Web sites and tell people their coaster choices suck."

    At nightfall, Marian, a registered nurse and the sensible member of our marriage, climbs on Top Gun for what she swears will be her last ride. I sit beside her and we roar around its twisting half-mile track. As the hour grows late, the operators begin to let riders stay on for multiple rides, so she says OK, one more. We whip around the course again. Now it's closing time. The ops announce last ride. She shakes her head and straps herself in one final time. As we climb the first hill, the park's closing fireworks burst in the black sky.

    The day's tally is more extensive than we'd thought possible in a big park on a Sunday:

  • Flight of Fear: 1
  • Racer: 1
  • The Beast: 1
  • Son of Beast: 2
  • Beastie: 1
  • Vortex: 1
  • Rugrats Runaway Reptar: 1
  • Scooby's Ghoster Coaster: 1
  • Adventure Express: 1
  • Top Gun: 5

  • We stroll out of the park amid a shambling, trudging legion of tired, sunburnt parents and kids and teen-agers. Kirkland and Carr learn of our successive rides on Top Gun and tab us as future ACErs. As we shake hands and head our separate ways to our cars, Kirkland says, "Remember -- you have to steer this one."


    Through the course of their summer 2002 tour, Kirkland and Carr rode 75 coasters. In a summary e-mail, Le Mort Rouge sent along notes from five more parks. Their best experience, though, was not at a world-famous megapark, but at Holiday World, a small park located in -- seriously -- Santa Claus, Indiana: "Some of the ride ops were ACErs. They let us ride with the lap bars down just one notch. Free drinks all day for all guests. Best single day at a park ever. I will go back every year if I have to walk there."

    Go to Kirkland's Top 5 "Woodies"

    Return to September 2002 Table of Contents

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