Confessions of a Roller Coaster Addict

by John Delach

When do you admit that you are a roller coaster junkie? For me, it was the summer of 1983 when I engineered a “supposed adventure” for three extended family groups to drive in convoy style down Interstate 91 to Agawam, Massachusetts to visit Riverside Amusement Park. Riverside was a sleepy rural park that had been re-invigorated that summer with the opening of a new, world-class wooden coaster, the Riverside Cyclone. The owners wanted to replicate the famous Coney Island coaster, but space constraints had reduced its footprint. Still, I had read rave reviews about this coaster. It was one of the first of a new generation of wooden roller coasters to open at a time when older units were still being abandoned, left and right. The Riverside Coaster was the resurrection of lost coasters I loved; Rye Beach’s Airplane Coaster, Palisades’ Cyclone and Coney Island’s Bob Sled, Tornado and Thunderbolt.

We drove down from our rented vacation cottages on the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River near Brattleboro, Vermont in three cars. On arrival at Riverside, we discovered that the roller coaster section didn’t open for over an hour. As the appointed time drew near, I made my way with my children, nieces and nephews as close to the starting point as we could get and, when the gate opened, I took off like a shot. Family lore has it that I knocked down several old ladies and children in my successful bid to be on one of the first trains out. Balderdash! No old ladies were involved in that stampede and, if a couple or three kids went down; well, survival of the fittest is my defense and I stand by it.

My children already knew my zeal for coasters. On a previous Delach family outing to Bush Gardens I convinced our daughter, Beth, to accompany me on a steel coaster. Beth, then a pre-teen, was just building up her coaster “sea-legs”. So to help her along, I told her to put out her hand, palm up and I started putting money in her hand. I answered her questioning look with, “Let me know when you have enough so we can wait to ride on the first car or the last car.”

What triggered these recollections was a recent story in the New York newspapers that ground had been broken for a new steel roller coaster in Coney Island on the site of the old Thunderbolt. Scheduled to be open by Memorial Day, this $10 million, 2,233 foot-long Italian-built beauty promises to take riders straight up 115 feet, drop them straight down speeding them at 55 miles per hour through a 100-foot loop, a zero-gravity roll with dives, hills and a corkscrew; all within two minutes at $10 a ride.

Hotcha, sign me up.

My only previous experience with a 90-degree lift and drop came last summer at Universal Studios in Orlando. It was one of eight coasters that I rode with adult children, in-laws and grandchildren in several visits to Universal and Disney. That trip was a successful test of my year and a half old hip replacement. With the exception of one or two coasters that required contortions that I can no longer even consider attempting, every ride was successful. We rode great coasters; The Hulk, Dueling Dragons, Space Mountain, Expedition Everest, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Rock’N’Roller Coaster.

But Rip Ride Rocket was something else. From day one, my two oldest grandsons, Drew and Matt, raved about this coaster as did the Orlando Sentinel which proclaimed it the most exciting in the city. The line was long but moved quickly because this coaster is zoned into separate blocks which allow multiple trains to operate at the same time. If something goes wrong on one train, every other one stops within the zone it is located.

The ride had precautions I had never seen before, maximum height lines.  Located at the beginning of the maze and just before boarding, my 6’6” son and son-in-law, Mike and Tom, had to clear both to ride. They cleared the first one by about a half-inch, but when they passed under a second bar, this time the clearance was no more than a quarter of an inch. Their look of concern was too much so I said, “C’mon guys. You know for insurance purposes, they set that second bar lower than necessary. You’ll be fine; but then again, I’m not the one who may be decapitated!”

An attendant did confirm that they were within the height maximum, but she did admonish them: “Don’t put your hands up.”

They each rode with one of the boys so I was left to ride solo with a teenage boy. The coaster has a feature that allows each rider to program speakers on either side of them to play a rock tune of their choosing. This was a non-starter for me as I had removed my glasses before we entered the line but I watched my companion do his thing. What happened next was sobering. The restraint on this ride is a bar that comes down from the side. The boy brought his down so it rested with a console right in the center. Due to my size, mine stopped at an angle, the console off center. I looked at an attendant who gave me a thumb’s up, but a voice inside my brain gave me a warning in an eastern European accent: “Not good, not good at all!”

Too late, next thing I knew we were going straight up vertically that produced a terrible feeling that I was sliding out the back of the car. Then we went over the top and started straight down; Oh my God, the rest of the ride was a blur, a very fast blur. Wow, the boys and the Sentinel were right and I didn’t go home in a box.

But a note of caution: Beth was disappointed she missed riding the Rip Ride Rocket and returned to it with Drew only to find it was out of action. Someone had tripped or fell during loading or unloading and the ride shut down. Remember those zones? People were stuck at places all along the coaster including the top of the tower supporting the vertical lift. They had to be led down a series of stair ladders to the ground and the ride didn’t re-open for three days. “Not good, not good at all!”