In Praise of Roller Coasters

A celebration of thrill rides, from steel beasts to wooden beauties.

When most people hear "amusement park," they picture a Ferris Wheel, a funhouse — and a roller coaster. And why not? Roller coasters have been around for well over 100 years, and they've always been designed with pretty much the same aim in mind: to terrify and delight those looking for a particular sort of amusement. Let's ride.

Downhill All the Way Florilegius/SSPL via Getty Images Downhill All the Way Russian sled runs built on man-made hills of ice were the inspiration for Europe's earliest roller coasters. Pictured: A roller coaster, of sorts, in Paris around 1817. Brake, Man The AGE/Fairfax Media via Getty Images Brake, Man The Scenic Railway in Melbourne, Australia, opened in 1912 and is the oldest continually operating roller coaster in the world. It's also one of just three remaining coasters — the others are in the UK and Denmark — that feature a brakeman in the middle of the train. See the guy wearing shades and a cap? That's the guy you want to treat well during your ride.

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Personality Don Kelsen/LA Times via Getty Images Personality Most of today's coasters, of course, are made of steel. But many aficionados swear that the old, wooden beauties — like the Giant Dipper seen here, the oldest roller coaster on the California coast, located on the boardwalk in Santa Cruz — make for a more exciting ride. Maybe it's because the whole structure "gives" a little more (or it just feels like it does). Or maybe it's just because they have so much personality.
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Buyenlarge/Getty Images; Don Kelsen/LA Times/Getty Images Loop the Loop Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images Loop the Loop Not long after modern roller coasters first came on the scene in the late 19th century, designers started looking for more ways to scare the pants off of riders. The dual-tracked "Loop the Loop" at Coney Island, which operated in the first decade of the 20th century, was one of the first to feature what is now taken for granted on most roller coasters: 360 degrees of non-stop screaming. Monster of the Steep YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images Monster of the Steep A steep, stomach-churning drop from an absurd height is another draw that most coaster riders expect these days — and they feel cheated if they don't get it. The Takabisha in Fujiyoshida, Japan, cheats no one. Not only is its drop a respectable 140 feet, but its drop angle of 121 degrees (you read that right) makes it the steepest coaster in the world. Easy Does It J. Baylor Roberts/National Geographic/Getty Images Easy Does It Not all roller coasters are designed with the sole intent of pushing riders to the brink of a coronary. Like the modest ride pictured here at a fair in Dallas, Texas, in the 1950s, some coasters today still offer fun without all of that messy, abject terror. Nessie Photoshot/Getty Images Nessie The Loch Ness Monster at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, is well into its fourth decade of providing people from all over the world with a few solid, uninterrupted minutes of hilarity. Or white-knuckle fear. Take your pick. Hitched Myung J. Chun/LA Times via Getty Images Hitched One of the great things about human beings is that they're always looking for ways to make already special occasions even more memorable. For example: Getting married atop the Goliath in Valencia, Calif., and then enjoying a wild post-wedding ride. Old Reliable Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images Old Reliable The wooden Scenic Railway in Margate, England, has been lifting Britons' spirits since 1920, making it the oldest roller coaster in the United Kingdom.
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Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images Wooden Colossus Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images Wooden Colossus Wooden track roller coasters are rare in China, but this colossus at an amusement park in Wuhu, in the southeast of the country, makes up for the relative lack of old-school rides. Magic Mountain Ulrich Baumgarten/U. Baumgarten via Getty Images Magic Mountain Not all roller coasters are about hurtling at highway speeds through loops and curves. The striking 2011 art installation and stairway, "Tiger and Turtle – Magic Mountain," in Duisburg, Germany, pays whimsical, well-crafted tribute to roller coasters everywhere. O, Canada! Randy Risling/Toronto Star via Getty Images O, Canada! Canada's first "giga" roller coaster (a class of coaster that exceeds 300 feet in height), the Leviathan in Vaughan, Ontario, is well over a mile long, hits speeds of more than 90 miles per hour, and is the third-tallest traditional lift-style coaster in the world. Watchers by the Wall Tom Stoddart Archive/Getty Images Watchers by the Wall As anyone who's ever set foot in an amusement park knows, watching roller coaster riders (and listening to their screams) is a pleasure that never grows old. Pictured: Friends watch one of the 10 roller coasters at the famous Blackpool Pleasure Beach in Blackpool, England — one of the most-visited amusement parks in the world. Kingda Ka-a-a-a! STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images Kingda Ka-a-a-a! No discussion of roller coasters would be complete without a nod to Kingda Ka at Six Flags in Jackson, New Jersey. It is the world's tallest roller coaster (its "top hat tower" rises more than 450 feet), but its speed might be even more impressive. Riders reach 128 miles per hour in just 3.5 seconds at the start of the trip. Child's Play Kevin Frayer/Getty Images Child's Play Riding a roller coaster is intensely visceral, so it's no surprise that virtual reality programmers and developers would look to coasters for inspiration for new games and experiences. And while roller coaster purists might scoff at the idea, this little boy in a roller coaster simulator in Beijing, China, seems utterly convinced. Cover Up Zia Soleil Cover Up Why do we do it? Why do we launch ourselves on journeys that last just a few minutes but — in ways both wonderful and frightening — can feel like a lifetime? Living It Up Chris Ware/Getty Images Living It Up Why? Because it's so much fun, and because when you're riding a roller coaster next to a friend, parent, child, or partner — or even just by yourself — and you're laughing, yelling, and maybe crying, all at once, you feel alive. Scared, of course. Nauseous, perhaps. But alive. Close to the Edge New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images Close to the Edge So, thrill-seekers, put your hands in the air — like this lucky young woman riding what might be the most famous and most photographed roller coaster in the world, the 90-year-old Cyclone at Coney island — brace yourself, and take the plunge.

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