Your knuckles are white, your palms are drenched, and it feels like your dentist has just switched on the drill. Worse still, as the click of the chain pulls the train skyward, you glance back at the gum-chewing guy who strapped you in and wonder what possessed you to put your life in the hands of a kid you wouldn't trust to wrap your Big Mac. That's when you realize: This is all a big mistake. Only now you're at the top, staring into the air, the track seems to have vanished, and the car teeters on the edge of nothingness. Then gravity takes hold and whooooaa...you're hurtling earthward. Faster, faster. Suddenly you're upside down, spinning around corners, praying for it all to end. Minutes later the shoulder bar rises, you stagger out on wobbly knees...and hey, where's that kid? Maybe he'll let us ride up front this time.
Roller coasters have come a long way since 17th-century Russian thrill seekers rode sleds down icy, wooden tracks. We, on the other hand, have evolved little. Hooked on the thrill of fear, Americans are demanding ever bigger, faster, loopier coasters. The U.S. boasts some 347, including 25 set to open this year. Gripped in a dizzying race to build the best, amusement parks are spending up to $15 million per coaster to break height and speed records set the year before.
Most coasters rely on gravity to propel the cars through the course. But new technology that uses the force created by magnets and motors set along the tracks is opening the way for a super breed of faster, higher, more spectacular rides. Still, coasters are pretty safe: According to U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission figures, the odds against being injured seriously enough to require hospitalization are about 1 in 7 million.
That was good news to me in my quest to determine PEOPLE'S Top 10 Roller Coasters of 1997. Clutching a pack of Dramamine, I rode dozens of them in parks across the country, judging them on speed, loopage and a general ability to terrify. Sure, you could live a full life without experiencing 5 Gs (as in gravity forces; space-shuttle crews hit 3.2 Gs during launch) or the wind in your hair at 100 mph. But what better way to spend a summer's day?
10. THE ZIPPIN PIPPIN
Operated since 1915, the Zippin Pippin is one of America's oldest coasters. Which becomes only too obvious when you see the creaky wooden framework and the brake levers that look like oars salvaged from the Titanic. So why does the Pippin rate? For one thing, it has a sense of impending derailment that modern coasters—with their fancy shoulder bars and padded seats—lack. And besides being a good bumpy run with no lags and loads of airtime (that's coasterese for being lifted off your seat), who could resist Elvis's favorite ride? The King rode the Pippin nonstop for hours when he rented out Libertyland on the night of Aug. 8, 1977—eight days before he died. Theories, anyone?
9. SPACE MOUNTAIN
Disneyland, Anaheim, Calif.
Coasterphobes are control freaks who dislike giving in to gravity or losing their seats (to say nothing of their lunch). Most of all, they hate surprises. That's why after 20 years—despite its mild top speed (32 mph), moderate drops (up to 35 feet) and Buck Rogers decor—Space Mountain's indoor odyssey still strikes fear into the fainthearted. The rocket-shaped cars cruise the track in almost total darkness lit only by the strobe flashes of passing "galaxies." Mercifully the antique-guitar soundtrack (think Pulp Fiction) that blasts through speakers in each headrest is loud enough to drown out all but the loudest screams.
8. TEXAS GIANT
Six Flags Over Texas, Arlington, Texas
There's nothing quite like a wooden coaster: the smell of the grease on the tracks, the perilous tremble of beams as the train rumbles by. Built in 1990, the Giant mixes the best of the old woodies with advanced engineering. Brave the front seat for a speedy (62 mph) ride that keeps up its breakneck pace from the first 137-foot dive through another 20 (count 'em) drops—all packed into 2 thrill-stoked minutes. For once, Texans can't brag that theirs is the biggest. But for those who fancy quality over quantity, the Giant is a mean, wild ride.
7. THE CYCLONE
They're burly and have broad Brooklyn accents, but the mechanics who care for the Cyclone talk about their charge with the kind of affection usually reserved for Grandma. "She's a beauty," says Tommy Reynolds, 27. At 70, the Cyclone is indeed a feisty old dame, tearing through nine drops (the first a blistering 85 feet at 60 degrees) and banking sharply around the spine-crunching corners of overlapping figure eights at up to 60 mph. Younger coasters may speed to greater heights. But few can claim a miracle: In 1949, Emilio Franco, a West Virginia coal miner who was mute because of a nervous disorder, started to shriek as he soared down the Cyclone's second plunge. Stepping off the coaster, a stunned Franco uttered his first words in six years: "I feel sick."
Buffalo Bill's Casino, Primm, Nev.
Thirty-five miles south of Las Vegas, Desperado's awesome arch looms like a bad omen on the range. You mount the coaster inside Buffalo Bill's, an oversized, saloon-style gambling barn. Then it's up and out into the emptiness of the Nevada desert. Savor the view, because soon you'll be plummeting down a 225-foot drop and ducking to keep your head as the car flies into an underground tunnel. The rest of the 5,843-foot track doesn't quite live up to that first brush with doom, but expect to part ways with your saddle a few more times before making it back.
5. SUPERMAN THE ESCAPE
Magic Mountain, Valencia, Calif.
Poised before the steel doors that conceal the launchpad, you hear screams from beyond that sound like mice being sucked up a 41-story Hoover—and there's only one way out. Using new motor technology that NASA is considering for rocket launchers, Superman blasts skyward 415 feet at a 90-degree angle, accelerating from 0 to 100 mph in just 7 seconds and obliterating coaster records for speed and height. For a few moments you're weightless as the car free-falls backward down a drop more than twice the height of Niagara Falls. It's a breath-busting ride—but too short. You can spend hours in line for that 45-second taste of terror.
4. MAGNUM XL-200
Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio
On roller coasters, as in life, bigger is not necessarily better. When built in 1989, Magnum was the world's first coaster to reach 205 feet. Since then, many have surpassed it in height and speed, but few can match its thrill. A loop-free ride, Magnum sets its pace (72 mph) at the first drop (195 feet, 60 degrees) and doesn't look back. Nor do its passengers. On a clear day riders can see across Lake Erie to Ontario while whipping over three lofty inclines, bouncing through three tunnels and lifting off from their seats for some of the best air time in the biz. And when the fog descends on the lake, covering the coaster's steel crests in cloud, a ride on Magnum, says one fan, 52-year-old accountant John Biacovsky, can be "like riding into roller coaster heaven."
3. MANHATTAN EXPRESS
New York-New York Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas
Subtlety was never a virtue in Las Vegas, and the Manhattan Express—a 4,777-foot roller coaster wrapped around a miniversion of Manhattan's skyline—gives tacky a new twist. But what better playground for a fast-paced, loop-laden coaster that's almost as harrowing as a New York City cab ride? After dark, the steep, 203-foot climb offers a spectacular view of the Strip. Beware, though: The 75-foot first drop is just a warm-up. The second, 144-foot plunge sends you into a series of mind-rattling rolls, ending with a 540-degree spiral and a tricky twist that sends the entire train upside down 86 feet over the casino's roof before diving back to earth.
Kentucky Kingdom, Louisville, Ky.
Ever wonder what it would be like to dive face first off a 144-foot cliff? As the world's longest (4,155 feet), fastest (63 mph) stand-up coaster, Chang, which opened in April, may be one answer. Don't let the canary yellow fool you. This dragon's roar can be heard halfway across the park, and when the shoulder bars lock you in its jaws, be prepared to feel each gravity-defying swoop from your split ends to your toenails. The front seat gives the best rush on the suicidal first drop (the tail is a rough, head-banging ride). Wherever you sit, you'll quake with the force of up to 5 Gs as Chang throws you into three loops and two corkscrew spirals before spitting you out.
Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, Va.
Hold on to your lederhosen for the best roller coaster ride of 1997. Set over the park's German-themed Rhine River, the Alpengeist is a ski lift run amok. The world's fastest (67 mph), tallest (195 feet) inverted coaster sends you hurtling down a 170-foot drop and tosses you upside down six times in a ride that's as smooth and exhilarating as a romp in the snow ...mid-blizzard. With your legs dangling from the seat, chairlift-style, there's nothing between you and the flowing stream below as the first lethal drop sends the car flying in a sudden, scary, twisted circle. It then flips into a 106-foot vertical loop and spins above "ice"-covered rocks four more times before you return to the station, breathless and screaming for more.
On Newsstands Now
- The Little Couple: A New Mom's Fight to Live
- Remembering Nelson Mandela
- Princess Kate's Style Secret!
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine