AS my first encounter with the Anaconda roller coaster at King's Dominion began, I swore this newfound recreational outlet of mine had run its course. Just get me through the next 90 seconds, I prayed as the train inched 130 feet to the top of the first hill, and I'll never flirt with high-speed high jinks again.
That ascent to the ride's highest point took only 27 seconds, but it seemed like an eternity. Then suddenly the train made a 90-degree turn, banked to the right and plunged 144 feet into an underwater tunnel.
My eyes closed just before splashdown. No, I didn't get wet, but I couldn't escape that overwhelming sensation of speed as we whipped 100 feet back up into the air and into a series of loops that tossed us right then left then right again. Someone in the back -- with eyes obviously open -- yelled "corkscrew!" just before we went into a 156-foot-long double twisting loop. I didn't completely open my eyes again until the train screeched into the station.
As I unclenched my teeth and pulled my trembling body out of the car, I remarked to my seatmate that the "dive" had to be the worst part of the ride.
"Worst or best," she answered, "depending on how you look at it." Indeed she was right. Some people actually enjoy being white-knuckled. My problem, I fear, is that I may be turning into one of them.
By the time I reached the bottom of the exit ramp and looked back at the 2,700-foot track snaking over the lake, I had begun to reconsider. After all, I survived in one piece didn't I? Maybe it wasn't that bad. Maybe I should give myself credit for riding one of the fastest, highest, most looping coast
ers around. Maybe I should get in line again. Maybe next time I'll even open my eyes.
Such are the ramblings of a late bloomer to roller coastering. For, despite several trips to Gwynn Oak and other parks in my youth, I had never been on a real, "grown-up" roller coaster until two years ago. And suffice it to say that since I remember Gwynn Oak, the popular amusement park near Woodlawn that died nearly 20 years ago, I've been a grown-up a lot longer than two years.
I've always been fascinated by coasters; I just never had the courage to ride one -- until that fateful visit to Hersheypark in 1989. For whatever reason -- maybe it was the desire to conquer my longtime fear; maybe it was the preteen in our group who verged on calling me a "wimp," -- I took on the Sooperdooperlooper.
While the 14-year-old coaster pales in comparison to most coasters built in the '90s, I was suitably impressed. The thrill of having conquered -- I should say survived -- something I had only dreamed of doing was so invigorating that I led our little group on to another, more fearsome challenge -- the Comet, a wooden coaster in the old-time, rough-riding tradition.
The Comet was built in 1946 and remodeled in 1978. It has a drop of 96 feet that can lift you off your seat and another one of 60 feet.
"A piece of cake," I said later, though on immediately disembarking the white wonder I was said to have whispered "never again."
Now I'm taking on challenges at the drop of an editor's remark. "Six loops and an underwater tunnel, you say? No problem, I can handle it."
But after a 1 1/2 -hour wait in line, when my turn came to ride the Anaconda, which, by the way, is named after the largest snake in the Western Hemisphere, I was scared speechless. My derring-do had disappeared.
"You're scared. But it's a fun-type scared," says Ray Ueberroth, president of the American Coaster Enthusiasts, who has ridden more than 300 different roller coasters in his lifetime. ACE has about 4,000 members, who spend their summers cruising the country looking for new thrills, christening new coasters and generally getting high on being scared out of their minds.
"It was great," says Ueberroth, a Baltimore resident, of his first ride on the Anaconda. "That first drop, when you look down [at the underwater tunnel] and you know that hole is not big enough rTC for the train . . . " he says, recalling the specific fear of crashing into the lake.
"That first drop" is right, I agreed; that's where I was when my eyes first closed on me.
"Well," he says with reassurance, "you'll have to ride it again. And next time, as you go through the double loop, look to your left to see the Rebel Yell turning upside down twice."
The Rebel Yell, Kings Dominion's first roller coaster, is made of wood. The train travels over 12 hills, including one gut-wrenching drop of 85 feet, and reaches a speed of 65 mph.
For some, who say you haven't been on a real roller coaster until your shoulder's been dislocated, "woodies" are the only way to go. In fact coaster fans form battle lines over which are more thrilling -- the rickety, usually older, wooden structures or the smooth, new, steel rides.
Actually, steel-framed coasters can do a lot that wooden ones can't. They can turn you upside down in vertical, sideways, figure-8 and corkscrew loops. They can even hurl you backward.