Coasters turn the corner Revival: After plunging for years, the number of roller coasters is moving uphill as 34 open in North America this summer, including ROAR at Adventure World.

May 25, 1998|By Diana Sugg | Diana Sugg,SUN STAFF

The glory days of the roller coaster are back.

This summer, 34 new roller coasters are opening across North America, the most in a single year since the Great Depression. One in particular is grabbing attention: a classic wooden roller coaster at Adventure World in Largo.

Called ROAR, the ride incorporates elements from the most popular and scary roller coasters of the 1920s, considered the golden age of coasters.

More to the point, ROAR careens over Southern yellow pine trees at 50 mph, crosses over itself 20 times, plunges into a 133-degree right turn, makes six reversals and rockets through a roofed section of track, all in 50 seconds.

"This has the potential to immediately become a top-10 coaster," said Paul Ruben, an expert who has been on nearly every roller coaster in North America. The 61-year-old from upstate New York couldn't wait to ride ROAR.

Yesterday, visitors to Adventure World lined up early to be among the first to ride ROAR, craning to see its latticework, watching the train seemingly dive into the middle of the structure. Later, riders gave it a thumbs up.

"It was wild, boy," declared Brad Hansen, 19, from Edgewood. "There are no straight drops. It's really twisty."

Across the country, amusement parks are opening roller coasters that aim to break records, to capture bragging rights for the steepest drop or the most loops, if just for one season. The "coaster wars," as some have dubbed them, attract a lot of people -- and money. Experts say they've also created a "roller coaster renaissance."

"We can finally take roller coasters off the endangered species list," said Ruben, who tracks roller coasters as North American editor of Park World Magazine.

In the late 1920s, there were more than 1,500 coasters in North America. By 1979, only 145 were operating. Today, there are about 350, Ruben said, noting they're "building them faster than I can get to them."

In many ways, the roller coaster is an amusement park's signature piece. It's not a copy of a ride that visitors know from other parks. Most roller coasters are one-of-a-kind rides, built to fit the geography and the park. Their names reflect their identities: the Cyclone, the Raven, Timberwolf.

But they share many characteristics with nicknames that coaster enthusiasts rattle off by heart. "Head chopper hills" dive through the ride's structure, creating the illusion that a person's head will be severed. "Camelbacks" are short hills that mimic the hump of a camel.

These big rides also bring in big bucks.

Time and time again, when guests are asked what they most want a park to add, it's a roller coaster. A wooden roller coaster may cost about $2 million, compared to about $6 million for a steel coaster. Experts say these rides pay for themselves within two years.

When Holiday World, a family-owned park in southern Indiana, opened a wooden roller coaster, the Raven, in 1995, attendance grew by 15 percent that summer and by 10 percent more the next year.

The park also garnered attention when the Raven, which winds in and out of the woods, was voted the No. 3 roller coaster in the world by a popular fan magazine.

"Having a major wood coaster for a park like ours was a big, big step," said president and general manager, Will Koch, whose grandfather founded the park. "But it put us on the map."

It does the same for larger parks, too. Hershey Park in Pennsylvania has attracted record numbers of visitors the past few summers, since it opened a wooden roller coaster called The Wildcat in 1996. Saturday, the park opened its sixth roller coaster, the Great Bear, a steel, inverted, looping roller coaster.

Wooden coasters favored

For parks and a growing number of fans, steel or wood is a key question.

In the past decade, steel, with its 360-degree loops, seemed to be winning the contest. Steel also doesn't flex, so there is no swaying during the ride. And its roar is usually softer.

But avid coaster fans, and an increasing number of parks, are choosing wooden coasters.

They like to hear the wood groan, feel the slight sway in the track and listen to the clickety-clack of the play between the rails and the cars. One of the pleasures of a wooden coaster is what's called "air time," the period when riders are lifted off their seats. Because these coasters can't do 360-degree loops, fewer restraints are required, and fans enjoy the sense that they may slide out of their seats, or that the car might fly off the track.

"It's kind of close to flying, without the risk of dying," said Brian Carr, 19, of Cecil County, after riding ROAR. "It seemed rickety, but not too rickety."

Jim Ball, a 16-year-old Bethesda youth waiting in line for ROAR yesterday, said: "It's more real. You feel more connected to the roller coaster. Steel is more modern. It's not as much fun."

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