There's a down side to those thrill rides

September 02, 1999|By Kevin Cowherd

LET ME BEGIN by saying that I'm not much of an amusement park guy, mainly because I'm not big on rides, mainly because -- OK, we're getting down to it now -- I don't want to die.

According to a recent story in the newspaper, there were four deaths at amusement parks last week alone. And the average number of deaths at these places is two a year.

Fine, maybe you're some Rambo tough guy and two deaths a year doesn't sound like much to you.

But it sounds like a lot to me, and it would sound even worse if one of those deaths happened to be be my own.

Anyway, the day after reading this cheery article, I went with my two sons -- and my brother-in-law Bill and my three nephews -- to a popular amusement park in central Pennsylvania, where we had our own brush with death.

Well, sort of.

Some of us did, anyway.

There's no point in naming the amusement park we visited that day. Let's call it, oh, Hershey Park.

Actually, I like Hershey Park and had been there several times before, each time, fortunately, without a near-death experience.

Anyway, we began this visit, as always, with the obligatory tour of Chocolate World.

This involves getting on this little ride that goes about 2 miles per hour and it's air-conditioned and you learn all about how they make chocolate as you pass dancing Hershey Kisses and singing Reese's Pieces, and then at the end, they hand you a free Hershey bar.

How could you not love Chocolate World?

To me, Chocolate World is like a night at the Copa. Then again, I don't get out much.

After Chocolate World, we headed to the rides. Bill is not much for rides, either, so we just watched the kids go on one ride after another.

The first few rides were uneventful -- that is, if you consider an incredible series of G-forces slamming your body into your seat and whipping your neck around uneventful.

They went on the Winding Rivers rafting ride and the Wild Mouse mini-coaster and something called Chaos, where you get in this car that whirls around and around and flips over.

Then we came to a ride called Tidal Force.

Before we go any further, let me describe Tidal Force, so you can experience the same sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach that I experienced as I watched people ride this thing.

On Tidal Force, you get in this roller-coaster car that slowly takes you up to, I don't know, cloud level.

Then you hurtle down this steep embankment at 200 miles an hour or whatever, screaming in terror, your face contorted hideously with fear.

Then when you get to the bottom, the car plunges into a pool of water that sends a towering plume 80 feet in the air before it comes down and soaks you to the skin.

I know, I know who wouldn't have a swell time doing that?

But for some reason, the boys thought this would be a neat experience, so they jumped in line.

Anyway, the line was fairly long, and it took them 20 minutes to reach the front.

Then, just as they were about to board the next car, an amazing thing happened.

Seconds after the car in front of them departed for the top, it suddenly lurched to a stop and this horrible shrieking sound of metal grinding against metal filled the air.

Sparks flew everywhere.

Smoke billowed from beneath the car.

This, everyone watching agreed, was not a good sign.

Now, here is my thinking on this type of incident:

If I'm waiting in line to go on a ride that will take me a mile in the air and then shoot me back down at 200 miles an hour -- and now I see the car lurch to a grinding stop with sparks flying and smoke billowing, I am pretty much out of there, OK?

I don't care if they have NASA engineers in white lab coats swarming all over that baby -- I'm gone.

To me, this is like getting ready to board a plane and seeing the right engine drop off and shatter on the tarmac.

Are you kidding? I'd be back in the cocktail lounge in five seconds. It's a no-brainer.

But, incredibly, even after the car lurched to a sparking, smoking stop, only a few people left the line (including my kids and their cousins, I'm proud to say.)

Fortunately, the people running the ride had more sense than the people in line did. Because the riders in the car were evacuated, and the ride was quickly shut down.

This was our cue to head back to Chocolate World, where life is sweet, the G-forces are low, and everything makes perfect sense.

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