On a special day in the sun, learning how to let go, fly high

Baltimore ... or Less

August 04, 2002|By Alexa James | Alexa James,SUN STAFF

Fourteen-year-old Justin Brown of Baltimore eyes the enormous contraption, half-excited, half-suspicious.

Are those screams of thrill or terror from the 22 people locked inside the hunk of brightly painted machinery? Do they actually like being swept in fast circles three stories high? What's making that dreadful "whooshing" sound?

"I don't want to go on the Riptide," he says, folding his arms tightly across his chest.

"Yes you do," says 19-year-old Lauren Berezniak, Justin's camp counselor. "Now what did you just tell me? `Conquer your fear of heights and ride the Ferris wheel.' "

"I don't want to," he says.

The Riptide is one of the most intimidating rides this year at the Glen Burnie Carnival's Special Day. One day every year, volunteers open the carnival just for people like Justin, people with special needs. No tickets, no wristbands - no fuss. Just two solid hours of all you can eat, win and ride.

If you decide to ride, that is.

It's another sweltering summer morning, but the carnival is swarming with visitors from assisted living programs and summer camps like Justin's. He's one of 42 kids from Lake Waterford Day Camp, a summer program in Severna Park for kids with physical and mental disabilities. On the carnival grounds off Crain Highway in Glen Burnie, hundreds of volunteers pass out slices of pizza and help the visitors onto rides. They take Polaroids of everyone, then turn the snapshots into souvenir buttons.

Special Day began 10 years ago, when a patron with a disabled daughter asked the carnival committee to set aside a time for people like her to attend. Ride operators, vendors, and local organizations and businesses joined the project, including Brickers Famous French Fries from York, Pa. "We wouldn't do the Glen Burnie Carnival without doing the Special Days," says employee Barry Mease.

At Special Day 2002, Justin's not the only one having second thoughts about the rides. This is 13-year-old Daniel Lopata's first year at Waterford Day Camp and his very first carnival. Daniel's mother, Jacqueline Lopata, watches her son pace between the "NASCAR Speedway," a racetrack with cars painted like those driven by Jeff Gordon and Ricky Rudd, and the "Dragon Wagon," a small roller coaster. Lopata is hopeful, but thinks her son may only watch today.

Daniel counts the times the green dragon coaster circles the track. He climbs the steps of the Speedway for a closer look. Ten minutes pass.

Finally Daniel stops pacing and gets in line at the Speedway. Lopata watches her son climb into the green and black Interstate Battery racecar, the one that looks just like Bobby Labonte's No. 18. At turns one and two, he's grinning. By turns three and four, he's laughing.

"This is amazing," Lopata says.

After the race, Daniel hustles down the steps, grabs his mom's hand and pulls her toward the Dragon Wagon. "That was cool, Ma," he says. "That was cool." For the dragon ride, Daniel picks the last seat, right in front of the tail.

"I just love to see that smile," his mother says.

Back at the Riptide, Justin has made up his mind. He gets in line for the ride.

"You're so cool," says counselor Berezniak.

Once aboard, Justin double-checks and triple-checks the safety bars.

"Excuse me, sir!" he shouts to the ride operator. "Does this go fast?"

The operator shakes his head. It's too late for questions now.

The Riptide swings like a pendulum, slowly at first, then faster and higher. Justin screams, pausing momentarily when he spots the McDonald's golden arches from the ride's view, then screams again.

Minutes later, the Riptide slows to a stop.

"Sir, don't get us off," Justin tells the operator. "We're staying on!"

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