By Elaine Richardson
Never, ever, send anyone to an amusement park and expect them to come back in a prompt manner.
Amusement parks are in the blood. They’re that little bit of childhood fancy that we remember with joy—and pain. They captivate the mind and hearken back to that sunny day when mom and dad stuck us on the Zipper, alone, just minutes after finishing that hot dog, cotton-candy spool and the entire box of Cracker Jacks. Somehow, even past the stomachache, what we’ve remembered is the inexplicable fun of being jerked around the local field, or fairgrounds, or parking lot on a contraption that looks like an insurance nightmare.
Psychologically you might say that amusement parks and the rides they provide fulfill our need for the dangers and thrills missing from daily life. Maybe they imbue us with a sense of power and leave us feeling that somehow we’ve conquered something not for the faint of heart—the huge line of people waiting to do the same thing notwithstanding. Or maybe they just offer us the chance for exhilaration, to feel the wind in our hair as we fly and flip and fall. Besides, if your stomach can stand it, it’s damn fun.
When it comes to amusements, adults are frequently worse than kids. While children can look at rides with the wonder and anticipation of those with a whole life before them, adults—who know exactly what that life will be like—are reaching out for an escape with both hands. And reporters are among the worst offenders. Midway through the media preview day for Six Flags Great America’s newest nausea-inducing attraction, the Raging Bull, most of those who’ve been here since the wee morning hours are still around, finding excuses not to go back to work.
“Hey! Isn’t this great?” says the overly friendly Rockford TV guy sitting next to me. “Haven’t you been yet? You’re going to love it! I’ve been here since 5am. We did the first morning remote at 5:30!”
Good for you, but it’s almost 1pm—What are you still doing here?
“I’ve ridden seven times and I’m not leaving yet!” the chipper fellow screams. “This is too much fun.”
“I’ve been fourteen times,” confides another TV guy behind us. “Kick ass.”
Great America, Gurnee’s Mecca of summer fun and nightmare crowds, is unveiling its tenth roller coaster and it’s an event. The first indication that this is new and different is the bright magenta and orange frame visible from I-94. While you used to be able to catch glimpses of the park through the trees, not much was visible from the tollway—but this thing shoots up into the sky, towering over everything, and of course, encouraging that feeling of dread and excitement in the pit of your stomach, a feeling that will make you wait in line an hour or more for a ride that lasts less than three minutes.
Billed as the world’s first hyper-twisting roller coaster—which essentially means it’s higher, faster and has steeper turns, but without going upside down—the Raging Bull is a honey of a ride. The first lift takes you up 200 feet and then drops you, going 70-plus mph at a 65-degree angle, into an underground tunnel. After that it’s difficult to remember much, other than the fact that if you stick your hands and feet out it feels like a freefall—and that it’s over much too soon.
But on media day it doesn’t matter. There’s no line; they don’t make you get off and you can ride as many times as you want—after all, just one ride isn’t enough to fully evaluate the experience for writing purposes…
There’s a moment of panic on the way up the first lift when I realize that, because of the notebook and press kit stuffed into my jacket, I haven’t pulled the safety harness as far down against my lap as it can go. When the cars begin to drop I can feel my rear end come out of the seat—where it stays for most the ride.
“That’s what makes this a great ride,” says Ron Magen, a member of America’s Roller Coaster Enthusiasts, a club that travels from park to park checking out the rides. “That’s what I base my recommendations on—the amount of time you feel like you’re flying above your seat, while you’re perfectly safe. This ride is fantastic. It doesn’t jerk at all, even going up. It’s really smooth and has almost no down time. I’d place it in my top three.”
Even more entertaining than the ride is the motley crew hanging around it. Not only has Six Flags invited in the roller-coaster enthusiasts, they’ve gotten a roller-coaster historian—and champion bull riders from the Professional Bull Riders Association to attest to the fact that the flying-out-of-your-seat feeling is similar to bull riding. (It is, the riders say, but a lot safer.) Apparently it’s faster, too, as one rider watches his cowboy hat go flying away on the first drop.
And lost articles are everywhere. Around my sixth ride—the TV guys are still there—I looked up on one of the turns to see a pair of glasses floating right above my head, a tough break for the editor of Premiere magazine. But, as one park employee says, as these roller coasters go higher and faster, there’s no telling what you can lose.
“We had a problem on the Viper with a guy who had lost his teeth, so I go lookin’ for ’em and it turns out they floated all the way over a couple buildings and landed next to a garbage can,” he says. “Who knows what we’ll lose on this thing.”
After two hours and seven rides, I’m walking under the Raging Bull’s steel supports on the way out when the cars race by and there’s a scream from the TV guys, “Twenty times, baby!”