Anyone who’s spent even a sliver of time hanging around with me would know that I am, perhaps to an unhealthy degree, obsessed over roller coasters – those sleek, silvery marvels of engineering with just one purpose in life: to take people really, really high and drop them very fast.
By my count, I’ve ridden 92 roller coasters in the United States and South Korea. While this may seem mind-bogglingly high to some, rest assured that I’m on the punier side when it comes to my fellow roller coaster enthusiasts, some of whom plan entire globe-trotting trips just to seek out some of the best scream machines in the world!
A lot of my coaster count comes from my fortunate location in the heart of Southern California, surrounded by some of the best theme parks in the world. Just imagine if I grew up in Oklahoma, where there’s just one looping roller coaster in the entire state (Silver Bullet in Frontier City)! *Shudders*
However, and quite obviously, the quality of all of those roller coasters varies quite a bit. I’ve been on many stinkers of a roller coaster, and I’ve been on those that have offered me a transcendental, life-changing experience. Those rare, fleeting moments when your lap bar lifts open, you stumble into the exit, and you mutter a “wow” and get right back in line again.
So here’s my list of top ten roller coasters I’ve had the joy of riding, ranked from tenth to first.
10. X2 (Six Flags Magic Mountain)
X2 was the world’s first “fourth-dimension” roller coaster. What does this mean? Mostly, it’s a marketing gimmick, but it refers to the ‘fourth dimension’ of movement. X2 goes beyond simple up, down, and side-to-side; the seats are actually free to rotate, adding another so-called dimension to the varieties of movement your poor body will have to go through.
What this means for the rider is that X2 is an experience unlike any other coaster on the planet. You never know which direction your body will be facing next, as the comforting guide of the track ahead is pulled out from beneath your feet. For the first time, where the track goes isn’t necessarily where your body will go, and that’s what makes X2 so unpredictable – and fun.
A minor refresh in 2010 brought fire effects, a new coat of paint and an onboard soundtrack that will pump you up on the way up the lift hill.
9. Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit (Universal Studios Orlando)
It’s hard to say why I rank HRRR (because I can’t be arsed to type out the full name) so highly on my list; it’s not like it does anything particularly better than many other similar rides. It doesn’t go through very severe twists and turns, nor does it go upside down, nor does it have a gimmick beyond its onboard music.
But that one particular gimmick, HRRR executes with perfection. Roller coasters with onboard soundtracks are nothing new – dating back to Disney’s own efforts with Space Mountain – but HRRR kicks it up a notch by letting the riders pick their own songs from a little screen in front of their seats.
(Protip: there are several “hidden” song choices you can’t see from the main menu. Google it, although my favorite still remains Daft Punk’s Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.)
Although the music’s the headliner here, that’s not to say that the coaster itself is boring; far from it. The ride starts off with a bang: a massive drop right into what Universal calls a “non-inverting loop”, which is a fancy way of saying that the track doesn’t go upside down at the top.
My favorite part, though, comes more towards the middle, when the train curves above the pathway in an element that Universal refers to, hopefully tongue-in-cheek, as “the crowd surfer”. The track tilts just enough to the side so that you’re almost falling out of your seat, enough to reach out and imagine that you’re just about to high-five hands with the masses looking up from below.
HRRR is, very simply, a fun experience. It’s nothing that will scare your pants off, nor something you’ll harken back to with your grandchildren a half century from now, but it’s roller coastering at its purest – with a welcome twist.
8. Expedition Everest (Disney’s Animal Kingdom)
Plenty of folks more knowledgeable than I have already explained, in-depth, about this attraction’s enormous level of attention to detail when it comes to theming and world-building, settling snugly into the pre-existing story of Anandapur in the Asia section of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Strip away the intricately carved details, the hidden backstory of tea plantations and yetis and folklore, though, and you’re left with one of Vekoma’s finest roller coasters to date.
Vekoma, I should note, is also the manufacturer behind some of Disney’s other roller coasters, including Rock N’ Roller Coaster, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Space Mountain. As you can imagine, the bar was set pretty high when Disney approached them to help them build a twisting, turning roller coaster through the cavernous depths of Mt. Everest. Suffice to say that they went above and beyond.
The opening seconds of the ride, a tranquil journey through the Anandapur tea fields, is a perfect way to transition to the high-speed thrills coming up ahead. The sudden change in direction once your tea train reaches the peak, only to find that the track has been snapped clean by the mythical monster, is one of the best uses of forwards-to-backwards momentum shift in roller coaster design. It only gets better from there, as your tea train takes the plunge back outside, in one of the largest drops on a Disney coaster, before taking riders on a frenetic journey through helices and tunnels before coming face-to-face with the fearsome yeti itself.
It’s a perfect marriage of thrills and theming, something only Disney is capable of. (Universal’s getting up there.)
7. T Express (Everland)
We head across the Pacific Ocean to Everland, one of South Korea’s premier theme parks nestled in the foothills of Yongin-si, on the outskirts of Seoul, where we find a wooden roller coaster – the only one on this list – called T Express.
T Express is somewhat special. It’s manufactured by Intamin, and deviates from traditional wooden roller coaster guidelines. Intamin calls T Express an example of their ‘plug-and-play’ design.
There’s a couple differences between Intamin’s proprietary plug-and-play model versus traditional wooden roller coasters. To get a little bit technical, traditional woodies take a series of wooden boards – called bents – and stack them on top of each other. They’re then heated and bent to the correct angle necessary for twists and turns. Then, after it’s cooled, a steel strap is nailed down on top of the topmost bent. This is called a running rail. If we were to saw a wooden coaster in half, showing a cross-section of the track, it would show several layers of wood stacked on top of each other for each side, with a thin strip of metal on the very top for the wheels to run on.
In contrast, Intamin forgoes the layering process. Instead, they simply use a whole chunk of wood! If we were to see a cross-section of an Intamin wooden coaster, we wouldn’t be seeing any layers of wood at all; it would just be one whole, thick piece, with the running rail on top. These sections ‘plug in’ to each other, forming a coherent track layout.
For the rider, this translates to a smoother ride with less maintenance necessary. In the case of T Express, it means a kick-ass ride that is my favorite wooden roller coaster.
6. Xcelerator (Knott’s Berry Farm)
Xcelerator was the world’s first roller coaster with a hydraulic launch system. While launched coasters are old hat – dating back to the 1970’s with Anton Schwarzkopf and his counterweight-and-pulley system (see Montezooma’s Revenge at the same park for an example) – Xcelerator’s new launch system allowed coasters to reach heights and speeds that traditional launched coasters couldn’t reach.
And whoo, that launch is definitely something else. There’s a couple more launched coasters coming up on this list, but let it be known that they’re not higher because of the launch itself. In that category, at least, Xcelerator reigns supreme.
Xcelerator’s successful proof-of-concept run would allow her manufacturer, Intamin, to go on and take braver and bolder launch ventures, including Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point and Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure, both of which held the title as the tallest and fastest coaster in the world when they opened.
5. Full Throttle (Six Flags Magic Mountain)
Full Throttle is, as the saying goes, a one-trick pony. But, my God, what a trick it is.
That, my friends, is the largest vertical loop in the world. And the momentum from the blistering launch right before it gives the train just enough momentum to make it over the top, giving its riders several seconds of pure, unrestrained bliss.
The rest of the ride isn’t too shabby either, featuring a world’s-first dual launch, where the train is first rocketed backwards, then forwards once again for a thrilling one-two punch that sends the train soaring skyward, up and over the exact same loop they traversed just a few seconds ago before falling straight down into the brakes.
It’s a short ride – just a couple seconds long – but it’ll leave you hankering for more.
4. Tatsu (Six Flags Magic Mountain)
Tatsu, located at the highest point in the coaster paradise that is Six Flags Magic Mountain, is a flying coaster, and the best of its kind to boot.
A flying coaster means that you’re not sitting down like on traditional roller coasters. Rather, your seat inclines backwards 90 degrees, so that your body is parallel to the track above you. In other words, you’re now Superman, with nothing holding you back from the grips of gravity other than a flimsy restraint.
Tatsu is the only roller coaster I’ve ridden to successfully turn me into a bird, soaring high above the California sky. Its purpose isn’t to make you quake in your boots with fear; rather, Tatsu exists to give you serenity. From the breathtaking view of the California desert from the top of the lift hill, to the way it gracefully dives and soars across the summit of the park, Tatsu is an experience like no other.
3. California Screamin’ (Disney California Adventure)
California Screamin’ is almost criminally underrated by most of the coaster enthusiast community for the sheer fact that it’s at a Disney park. Therefore, the reasoning goes, Disney coasters cannot possibly be good as their non-family-friendly brethren.
What a crock of bull. California Screamin’ is over four minutes of pure, unbridled joy. Built by Intamin, this roller coaster – themed to a seaside coaster from the heyday of the amusement pier in the 20’s and 30’s – features an onboard soundtrack that perfectly captures every little dip and rise in the layout. Speaking of the layout, it is superb; it opens with a heart-pounding launch into a cacophony of hills and curves, then gives you a breather with a traditional lift hill, then plunges you right back into the thick of things – all accompanied by a killer guitar riff.
2. Eagle Fortress (Everland)
Some people may find it surprising that my number two is a 23-year old roller coaster that barely anyone’s heard of, built by a manufacturer that’s now out of business, and using a gimmick that fell out of style 20 years ago. But that’s the realities of coastering – sometimes, maybe most of the time, newest isn’t always the best.
Built by Arrow Dynamics in 1992 (the year I was born, incidentally), Eagle Fortress is a prime example of a suspended coaster, where the cars hang from beneath the tracks and are free to sway from side-to-side depending on the whims of gravity.
The strength of a suspended coaster doesn’t come from height or drops; it comes from the swinging motion the cars produce. Therefore, curves are paramount. Thankfully for all of us, Eagle Fortress doesn’t ease up from the second it comes loose from the lift hill, until the last moment before it hits the brakes. Built into a mountain overgrown with grass and trees, the coaster takes full advantage of the wild terrain, dipping in and out of its crevices. Eagle Fortress is a true out-of-control experience.
1. Maverick (Cedar Point)
This fucking ride.
Sure, it’s not the tallest, nor the fastest. In fact, it’s positively diminutive by traditional standards. But what Maverick lacks in records, it more than makes up for it with its polish and finesse in pulling off the raison d’etre for any roller coaster: to thrill.
It has everything a coaster needs: airtime, oodles of it. So much, in fact, that your butt will spend more time in the air than it will planted firmly in the seat. Inversions – two, one coming right after the other in a brilliant one-two punch. A beyond-vertical drop that will lift your entire body into the restraint and have you clutching at the straps praying to all that is holy. A stupendous surprise launch that comes halfway through the ride, catching everyone off-guard before the train explodes back into the sunlight and high, high above the sparkling waters of Lake Erie.
Maverick is coaster nirvana.