I’ve been a fan of roller coasters for a long time: those hulking behemoths of scream, coursing their way over and under the skies in a monument to our everlasting quest to find thrills in the weirdest, strangest ways. And if that quest takes literally tons of steel and iron, assembled in a way that forcefully reminds us of the best Abstract paintings, then so be it.
Last August, a little over a year ago, I sat down and counted down some of the best scream machines I’ve had the pleasure of riding. It’s been twelve months since that post, and I’m a little bit older and a little bit wiser – and I’ve ridden quite a few new rides since then, some of which absolutely deserve a spot on my list. At this time last year, my coaster count stood at 92; today, it’s at 117 unique roller coasters… and counting!
It’s time to take another look at my Top 10, to which there’s been several changes: some new upstarts are making their debut, but for every new entry, there’s an old one that’s gotten the ignominious boot.
#10: Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, Universal Studios Hollywood
Second-to-last on last year’s list, this dastardly creation by Maurer AG with a kick-ass on-board soundtrack managed to hang on to #10 as the last position on this year’s ranking, which, given the slate of amazing new coasters I’ve ridden this year, says a lot about how great this one is. It doesn’t particularly stand out in any one category – there are coasters that go higher, faster, and longer – but somehow, HRRR (using an acronym because the full name is probably the most unwieldy combination of words in the English language) manages to be more than the sum of its parts.
If you’ve never experienced a vertical lift hill before – where the train fully tilts on its back before heading up to the highest point of the ride – it can be a surreal experience. You know you’re not going to fall out (the comfy restraints are pretty secure), but you’re clutching at your lap bar, regardless. Thankfully, the ascent is quick, and it isn’t long before you’re gazing out at a birds-eye view of Universal Orlando Resort.
The view doesn’t last for long, though, as the floor is pulled out from beneath you and the train hurtles down the first drop, into the first big element of this ride that also secures its position on this list. It may look like a traditional loop at first glance, but as the train ascends, it suddenly twists over so that you’re right-side-up at the top, before twisting back down to finish the “inversion”. It’s a genuinely disorienting couple of seconds, and the rest of the ride follows suit as the train negotiates twists, overbanks and turns that toss you around like so much rag dolls in the hands of a five-year-old.
Oh, did I mention that the entire ride is set to a soundtrack of your choosing? In front of every seat is a screen. On that screen is an exhaustive list of songs – from today’s Top 40, to classic rock, to country.
Protip: the best song is Daft Punk’s Harder Better Faster Stronger.
#9: Xcelerator, Knott’s Berry Farm
I enjoy launched coasters. (Some people don’t, and that’s
okay a crime.) Xcelerator is one of the best of the breed.
Not to mention, it’s actually something of a prototype; when Intamin developed their hydraulic launch system in the early 00’s, they wanted a proof-of-concept model to see if the technology would live up to their expectations.
Maybe that explains the brief ride time, as Xcelerator was designed to do one thing – to go very fast. And go very fast it does, with a top speed of 82 MPH, with a launch that is as mind-boggling as the day it was introduced.
Launched coasters prior to Xcelerator generally used a linear-induction-motor launch system, which – while still fun – had a downside in that the acceleration decreased the faster the train went. In other words, as the train accelerates, it takes longer and longer to reach the same speed increase.
In comparison, Intamin and Xcelerator’s hydraulic launch provides a constant state of acceleration, so that you’re not only going faster as the launch progresses, but the rate at which you’re gaining speed is also constant. This may not sound like a huge thing to get worked up about, but in real life, it’s the difference between a ho-hum start and an oh my god this is the best thing ever kind of start.
If there’s a drawback, it’s that the ride is over before you have a chance to breathe. After that breathtaking view from the top of the “top hat”, it’s all downhill from there – two oversized turns later and you’re sitting pretty on the brake run. It’s understandable, seeing how Xcelerator was the first of its breed, but you’re definitely left craving for more.
#8: California Screamin’, Disney California Adventure
The only Disney coaster on this list is still an extremely solid and enjoyable experience, its precipitous drop from last year notwithstanding. Compared with some of the steel beauties coming up later on, California Screamin’ seems positively pedestrian – and it is, to a certain degree – but the grace with which it navigates its track, and the way the disparate elements flow together, allows this ride to stand proudly as one of my personal favorites.
It’s also one of the longest roller coasters in the world, and the layout is filled with twists and turns galore. Nothing too intense – this is a Disney park, after all – but don’t expect Dumbo, either. Many of the hills provide glorious pops of air, and the turns give oodles of that much-coveted wheee! And, of course, there’s the soundtrack – a masterful homage to 1920’s “carnie” music and a thumping electric guitar rock beat at the same time. (While I was typing that last sentence, I was caught with the insatiable urge to listen to it again… and again… and again.)
One more thing that I’m obligated to point out: California Screamin’ has the best operations of pretty much any ride at any theme park. This may be somewhat expected, given its Disney pedigree; but you have to see the speed at which the cast members pump out the trains to truly appreciate the near-superhuman levels of guest throughput on this ride. Six Flags could take a lesson from these guys.
#7: Eagle Fortress, Everland
Dropping five places from last year’s ranking, Eagle Fortress is still a helluva ride – but I’m getting more and more hard-pressed to tell you how. Sure, I can direct you to this amazing point-of-view video (below) and let you see the twisting turns and the barely-cut foliage that surround this ride for yourself, but that doesn’t really capture what it feels like to be inside one of those cars, swinging wildly out of control as the train plunges deeper and deeper into the forest. It’s one of those rides that you just had to experience for yourself, because videos simply don’t cut it. Unfortunately, that’s no longer possible.
Which is a shame, because this genre of roller coaster – the suspended swinging coaster – is a dying breed. Arrow Dynamics introduced the concept with the Big Bad Wolf at Busch Gardens Williamsburg (also defunct), and precious few were built in the first place. In fact, there’s only four such examples remaining in North America: Ninja at Six Flags Magic Mountain, The Bat at Kings Island, Iron Dragon at Cedar Point and Vortex at Canada’s Wonderland. And while the whole gimmick may seem old hat to newer riders – the car swings, so what? – it can make for a truly out-of-control ride, and a very unique experience that’s distinct from the typical inverted coaster experience (where the cars are fixed to the track).
The biggest thing that this defunct ride has going against it is, sad to say, my hazy memory of it; I last rode this when I was 14 years old, and with every passing year I forget a little more and a little more about this gem of an attraction. Sooner or later, inevitably, it’s going to drop out completely, but until that time comes, Eagle Fortress deserves a spot on this list.
#6: Tatsu, Six Flags Magic Mountain
Until a few weeks ago, Tatsu was the only flying coaster I had ridden; therefore, when I included it on last year’s list, I was curious to see if its high rank was solely because it was a flying coaster, and the uniqueness of the experience was the main selling point on its success.
This hypothesis held water until I visited Six Flags Great Adventure, when I had a chance to ride Superman: Ultimate Flight, another example of a flying coaster from the same manufacturer Bolliger & Mabillard, as well as Soarin’ Eagle at Coney Island, which was built by Zamperla. I found both of them to be extremely mediocre; Superman is a snooze-fest, and Screamin’ Eagle wishes it could be a snooze-fest… if it didn’t decide to brutally bash my head against the straitjacket-like restraints every five seconds.
So it’s settled, then: Tatsu is an exemplary roller coaster, period. It soars like a flying coaster should, rising high above the treeline at Magic Mountain’s tallest point, and the way that it negotiates its twists and turns through the foliage can only be described with one word: grace.
#5: Phoenix, Knoebels
The first new entry in this year’s list, Phoenix may seem like a puzzling choice. It’s not the tallest, nor the fastest, nor the longest. In fact, at first glance, Phoenix looks incredibly bog-standard, plain-Jane, a bowl of warm oatmeal.
Don’t be fooled, though. There is one word that can sum up the entirety of Phoenix: airtime.
Or, to elaborate: that heavenly feeling when angels slide under your rump and gently raise it with their soft fingers until you’re floating on air.
A bit of an exaggeration, you might think. Not when it comes to Phoenix.
Phoenix doesn’t aspire to any pretensions – it doesn’t hold any records, and it never has. But it is one hill after another, every one granting those delicious few seconds of airtime that enthusiasts crave, until the train coasts into the brakes and you can’t wait for the lap bars to lift so you can run around the exit and right back onto the train for another run.
#4: Nitro, Six Flags Great Adventure
Nitro is, perhaps, the steel counterpart of Phoenix. It does one thing, and one thing very well – and I happen to really, really like that one thing.
The perfectly parabolic hills – there’s more than half a dozen during the course of this ride – never fail to deliver oodles and oodles of that airtime hit, but that’s not all Nitro’s about. Halfway during the ride – just before the mid-course break run – Nitro negotiates a delightfully twisted section of track that squeezes your insides and assaults you with positive G’s, a wonderful segue that gives you something a little different before it plows right back into those hills we were talking about earlier.
#3: T Express, Everland
T Express actually moved up in rank compared to the previous year, the only coaster on this list to do so. In light of the new #1 coaster this year (spoiler alert!), I was forced to reevaluate how I rated my list, and this one shares many, many similarities with the new top dog of 2016. In fact, the first half of the ride is very nearly the same! Airtime, sharp turns, steep drops galore. (For more, please refer to #1.)
The second half is a bit less worthy of exultation, but it’s still damned good – coming off the break run, T Express launches into a series of figure-8’s with airtime hills on the straightaways. It gets slightly monotonous toward the end (yes, there’s such a thing as too much airtime) but it’s not enough to detract from this ride’s many, many positive points and its ultimate standing in my top 3.
#2: Maverick, Cedar Point
*gasp* That’s right, I have a new favorite roller coaster, as Maverick descends to the #2 spot. Nothing against Maverick, though; it still stands at a stellar second, and its positive attributes have not changed. It’s still a blazing-fast, topsy-turvy speedster that makes you hang on for dear life through an ever-intensifying series of twists, turns and inversions.
The super-fast lift immediately sends you spiraling into a beyond-vertical drop, which needs to be experienced to be appreciated. Several brutally intense turns later, you’re catapulted back into the sky for a glorious glimpse of Lake Erie and ejector airtime, before the train hurtles into two side-by-side corkscrew inversions, negotiated with finesse – the entire ride is butter smooth – before the train suddenly crawls to a stop inside a dark tunnel.
You’re left wondering for a brief moment, but not too brief – as you suddenly find yourself accelerating once more with a linear-synchronous-motor powered launch that sends you flying and back down again. From there, the train makes its way back to the station, throwing riders backwards, forwards and side to side reminiscent of a bucking bronco.
Maverick is intensity personified, if coasters were human (I like to think so, does that make me weird?). With some lesser coasters, this intensity might’ve been accompanied hand-in-hand by discomfort; Maverick has none of that. The entire ride tracks smoothly, throwing riders around but never jostling them.
In fact, I’ve heard from fellow enthusiasts that it’s actually improved with the addition of softer, more pliable restraints; I’ll have to get back out there to give it a spin!
#1: El Toro, Six Flags Great Adventure
Do you like airtime? Airtime so sustained, so intense, that it literally bruises your thighs after three rides?
Do you like turns? Turns taken at near-ninety-degree angles, turns that come one right after the other in opposite directions until your whole world is spinning and you couldn’t find your way back to the station if they handed you a map?
Do you like drops? How about one of the steepest drops ever on a roller coaster, so steep that when you start to plunge your butt comes out of your seat and is actually airborne for a good five seconds and you so desperately want to grab your lap bar but don’t, because to deprive yourself of the joy that comes from a near-death experience is criminal?
Do you like diving through wooden superstructures so dense that it literally blots out the sun and it feels like the sun has suddenly set, for a few seconds, at least? Do you like the feeling that your hands will be chopped off if you put them up in the air but you do it anyway? (Do you mind referring to the above passage on near-death experiences?)
Do you like roller coaster trains that literally have bull’s horns attached to the front? You didn’t know you wanted that in your life until now, did you?
I like El Toro very much. Do you?