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Roller coaster fans yearn for speed

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Thursday, June 28, 2007


For a surfer, there's always the next wave. For a mountain climber, there's always the next peak. And for a roller coaster nut, there's always the next opportunity to scream "EYYYYAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!" while barreling 70 mph through a banked turn into a triple-corkscrew loop. "I really want to go to different ones and try new things," says Brian Pupel of Mahwah, at age 12 already a well-traveled coaster tourist. That's why he, like many other seasoned coaster buffs, will be spending this summer on safari.

Lots of coaster fans do it, informally. They'll cram into a van -- six or eight at a time -- and speed off for 10-day, two-week, even two-month roller coaster expeditions across the country. Remember the movie "Endless Summer," about the surfers who travel the world looking for the perfect wave? Same idea, no swimsuits. "If there's a new coaster, the enthusiasts have to travel to it; it doesn't matter how far," says Adam Revesz, 32, of Clifton, regional rep for the national organization ACE (American Coaster Enthusiasts). Summer adventures The next step is to do what Pupel did. He signed up for a junket with ThrillCoaster Tours LLC -- a Woodbridge-based outfit that takes kids ages 12 to 16 on summer coaster adventures that last anywhere from one to six weeks and go anywhere from Canada to Ohio to California.

Last week, just to keep in training for the main event, Pupel and seven other ThrillCoaster kids did a day trip to Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson. "This is the best!" gasped Pupel as he staggered off Kingda Ka, a super-coaster that shoots its riders up 456 feet -- about half the height of the Chrysler Building -- and then plunges them screaming back to earth at 128 mph. "It's the greatest ride ever created," declared ThrillCoaster CEO Ira Gordon, their chaperone. "El Toro's better," chimed in 15-year-old Justin Heath of Maplewood, another ThrillCoaster kid. The compulsive rating and comparing, the bandying of statistics and the use of insider jargon is as common among roller coaster buffs as it is among sports nuts. Coaster fans will talk about "air time" (the instant when the rider, topping a hill, seems momentarily airborne), "clothoid" (teardrop-shaped) loops and "ERT" (exclusive ride time, when the hoi polloi are banned and coaster buffs can ride to their hearts' content).

They'll argue whether wood coasters are superior to steel, or whether the front seat's unobstructed view is preferable to the back seat's whiplash effect. Coaster comparisons They'll compare coasters themselves. A classic face-off: Kingda Ka versus El Toro, Six Flags' newfangled state-of-the-art steel contraption versus its traditional-style wooden coaster. It's one of those epic contests between old school and new school that are the stuff of folklore: John Henry versus the steam engine, jazz versus rock-and-roll. Only one way to find out.

"Kelly, are you going to sing a song for us?" called Heath to the back seats of the El Toro coaster train, as it crawled up the "lift hill."
"Give us a request," yelled Kelly Freund, 15, of Monroe N.Y., whose habit of singing on roller coasters is well-documented.
" 'Umbrella!' " Heath yelled back.
As the car topped the hill, Freund and her friend Lauren McGee, 15, also of Monroe, could be heard singing the chorus of Rihanna's hit:
"You can stand under my umbrella -- ella -- ella -- "

The next moment, the bottom dropped out, the wind was whistling, and 32 voices were raised in unison:

Afterwards, Pupel offered a sober assessment. "It was totally different than Kingda Ka," he said. "It was a little bumpy but really fast." Tour packages By the end of the summer, Pupel will have expanded his coaster horizons quite a bit. He's signed up for ThrillCoasters' July 23 tour -- five days going due west and back, to Geauga Lake and Cedar Point amusement parks in Ohio and Hersheypark in Pennsylvania. That's one of four tour packages ThrillCoaster is offering this summer (reservations are still available) at prices ranging from $1,295 to $2,775. Other tours go to Canada (July 2-6), down to Tennessee and out as far as Indianapolis (July 9-20), and California via plane (July 30 to Aug. 12). The kids -- 24 to 30 per trip, with plenty of adult supervision -- travel mostly by chartered bus and stay in hotels. Some kids have signed up for all four consecutive tours -- six weeks, 120 roller coasters in all. "There are so many kids out there who love roller coasters, and this gives them the opportunity to travel to amusement parks around the country, rather than having to stay local," said Gordon, 36. Needless to say, he's a coaster nut himself. That's why he created his tour company three years ago. "Biggest thing about me is I like doing off-the-wall things," says Gordon, an accountant in civilian life. "I'm a big speed guy, a thrill seeker." That's pretty much been the appeal of roller coasters since 1884 -- the year the first one rolled down an incline at Coney Island at a heart-stopping 6 mph. The "switchback railway" (as it was called) was the invention of a minister named LeMarcus Thompson, who wanted to offer young men a thrill with the kick of whiskey and the respectability of a Sunday sermon.

Bigger, better, faster Since then, roller coasters have gotten bigger, faster and meaner. There are now about 700 in the United States, Gordon says, the newest ones involving looping, corkscrewing design wrinkles that Thompson never dreamed of. Hard-core coaster kids keep up with the technology. They visit Web sites like and with the latest info, and they play the RollerCoaster Tycoon games from Atari that turn kids into virtual coaster designers. Which is why it was such a rush for the ThrillCoaster kids to get face time, at the end of the day, with Rick Rhoades -- the Six Flags electrical engineer who helped create some of the park's 14 off-the-hook coasters. "What do you see for the future? Do you have any crazy ideas?" asked Elie Rosen, 16, of Westchester, N.Y. Rhoades, 47, is happy to talk shop. After all, he's a fanatic, too.

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Coaster glossary

  • Air gate: The compressed-air bar that opens with a pffssstt when you're about to board a coaster.
  • Banked turn: A turn where the track is angled.
  • Barrel roll: A corkscrew loop.
  • Camel back: Series of decreasing "humps," usually toward the end of the ride.
  • Clothoid loop: A teardrop-shaped loop.
  • Dueling coaster: A parallel track coaster with two trains that "race" each other.
  • Inversion: Any part of the coaster that turns riders upside down.
  • Lateral G's: Gravitational forces that pull you to side of car.
  • Negative G's: Gravitational forces that cause "air time," the brief floating sensation that comes as the train plunges down a hill.
  • Positive G's: Gravitational forces that pull you downward. * * *