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Coasting through summer

Burlington County Times


Jacob Hogan is prepared for a summer filled with many ups and downs.

While other teens spend their time off from school attending day camp, taking classes or going on a family vacation, the 13-year-old Mount Laurel resident is planning to ride roller coasters — lots of them.

Thanks to a unique, overnight summer camp, Jacob will travel from Canada to Florida and as far west as Chicago. The roller coaster fanatic will be one of about 25 teenagers per session to participate in trips organized by ThrillCoaster Tours of Woodbridge, Middlesex County. Over six weeks this summer, the 4-year-old company expects to visit about 17 amusement parks with its charges.

Ira Gordon, founder and director of ThrillCoaster Tours, said the trips are designed to provide teens with a summer filled with excitement and memories that will last a lifetime. The tours are open to youngsters ages 12 to 16.

“The kids love the tours because they get to travel with other kids to amusement parks and what could be more fun than that? It gives them the opportunity to visit amusement parks around the country, rather than staying local,” said Gordon, an accountant who lives in New Brunswick.

Jacob, a student at Harrington Middle School in Mount Laurel, has a strong passion for roller coasters. His mother, Lisa Bien, said, “He doesn't just ride them, he is a student of roller coasters.”

Bien said her son wants to be an engineer and has studied how roller coasters work. He watches television documentaries about them and has created school projects based on coasters. He even had a roller coaster theme for his bar mitzvah.

Jacob first heard about ThrillCoaster Tours a couple of years ago, but was initially unable to sway his parents into allowing him to sign up. Bien believed he was too young.

“He was very excited about it. He kept talking about it. He was not ready for it, but he kept on top of it with me,” she said.

In the past, he has attended summer camps operated by the Phillies and the Jewish Community Center. Initially, Bien had reservations about sending Jacob to a camp he found on the Internet and needed further convincing. She said her son did a lot of research about ThrillCoaster Tours and its itineraries on his own. Impressed by his tenacity, she called Gordon and met with him several times. Later, she spoke with parents whose children had completed tours in the past.

“After meeting the parents, I realized this is where he needed to be. This lit him up,” she said.

Last year, at age 12, Jacob went on his first of two trips with ThrillCoaster Tours. By the end of the summer, he had been to a variety of places, such as Cedar Point Amusement Park in Ohio — known as the Roller Coast Capital of the World — Hershey, Pa., San Francisco, Las Vegas and the popular California amusement parks Knotts Berry Farm and Magic Mountain.

According to Jacob, the trips also include places that don't have roller coasters or amusement park rides. Last year, he went whale watching in California as part of one tour. This year's various itineraries include stops at beaches, catamaran and jet boat rides, and whale watching.

When they're not riding roller coasters, the tour group travels by motor coach and stays in hotels known for providing quality accommodations, mostly Marriotts. The cost of the tours, ranging from $1,325 to $2,575, includes admission to all amusement parks and other activities, transportation, lodging, tour accessories and three meals a day, plus snacks.

The groups typically eat a continental breakfast in the morning, lunch at the parks and go off-site for dinner, returning to the amusement later in the evening. According to the company's Web site,, the tour guides try to steer clear of fast food, opting for healthy restaurant meals instead.

ThrillCoaster Tours employs adult counselors who

stay with the campers in small groups at all times. According to the company's literature, all staff members are drug tested and have undergone a criminal background check. All are at least 21 years old and have had experience working with teens, as well as travel and camp experiences. In addition, smoking and drinking are prohibited on the tours.

This year, the company also has hired junior counselors, who are college students training to be teachers. As director, Gordon travels with each tour group, which boasts a teen to counselor ratio of 6 to 1.

Gordon, who is married with two young sons, created ThrillCoaster Tours out of his own passion for roller coasters. Now 37, he has spent the past 25 years traveling to amusement parks throughout the country, starting out on family vacations and trips with teen groups. Later, he worked as a camp counselor and, upon graduating from college, organized with three friends a two-week, 2,000-mile trip based solely on roller coasters.

His experiences helped create his ideal tour for teens.

Bien said the experience her family — which includes Jacob's father and 4-year-old brother, Ari — had with ThrillCoaster Tours has been so positive that she registered her son for two more tours this summer.

“I have so much confidence in Ira and understand his passion for coasters, for kids and for creating quality, safe experiences for them. I know Jacob is in good hands, and he always has a fabulous time,” she said.

This year, Jacob's first group will begin the Southern Studios Tour (July 6 to 18) at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., and make its way north. After stops in Tampa Bay, Fla., Altanta, Myrtle Beach, S.C, — home of the new Hard Rock Park — Doswell, Va., and Baltimore, the tour group will end in New Jersey. Arriving close to home, the Wildwood boardwalk and Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson will be the last two stops.

Jacob said he is especially looking forward to riding the El Toro at Great Adventure, despite already having done so close to 100 times.

“I don't have to go far to ride my favorite coaster,” he said.

During his second session, Jacob will participate in the North of the Border Tour Aug. 4-15. This one starts at the La Ronde Amusement Park in Montreal, Quebec, and includes stops in Toronto, the Chicago area, Cincinatti, Pittsburgh and Elysburg, Pa., ending with Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, Pa.

Other sessions offered by ThrillCoaster Tours are the Beachgoers Family Tour (May 22-26), which runs from Williamsburg, Va., to Baltimore, the Get to the Point Tour (June 30 to July 4) — Sandusky, Ohio, to Hershey, Pa. — and the Boston Extreme Tour (July 28 to Aug. 1), operating from Albany, N.Y. and running through Springfield, Mass., Boston, Provincetown, Mass., and Cape Cod, finishing in Bristol, Conn.

Jacob said that it's unlikely he'll get tired of roller coasters and other amusements.

“Every park has different rides. You want to go on every ride,” he said.

One of the best parts of the tours, Jacob said, is meeting new people and making friends. He still keeps in touch with fellow tourgoers from last year, including his “closest friend” in Medford, through e-mail, the Internet and cell phone.

“I was drawn to the tours for the roller coasters, but I'm going back (this year) for the friends,” he said.