How extreme do you think roller coasters can get?
We’ve been grappling with that question since 1989. That was the year that Magnum XL-200 broke the hypercoaster 200-foot barrier. Up until then, when coasters got taller, they also gained more loops. That was pretty much a given for aspiring scream parks. Corkscrew changed the game when it debuted in 1975 at Knott’s Berry Farm by adding inversions to a roller coaster, something that hadn’t been seen since the circle-loops of the turn of the century. From 1975 to 1989, roller coasters getting “more extreme” meant they were taller or they had more inversions. Usually both.
Every other year, it seemed, some coaster somewhere in the country would either add another 10 feet to the height record, or just one more inversion than the previous record-holder. In fact, many of the new coaster designs took a back seat to the thrill of going higher, faster, and upside-down more often.
Different extreme designs like the stand-up coaster, the suspended coaster, the bobsled coaster, and the heartline (Ultra-Twister) coaster were fun, but they often did not make top headlines. The allure of the stand-up King Kobra at Kings Island was soon forgotten when the park added the record-setting Vortex. The suspended Iron Dragon quickly gave way to Magnum at Cedar Point.
Then 1989/1990 gave us the dual whammy of Magnum and Viper at Six Flags Magic Mountain. Viper opened as the second-tallest in the world (after Magnum), but pulled a ridiculous seven inversions out of its hat. At this point, it seemed that a pendulum began to swing the other way. Only once over the next decade would Magnum’s height record be topped: by the Desperado at Buffalo Bill’s casino (of all places, I know. It’s like Elton John performing live at the Katella Avenue Seven-Eleven). Though, it should be noted that Magnum’s drop height record would also be broken by Steel Phantom at Kennywood.
And Viper had nary a challenger over the next decade to its inversions record, being outpaced only by Dragon Kahn at Port Aventura in Spain.
Suddenly, starting in 1990, amusement parks seem to want something different, not just the same old “add ten feet for the height record and call it a day.” Throughout the 1990s, we certainly got our fair share of hypers and many, many inversion, but the 1990s was also when we started seeing a wooden coaster renaissance, and B&M’s stand-up, inverted, and even floorless designs. We started seeing flying coasters in 2000. And perhaps most important of all, we experienced the glory of Linear Induction Motors.
Launched coasters added an extra dimension to roller coasters. It was no longer even necessary to have a lift hill, yet still be among the most exciting coasters on the planet! One could be launched into giant inversions or straight up lift hills, with nary a chain in sight. And the launches could happen at any time!
When the launched coaster came to us in the form of Discovery Mountain/Space Mountain in 1995, and then to the states as Flight of Fear in 1996, it was dynamite for our imaginations. We knew roller coasters had pushed beyond their pre-defined limits, almost like they suddenly gained super-powers. You could launch tom 70 mph at any time! And this was something only 200-foot+ coasters were allowed to do!
This is where TLC’s Thrill Rides: Designing Fear picks up. It’s another in a long line of ubiquitous 2000-era roller coaster specials. But this is the only one, at least in my archive, that dives right into the consequences of roller coasters being too extreme. Yes, I have to admit, this show is very uncomfortable.
We’re releasing this show in deference to the 2017 Ohio State Fair Tragedy, when we all were reminded how dangerous amusement rides can be. These really are scary machines. One loose bolt or one failed brake can seriously injure passengers. It’s not a pleasant topic of discussion.
I do like that Designing Fear chooses to bring up a topic that nobody likes to talk about. In a way, it’s like an amusement park episode of 60 Minutes. However, Joe and I feel the presentation style of the show could have been handled better.
The topics of the show itself run the gamut, from how a coaster is designed, to the effects that g-forces have on the body, to the future of extreme rides. Even a biodynamics engineer is interviewed at multiple points to offer her take on the coaster’s effect on the spine and the brain. We talk to coaster fans, writers, designers, military engineers, and maintenance engineers. It jumps topics frequently, sometimes without any warning or buildup. But the worst is when the show randomly introduces tales of death and horror at the amusement park faster than a scare-actor at HHN. An interview with a coaster maintenance manager is followed by an upturned rapids vehicle incident. It doesn’t hang together. I think the big miscue in Designing Fear is that they were really making two shows: a show about thrills and g-forces and a show about maintenance and safety. One show plays on the excitement one gets for the amusement park, the other is a warning to be careful when playing at the park because disaster can happen at any time. The viewer gets emotionally frazzled when both are packed together.
But even with its flaws, in the wake of the Ohio State Fair tragedy, I believe this show is just as relevant as ever. Maintenance and safety continue to be main topics of concern today, even with ever-advancing technology. And as we continue to push the envelope in how extreme rides can be, we have to ask ourselves, what is the line we’re not willing to cross? How extreme does a ride have to be for us to hesitate and walk away? It’s an interesting topic of discussion, and I think one that speaks to our base desires and psychology. How extreme is too extreme for you? Answer the question honestly and you’ll find out a lot about yourself.
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