September 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 5
I’ve been a roller-coaster enthusiast all my life, but it was not until 1993, at the age of twenty-eight, that I discovered American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE). My reaction was nearly the same as that of practically every other ACE member: surprise that there was a club for people like me! Since then I have traveled extensively in the United States and abroad with the notion of finding more roller coasters. Over the years I have been on nearly three hundred different ones in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, and Asia, and uncharted hunting grounds still await me in Japan, South America, and Australia.
These suggestions for the best American coasters are entirely my own and should not be construed as a recommendation by ACE, since the organization does not rate or rank coasters. I’ve tried to list not only my personal favorites but also the best of certain genres of coasters.
I must stress that picking the best coasters is a highly subjective exercise. It is something that no two enthusiasts agree upon, so please use this list only as a starting point to develop your own.
The Great Escape, Lake George, New York (designed in 1947 by Herb Schmeck, relocated and rebuilt in 1994 by J. R. Hyatt, John Pierce, Frank Hardick, and Martin & Vleminckx Amusement Group).
One of the most significant coaster preservation efforts of all time. The owners of the Great Escape saved the Comet from the closed Crystal Beach amusement park on the Canadian side of the border, near Buffalo, and faithfully rebuilt it. The Comet is a blazingly fast double out-and-back that literally flies through some of its dips: There are several points during the ride where the train leaves the track and is caught by the under-wheels. Like many other wooden coasters, the Comet gets better and better as the day progresses. Nighttime rides on this coaster are incredible.
Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio (built in 1989 by Arrow Dynamics, Inc.).
The Magnum was the first coaster in the world to top two hundred feet; even better, it did it with style. It is a huge steel coaster, but it has a heart of wood. The layout is the reliable single out-and-back design, reminiscent of the original Switchback Railway and many coasters since. It’s just that the scale is quite a bit larger. The Magnum begins with two huge drops that take up the entire “out” portion, followed by a unique pretzel-shaped turnaround. The run “back” to the station is chock-full of wonderful dips and magnificent air-time. The views across Lake Erie enhance the ride even more.
Astroland, Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York (designed in 1927 by Vernon Keenan, built by Harry Baker).
The Cyclone is the meanest, roughest, nastiest coaster ride currently in operation. It is also an amazing amount of fun. The Cyclone is the classic wooden twister that does all it can to thrill and disorient. Yet it plays fair by providing heavily padded seats. You’ll hear no warnings or disclaimers over loudspeakers nor see groups of teenage attendants with their thumbs in the air. This is quintessential roller-coaster riding.
Knoebels Amusement Resort, Elysburg, Pennsylvania (designed in 1947 by Herb Schmeck, relocated in 1985 by Charles Dinn).
“Fly Phoenix Air” is the phrase heard from many coaster enthusiasts, and it’s an apt one. The Phoenix has the same double out-and-back design as the Comet, with lots of low bunny hops that make you fly from your seat. It’s a great middle ground between the smooth, fast Comet and the rough-and-tumble Cyclone; and on top of all this, the Phoenix is in one of the most beautiful parks in the country.
Holiday World, Santa Claus, Indiana (built in 1995 by Custom Coasters, Inc.).
The Raven was responsible for a sudden turn in roller-coaster design. The park and the coaster designer got the idea to forgo bragging rights for height and speed in favor of focusing on the quality of the ride. The result was a medium-size “terrain coaster” that blew everyone away. This frenetic, unchecked romp through the woods and across a lake has no equal. The drops are steep and come in a surprising sequence: Just when you think you’ve got the ride figured out, the fifth plunge scrambles your senses. The Raven also has a reliable change of mood. During the day it’s fun and playful. At night, however, especially on dark, balmy summer nights, the Raven turns a little bit evil. It seems to speed up, and the blur of track, trees, and lakeshore becomes just that much more disorienting.
Six Flags Over Texas, Arlington, Texas (designed in 1990 by Curtis D. Summers, Inc.).
The Texas Giant is an erratic performer, but it finds a spot on many enthusiasts’ lists of favorites. Kudos go to Six Flags Over Texas’s crack maintenance staff for its constant care of this temperamental beast. The designers of this huge wooden coaster made three rides in one: a coaster featuring huge drops; followed by sweeping ovals; followed by an air-time-laden out-and-back finish. On a good day there’s nothing like it. On a bad day it’s still great.
Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park, California (built in 1978 by Anton Schwarzkopf and Intamin AG).
The key to a great shuttle-loop coaster is intense speed. Montezooma’s Revenge is not only one of the few remaining shuttle loops but also one of the few that do not use brakes as the train rushes backward through the station into the back hill. The zero to fifty-five miles per hour launch is sudden and smooth. Montezooma’s Revenge is one of a very small number of rides that actually take my breath away.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia (built in 1997 by Bolliger & Mabillard).
In the early 1990s construction began on the most puzzling ride ever. Early photos showed a steel looper with rails on the outside of the loop, suggesting a suspended coaster. However, up to that time, because of design restrictions, suspended coasters could not execute a loop. The device was named Batman The Ride, and it was an amazing success. The designers removed the “floor,” so the riders’ legs hung free, added loops, and called the result an “inverted” coaster. The clever folks at Busch Gardens took that idea to heart and commissioned a new inverted coaster that took advantage of the park’s hilly terrain, added some well-designed ski-resort theming, and opened the most intense ride currently standing. Alpengeist features an amazing sequence of huge drops and fast loops. The tight, twisting run back to the station is an absolute joy.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, Tampa Bay, Florida (built in 1993 by Bolliger & Mabillard).
In 1993 multi-looping coasters were the amusement-park rage. Impressed with the work of Bolliger & Mabillard’s inverted and stand-up coasters, the people at Busch commissioned a sit-down one with seven loops, then tying the record for the most. More important, the designers paid special attention to making the transitions between the loops exciting and interesting. Kumba manages at times to ride low on the ground, like a big cat, and other times to swoop up into the sky, like a huge acrobatic bird. Kumba and its slightly larger brother in Spain are tops in their genre.
Disneyland, Anaheim, California (built in 1977 by Disney Imagineering, current soundtrack added in 1997).
This is by far the gentlest of all the roller coasters on the list, but Disney has always done things its own way. Even considering the new looping techie coasters at Disneyland Paris, this Space Mountain remains Disney’s best effort so far. What makes Disney coasters work so well is psychology. With just enough visual stimulus during the ride, a rockin’ Dick Dale soundtrack, and great pre-ride theming, Space Mountain runs from launch to re-entry with plenty of dips and wild-mouse-like corners to keep almost the full range of Disney clientele, from jaded coaster-enthusiast to amusement-park neophyte, well entertained.