Summertime = roller coaster time.
Whether it was braving the Big Dipper (1958) at Playland during the PNE, August drawing to an end, summer days counting down as fast as those cars travelled, or the holidays at Disneyland, Magic Mountain, Knott’s Berry Farm, with the Matterhorn, Great American Revolution (the first in the world to have a 360 degree loop), Colossus and the Corkscrew– roller coasters mean summer to me.
The summer connection puts me out of sync with the beginnings of these fairground rides: 17th century Russians built ice hills around St Petersburg, using sleds to rocket down the steep slides. The upper class were quick to pay money to slide down over and over. In the early 19th century, the French were building similar ‘Russian mountains’, but using carts with wheels, so they could be used in the summertime (see? I’m not so out of step, after all!). By the mid 1800s, the French had created the first full loop (13 feet high) and there were many American patents issued for both switchback and circular carts on tracks, with inventors looking to both defy and harness gravity to create faster and more thrilling experiences. It was La Marcus Thompson’s 1884 switchback coaster at Coney Island that ensured roller coasters became the main attractions at fairs and amusement parks. The Depression halted the forward progression of these rides, though by the 1950s they were being built even bigger, ever faster and now we have Formula Rossa (at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi) that travels a mere 240 kmh and Kingda Ka (Six Flags Great Adventure, New Jersey) that reaches 139 metres in height.
Although the days are gone when I would jump on any coaster no matter how many loop-de-loops it made or how often it pulled you backwards, I still love the big old wooden ones that began the fast-forward trend.
One of my best roller coaster memories is from Helsinki’s Linnanmäki amusement park, and its coaster Linnanmäen Vuoristorata, built in 1951 and still controlled by a brakeman who stands on the back of each train. Tipped off by a Finnish friend, just before the park closed for the night and after the huge daytime queues had died down, we took trip after dizzying trip, hopping off and racing around to get on the next train, over and over, till we were punch drunk silly.
The three oldest members of my family have another funny memory: after several goes on the log ride (okay, not quite a roller coaster) in Gardaland, Italy, the youngest wanted one more time round at the end of the day. We stood at the bottom of the last big hill, watching as the lone, skinny figure flew down, arms raised triumphantly as only a youngest child can do. Then the guy beside us controlling the water cannon let loose an aquatic jet stream, just as we had requested. Bravado only slightly knocked out of him, the three of us howled till we cried. It was such a perfect moment, and yes, he also remembers it fondly.
You know what they mean when someone says their life is a roller coaster — those emotional, financial, or physical ups and downs that mess up your head, never mind your hair. It’s a pity, though, that when we use roller coaster as a description of our lives, we generally don’t mean fun.
In the best possible way, I hope this summer has brought a lot of roller coaster laughter and memories, and as this season hurtles to an end that you have your arms raised in jubilation.
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