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THE GOODS : Joy Rides : Faster. Loopier. Roller coasters are roaring back, giving family fun a little edge


Forget the Peter Pan ride and the photo op with Snoopy. It's thrill time at many amusement parks.

Roller coasters are back and the battle's on "for the fastest highest scariest ride," says Susan Mosedale, spokeswoman for the International Assn. of Amusement Parks and Attractions in Alexandria, Va.

The thrills are also safe, or they wouldn't be amusement.

"It is scary," says UCLA student Andrea White, 23, fresh from riding Six Flags Magic Mountain's Viper, which "plastered" her face to her head. "But that's what makes you laugh--because you know nothing's going to happen."

Of course not. But when amusements have such names as Raptor, Vortex and Shock Wave, and toss people upside-down at 60 m.p.h., you might well ask if the fright isn't justified.

The new rides mark the return of roller coasters in a new high-tech incarnation.

"The golden age of amusement parks was in the '20s and '30s," says Ron Toomer, president of Arrow Dynamics in Clearfield, Utah, the country's leading ride manufacturer. There were 1,500 wood roller coasters then, compared to 200 or 300 coasters of all kinds now in the United States, he says.

The Depression took its toll, and postwar development took a lot of prime park land. In the '50s, Disney resuscitated the park concept with the theme park, which is not heavy on thrills.

"We were all going for clean, safe family entertainment, modeling ourselves after Disneyland," says Robin Innes, spokesman for Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. "That meant a decline of interest in roller coasters."

Not everyone prospered. Magic Mountain almost went under trying to compete as a park themed with unattractive trolls.

Thrill rides came back with a roar and some new twists in the mid '70s. Magic Mountain has revived as Southern California's only thrill-ride park with nine roller coasters and half a dozen water plunges. Cedar Point, almost razed in the '50s, built the largest ride park in the world--56 rides, 11 of them coasters.

All coasters, new or old, follow the same principle: You take something up a hill and let gravity take it down. The pattern of descent today, however, given the flexibility of new tubular steel tracks gripped by multiple nylon wheels, provides twists and loops only dreamed of in the days of the Coney Island woodie, which plunged down a series of smaller and smaller hills, interspersed with long curves and slow climbs.

The new generation of design was born with Arrow Dynamics' Corkscrew rides for Knott's and Cedar Point in 1975 and 1976. Toomer describes these as "a pulled-out spiral laying on its side, with two upside-down elements."

Next came vertical loops with the track running inside, then suspended coasters with the seats hanging down below the track, then cobra rolls (a loop with twists) and boomerangs, then "inverted" loops with tracks running around the outside. Magic Mountain's Viper has three vertical loops, a corkscrew and a double-barrel boomerang, turning riders upside-down seven times.

They're fast--up to 70 m.p.h. They're also the shortest coaster rides ever, about two minutes, sometimes less. They have to rake in the customers--as many as 2,000 riders an hour. After all, Toomer says, "they cost a lot of money." And two minutes, he adds, is "about all you can take."

Actually, few people get sick on these thrillers, partly because "it's over so quickly," says Jim Seay, Magic Mountain's engineering manager. The ride is smooth, given the bendable steel, the speed, the dynamics and the bucket seats and over-the-shoulder restraints holding the body in place.

Some riders find the new coasters less scary than the old. "You're going forward so fast, you don't feel like you're falling," says Lionel Johnson, 13, of Los Angeles, on a visit to Magic Mountain.

"It's totally controlled, while the wood ones give you a sense of going down a long drop, like you're on your own," says his friend, Nicholas Trikonis, 12.

Today's coaster aficionados--and there are several national clubs of fans--can describe the "maximum Gs" or gravity forces of a ride (the pressure that pushes riders into their seats, usually while coming out of a trough), or the "zero Gs" or weightlessness of another (usually coming off an apex). They have fine perceptions. They claim coasters run faster on hot days because their lubricants thin out. "You're talking about small amounts of time," Seay says, "but the transitions, as you go into a curve, do feel different."

What you needn't feel is unsafe. Over the two decades from 1973 through 1992, 94 deaths on all rides, not just coasters, were reported to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, an average of fewer than five a year.

Some accidents were problems of maintenance or operation--poorly secured restraints, colliding cars, inattentive attendants. But others involved what CPSC project officer James DeMarco calls "patron error," the unanticipated dangerous behavior of riders who were foolish or drunk.

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