Summer vacation season is fully upon us! One of my favorite ways to enjoy the summer months is by making sure my butt gets on some rides. I guess I would call myself a thrill-seeker. I’ve loved amusement rides since I was placed on the kiddie ones on the boardwalk as a toddler. I grew up riding boardwalk rides and eventually worked my way up to gargantuan coasters. I’ve never once looked at a ride and said ‘no’—well, only if it was out of my price range. I may scream along with everyone else, but it’s out of sheer joy. I’m on an adrenaline high every single time; I often get made fun of because I giggle uncontrollably when the coaster train comes to a stop and we’re rolling back into the station. Heights? Bring ’em on. Speed? The faster the better. Upside-down? Duh. Just thinking about it is giving me that craving. I’ve already talked about rides in film, now it’s time to discuss the real deal. These are hands-down some of my favorite rides ever.
What are yours?
Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom | Orlando, FL
I’ve waxed rhapsodic about Disney World plenty already, so it’s probably not a surprise that one of their rides made my list. Favorite park: Magic Kingdom. Favorite ride: Space Mountain. Come on, it’s a classic! When my family and I find ourselves standing at the rope to enter Tomorrowland, we’re already gearing up to make a mad dash to the oldest operating roller coaster in the state of Florida. If you’ve ever Googled photos of what the ride looks like with the lights on, you’ll see there’s not much to it; just a small steel track in a compact space. It’s relatively tame, but with the lights out—where you can’t see when the sharp turns and steep drops are coming—it makes it one of the most fun experiences in the park.
SeaWorld | Orlando, FL
I’ll start this one off by saying I am NOT a SeaWorld fan. It may have contributed to my love of marine mammals when I was four, but I visited a couple years ago and turned a skeptical eye to everything I saw. Then I watched Blackfish. If you haven’t seen this eye-opening documentary, look into it right away. It will break your heart. I finally see SeaWorld for the corrupt money-grubbing corporation that it is. The dolphin show that I sat through in 2012 involved more employee acrobatics than actual dolphin involvement, which begs the question: Why do they need them? They don’t. Have you ever seen Free Willy? As a child, I was moved to tears right in the theater. I’ve had a soft spot for orcas ever since and seeing the way the gutless miscreants who work at SeaWorld treat them makes me see red. Anyway, do some research. Back to the coaster … as much as I hate to say it, they may only have two coasters there, but they’re good ones. Manta especially. It was one of the smoothest steel coasters I’ve ever been on, full of inline twists (sometimes known as barrel rolls) and one of the most panic-inducing introductions to a ride ever—you start off with a head-first face-down nosedive before flying through four inversions and skimming over timed fountains with your arms and legs dangling freely at 56 mph. We rode it three times.
Casino Pier | Seaside Heights, NJ
I was visiting my best friend on a summer break from college a few years ago when we decided to hit up Seaside for the night. While walking along, it was hard to miss the bright green Skyscraper glowing from Casino Pier. We decided to go for it. Not for the faint of heart (or stomach), the Skyscraper reaches 170 feet into the air and spins its passengers at nearly 70 mph. Not only does the entire structure spin, but the individual cars also spin freely on their axles, sending you tumbling nearly upside down if you really rock it. It’s a $20 ride and so worth it. When it stops to change passengers, those at the top are rewarded with a breath-taking view of the Jersey shoreline that lasts a couple minutes before enjoying it all over again—backwards! Unlike some rides, such as the infamous Jet Star coaster which spent seven months sitting in the Atlantic, the Skyscraper luckily survived Hurricane Sandy, which means I will have the pleasure of riding it again someday.
(The photo at the above left is my own, taken in April of 2013, one month before the Jet Star was demolished and removed.)
HARRY POTTER AND THE FORBIDDEN JOURNEY
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Orlando, FL
I can’t even describe where my head was when I walked through the castle doors of Hogwarts in 2012. Realistically, I knew my feet were standing in Orlando, but everything above the ankle felt like it was floating through fictional England as my eyes took in the Great Hall, Dumbledore’s office, the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom … Potterheads who have visited the Wizarding World inside Universal’s Islands of Adventure will understand this. Unfortunately during our visit, the 3D adventure ride inside the castle was experiencing technical difficulties; we rode it twice and each time it stopped and started, the lights came on and off, and it ended up being a disjointed experience. But from what we could tell, it’s still an amazing and immersive adventure throughout the grounds of Hogwarts and the Forbidden Forest. I actually had my eyes closed through almost everything that didn’t involve a 3D screen. Hey, you imagine coming face-to-face with a life-sized Aragog! Now that the construction of Diagon Alley is complete and you can actually ride the Hogwarts Express, I can’t wait to go back. I’m hoping someone will just go ahead and build a real Hogwarts in England in time for my honeymoon.
EL TORO / NITRO
Six Flags Great Adventure | Jackson, NJ
First of all, don’t call it Six Flags. You sound like a tourist. Locals will know you’re a tourist. (While you’re at it, never say you’re going “down the shore.” Just don’t do that.) Growing up, I lived a whole 20 minutes away from the world’s largest theme park and Great Adventure was the best playground you could ask for. I went annually with my godfather/favorite (ssh!) uncle until he moved to NC when I was 13. We did the safari and had monkeys crawling on the truck and we rode coasters until we wanted to vomit. Hidden somewhere in my treasure trove of childhood mementos, I still have a teddy bear wearing a Great Adventure T-shirt. Since moving to PA, I’ve gone back with numerous people throughout the years: my best friend, my sister, my cousins. My sister and cousins and I have a trip planned for this August, in fact. The best thing about the park is that it keeps getting better, which gives me reason to keep going back. Outdated rides get replaced with bigger and better ones. Forget the competition, it seems they’re always trying to outdo themselves. When Kingda Ka (which goes from 0 to 128 mph in 3.5 seconds and stands at a staggering 456 feet high) first opened, I anxiously stood in line with my best friend; we rode it at nearly 10 p.m. in the front row. I don’t think I had a face left when we got off. But my favorite rides at good ol’ GA are actually the ones that don’t go crazy with fancy loops and instead stick with the tried and true basics of speed and height. El Toro and Nitro (inset pic) are matched in that respect. The only difference is that one is wood and one is steel. Both are exhilarating rides chock-full of negative G’s: One of my favorite feelings in the world is that swoop in your stomach when you think, just for a millisecond, oh my god, I might fly out!
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Being such a coaster enthusiast, I also have quite a few runners-up. They are: The Myrtle Beach Slingshot (pictured below), Disney’s Tower of Terror (aptly named) at Hollywood Studios, The Comet at Great Escape (I went there while staying in Lake George, before it was purchased by Six Flags), Disney’s Test Track at EPCOT, and I’ll always love the Himalaya at Jenkinson’s Boardwalk. Among 1000 others.—DT