Think of theme parks and most people think roller coasters – the highlight of many outings, to thrill, dare and get the pulse racing. These iconic giants first reared themselves not within a setting for everyday fun-seekers in the USA, but within the frozen regions of Russia, way back in the 17th Century.
Named the ‘Russian Mountains’, the first roller coaster was made of ice, cut into hill shapes which were supported by wooden structures. These slopes rose to 80ft at a 50 degree angle. So popular were these roller coaster slides with the upper class that even Catherine the Great built them within her own grounds.
History is not absolutely clear as to when the first wheeled roller coaster appeared. Some believe it was commissioned by Catherine II, others say it was in Paris using an English design. By default almost, an early roller coaster appeared in the USA in the form of a mining company’s gravity railroad, which provided thrill rides for 50 cents during quiet moments!
From the late 1800’s
soared in popularity throughout the world. At this time they were built of wood. A few of the original wooden roller coasters are operational to this day. The Scenic Railway at Dreamland Amusement Park in Margate, Kent is home to the second oldest wooden roller coaster in the world. At 88 years old it is now a Grade II listed building and still takes passengers, with a brakeman, perched on a stool in the middle of the train, who operates the train, giving a different ride every time. The oldest wooden roller coaster is located in Denmark, at the Tivoli Gardens.
The Great Depression had a huge impact amusement parks and consequently roller coasters in the USA. By 1939 amusement parks there had plummeted from approx 1900 to 245 and with it many roller coasters fell into disrepair.
As the economy slowly recovered, so did the numbers of parks and their roller coasters. A truly famous one to rise is ‘The Beast’ in Ohio. At 141 feet high and 7, 400 feet long, constructed in 1979 it still holds the record as the longest wooden roller coaster in the world.
But these roller coasters were becoming different; new structures were appearing which were made of steel. This metamorphosis enabled the roller coaster to be more complex and daring in design. Roller coasters now had loops, corkscrews and more daring angles. Six Flags Magic Mountain was home to the first 360 degree loop roller coaster in 1976, where passengers travelled at a screaming 55 miles per hour and soared 125 feet high.
With each daring ride, visitors clammered for more thrilling roller coasters and designers rose to the challenge; the vertical drop was the ultimate thrill and the Cyclone at Coney Island had one of the most drastic at 53 degrees. This was overtaken by Alton Towers in 1998 with a roller coaster which plummeted 183 feet at 89 degrees- not for the faint-hearted!
Roller coasters continue to evolve. Riders can now stand as they take the daring ride. They can also sit, with their feet dangling and ‘fly’, restrained only by over-shoulder restraints and seat belts. They experience roller coaster rides where G force takes them to the limit.
Roller coaster designers are imaginative and scientific- they understand physics, particularly forces. They must understand what will give the greatest G force experience but ensure passenger safety. And many roller coasters have sophisticated safety systems built into the design which is a comfort as the fastest now travels at 128 mph and the highest reaches 418 ft……where will the roller coaster take us to next??!