Gary Hays, owner of the only amusement park in New Mexico, Cliff’s Amusement Park, is tall and ambiguously built with red, waffled skin on his neck from too much sun exposure.
He and I were talking at a distance of around ten yards away from the New Mexico Rattler’s tin-sided tunnel, which is Cliff’s new wooden roller coaster.
He was very distracted during our interview, probably due to the moths that come to Albuquerque every five years or so and which he didn’t seem to be bothered by. One of the insects had even crawled up his shirt sleeve without him noticing.
I query him to find out the size of the Rattler’s footprint.
Hays was bewildered and irritated at my queries; he had asked me twice, “You traveled to New Mexico just to go to Cliff’s?”
I inquired, “What about the sled brakes?”
He abruptly breaks off in the middle of his speech and I quickly jot down notes on my pad while Hays talks to three muscular guys with shades on. The back of their polo shirts have Courtesy Patrol imprinted on them.
In the early hours, teenage boys could be seen congregating around the park with dustpans and brooms in hand, sweeping nonexistent garbage and exchanging glances with one another in a secretive manner.
I scribble about the adolescent group, who have a sparse amount of forlorn goatees.
In New Mexico, my attire is quite disheveled. My shorts have breakfast on them and my T-shirt reads “Yo La Tengo.” Maybe wearing a Funworld shirt would have been better. Hays might not be taking the interview seriously because of my attire.
Someone with silver eye makeup and an ice-cream cone walked by and laughed when they read my shirt. I’m not aware of what the phrase on my shirt means.
Three years back, I left a graduate writing program in Florida and moved to the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., to get a job.
I sent out resumes and was interviewed at places such as the Association of Scholastic Testing Centers, where I was given a perplexing multiple-choice personality test, on which the question “Do you view yourself as a foolish individual?” appeared twice. (No; oh, alright, Yes.)
At Georgetown Prep School, the head of the English department asked me, “Could you concisely describe how you would use Oedipus Rex to demonstrate metaphor to a classroom of literal-minded thirteen-year-old boys?”
Answering an advertisement that requested someone to write about theme parks, I was invited for an interview with Bill, the editor-in-chief of Funworld.
He was passionate about the magazine, the amusement industry, and his new computers he referred to as machines which he stated were quite quick. After the interview, he informed me the job was mine if I was interested, which I was.
When I started, I had very little knowledge about amusement parks and the like. So, I decided to take the position of a publications assistant to gain more experience. I was in charge of filing contracts and sending out copies of Funworld to those asking for them.
Additionally, I had to work on articles that had been waiting for revision for two years, such as a twenty-six-page case study about the effects of G-forces on roller-coaster riders (which were minimal).
Moreover, I was responsible for editing the article about shuttle coasters that began with the sentence “Whooooooosh!”
After eighteen months within a writing program, during which I had read my fellow students’ tales of cigarettes being mashed into cars and evergreen trees being dusted with snow, I took pleasure in the simplicity of Funworld magazine.
The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions includes around six thousand members who pay an annual fee to receive the magazine.
This includes amusement parks, zoos, aquariums, arcades, and the businesses that provide products and services to these entities such as roller-coaster designers, landscapers, and foodservice companies.
The magazine is elegant and vibrant, as the title suggests, and contains a lot of good news. It is tailored for amusement-industry insiders, so the main topics of the articles and editorials are usually detailed and technical.
For instance, a story about roller-coaster through-put – the highest number of riders per hour – might include a sentence such as, “To enhance B & M’s floorless inverted’s relatively low through-put, Six Flags has installed a pay-per-go Q-bot.” (A system that reserves a time for a prospective rider to board a coaster, eliminating the need to wait in the queue line.)
Following the last phase of blue-line amendments for that month’s issue, there was not much else to do but reach out to industry people and chat about their businesses or parks.
Everyone I contacted was willing to talk about the amusement industry, and nearly every conversation provided a fresh insight.
I found that the majority of people tend to drift towards the right when entering an amusement park; Catherine the Great was instrumental in promoting a primitive form of the roller coaster (the Spanish word for it being monta ña rusa, literally “Russian mountain”) ;
The Netherlands has the highest number of amusement parks per capita across the globe; Pax, a Russian engineer of Ferris wheels and roller coasters, used to design high-tech gadgets for the USSR’s military and space pursuits.
Tom Rebbie of the Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters informed me about the two types of roller-coaster brakes, sled and magnetic.
Sled brakes require a station operator to activate a lever to stop the coaster while magnetic brakes, commonly found on modern coasters, do not. Wooden roller coasters are known as woodies.
The wheels underneath a coaster that stop the train from lifting off the tracks are known as upstops.
Cliff’s Amusement Park has been part of Funworld since 1975, and I’m here to pay my respects because of the New Mexico Rattler – their largest-ever addition.
Our readers find this particularly interesting for two reasons: the coaster is classified as a woodie, but it has been constructed on a steel framework, which is cheaper and easier to adjust to a smaller space.
In addition, it was only $2.5 million to build, which is incredibly affordable for a new coaster, considering some can cost 10 times that.
The Rattler, with its wooden track that meanders in and out of itself and through other attractions, is a remarkable combination of a twister and an out-and-back coaster.
Woodies come in three main designs: out-and-back coasters, which go out of the station in a direct line and come back again; twisters, which have crossed-over tracks over each other; and twins, also called racers, which have two trains that race simultaneously.
Woodies are always on the tracks, like railcars, never loop or invert (the exception being the Son of Beast at Paramount’s Kings Island in Ohio), and they have a special place in the hearts of coaster enthusiasts:
The way they look, the tat-tat-tat sound they make, the bouncing of the seat against the lap bar when going over hills, the feeling of speed on hot and humid days, and the rarity of woodies. In the 1920s, there were more than 1,500 woodies in operation across the US, while today there are approximately 125.
Once Hays came back from his conference with the Courtesy Patrol, I was still writing so I took a few moments before giving him my attention. He went on with his story while I was still writing, talking about projected percaps.
Just then, a woman stepped up to us, talking into a walkie-talkie on her shoulder. “I’m requesting some cheese. Out.”
The voice inquires as she walks by, “Shredded or nacho cheese? Your choice.”
When the Rattler came again, there were no passengers on board. As it went into the tunnel, the track moved slightly. Hays then glanced at the Courtesy Patrol who had arrived and silently watched.
Following that, they all moved away, seemingly having come to some kind of conclusion. I was certain that something meaningful must have been figured out.
Hays lets out a deep sigh. “I moved to Albuquerque back in ’74, hoping to make it big in the rock-and-roll industry,” he states.
He pauses, expecting me to recognize the importance of this before he begins to tell me the story of Jonah – which, to me, sounded like a Christian rock band, but Hays insists it was just a regular rock band.
It was while he was playing with Jonah that he met his wife, the daughter of Cliff and Zella Hammond, the original founders of Uncle Cliff’s Kiddieland, which Hays and his wife changed the name to make it sound “less child-oriented”.
Once the interview was done, Hays gave me a lime-green all-you-can-ride wristband as a token of gratitude for my travel to New Mexico.
I took a seat at the birthday pavilion and attempted to decipher my notes which contained phrases such as “We decided to bite…” and “I always figured…” Beside me was a parent safeguarding a pile of pizza boxes.
Within view, I spotted Hays managing one of the Courtesy Patrol who was energetically pounding a wedge underneath the track.
The thrills of most roller coasters are based on the idea that the train could jump the tracks, yet fatalities from these rides are far from common. Since 1987, there have been an average of 5 ride-related deaths annually in the United States.
These accidents are often reported with a macabre flair, such as the American Coaster Enthusiast who fell from the Raven, the eleven-year-old girl who choked on taffy on the Raging Bull,
The three-hundred-pound woman who slipped from her restraints on the Perilous Plunge, the woman hit by the Joker’s Jukebox while tightening her grandson’s seatbelt, the woman who ruptured her middle cerebral artery on Montezooma’s Revenge, and the twenty-eight-year-old “mentally challenged” man who undone his restraint and tumbled off the Rainbow.
The growing popularity of amusement park rides has drawn the attention of politicians, particularly Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who has proposed the National Amusement Park Ride Safety Act in order to close a gap in federal regulations of these attractions.
In states such as Florida, traveling fairs and carnivals are monitored more closely by the Consumer Product Safety Commission than larger, established theme parks like Disney World, which are exempt from government inspections.
While Funworld does not discuss the loopholes and coaster-related injuries in its content, the magazine does bring up the “needless additional layers of federal legislation” in its editorials.
Whenever Markey’s name is brought up in amusement industry circles, it usually elicits a solemn response, much like when a family member has been imprisoned.
I take a stroll in the desolate and sorrowful kiddieland part of Cliff’s after having a go on the Yo-Yo and the Galaxi roller coaster (a feeble, factory-made Italian one).
I take a seat next to a group of young ladies that are chattering about a chum, who had her hair dyed pink. One of them remarks that she looks like a “ho-clown.”
Visiting amusement parks often generates a strong sense of significance for me, and I find myself spending a lot of time listening to young people.
The older teenagers wander from one attraction to the other, whilst sizing each other up with malicious delight. Preteens enter the park in a state of apprehension due to the height requirements, and become overwhelmed with the dilemma of deciding which ride to try first.
Observing them has become the antidote to the self-centeredness of those who write about amusement parks.
This is their realm, not mine. Here they only concern themselves with maintaining their amusement. After testing a ride, they rapidly pass judgment, proclaim, extol, reject, and praise it. At Cliff’s I overheard a boy expressing the most severe criticism of the kiddieland area: “I’m finished here.”
The Rattler is once more operational. The queues at amusement parks like Cliff’s are not usually that long, yet the Rattler has only one locomotive (which does not help with throughput), so it needs to finish its route before any movement in the line can happen.
Every time the train pulls up to the sheltered station, moths fly out. When it is my turn, I sit down and secure my lap bar before waiting.
Generally, the operator will ask if there are any single riders who want to get on, and some teenager or rotund father will jump ahead to take the seat beside me, yet this operator does not take any steps to reduce the line (which also hinders throughput).
As I climbed the initial hill of the Rattler, I had a momentary glimpse of the barren Sandia Mountains. Just as soon as they were visible, the coaster began its swift descent, accompanied by the signature “tat-tat-tat-tat” sound of wooden rides.
After a few curves, a hill, and passing through a tin-sided tunnel, the hydraulic brakes of the Rattler hissed, and it returned to the station.
In that short, peaceful ride, I felt a blend of excitement, fright, and anticipation for the larger, faster, and more daunting coasters that lay ahead, including stand-up coasters and Wild Mouse coasters which seem to take sharp turns even before changing direction, as if replicating Superman’s horizontal flight.
Spending the rest of the afternoon in the park, I take pictures for my article. My nerves still on edge from the Rattler, I don’t wait around for the perfect shot and instead take pictures of anything that stands out.
A teen on the Demolition Disco made a gang sign when I tried to take a picture of him. Many parents watched me with suspicion as I snapped shots of their children playing in the wading pool at Water Monkeys’ Adventure.
I get myself a portion of Dippin’ Dots, those irresistibly frozen ice cream pieces, and head to the birthday pavilion. By the time I arrive, all the pizza boxes have been cleared away and the people celebrating the birthday have gone.
Eventually, I decide it is time for me to depart as well.
I roved around the parking lot, trying to recall what color or type of car I had rented. Peering into the windows of other vehicles, I saw my sunburnt face, with red ears and nose, the first of the summer. I felt queasy, a sign that I had spent the day at the amusement park.
I was soon headed back to my motel, planning to order Mexican food and begin writing “Cliff’s Notes” or “Cliff’s Takes the Dive, Adds Woodie”–letting Hays’s quotes and park press releases narrate the joyous story of the Rattler.
It would start with something like: “Once upon a time, Cliff’s Amusement Park had an identity crisis,” and then rise in a typical manner. But the fun I had at Cliff’s would remain there, not coming home with me.
I spent a quarter of an hour looking for my rental, which was a beige Cavalier, by pressing the car alarm on my keychain and listening for the horn. Finally, it dawned on me.
As I waited for Janice Witherow in the Guest Relations Office at Cedar Point, a person with thin, toddler-blond hair was shouting at the clerk, “This is not acceptable! Absolutely not!”
He’s feeling let down because of Cedar Point’s new ride, Top Thrill Dragster, a 420-foot steel linear induction coaster going 120 mph. It is the tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world, thus meriting an appearance in Funworld‘s yearly “What’s Hot” review.
To his dismay, however, it was closed for repairs. After paying for parking, the lot attendant gave him a Cedar Point map and list of park regulations (costumes and disguises not allowed) plus an extra notation that said, “Dear Valued Guest, I regret to tell you that the newest roller coaster at Cedar Point, Top Thrill Dragster, is not open due to technical issues.”
As I recognize Witherow walking towards me, I observe her petite frame and her tanning-booth tan. She is wearing a striped long-sleeve shirt and creased black pants, having the same kind of energy as those in the amusement parks and rom-coms. “I apologize deeply,” she said with a cheerful and authoritative demeanor.
Witherow is discussing the Top Thrill Dragster, and she mentions that it utilizes the most advanced technology.
Since its debut two months ago, it has only operated approximately half the time. As she speaks, she is gesturing with her walkie-talkie, and has a scent of gum, though no chewing is observed.
I tell her a white lie, convincing her that I can still make something out of my journey to her park; that I can still take pictures of the defunct roller coaster. But my visit here is essentially pointless.
Without Top Thrill Dragster, there is no reason for me to be at Cedar Point for my “What’s Hot” article.
My companion Witherow and I were touring Cedar Point, newly opened for the day. While chatting, we encountered throngs of children running around us.
The park had invested a hefty sum of twenty-five million dollars in the construction of its hobbled coaster, built by Swiss firm Intamin, who had designed the five tallest coasters across the world.
The ride was intended to be showcased on the Today Show and the Discovery Channel, and the failure of the venture could have been a major disaster for any other park.
However, Cedar Point had sixty-seven other rides in addition to the coaster, along with a water park, marina, and beach, making it a popular destination.
It also had the highest number of roller coasters, sixteen of them, four of which towered over 200 feet, the former record high. Driving on the peninsula towards the park, one could spot the blinking airplane-warning beacons on the taller coasters from miles away.
Cedar Point is engaged in the industry’s tedious “coaster wars,” having introduced Millennium Force in 2000.
This ride was advertised as the tallest and fastest roller coaster ever built, but Six Flags Magic Mountain in California contested that it was still 100 feet shy of their record.
Cedar Point rebutted that their coaster was the tallest and fastest thrill ride, since roller coasters must travel out and back, not just straight up and down, like the Superman the Escape.
This debate was quickly made insignificant when the Nagashima Spa Land in Japan opened the 8′ 3″ taller, 2 mph faster Steel Dragon 2000.
This year, Cedar Point has made a significant impression with the introduction of Top Thrill Dragster.
As the tallest, fastest non-operational roller coaster in the world, it does not appear to be very enjoyable, as it is composed of a steel obelisk structure with a twisted horseshoe-shaped track adorned with candy-cane stripes.
Accelerating to 120 mph in just four seconds, the coaster goes up 420 feet, curves around the peak of the tower, and plunges back down at a ninety-degree angle.
Though it is similar to Superman the Escape, it is completed within a thirty-second ride. The ride can be described as the embodiment of a regular roller coaster.
Witherow and I enter the Town Hall Museum, where we take in the displays. Established in the 1870s as a bathhouse, Cedar Point began renting out bathing suits and umbrellas.
By 1906, it had become an amusement park, accessible by steamships from Cleveland on Lake Erie. Since 1990, an average of one new rollercoaster has been added each year.
One caption reads, “Few subjects tend to fire the imagination or captivate the mind like the thrill and excitement of an amusement park.” I read that Sherwood Anderson had multiple visits to the park’s Hotel Breakers, and even wrote a short story about Cedar Point titled “I’m a Fool.”
A man and a youngster proceeded onward inside. The tyke, as though deceived, asked, “A historical center? What are we doing here? I thought I said I needed to ride the Mean Streak.”
Let’s start off our day by going to the raft ride and observing people getting soaked!
The boy expresses his desire to have fun instead of seeing people getting wet.
As Witherow was leaving the museum, he asked the maintenance man who was sweeping the stairs, “How are you doing?”
He responds with a shrug, uttering an “Ehhhh…”
She voiced her approval.
For the last three years, I have had a lot of conversations with PR people, and unfortunately, I don’t particularly like them. Many of them are untrustworthy and always ready to use a false camaraderie to excuse the fibs or half-truths they tell.
However, I cannot help but admire Witherow. As I don’t possess the skills of an investigative journalist, she doesn’t need to bother with managing scripts or safeguarding reputations. She has been working at the park for twelve years and is still incredibly excited.
Recently, a reporter from Cincinnati came to the park as part of an assignment to experience all the roller coasters in Ohio.
Witherow accompanied him on all of Cedar Point’s coasters because she was concerned that he would have to ride them alone. Who could be suspicious of someone as kind as this?
As I listen to the tour guide, I’m in a relaxed state of mind, even though I’m not going to be taking any notes. I’m simply meant to enjoy the experience.
By the end of the tour, I find myself in agreement with everything she says and even more enthused than she is. She mentions the Good Time Theatre, remarking, “We have a great live show over there called ‘Snoopy Rocks on Ice.'”
I exclaim, “Fantastic!” although I am unsure if I have any real interest in ice performances, since I have never attended one.
At a crossing of the C.P. & L.E. railroad, Witherow noticed a teenager had spat a large glob of saliva onto the pavement. Shaking her head, she pointed out the loogie and quietly remarked, “That is something I really cannot stand.”
I emphatically exclaim, “Yes!” and add, “Also, people who throw lit cigarettes out of their vehicles!”
When Witherow was summoned on her walkie-talkie, I noticed an overweight individual scooping up cheese fries with a fork and putting them in a man-made lake. The floating cheese fries then became a target for carp and seagulls.
The chubby person emptied his bucket of fries, ensuring all the cheese was gone, and observed the animals, chuckling at their gullibility.
He surveyed the people around him to see if anyone else was amused by his act of disobedience, which, unfortunately, some were. He nodded and laughed, appearing like a plump rooster.
Not long ago, I was promoted to managing editor at Funworld by Bill. My new role came with a slight salary increase, an office, and a bigger computer monitor.
One of the magazine’s monthly columns, titled ‘Game Room’, was written by a man named Michael C. Getlan who liked to use the pseudonym ‘Professor Maximillian Smiley’ for the piece.
The ‘Smiley’ columns had cheery titles like “Little Smiles Mean Big Business to You!” and a photo of the professor in a clown costume.
Unfortunately, I mistakenly attached the Smiley photo to Getlan’s byline last month, and he called me to express his displeasure. When I answered the phone, he simply said, “This is bullshit.”
For three years, I have been penning articles about amusement parks for amusement park workers. I have been to more than four dozen such parks, plus eight zoos, four aquariums, three go-kart tracks, and a single haunted cornfield.
From taking rides on coasters named after characters from comic books, good and bad, I have concluded that Superman: Ride of Steel and Superman: la Atraccion de Acero at Movie World in Madrid, while similar in terms of the stomach disturbances they cause, are different from the tickling sensation you get on Dr. Doom’s Fearfall in Orlando.
My writing has been translated into four languages and is followed closely by at least one Japanese man.
In German, the last sentence of my write-up of Movie World Madrid reads: Das ist nicht Hollywood. Das ist nicht Spanien. Es ist etwas Besonderes. This means: This is not Hollywood. This is not Spain. It is something special and unique.
During my time interviewing Pele and Dolly Parton, she frequently referred to me by my first name, even shortening it to “Kev” during the conversation.
This caused me to experience a great deal of delight. When I mentioned to Dolly that I was from Funworld, she chuckled and said “Funworld? That’s my world.”
Once I’m given a souvenir pin for Top Thrill Dragster and set free, I roam around the park, considering my choices. It’s not necessary for me to linger since the ride is closed, yet something like a commitment to responsibility keeps me there.
As I watched young people running from ride to ride earlier, I can’t help but become a bit excited, being surrounded by so much potential. A boy and his mother pass by me, and I hear the boy tell his mom, “Hey, Mom, let’s go back in time.” With that, I’m determined to carry on.
Cedar Point has an astounding selection of coasters, ranging from Top Thrill Dragster to a classic coaster. I decided to try Mantis first, a standup coaster. This kind of ride was a big deal a few years ago, but at Cedar Point, it’s just another part of the many attractions.
There was no waiting time and the journey was smooth and fast, with four inversions and a corkscrew, before the hydraulic hiss signified the end of the ride.
The next coaster on the list was Magnum XL-200, a hyper-coaster in an out-and-back formation and the first one to exceed 200 feet and 70 miles per hour.
As we got ready to go down the first drop, the person beside me quickly adjusted his baseball cap and fixed his hair. Other than that, the ride was unremarkable, until a girl behind shouted out in the middle of it that her breast had slipped out of her bra!
As I strolled towards Iron Dragon, I noticed a person with white hair and a safari hat, along with sunglasses, something I hadn’t seen in a long time. A short while later, I caught sight of a completely different albino individual.
Iron Dragon, a suspended bobsled coaster, is a slow and drawn-out ride. Contrastingly, Raptor, a floorless inverted coaster with six loops, is an experience which was slightly spoiled for me due to the fact that the arm of the person next to me was drenched with sweat and kept rubbing against mine throughout the tight flips and turns.
For the past three years, as I’ve been getting paid to ride coasters, I’ve found that unless I make an effort to take in what’s going on and then write it down afterwards, I forget the details almost immediately. It’s like a few minutes of intense panic and the sooner I forget it the better, possibly because I don’t have anyone to talk to about it.
This is the major fact about my trips to amusement parks: I’m almost always alone. Sure, some people ride solo because their parents or SOs are scared of heights, but I haven’t met anyone else who visits amusement parks unaccompanied.
The “experience” at these places doesn’t stand up to frequent, solo visits. After a while, the absurdity becomes predictable and unpleasant.
There are boys with chili-bowl haircuts going berserk in their strollers, people wearing fluorescent fanny packs and T-shirts with ridiculous slogans, and people of all sizes – the really obese, who start their orders at the ice-cream carts with “We’re gonna need…”.
My attention was drawn to one child in particular in the Gemini Children’s Area; he was riding the Frog Hopper while sending smiles to his mother. I followed them around as they discussed which ride the young lad should try next.
His assessment of the Witches’ Wheel was that it was “a little too scary.” It was evident that he was a child who thought things through.
The mother inquires, “Are you feeling famished?”
The young man responded, “I’m not totally starving, though.”
The mutual respect between them soothes me; it’s sometimes necessary to get a break from the thing you use to relax.
Let’s enjoy some live amusement.
At the Red Garter Saloon, I requested the macho nachos and waited for the show to start. On the stage was a neon outline of the United States with Maine represented as a guitar headstock and America Rocks! in the middle.
My server seemed intent on saying “macho nachos” as much as possible. “So that’ll be the macho nachos,” she said when I ordered. She brought my water, “Your macho nachos will be out shortly.” Bringing my macho nachos, “Here are your macho nachos.” Five minutes later, “How are your macho nachos?” When I was done, “How did you find the macho nachos?”
The elderly lady beside me saw me jotting down something in my notebook and asked, “Are you a student?” I nodded in agreement. She then offered to buy me a beer and I accepted.
The woman went on to explain to me about her daughter, who is a member of the American Coaster Enthusiasts.
She said they go on trips to different amusement parks each summer, and her daughter rides all the coasters with her fellow Enthusiasts, while the mother takes in the saloons and taverns.
She gave me an example, telling me how delicious the nachos were at Six Flags Great America. At that moment, the lights dimmed and “America Rocks” started playing.
The performers initiated the show with an enthusiastic “Put your hands together!”, combining the patriotism of country music and the swagger of classic rock.
Eight men and women, racially integrated, were backed by a leather-vested four-piece band, performing “We’re an American Band”.
The male performers acted energetically while the women wore leather miniskirts and red chiffon shirts, singing a slow country song with lyrics that were hard to make out.
The performers were trying to get the crowd excited with statements like “How y’all feeling?” and “Let’s hear it for America!” Another rock medley and a costume change later, a male performer came out in drag, twirling a feather boa.
The show concluded with a rendition of the theme to The Drew Carey Show, and everyone in the Red Garter Saloon cheered in appreciation for the show. After the lights turned on, an elderly woman stood up and said “Good luck with school.”
As we take our seats on Cedar Point’s only giga-coaster, Millennium Force, Vince introduces himself. He had waited in line for an hour and a half, and is understandably eager to ride, as this would be his third time on the coaster today.
His arm bears an unfortunate tattoo of a purple teddy bear holding a heart with the word “WHY?” in its center, second only to the shaky “Lucky You” scrawled above a woman’s soft belly button.
When we begin our ascent up the lift hill, Vince informs me that a camera is situated in the second tunnel and he wants to look completely insane when the photograph is taken.
The first hill of the Millennium Force is a steep and weightless descent, like taking a plunge off a cliff. Lake Erie is a swift view to the left and the amusement park is a bright blur to the right.
As we hurry through the first tunnel and on to the next, I find myself screaming along with Vince’s hearty Wooooooooo! I attempt to pose for the camera as we near the second tunnel, but the overwhelming nausea caused by the ride’s intensity has me quickly reclining in my seat.
Keeping my eyes closed and tightly gripping the lap bar, I stay that way for the remainder of the ride. Eventually, the coaster begins to slow and Vince is still howling.
I make my way to the photo kiosk and observe the rows of televisions exhibiting pictures of every roller coaster car.
When I look at the second screen, top row, Vince and I are visible. Vince is pumping his fists and exhibiting a frenzied expression, whereas I am holding my seat restraint, looking a bit green and trying to keep my uneasiness at bay.
Subsequently, I take out my wallet and purchase the photograph.
During my last assignment of the summer I traveled to Orlando, Florida, to find off-the-beaten-path attractions that the readers of Funworld may not be aware of. Old Town, just across from the Disney World magicopolis, is not a hidden gem but rather a place people may overlook.
Some of the nearby attractions include Water Mania, with slides like the Riptide and the Double Berzerker; Arabian Knights, where guests can have a sit-down dinner and watch horses gallop around the world’s largest indoor equestrian arena;
Horse World, a stable that promises a serene and stress-free environment; Discovery Cove, where you can shell out $230 for a 45-minute swim with trained dolphins; and Gatorland, where you can witness alligators snatch up dead chickens off a clothesline.
Having grown up in Florida, I was already accustomed to the laidback atmosphere at places like Old Town, even before I started taking trips to amusement parks.
As a teenager, my friends and I would often cut school in order to visit Circus World, which was never really busy on weekdays.
We would ride the wooden rollercoaster called Michael Jackson’s Thrill Coaster without being conscious of the potential for it to become the butt of a Jay Leno joke.
Circus World eventually transformed into Boardwalk and Baseball, and the Florida Hurricane supplanted MJ’s Thrill Coaster.
However, the park still didn’t get a lot of visitors — generally a few teens or a family from Illinois who strayed from Disney World. A couple of years later, it closed its doors for the last time and the Florida Hurricane was shipped off to Arkansas, where it was renamed the Arkansas Twister.
Elizabeth Bishop viewed Florida as a place of disregard and shabbiness. One of my most lasting memories of the state is seeing a classmate drive his Z-28 to the beach, empty the oil, and speed off, leaving the hole uncovered.
Despite having sworn to never go back, I have been to Orlando, the city of “You Never Outgrow It” billboards, five times while working at Funworld.
Forty years ago, Walt Disney made a discreet purchase of a large acreage of wetlands in southwest Orlando for two hundred dollars an acre, and now people have strongly divided opinions on the city’s hospitality.
Some may believe that it is the best place on earth, while others may think it is the worst. It has the atmosphere of a giant cruise vessel and everyone is devoted to catering to the visitors’ needs.
For example, when renting a car, the agent offered a free upgrade, noting that the Mirage was not a suitable choice for the customer.
I had planned to use the two hours before my appointment with Ingrid, Old Town’s marketing manager, to explore the amusement park, take photos, or even get a massage.
However, I arrive to find that the town has just opened and I am one of the few people around. Old Town is organized like two strip malls with a pair of sidewalks between them.
The stores have names that are straightforward and descriptive, like Pet Palace for pet supplies, Union Jack British Goods for British products, Funky Boutique for a unique shopping experience, and Sock Exchange where you can find “naughty socks” along with a variety of other socks.
At Lights N’ Beyond, the checkout clerk – a tanned woman with a disheveled bob of coarse gray hair – had an eyedropper of something in her mouth. On the shop’s floor, encouraging words such as “Bless“, “Inventive“, “Praise“, “Unwind“, “Miracles“, “Effortless” and “Happy” were painted.
The shelves had a variety of ceramic angels and fairies. When I asked who the store’s main customers were, she paused before responding with a smile and a sigh. “Oh, you know… the people.”
At Magic Max’s magic store, I take in the sight of a wall filled with imitation puke while a clerk shuffles cards close to the checkout counter. “Excuse me, are you a fan of magic?” he inquires.
I spin on my heel. I agree with him, who isn’t aware of the fact?
David Martinez stands before me on his first day, holding a clipboard with a paper that reads “David Martinez, Magic Demo Checklist.” Out of the thirty or so items listed, two are already checked off.
His short stature, shaved head, round silver-rimmed glasses and neat attire are highlighted as I watch him cut the deck of cards with his small hands, noticing the trembling of his arms.
He kept saying, “This is my first time and I said I was not prepared, yet they said, ‘You are prepared.'”
He informs me of the initial trick, Levitating Card. I pick the queen of spades, but I don’t get to see it, as he quickly puts it back in the deck. His hands trembling as he shuffles the cards, switching them from his left to right hand and back again, he stops and says, “Oops. I messed up that one.”
He shuffles the cards and I choose the five of hearts. He holds the deck in his left hand, “Now, focus on your card. Are you focusing?” I attempt to center my attention on the five of hearts as I observe the heel of his hand curl to push the card out of the back of the deck.
“You’re not paying attention!” he says in a despondent tone. He puts the cards down and scans the checklist. “It’s my fault,” I assure him. “My mind was still occupied with the queen of spades.”
As I departed the store, I saw a yellow sign on the entrance that read “Employment Opportunity: Knowledgeable Extroverted Neat Magic Demonstrators Wanted.”
He declared “I’ll take care of it” as I was departing. He then added “Return after a short period of time.”
At the Business Office located above the A&W Restaurant in Old Town, the secretary informed me that Ingrid, the marketing manager, had failed to show up. Much to my relief, this was not the first time this had happened to me.
Thus, all the queries I had come to ask had already been answered. How do they match up to Disney World? They don’t. Are they planning to expand their amusement park in the near future? No indication of that. Who do they mainly serve? The common folk.
The secretary was more irritated than I was about Ingrid’s lack of consideration. She phoned her on her cell and handed me the phone. Ingrid said she was on the highway and the traffic noise in the background confirmed the story.
She apologized profusely for the unexpected “big meeting” and asked if we could reschedule. I told her I had an appointment at Water Mania and afterwards I was going to Gatorland to look at the alligators before leaving town.
I felt somewhat sheepish about informing her that my main purpose for visiting Orlando was to meet with her and that my schedule was solely comprised of this appointment.
I said I would call back in a few days for the interview and would probably have to write the article based on press releases and the Old Town infomercials I viewed the night before at the hotel.
At the amusement park, I spend $10 on ride tickets at a tiny booth. Smaller parks can sometimes include items like water fountains and snack carts in their “40 Fun Attractions” count. Old Town advertises that its amusement park has more than 18 attractions, and I suspect this kiosk is one of them.
The rides are all running at a low capacity. I observe a young boy riding a possibly sluggish carousel, while his parents wait on the other side of a metal fence. Every time it goes around, the boy calls out to them: “Is this it?” on the first rotation.
The second statement was: “The moniker of my equine is Pharaoh.”
Thirdly: “Let’s go, Pharaoh!”
Fourth: “It appears that the Pharaoh is not paying attention.”
The last task of my summer holidays was to go to numerous amusement parks, ride the roller coasters and confirm how amazing they were.
It was such a familiar task that it began to feel like a mission. I was reminded of the protagonist in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Everything That Rises Must Converge” who harboured an ambition of becoming a writer, but was selling typewriters in the interim.
As a woman observed to his mother, “Selling typewriters is close to writing; he can go right from one to the other.”
As I continue to write for Funworld, my visits to amusement parks become less relevant to the articles I turn in. I have managed to become adept at quickly determining the right angle to take and my pieces are usually composed of good news and plenty of details about the attractions.
I can finish each article more quickly than the last, relying heavily on quotes and striving to remain factual and optimistic.
Although I don’t feel embarrassed by my work, like some of my colleagues who asked for pseudonyms, I do think to myself “Huh? Who am I talking to?”
whenever I read a sentence such as “If you walk into your local haunted attraction… expecting white-bed-sheet-covered ghosts with cutout holes for eyes or stiff-armed mummies creeping toward you with their hands raised, you’ll go home disappointed.”
When I first began working for Funworld, I often spoke about my job. “I’m getting paid to go to amusement parks,” I’d tell people. I was delighted by the illogicality of a job that required me to ride roller coasters.
I had been in search of the out-of-the-ordinary experience for most of my life, and I had finally discovered it.
Everything I encountered while working was surprisingly peculiar, similar to the dry remarks in a Monty Python sketch.
Examples of this include the headline of emails I would get from amusement-makers: “Do You See the Glass Laugh-Full?” and “What to Think About When Buying a Robot.”
I also heard a few statements by Story Musgrave, a former space shuttle astronaut and now a motivational speaker, at an amusement-industry event:
“I’ve always wanted to know what it’s like to cry in space,” “Water is a magical place,” and “Every spacewalker wants a face-full of mother Earth.”
After being in Funworld for some time, the strange became mundane and the whimsical, unpleasant. So, I decided to practice selective ignorance – not reading the magazine after it was released, refusing to talk about my job to prevent people from becoming envious.
Even my father-in-law, a Greek historian, thought I had a great occupation when he read an article about Colonial Williamsburg.
This gave him an idea of his own, Platonopolis, a tourist destination based on the works of Plato. He said it would be a place of “universities, agoras, galleries, cafes” and he would not permit “cheeseburgers”.
The skies above Old Town are filled with the typical white, puffy clouds of late summer. I arrive at the entrance of the Windstorm roller coaster and offer the elderly man at the ticket office five tickets. He waves me away, telling me to put them back, and I enter the front car of the coaster.
The seat is hot and worn. Without any acknowledgment of my presence or a check of the lap bar, the coaster lurches to life and begins climbing the hill, jerking back and forth on the chain sprocket…
As I sailed on the Windstorm, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness that the season had come to a close. I think it was sympathy for the kids who had to go home, and nostalgia for my own youthful summers spent in Daytona Beach.
I had a feeling of incompleteness, as if something was coming to an end. No more Dippin’ Dots or “fun-ebrations” and no more emails from the translator at Funworld, who had difficulty understanding the technical jargon I used: “Kevin, what is a hyper-giga-coaster? What does bungee-trampoline mean? I’m confused.”
The Windstorm is released from the sprocket, running along a greasy, blackened metal rail that is worn in certain spots. Gravity propels me as I spin in a winding, slow-motion corkscrew. Relaxing my body, I shut my eyes.
The classifieds are forgotten as the elderly attendant brings the ride to an end.
He inquires if I would like to go one more time.
In my opinion, the answer is no.
Assent to the request with an affirmative response.
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