Image: Wildebeest
Courtesy Holiday World & Splashin' Safari
A ride on the Wildebeest at Holiday World & Splashin' Safari starts with a huge four-story drop, before plunging into six more drops and two tunnels, at top speeds of 25 mph.
By
updated 5/24/2011 8:46:57 AM ET 2011-05-24T12:46:57

Longest. Fastest. Tallest. Steepest. As theme parks across the U.S. throw open the gates for the 2011 summer of fun, these thrill-makers dare us to climb aboard and test our mettle (and the strength of our stomachs). We scoured American theme parks big and small to find the wildest adventures. The question is: Are you ready for the challenges they offer?

Slideshow: 9 Record-Breaking Theme Park Thrills

The world's first robotic "coaster"
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Orlando Resort, Fla.

Opened in June 2010, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is the first attraction to use what they're calling "robo-coaster" technology. Riders sit in a pod-like capsule mounted on a robotic arm that twists, pivots and fully immerses the rider in the animation: flying around Hogwarts, coming face-to-face with evil Dementors, and even getting caught up in a Quidditch match. The robotic arm machinery, developed by German engineering firm KUKA, has been used in other theme park attractions (not to mention automobile manufacturing plants), but it has always been stationary. The difference here is that the Forbidden Journey robots move along a track, giving riders a never-before-experienced sensation of flying.

The park: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened last June inside Islands of Adventure at Universal Orlando Resort. The land brings the world of J.K. Rowling's books to magical life: Hogwarts Castle; Potter-inspired rides, like the Dragon Challenge coaster and the Flight of the Hippogriff.

When to go: When planning a visit, think early and midweek; Tuesday and Wednesday first thing in the morning (8 or 9 a.m., depending on the season) is the best bet for the shortest queues. tickets $82 for adults, $74 for children 3 through 9.

The world's steepest, tallest water ride
Perilous Plunge, Knott's Berry Farm, Buena Park, Calif.

At 115 feet, Perilous Plunge ranks as the country's tallest water ride. But that's not the scariest part of this flume ride. The drop measures an unbelievable 75-degree angle (only 15 more degrees, and this would be a straight vertical drop). Thanks to an eddy magnetic braking system, the splashdown isn't as ferocious as one might expect, but there's still no escaping a total drenching.

Image: Perilous Plunge
Courtesy Knott's Berry Farm
Perilous Plunge at Knott's Berry Farm is the country's tallest water ride — and also drops at an unbelievable 75-degree angle.

The park: Knott's Berry Farm started out as an actual working berry farm in 1920 — one of the country's first agritourism efforts. The Knotts sold berries, jams and jellies at a roadside stand, eventually offering biscuits and chicken in the 1930s. Today, chicken dinners are still served up daily, but you might not want to grab a bite until after you've gotten off the park's many thrill rides.

When to go: This is one park where holiday-weekend crowds aren't as bad as one would imagine, so park officials say don't rule out a Memorial Day or Labor Day weekend visit; otherwise, think about visiting when California schools are still in session; early June and post–Labor Day weekend are the least crowded times. tickets $46.99 for adults, $24.99 for children and seniors (rates reflect purchases made online; California residents receive a discount-check website for details).

The world's tallest roller coaster
Kingda Ka, Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, N.J.
A double-whammy entry in the record books, Kingda Ka is not only the tallest roller coaster in the world; it's also the fastest in North America. At 45 stories, or 456 feet at its highest point, the ride is taller than London's famed Big Ben and only a few feet shorter than the Great Pyramid at Giza! Riders zoom from zero to 128 mph in just over three seconds on launch and then fly over camel humps (briefly experiencing weightlessness), dip, turn, and finally come to a rest in what can only be described as a breathless 59 seconds. Yes, that was your life flashing before your eyes.

The park: Six Flags Great Adventure is comprised of three parks (though each charges separate entrance fees): the main park, a 350-acre animal park called Wild Safari, and the Hurricane Harbor Water Park. Bugs Bunny and other Looney Toons characters can be seen both in person and on the rides throughout Six Flags, and there are countless options for the younger set: spinning teacups, a carousel, and a 15-story Ferris wheel.

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When to go: The least-crowded times at Six Flags are weekdays during the summer and any of the regularly scheduled days during the shoulder season in April, May, June and September. In late June, you can play in the park and do some good at the same time, as Great Adventure hosts the Walk in the Park fundraiser for the Children's Miracle Network. Raise $50 and park admittance that day is free. tickets $36.99 for adults, $29.99 for guests under 54 inches (rates reflect purchases made online).

America's tallest free-fall water slide
Summit Plummet, Blizzard Beach, Walt Disney World, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

The ski-lift-themed Summit Plummet, complete with mounds of fake snow, makes you wonder if it's really a smart idea to slide down the slopes in just your bathing suit. But don't worry: The waters here are heated year-round to a bath-like 80 degrees. Free-fall water slides, like this one, are designed to make the rider feel like they're dropping without any restraint (essentially falling at an extremely steep angle at top speeds). The tallest in the country — and second tallest in the world, after Brazil's Insano — plunges the brave down a 120-foot slide. That's 12 stories, or twice the size of the presidential heads on Mount Rushmore. Travel through a dark tunnel and a 360-foot flume at speeds of up to 60 mph, and make sure to check the digital readout at the end — which shows your exact speed — for bragging rights.

The park: Blizzard Beach is part of the Walt Disney World complex and was the third of their on-site water parks to open. The theme is a ski resort with no powder — this is Florida, after all — so expect to see chairlifts leading to bare slopes.

When to go: The park hosts close to 2 million visitors annually, so there's always a crowd. But your best bet for short lines and relatively uncrowded wave pools is first thing in the morning (9 or 10 a.m., depending on the season), especially on midweek days like Tuesday and Wednesday. tickets $48.98 for adults, $42.60 for kids 3 to 9.

The world's oldest operating roller coaster
Leap-the-Dips, in Lakemont Park, Altoona, Pa.

Leap-the-Dips is not just a ride; it's a piece of history. In fact, this wooden coaster was named a National Historic Landmark in 1996. Built in 1902, the coaster — with a top operating speed of just 10 mph and a peak of 41 feet — stood idle during the late 1980s and into the late 1990s, reopening to its original glory on Memorial Day, 1999.

The park: Situated on Lake Altoona, Lakemont Park opened in 1894 as a trolley park and ranks as the eighth oldest amusement park in the country. (For the record, Lake Compounce, in Bristol, Conn., opened in 1846 and stands as North America's oldest continually operating amusement park.) The charming, old-fashioned family park features a few dozen rides and attractions, including a miniature golf course, paddleboats, go-karts, arcade games and a water park.

When to go: The park can get crowded on weekends, but with its small selection of rides, guests tend to stay at the park for less time, meaning a much greater turnover than the bigger theme parks. Every Thursday night from July to August, the park hosts Wing Offs, as local restaurants compete for the title of best wings (wings $4.00 per dozen, beer $3.50). tickets $5 for adults and children on weekdays, $9.95 for adults and children on weekends, additional tickets required for some rides (from $2.50 per ride).

Story: Amusement parks focus on deals, not just thrills

America's largest collection of coasters (for now!)
Cedar Point amusement park and resort, Sandusky, Ohio

For now, iconic Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, holds the record for the largest collection of roller coasters in the country, with 17 — two wooden and 15 steel. From the fastest double-twisting impulse coaster (the Wicked Twister, with a top speed of 72 mph) to the first coaster in the world to top 200 feet (the Magnum XL-200, which opened in 1989), there's always an off-kilter view of the park and Lake Erie available from the high perches of the coasters. Note: Cedar Point loses its record this year, when Six Flags Magic Mountain reopens its 17th coaster (Road Runner Express) and debuts its 18th roller coaster, Green Lantern: First Light, on Memorial Day. The 4-D coaster will feature a never-before-seen vertical zigzag pattern track, with eight riders sitting back-to-back in an independently rotating passenger vehicle.

The park: Cedar Point opened in 1870, with the first coaster debuting in 1892. Since then, the park has been considered the destination for coaster enthusiasts from across the globe, thanks to its great variety of thrill rides and gorgeous lakefront setting. There are also a number of stomach-churning alternatives to coasters, including the Power Tower, which drops at speeds faster than free fall.

When to go: To avoid crowds, stick to weekdays in summer and spring, and nights and Sundays during the fall. If you don't mind massive crowds, head to Cedar Point during the annual Wheels of Thunder weekend (August 9 to 11). Famous NASCAR drivers like John Sauter and Matt Crafton motor over to the park for racing-themed fun, like race car simulators and driver memorabilia. tickets $46.99 for adults, $21 for guests under 48 inches tall or over the age of 62 (children 2 and under are free), but guests who stay at one of the resort hotels — like the beachfront Hotel Breakers (from $99 per night for up to four people) receive a discounted rate of $29.99.

Image: Scorpion's Tail
Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau
The Scorpion's Tail at Noah's Ark Waterpark in the Wisconsin Dells is America's first looping water slide.

America's first looping water slide
Scorpion's Tail, Noah's Ark Waterpark, Wisconsin Dells, Wis.

The designers of this watery thrill decided it wasn't enough to simply send riders hurtling through an enclosed plastic tube. No, they designed a capsule-like entrance where the rider steps in, the attendant closes the door, and then the floor drops out, plunging the rider down the long, curving tube. Oh, and it all starts 10 stories up. The stomach-lurching ride runs 400 feet over the course of five to seven seconds (exact time depends on the weight of the passengers — the heavier you are, the faster you fall) and includes a nearly vertical, coaster-style loop — the first of its kind in the States.

The park: Noah's Ark is the country's largest water park, covering 70 acres in Wisconsin Dells. The area is home to the largest number of water parks in the country, at nearly two dozen. Two huge wave pools and 49 water rides are just the start of the park's attractions, which also include four children's splash areas, a 4-D movie theater, a mini golf course, bumper boats, arcade games and even a spooky haunted cavern.

When to go: Each morning, the park opens in two waves, with the front half opening at 9 a.m. and the back half opening at 10 a.m. Those who brave the early crowd can be first into the back section of the park, staking out a spot at the wave pool for the day. Late May, when the park first opens, is probably the least-crowded time to go, as most of the local schools don't let out until the first week of June. tickets $32.99 for adults, $28.79 for seniors and children 47 inches and below (rates reflect tickets purchased online).

America's longest duration roller coaster
The Beast, Kings Island, Mason, Ohio

The Beast is a huge, well, beast of a coaster, covering a 35-acre, densely wooded area in the park, which lends a dark and eerie feel to the ride. The record-breaking running time — 4 minutes, 10 seconds — is about a minute and a half longer than most of its counterparts, steel or wood. And, with a track length of about 1.4 miles (7,359 feet), the Beast also ranks as the longest wooden roller coaster in the world. Two huge vertical drops of 135 and 141 feet, dark tunnels, and speeds of up to 65 mph make this wooden coaster just about as scary as they come.

Image: The Beast
Courtesy Kings Island
The Beast at Kings Island amusement park in Mason, Ohio, is the world's longest duration roller coaster, clocking in at 4 minutes, 10 seconds.

The park: In 2011, Kings Island opens the world's largest animatronic dinosaur park, Dinosaurs Alive!, with more than 60 life-size beasts. The park also includes a Snoopy-themed play area called Planet Snoopy for younger children. The on-site Boomerang Bay Water Park, included in the price of admission, includes the surf-able Pipeline Paradise and the huge, resort-like Great Barrier Reef wave pool, complete with chair-side waitress service.

When to go: Since Kings Island is open until 10 p.m. most evenings (and midnight on Saturdays during July), there's no reason to rush over right at opening. Rather, plan to arrive about 3 p.m., when the crowd clears out. Otherwise, the best times to visit are weekdays (excluding Fridays) and any day that the park is open during its shoulder season: April, May, and October (Sundays, especially, in October tend to be quiet). tickets $35.99 for adults, $31.99 for children and seniors (rates reflect tickets purchased online).

The world's longest water coaster
Wildebeest, Holiday World & Splashin' Safari, Santa Claus, Ind.

At a third of a mile long, the Wildebeest ranks as the world's longest water coaster. It all starts with a huge four-story drop, before plunging into six more drops and two tunnels, at top speeds of 25 mph. Seated with three of your closest friends in a toboggan-style boat, wearing just your swimsuit, that's pretty darn fast. The best part of all might be the uphill conveyor belt ride, meaning there's no leg-crushing climb to the top, like most other water rides in the country.

The park: A ticket grants admission to both Holiday World & Splashin' Safari, the attached theme park, which is divided into four holiday-themed lands (Christmas, Halloween, Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving). Opened in 1946, Holiday World was the first themed amusement park in the world, and it features a handful of coasters and family-friendly rides like bumper cars, spinners and a huge tree house to climb on. Splashin' Safari offers high-volume wave pools, tube rides, and, new in 2011, an entire splash area called Safari Sam's SplashLand that is devoted to the little ones.

When to go: As with most parks in the Midwest, hitting the spring and autumn shoulder seasons is always the best bet for less-crowded conditions, as are weekday mornings, when the park opens at 9:30 a.m. (get in early, and you can be first in line to enter the Splashin' Safari, which opens at 10:30 a.m.). tickets $42.95 for adults, $32.95 for seniors and those under 54 inches (kids ages 2 and under are free), parking is free, as are soft drinks, sunscreen and use of inner tubes.

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Photos: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

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  1. The Hogwarts Express arrives in Hogsmeade Station at Universal Orlando Resort's Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As guests enter Hogsmeade, they are greeted by the iconic, smoke-billowing steam engine, made famous in the Harry Potter books and films for transporting students to a world of magic and wonder. (Kevin Kolczynski / Universal Orlando) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. As guests pass through the arch into Hogsmeade at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, they can explore the cobbled streets of the highly themed environment, and will encounter iconic locations from the Harry Potter books and films, like Ollivanders and the majestic Hogwarts castle. (Kevin Kolczynski / Universal Orlando) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Visitors stroll the streets of Hogsmeade in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando theme park. The attraction opens to general admission ticket holders on June 18. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Members of the Hogwarts Choir sing for guests. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter features multiple themed attractions, shops and a restaurant. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A clerk, right, at Ollivander's Wand Shop, helps visitors pick out a magic wand. Park guests will have plenty of opportunities to shop for wands, broomstics, scarves and more. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mounted on the wall of the Hog's Head pub is the hog's head, which will come alive and puff its jowls at visitors. Adjacent to the Three Broomsticks, the Hog's Head pub is where guests can enjoy a cold Butterbeer, pumpkin juice and other beverages. (Kevin Kolczynski / Universal Orlando) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. The entrance to Hogwarts Castle is seen at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Hogwarts Castle is seen at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Construction of the park was overseen by the production manager from the Harry Potter movies. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The office of headmaster Albus Dumbledore is intricately displayed at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling, author of the Potter books, is a stickler for details, and Universal worked hard to get her OK on the park's attractions. (Kevin Kolczynski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Guests will pass by the regal Griffin statue on their way to Dumbledore's office. (Kevin Kolczynski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Just like the Harry Potter films, portraits line the walls of Hogwarts castle, the home of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. When passing through the Portrait gallery, guests will encounter several magical talking portraits created exclusively for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, including the four Hogwarts founders. (Kevin Kolczynski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. An authentic replica from the Harry Potter films, guests will pass by Hagrid's hut on their way to the Flight of the Hippogriff family-friendly roller coaster. Just before they board, Hagrid instructs guests on how to properly approach and fly on a Hippogriff. (Kevin Kolczynski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Explainer: 11 new rides for thrill seekers

  • Image: Octotron, Belmont Park
    Minh Tra  /  Courtesy Belmont Park

    Gas at $4 per gallon. Airplanes ripping open mid-flight. Donald Trump for president.

    Let’s face it, this summer is looking scary enough without this or that thrill ride raising the bar on near-death experiences. Instead, theme and amusement parks are rolling out new (and newly renovated attractions) that emphasis unique elements and psychological thrills over sheer speed and stupefying G-forces.

    “Parks have wised up,” said Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com. “They're not trying to appeal to record-setting coaster connoisseurs; they're just trying to build something fun that a lot of people will want to ride.” For those who prefer to enjoy their adrenaline rushes while staying conscious, the following rides are worth a spin.

  • Cheetah Hunt, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

    Image: Cheetah Hunt, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
    Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

    Opening on May 27, Busch Gardens’ newest coaster celebrates the world’s fastest animal with speeds of up to 60 mph, three pounce-like launches and a route that flies over a simulated Serengeti complete with hills, ravines and waterfalls. It debuts alongside Cheetah Run, a glass-paneled enclosure where the real deal will run sprints several times a day. The combination “takes the thrill away from ‘Let’s see how many times we can go upside down’ to ‘Let’s see how many different elements we can add to a ride,’” said Erik Yates, editor of BehindTheThrills.com.

  • Octotron, Belmont Park

    Image: Octotron, Belmont Park
    Minh Tra  /  Courtesy Belmont Park

    As the newest addition to San Diego’s beachfront amusement park, this ride never leaves the ground yet still manages to provide a good gut-churning experience. Like the mutant love child of a Tilt-A-Whirl and a tea-cup ride, it features individual cars that circle around a ground-hugging undulating track. However, instead of spinning in flat circles, each two-person car spins forward and backwards with riders controlling just how much head-over-heels (or heels-over-head) motion they can stand. “We must’ve spun upside down like 50 times,” said Robb Alvey, owner/creator of ThemeParkReview.com. “I’ve never felt so sick in my life.”

  • Untamed, Canobie Lake Park

    Image: Untamed, Canobie Lake Park
    Canobie Lake Park

    No one’s likely to confuse Salem, N.H., with Orlando, Fla., or Anaheim, Calif., but this amusement park just north of Boston is clearly on the hunt for thrill-seekers with Untamed, its new grizzly-themed steel coaster. As just the fourth Euro-Fighter coaster in the country, it features that design’s vertical lift hill and a beyond-vertical first drop at a dizzying 97 degrees. After that, riders are whipped through a wilderness-themed layout, although it will likely be a big green blur given ride elements that include a vertical loop, zero-G roll and a vertical U-turn maneuver known as an Immelmann. The ride is set to open in early June.

  • Texas Giant, Six Flags Over Texas

    Image: Texas Giant, Six Flags Over Texas
    Six Flags Over Texas

    How does a 21-year-old wooden coaster make the grade as a Class of 2011 screamer? By undergoing a $10 million refurbishment that combines its existing wood structure with an all-new steel track. Considered a hybrid, it combines the wild ride of wood with the speed (65 mph), steep drops (up to 79 degrees) and intense banked turns (95 degrees) of steel. “The original was really powerful, but it was also rough as hell,” said Alvey. “You needed a chiropractor on the exit ramp.” By contrast, the new version “takes everything you think you know about wood coasters and flips it upside down. It’s completely bizarre.”

  • Green Lantern: First Flight, Six Flags Magic Mountain

    Image: Green Lantern: First Flight, Six Flags Magic Mountain
    Six Flags Magic Mountain

    It shares its name with another new ride in New Jersey and a big-screen summer movie starring Ryan Reynolds, but this coaster promises to be the most exciting of the bunch. As a four-dimensional coaster, it combines a vertically oriented zigzag track with suspended eight-person trains that rock back and forth and flip 360 degrees. The result is a two-minute ride along 825 feet of track, which means it’s more about the spins than the speeds. “It’s not just taller, faster or barfier,” said Niles. “It’s a completely unique experience.” The ride is set to open in mid-June.

  • Superman: Escape from Krypton, Six Flags Magic Mountain

    Image: Superman: Escape from Krypton, Six Flags Magic Mountain
    Mathew Imaging  /  Six Flags Magic Mountain

    How do you refresh a 14-year-old coaster? If it’s Superman, which launched riders straight up an L-shaped, 415-foot-high track, it’s simple: Re-engineer the front-facing cars so riders now go up facing backwards. It’s as fast as ever — riders rocket from zero to 100 mph in seven seconds and experience 6.5 seconds of weightlessness — but now you actually see the ground as it recedes and rushes back at you. It’s especially intense when two cars are launched on the side-by-side tracks. “It’s always fun to look over and see someone else freaking out just as much as you are,” said Yates.

  • Dare Devil Dive, Six Flags over Georgia

    Image: Dare Devil Dive, Six Flags over Georgia
    Six Flags over Georgia

    The key word is “dive.” After climbing 100 feet up a vertical tower, this Euro-Fighter-style coaster pauses for a moment…and then plunges back down at a beyond-vertical pitch of 95 degrees. Hitting a top speed of 52 mph, it then twists and turns its way through three inversions and over a zero-gravity hill before depositing its dazed riders back at the station. “It’s a complete rush of confusion,” said Yates. “Am I going up? Am I going down? Am I going to die?” (Opening May 28.)

  • Gotham City Gauntlet, Six Flags New England

    Image: Gotham City Gauntlet, Six Flags New England
    Six Flags New England

    Old coasters don’t die; they just get moved and/or rethemed. That’s the story behind the Gauntlet, which previously operated as Road Runner Express from 2000 to 2009 at the now-closed Kentucky Kingdom theme park. Topping out at 49 feet, the ride lives up to its scary subtitle — Escape from Arkham Asylum — by putting riders through 17 hairpin turns in around 90 seconds. “It’s more psychological than physical,” said Alvey. “You’re thinking, ‘'Oh my god, is this car going to stay on the track?’”

  • Soarin’ Eagle and Steeplechase, Scream Zone

    Image: Soarin' Eagle, Scream Zone
    Frank Franklin II  /  AP

    The transformation of Coney Island from freak-show funhouse to family-friendly destination continues with the debut of Scream Zone, which features not one but two new coasters. Originally built for Denver’s Elitch Gardens, Soarin’ Eagle is a flying coaster in which riders ride prone and parallel to the track. (Think Superman or, well, a soaring eagle.) “It’s not going to make anyone rearrange their Top 10 coaster list,” said Alvey, “but it’s going to be a good, solid ride.”

    If Soarin’ Eagle provides a glimpse of Coney Island’s future, Steeplechase offers a nod to its past. It takes its name from Steeplechase Park, which opened on the beach in 1897, and from that park’s popular Steeplechase course in which riders raced separately controlled wooden horses around a steel track. On the new version, riders still straddle their saddles, but the trusty steeds are connected in two-across, 12-person trains. In other words, the only way to win the “race” is to be first in line.

  • WindSeeker

    Image: WindSeeker
    Courtesy Cedar Point

    Remember wave swingers, the old kiddie rides in which people sat in swings and got spun around a central pole or tower? Well these rides are like that, only on steroids. At least six parks are opening such rides this summer, with Cedar Point, Kings Island, Knott’s Berry Farm and Canada’s Wonderland all offering 301-foot versions that spin riders in two-person swings that hit speeds of 30 m.p.h. and flare out at up to 45 degrees. “Being that high up is pretty alluring to me,” said Niles. “but I can see where it’d scare the living daylights out of a lot of other people.”

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