You’re climbing slowly up the roller coaster’s first hill. Tiny cars gleam a few hundred feet below and trees look like broccoli florets. The rickety chain clanks as it thrusts you forward, and there’s nowhere to go but down. As your car teeters at the pinnacle, one thought flashes before you: “I paid to do this?”
Crazy as it seems, we are predisposed to pay up for such heart-pounding thrills. A few thundering turns on a roller coaster set off a chemical reaction — the release of adrenaline and dopamine — that makes us feel giddy and intensely alive. As roller coasters continue to push the extremes of acceleration, speed and corkscrew-like inversions, what does it take to be among the world’s scariest?
The answer turns out to be highly personal; there’s little consensus among even the most discerning riders about the recipe for a good scare. “Some like smooth rides full of floating zero Gs while others want to be thrown around and brutalized so they can live to brag about it,” says Scott Rutherford, a senior writer and editor for Amusement Today who has experienced more than 500 coasters on four continents.
Even so, record-breakers can be counted on to deliver some of the biggest adrenaline rushes. At 45 stories, Kingda Ka is the world’s tallest roller coaster, one of only two Stratacoasters that plummet more than 400 feet. (Call the other, Cedar Point’s Top Thrill Dragster, the scariest and you could be in for a heated debate.)
A memorably scary coaster gets inside your head, employing suspense, the element of surprise and the illusion of fragility. It’s not only a matter of mind-boggling statistics like accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in — count them — two seconds. Older, wooden coasters bring their own set of thrills, since they actually move.
When a train whips around a turn, the coaster sways with it.
The most infamous, The Cyclone, still draws thrill-seekers to Coney Island, N.Y., where the first roller coaster debuted in 1884. Today, 2,472 are operating around the world, and there’s one for whatever scares you the most, be it speeds of 150 mph or a series of 10 stomach-churning inversions. As Rutherford says, “You have no choice but to let go, to surrender to the ride.”
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