Roller coasters, the only category where the “worst of” can reasonably be called the “best of,” are as unique as individual lovers. Do they sweep you off your feet, all suave and powerful, as befits a hulk of twisted steel? Or, like a psychotic ex-girlfriend, are they a mad roll in the hay, genetically programmed for drama-rama and mayhem? Three roller-coaster loci exist in Los Angeles. In ascending order of fear-inducing magnitude, they are: Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm and Magic Mountain. I rode. I puked. Like Pelle, I (sort of) conquered. Here are the winners.
Best Wooden Roller Coaster: Ghost Rider
There is heated debate among roller-coaster riders over which is better: wooden tracks or steel tracks. Steel people cite smoothness and power. Wood people cite superiority of noise, the “classic” clattering sound wheels make on wood struts. Back in the ’80s, Magic Mountain’s wooden behemoth Colossus was the giant to conquer. It was the tallest, the fastest and the only coaster in the world with drops of more than 10 stories. If you could ride and survive Colossus without puking, you had bragging rights across the junior high playground. Those days are gone. On a staggeringly hot day at the park, while we waited for our turn to board the Colossus trains, an attendant could be seen forlornly duct-taping something on one of the cars before the ride was taken offline entirely for the next hour.
Enter Knott’s Berry Farm’s Ghost Rider. It is the longest wooden roller coaster on the West Coast, and you will run out of scream before the ride runs out of track, leaving you an insensate, drooling mess on the seat. The psychological term for this is “learned helplessness.” The airspace over the initial drop, I’m told, was covered with a metal roof when neighborhood residents complained about the screaming. It’s a noisy, rough, exhausting, bone-jarring ride, and the deafening sound of the wheels over the tracks is the deathly rattle of a thousand angry, dancing skeletons.
Best Scariest Coaster: Xcelerator
In two seconds, this monster accelerates straight out of the gate to 82 mph via the workings of a powerful hydraulic catapult motor — and pure evil. “Like a monkey being sent into outer space,” was how one guy described the sensation. Other rides are perhaps longer, slicker and more powerful, but sheer speed and angle of ascent and descent make this the Southland’s single scariest ride. Xcelerator is themed as a car race, and a stoplight ticks down from red, yellow, to green at the starting line. But be warned: Your car takes off before the green light clicks on, a dastardly trick. Rumor has it that — due to rain, or heat, or passenger weight, or some supreme being’s sick sense of humor — the ride sometimes stalls at the top of its infamous “cling for your life to your lap bar” vertical spike, which, viewed from the road driving up to Knott’s Berry Farm, looks like a large hairpin standing on end. The entire ride, in fact, when gazed upon in the Farm’s cartoon map, looks like the Ebola virus at extreme magnification. Coincidence? I think not.
Best Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon Roller coaster: Ninja
Otherwise known as the ride that Ewoks would have built — if they weren’t fighting off stormtroopers with rocks and saving the Empire. You board a little black dangling pouch of a car and, suspended from the track above, thread your way through trees, swinging side to side, bobbing and weaving through the foliage, dodging branches and swooping over ponds. You feel like Chow Yun-Fat floating through the bamboo. It’s pleasant. It’s almost beautiful. Or, as the Ewoks say, it’s “yub yub.”
Best for Recalling the Good Old Days: Montezooma’s Revenge
Remember when just the name Montezooma’s Revenge was enough to raise your hackles? You were 8, maybe, and had to look up what it meant. And when you learned that it was a cool name for traveler’s diarrhea, and were struck by the perfectness of naming a scary ride after an unpleasant bodily function, you knew that even though you were petrified beyond belief, it was time to prove your manliness. Dysentery or no dysentery, you had to ride this ride.
Like the infamous infectious Third World disease, this roller coaster doesn’t last long. There is no fire-and-brimstone-wielding Aztec god (he’s been moonlighting on the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland), no cursed Spanish Conquistadores, just a straight shot out of the platform, a loop-de-loop, a backward spike and back.
So what if the skateboarders down at Venice Beach do more extreme tricks? This one is all about historical appeal. Such is the power of memory and brand marketing that a roller coaster named for a gastrointestinal disorder has sentimental value.