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.
Best Approximation of Stomach Poisoning: Sierra Sidewinder
Imagine it as the roller-coaster version of Disneyland’s whirling tea-cups ride. Germans designed this ride. It is their vision of what a desert sidewinder snake would do, influenced by a touch of waltzing. Targeted for older kids (and wussy adults), each of the spinning four-seater cars rotates uncontrollably, like a quartet of dizzy ladybugs, so you can’t try to game the ride and pick out a nonspinning one beforehand. Guys, they all spin. You’ll walk out with deranged visions of Camp Snoopy, which stretches out beneath. Many of the rides at both Knott’s and Magic Mountain come equipped with video cameras that capture people’s expressions. My suggestion to the ride makers: How about some cameras outside the ride to capture everybody clutching their stomachs and dropping to their knees?
Best Mild-Mannered Water Coaster: (Tie) Log Ride vs. Splash Mountain
There is a certain class of rides that is not quite waterslide, not quite roller coaster proper. Water-coasters are distinct from rides like Big Foot Rapids at Knott’s, where you and your party clamber aboard a large circular rubber innertube with seats, are carried along a rolling bagel-toaster-like conveyor belt and bounced along swirling “rapids.”
Splash Mountain is like a musical safari, on water, on LSD. There is a narrative, presumably to explain the bears, donkeys, buzzing bees, gigantic mushrooms, oversized carrots, storks, pelicans, dancing cats, dancing birds and the hootenanny of other animals that serenade you as your log floats by in the underground caverns, but who knows what it is? It is sublime, though, in a way that makes perfect sense if you are autistic.
The Log Ride, however, is old school. There you are, rolling along in a bathtub tricked out like a log, water sloshing over the side, endeavoring as directed to “keep your arms and legs inside the log at all times.” Then, suddenly, whoa! Ducks! Wolves! Disembodied eyes! Creepy loggers! Mocked by grown-ups, feared by small children, Log Ride’s charms are nonetheless considerable, akin to being stuck inside a historical diorama. Won’t you give it another chance?
Best Simulation of Quidditch, or Broomstick Riding: Tatsu
Silver Bullet at Knott’s is like Harry Potter taking a pleasant little joyride on his broomstick. Tatsu at Magic Mountain is like Harry flying on his broomstick, chasing after the golden snitch with Voldemort on his tail about to devour his soul. For those of you unfamiliar with the Potter oeuvre, translated, that means: Tatsu is worse. So much worse. You hike up Samurai Summit to the loading zone, cram into a bucket seat. A brace comes down over your chest and ankles, and the seat tilts forward until you are in a variant of the yoga position Downward Facing Dog. At that point, the ride begins. Then it’s dives, loops, zero-g rolls and pretzel loops, at more than 60 miles per hour. The Tatsu tracks pass over that of Revolution, which once was the only ride that did a full inverted loop, as if to say, “Oh, how cute. Look how far we’ve come in this world of making the human body do things it was never meant to do.”
Best Appetizer of Terror: Boomerang
As you stand in line, the cars rush past you like a horde of screaming banshees. It is a terrible sound. It’s so terrible, it’s almost funny. You pull out of the station backward, up a hill, through the station again, through a roll, an inverted loop, then a hill, then falling, falling, falling, backward. A swift kick in the pants of a ride, this one is short and sweet, just enough mayhem to ruffle your hair, it’s a good one to do first as an hors d’oeuvre of terror.
Best Moody Atmospherics: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
For mood and atmosphere, night is the ideal time to ride certain coasters. Most roller coasters attempt to put your body through the ringer — screw the theatrics. If you expect animatronic werewolves to pop out at you on Silver Bullet at Magic Mountain, you’ll be disappointed. While queuing up for one roller coaster at Magic Mountain and noting the unfinished galvanized-metal walls, the bare chainlink fence, someone remarked, sarcastically, “Well, they spared no expense in the set décor, did they?” Nomenclature at most parks is an afterthought, but Disney is different. From the stalagmites rising up inside the caverns and the rusty-red canyons to the dinosaur bones glowing eerily as you glide beneath the creature’s rib cage, Walt’s designers understood that you could sculpt and paint with light. None of his rides are the fastest or scariest, but they are without question the most gorgeous.
Best Unintentionally Scary Roller coaster: Matterhorn
The abominable snowman with the glowing red eyes who growls as your bobsled shoots by? Not scary. The rumbling mountain itself, which threatens to rain avalanches of snow down on you? Not scary. The sensation that your ridiculous carnival-style seat belt might come unbuckled as you hurtle down the track? Pretty damn scary. In 1984, 48-year-old Dolly Regene Young was killed when she unbuckled her seat belt during the ride and was thrown from her sled onto an oncoming train. Then, more recently, while disembarking, two teenage girls clutched each other in mock horror. “Oh, my god, my seat belt totally came off,” squealed one. “It was so scary!” Statistics wonks who like to quote figures on plane crashes and shark attacks will frown on anectodal evidence, but once, when I was a kid, my seat belt, too, came unbuckled. If not for the Matterhorn’s feeling of barely controlled chaos, you’ve probably ridden more thrilling parking-lot trams.
Best Substitute for Actually Dying, then Coming Back to Life: X2
Each seat on Magic Mountain’s X2 is equipped with speakers (à la Space Mountain), and as the ride pulls out of the station, Frank Sinatra croons in your ear, “It had to be you.” Then, Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” comes on, overlapped with yelling from the ruthless drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. “Just remember your training, and you’ll survive,” joked my friend Mark, who’s been in the military, as we got onboard.
“What training?” I said, which sounded more like, “What traaaaiiinnneeaaaaghhhohhmysweetjesusgodpleasemakeitstop.”
Each seat spins 360 degrees on its own axis, backward and forward, subject to the whims of gravity. As befits a coaster designed to break all the rules, you leave the station facing backward, fall into a near-vertical drop at 76 mph (just slightly faster than cheetahs can run — they’d do just fine on this ride), then flip about like a piece of flotsam caught in a jet stream. Last year, X was remade into X2. They added sound, fog and, as if that weren’t enough, great balls of fire, which blast as you bottom into a valley, threatening to singe your eyebrows.
Discussion ensued among those of us exiting the ride, guts queasy, equilibrium irrevocably shot, voices hoarse from screaming. “If they’re gonna do fire, they should really do fire. They should set you on fire, then plunge you in water. Or go so fast the wind puts you out.”
“Or send you through razorblades and douse you in alcohol.”
“Or they should just kill you, then bring you back to life.”
“Okay, but where are they gonna put the defibrillators? Or, I know, just run a jolt of electricity through the tracks.”
Or, as a young kid said, staggering off the platform, “That was the ballin’-est-ass fucking shit.”
Best All-Around Roller Coaster: Space Mountain
Besmirched by just enough lore of real-life death, mainly due to stupid people ignoring posted safety warnings, or having surprise seizures and exploding brain aneurysms, Disney’s squeaky-clean Space Mountain has it all. The frisson of possible, though improbable, bodily danger. A sleek, genuinely thrilling ride, fast and twisty enough to wake the butterflies in your stomach but not so frightening that you pass out. And top-notch atmospherics while you cool your heels in line — thrumming and beeping background sounds, spaceship engine parts hanging over the “spaceport” loading dock, icy blue-violet running lights in the walls and ceilings to intimate 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek and Star Wars rolled into one, the future as we used to see it.
A new track was installed in 2003 when the old one became unstable. It’s now as smooth as frozen butter. You hurtle through pitch blackness mottled by a galaxy of shooting stars, asteroids, comets and satellites. Gusts of cold wind make it seem like you’re going faster than you really are. The one drawback? As with the future, the end of the ride comes sooner than you’d like.
Ghost Rider, Xcelerator, Montezooma’s Revenge, the Log Ride and Boomerang: Knott’s Berry Farm, 8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park.
Tatsu and X2: Six Flags Magic Mountain, 26101 Magic Mountain Pkwy., Valencia.
Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Space Mountain: Disneyland, 1313 Disneyland Dr., Anaheim.