Top of the rollercoaster.
David Wilcox, a folk musician/singer-songwriter from Cleveland, Ohio, released a song in 1991 called Top of the Rollercoaster, a song about riding a rollercoaster on a 30th birthday as a metaphor for life. “It’s the moment of truth, the top of your youth…when you tip the top of the rollercoaster, look down the other side.” (To hear the song, click here.) Lucky for me, it came out several years before I turned 30, so I could listen to it on my 30th birthday and feel like it was written for me. However, unlike the song, which proclaims “it’s all downhill from here,” I didn’t look at turning 30 as the “top of my youth;” I looked at it as a new beginning. And honestly, my life got better after 30. But that’s not really what I want to discuss. I want to talk about rollercoasters, because at the age of 53, I still love them.
Don’t most of us remember our first rollercoaster ride? I don’t mean those little rollercoasters like Thunder Mountain at Disney. I don’t even mean rollercoasters like The Rock-n-Roller Coaster at Hollywood Studios or Space Mountain at Disney. If those are the most exciting rollercoasters you’ve ridden, I hate to break it to you…they don’t even count. They’re not thrilling. Sure, they’re a little fun, but definitely aren’t thrilling. When I get off those rides, I don’t have the same “high” as I have when I step off the Intimidator or the Fury 325 at Carowinds…or even Goliath at Six Flags Over Georgia. So when I say we likely remember our first rollercoaster ride, I mean a ride on a real rollercoaster…a thrill ride.
The year was 1976. It was the year of America’s Bicentennial, and I had turned nine years old in May…just as school was getting out for summer. I had been to Six Flags Over Georgia countless times with my family, and since 1973, I had been watching people disembark from the Great American Scream Machine, which at the time was the longest (3800 ft), tallest (105 ft), fastest (57 mph) rollercoaster in the world. It was a giant wooden coaster, and for a long time, I was terrified of it. But that summer…the Bicentennial summer…I decided I could ride it. I was standing with my family, watching riders disembark when Daddy asked me if I wanted to try it. I answered, “Yes,” and we got in line. The line for the Scream Machine was always long in those days, and there were no fast passes, so we waited…and I’m sure I changed my mind a dozen times before we ever boarded the coaster, but when it was our turn, I followed Daddy right into that coaster seat.
If you’ve ever ridden a wooden coaster, you know it’s not as smooth as a steel coaster. The first hill seems “rickety,” with the noise of the chain pulling the train up, and the “clickety-clack” of the tracks as you wait to reach the top. I was terrified, but I was excited at the same time. Back then, though, safety mechanisms weren’t what they are now. In my memory, there was nothing tight around my waist to hold me firmly in my seat. I recall a loose chain across my lap and a metal bar that bounced with every bump. Just as we reached the peak of the first hill, the train lurched forward as it started its descent. I weighed less than 50 pounds, and I felt like I was going to fall out of the car. I yelled to Daddy, “Push the bar down!” But he just laughed as we continued the bumpy ride. Once I knew I had survived the first big hill, I knew I could survive the rest, but it was scary…and exhilarating.
The ride ended back at the station after an exhilarating two minutes and twenty seconds. I had survived. I had ridden my first major rollercoaster and lived to tell about it. I feel sure I was giggling as we got off the ride, and I probably talked about it on the walk back up to the top of the hill near the entrance, where my mother was waiting. And then, like any coaster enthusiast, I said, “Let’s do it again!” I’ve never looked back. What an adrenaline rush! And every time I ride a rollercoaster, I remember that day in the summer of ’76.
Fortunately, my own daughter is a rollercoaster enthusiast. When she was a little girl, she would cry, because she wasn’t tall enough to ride the coasters at our local amusement park, Carowinds, which was owned by Paramount at the time, and then purchased by Cedar Fair Parks. As soon as she was tall enough, we rode them all the time…for years. When the old log flume ride was removed from the park in 2010 to make way for the Intimidator, a rollercoaster with a height of 232 feet that goes 80 mph, we had to work up the nerve to ride it, but once we did, we never looked back. And then, five years later, the Fury 325 debuted. Reaching a maximum speed of 95 mph and with a height of 325 feet, it looked daunting. But the first time we rode it, we rode in the second seat. The next time? Front car with my friend, Angela, and her daughter, Hannah…and it was a big adrenaline rush! My daughter was 11, and Hannah was 13…and we loved the ride! In fact, every time I’ve ever ridden it, it has been a big adrenaline rush. I feel pretty sure that if I can ride that coaster, I can ride just about any coaster anywhere.
About 34 years after that Bicentennial summer and my first major coaster ride, I took my daughter to Six Flags Over Georgia. She was six. She wanted to ride the Great American Scream Machine as soon as she saw it. So while my friend, Wendy, and her daughter watched, we boarded the same rollercoaster that was my first major rollercoaster, and it became my daughter’s first major rollercoaster too. The ride was even more bumpy that I remembered, but she loved it. She was laughing when we got off the coaster and wanted to get back in line immediately…like mother, like daughter. Maybe one day, my daughter will have a daughter whose first coaster will be the Great American Scream Machine. A weird family tradition, for sure.
Going back to David Wilcox’s song, maybe when he said “it’s all downhill from here,” he didn’t mean it was all going to be bad. Maybe he meant it was all going to be fun…a rush…exhilarating. Now that I think about it, I prefer that version. Because honestly, I’ve done my best living after 30. Well…there were those four college years in the 80s, between the ages of 18 and 22…those were pretty awesome too. But there’s something special about being over 30. And if you haven’t turned 50 yet…just wait…it’s great too.
Are rollercoaster rides good metaphors for life? I don’t know. But I do know rollercoasters are fun, and they make me feel young! I’ll be glad when Carowinds is open again! Till then, maybe we’ll even make a trip down to the Atlanta area to visit Six Flags Over Georgia and ride the Great American Scream Machine again…they’re open on a “reservations only” basis! They’re even offering BACKWARD rides on the Scream Machine for a limited time!
We love rollercoasters!
If you’d like to virtually experience the Great American Scream Machine, click here.