June 7, 2006

Speed is Not King for all Roller Coaster Fans

By Belinda Goldsmith

LAKE GEORGE, New York -- The front seat of a U.S. roller coaster is not everyone's dream wedding venue, but Don Tuttle and Carol Deeble married in one five years ago and returned to renew their vows this year.

As youngsters in the 1950s in Buffalo, New York, Tuttle and Deeble loved riding The Comet, a classic wooden roller coaster. So when they bumped into each other at a school reunion 40 years later and rekindled a teen-age romance, the two coaster enthusiasts had no doubt where to get married.

"The Comet is very special to both of us. We just love roller coasters, which are a shared passion and have certainly helped our relationship," said Tuttle, 71, a retired aircraft engineer from Manchester, Connecticut.

Tuttle and Deeble, 70, are among thousands of American coaster fans who travel around the world to be catapulted through corkscrews and loops, backwards and upside down, for the thrill of the ride.

Since meeting up again in 1994, the couple has ridden 745 roller coasters in 15 countries -- heading to Japan last year and to South Africa this year to add to their conquests.

But their sentimental favorite remains The Comet, which operated at Crystal Beach, Ontario, from 1948 but was rebuilt and reopened in 1994 at the Six Flags Great Escape theme park at Lake George, New York, 220 miles north of Manhattan.

At 95 feet tall with a top speed of 60 mph (97 kph), The Comet is tame compared to many of the world's 1,926 other coasters. The rides are found nearly everywhere -- with 716 in North America, 586 in Europe, 509 in Asia, 23 in Africa, 21 in Australia and 72 in South America, according to RollerCoaster DataBase (www.rcdb.com), set up by a group of enthusiasts.


But fans of classic wooden coasters continue to flock to the United States which boasts about 125 of the 172 operating wooden roller coasters and some of the world's oldest.

Eric Gilbert, director of operations at The Great Escape park, said wooden coasters -- with their padded cars, click-clack cacophony and lap belts rather than shoulder restraints -- appeal to many enthusiasts because they offer a different, often rougher ride than modern steel coasters.

Rider Pete Harris from Lake Placid, New York, agreed, praising the "air time" of wooden coasters, when riders rise from their seats for a few free-floating seconds.

"It is a far more aggressive ride than a steel coaster," he said as he headed back onto The Comet for a sixth time.

The origin of the roller coaster can be traced back to Russian ice slides in the 1600s, when people sped on blocks of ice or wood down ice-covered lumber slides.

Many believe the first U.S. roller coaster was a gravity switchback train at Coney Island, New York, in 1884 -- the beginning of a national obsession.

After boom years in the 1920s, the number of U.S. coasters dropped off until technology changed and the industry revived in the 1970s with a rush of steel roller coasters.


Rides got bigger and faster. The world's biggest coaster, Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey, stands 456 feet tall and can reach speeds of 128 mph (206 kph).

"We're seeing a renaissance again with new roller coasters going up every year," said Steve Gzesh, a spokesman for the American Coaster Enthusiasts, one of about 10 U.S. fan groups with over 8,000 members.

"It's a sensation you just can't get anywhere else -- the speed, acrobatics, the wind in your face, and the exhilaration," said Gzesh, who has ridden 566 coasters.

Enthusiasts and industry groups are adamant riding coasters is a safe form of fun despite rides becoming more extreme.

Figures from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission show there are an average of 4.4 fatalities each year on amusement park rides, some due to existing medical conditions.

The Brain Injury Association of America said in a 2003 report that coasters were risky to pregnant women, people with heart conditions, back injuries, and so on, and these people were warned not to ride.

But it concluded: "The risk of brain injury from a roller coaster is not in the rides but in the riders."

With continuing interest in coasters, this year about 22 new rides are being built in the United States, 20 in Europe and 15 in Asia -- some made of wood to cater for families and people who like less extreme rides.

"People like me love the feeling of freedom a roller coaster gives, but may have a bit of a weak stomach so wooden coasters are ideal," said Six Flags spokeswoman Debbie Evans.

"I'm not a thrill seeker but riding on a roller coaster is pure escapism. You can't think of anything else in your life when you're on a roller coaster."