austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

In the Ferris wheel on top

Like many teenagers in the central New Jersey area I worked one summer for Six Flags Great Adventure. It wasn't objectively bad, as summer jobs go, although I was repeatedly ripped away from my assigned station to fry funnel cake in the hottest, least ventilated room outside 19th century Calcutta, except for when I was shoved into cashier-and-order-prep duty in a stand where I had no idea what the menu was and no one who would listen to my protestations that I should have any idea what could or could not be bought there before tending customers. So in a fit of pique afterwards I began, like many teenagers in the central New Jersey area, a boycott of Great Adventure.

As boycotts go this wasn't a strictly challenging one: following summers I was working nearly every spare moment on a rotating-shifts job in a chemical plant so I would barely have the time to go anyway. And then after that I was attending graduate school outside Albany, and after that working in Singapore, so I was ``boycotting'' Great Adventure with roughly the same energy that I boycott the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team, assuming they still exist.

Nevertheless bunny_hugger was shocked that I might live so near such a major amusement park, with so many roller coasters and a particularly antique carousel, and she very much wanted to visit, particularly since they have the world's tallest roller coaster and this could be her first chance to ride a world record-holding roller coaster. (She's ridden many which were record-holders at one point, but not until they'd been superseded in whatever their record was.) We might have gone originally, in 2008, but took in Seaside Heights instead; and we somehow didn't get organized for it last year, but this year ... this would be the year we certainly made it. We set for Monday as the target date, with Tuesday and Wednesday as backups in case of rain. It didn't rain.

The whole day would be a curious mix of our taking in the park as it was and my vague, semi-competent reminiscences of how the park used to be. Like any living amusement park Great Adventure's always in the process of changing itself, something that when I was very young I only dimly understood. I recall having a several-years-old map of the park, when I was around ten or so, and not quite understanding why it was subtly different from what was really there. Oh, I understood why the Haunted House was gone, but otherwise ...

Well, twenty years is a lot of time, particularly since Great Adventure went on a roller coaster binge in the 90s, alongside its efforts at building little licensed character theme-lands. And yet there was much of the park that was old and still there. For example, there was its parking lot, which has not been resurfaced since 1978. Well, the special reserved parking lot for people who buy premium parking was resurfaced, but the normal overpriced parking lot had that ``lunar rover driving'' experience yet.

The main entrance to the park was built in the late 70s, superseding the original entrance, and as befits its date it's built in a Vaguely Bicentennial Colonial-ish trim. One thing I didn't know or had forgotten --- probably forgotten, since I haven't paid for admission since the Iran-Contra Scandal was still a going concern --- was that paid admission is the most painfully slow thing at the park. Without hyperbole, we were in line about twenty minutes without visible progress towards the admission gate. We couldn't figure what was making this so slow. Yes, the park flurries the surrounding area with two-for-one or $15-off coupons, and you could buy tickets for the park, the water park, or the drive-through safari or combinations thereof, but, really. How complicated can any of this be? And yet somehow everyone in every lane was dealing with the most complicated financial transaction since the Credit Mobilier was established.

When the day was over we noticed I was more tanned on the left arm and leg than the right. (I don't tan much.) The least implausible reason I can give for this is that we spent a half-hour with the same side of our bodies facing the sun more directly waiting to get in.

About two minutes before I was going to pop into the admissions booths and start showing them how to efficiently manage cash-flow procedures and maybe sell a family of four admissions tickets in under five minutes of work --- and by the way, Great Adventure is not helping matters by making standard admission some freakish unit like $57.83 or whatever it is; round it off to a whole dollar and stop wasting your lives with loose change --- we got to the booth, though, and got tickets, and got into the park proper with no loss of life or sanity.

The first attraction we sought was the funnel cake stand which had got me so pettily angry. It was gone, lost to the ages. I have some theories about the stands which exist there now and one of which might have been the place, but it didn't look familiar and I suspect it may be unrecognizably changed. After stopping at the gift shop (for anti-nausea medicine) and the Sylvester and Tweety mascots for pictures and sympathy (it was about 900 degrees out, worse in costume) we looked around for the waffle cone stand where I had been nominally assigned and actually worked some of the time; I'm fairly sure I identified the stand, but it was tucked behind a walled-off area, reserved now for either private functions or possibly on the bring of being renovated out of existence altogether. Well, at least they weren't parking on my memories.

As for our first ride ... well, as a child my favorite ride to the point of obsession was the Super Round Up, in which you stand in little padded Borg alcove-like cells and spin around, until for the climax of the ride the plate elevates and you whip up and down. I'm less obsessed with centrifugal forces now, and while might have been able to press for this ride if I really wanted, I didn't particularly want. I'm pretty sure they've moved it from where it belongs, anyway.

What we did go on first was Skull Mountain, an enclosed (and dark) roller coaster which I believe displaced the Rotor --- the fast-spinning cylindrical room with the floor that drops out --- and which was new to me, dating back as it does only fourteen years. The decor has a vague stone-mountain-explorer theme, but the ride itself is only occasionally lit by strobe and as a result it's not just a fun little ride but a surprising one. According to the Roller Coaster Database the ride lasts 84 seconds; it feels brisker than that.

We poked around the tiny rides at Wiggles World and some miscellaneous Looney Tunes-themed rides, which I believe took out a number of old rides I liked, including a scrambler. But it brought us to the Nitro roller coaster and our first experience with the coin-operated lockers. Six Flags parks have a reputation, I'm told, as expensive parks, but that's simply because they cost all the money you have ever made or ever will make, combined, to attend. Here was one example: for an hour's rental of the locker space we pay a dollar, which they want in coin form. Fortunately, they give change from vending machines which will turn a dollar or five-dollar bill into coins after rejecting the offered bill only about four times. To my delight, they give back dollar coins, so I was looking at the chance to restore my Presidential Dollar Coins collection, which has been moribund since the Post Office took out the stamp machine in favor of that automated teller which only takes credit and debit cards.

We put our potentially breakable objects in the locker and went to Nitro, a 230-foot-tall (at peak) steel roller coaster which according to Wikipedia offers a glimpse of Philadelphia on clear nights. (!) I thought I saw another roller coaster, possibly, under construction, but I couldn't find it when back on the ground again. It's also a repeat Amusement Today Golden Ticket-winner, so it's not just my impression that I had fun riding it, which I did. I also lost something. I've lately been in the habit of picking up small candies to snack on, and that morning, I'd set a couple of them in my shirt pocket. On one of the curves, I saw one of the peppermint candies I'd forgotten about flying up and out of my pocket. Whoops. I hope it didn't hit anybody on the way down.

While I was pleased with myself for sneaking food into the park, however unintentionally, I figured it was probably better to eat the remainder before we had a repetition. I gave bunny_hugger one --- she hoped that didn't imply anything about her breath; it didn't --- and found I didn't have any left after that. Also we discovered we'd left our cameras and whatnot in the locker for the Congo Rapids water ride, not the Nitro roller coaster, although this probably didn't matter. What did matter is while we scanned the receipt for our space, as other people did to open their lockers, ours wouldn't open. The answer to this mystery: you have to scan from the ... scanner ... where you got the receipt, not from any one in the locker array, even if the one we were using was closer to our locker.

This may give the impression that we stumbled semi-eptly through the park occasionally setting foot on a roller coaster. There was much more to it. There was also me running across something which brought back memory like being hit with a runaway mine train, such as the Western-themed areas and the Runaway Mine Train roller coaster. That one --- as best as I can tell the only roller coaster which was there from opening day --- loops around and about one end of the cable cars, and dives near the water, and overall gives a thoroughly satisfying ride for a roller coaster that's been in operation since 1974. It also held an historical marker-type plaque --- several of the older rides and attractions have them --- which managed to confuse us because it suggested that Six Flags was involved in the design of the ride, when Six Flags didn't take over Great Adventure until 1978. Possibly they were consultants.

Also according to the plaques the cable car ride had originally been used at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair, which I think now my father had asserted to me without the fact lodging too strongly in my brain. Now the information will have a much stronger place from which to escape my recollection.

One of the other ancient rides and a roller coaster I just don't remember whether I ever rode it back in the day --- unlike the Runaway Mine Train which I know I'd ridden repeatedly --- was Rolling Thunder. This opened in 1979, and is a classic-style wooden coaster so that it looks like a roller coaster. It's also a dual or ``racing'' coaster, although much like the racing Gemini coaster of Cedar Point when we visited last year, they weren't running both tracks so the ``racing'' aspect was lost.

This was a real shame because the longest line we were on all day, other than for admission, was at Rolling Thunder. One might think that 31 years after the exciting new ride has opened the queues would have diminished. I used that approach when facing Freefall and Lightnin' Loops, waiting for years after those rides (since removed) had opened before going on, thereby saving hours of waiting for the rides. What seems to have happened with Rolling Thunder this day was the ride operators forgot about this whole ``put people into trains'' and ``send trains onto track'' procedure. For a while there was just the one car running --- of potentially two at a time per track, and two sets of tracks --- and as we got onto the platform they stopped things altogether a while. That was for good cause, though, as they were putting another train of cars onto the tracks, and we were able to watch the fascinating procedure of sliding the tracks over to wheel the train out from the maintenance shed.

Rolling Thunder, dating as it does to the early Neolithic period, has some dated elements to it including cars with a now-obsolete Great Adventure logo on front (in paintings of the roller coaster on the nose of the front coaster) and ``buzz bars'', those safety bars that snap into just one position thank you and if you're fat you should hold your breath and if you're thin you may just be launched into the air a little bit. Modern roller coasters can ratchet into one of a couple positions for a better fit to the individual rider. Also it uses a slightly old-fashioned braking mechanism in which as the train approaches the station the attendants leap onto cars and try to wrestle it to a stop. I know there was a time this was the most terrifying thing in the world to me --- and I'm reassured to find that according to Wikipedia and the Roller Coaster Database there was a Little Dipper-model coaster named Li'l Thunder that used to be next to it, for seven-year-olds not up to the real thing. But the rises and falls made fine, traditional-style roller coastering, and the lone regret was looking at the other track, off to the side, and to think how cool it would be if the other were running, particularly since the tracks don't exactly mirror each other.

The other wooden coaster at Great Adventure is near this, the El Toro, a former record-holder for steepest drop on a wooden roller coaster. It's also among the fastest and tallest wooden roller coasters in the world. The line for this was around twelve nanoseconds, which compared to the three-week wait for Rolling Thunder raised questions about whether it might be Opposite Day at the park.

El Toro rapidly (it's a 95-second ride) won its place as a great roller coaster. It's not just a satisfying length with a great main drop and series of hills in the out-and-back style, but it is almost impossibly smooth. Yes, the shakiness of the ride is part of what makes wooden roller coasters so different from steel ones, but this had an almost unnerving smoothness. Combined with the speed of the launch system, which foregoes the traditional chain for a small array of three F-1 rocket engines left over from the Apollo program, and the magnetic braking system and we were left not just awed by the ride's course but also just how did they make it this smooth? After riding we actually waited for the next train, so that we could try to see how the wheels gripped the track and sort out something of what makes it work.

I'd started speculating that it might be something like a hoax, that the real innards were a steel-track coaster with wood decor. bunny_hugger knew part of the secret was prefabricated construction of the wooden structure, allowing for more exact and cheaper fitting of track and support structure together. From what I understand reading about it, it really is almost that simple --- prefabrication, precise measurements, and careful assembly combine to make the ride really smooth and uniformly fast. It's still amazing.

One of the last roller coasters we rode was Batman The Ride, and come to think of it possibly that's the one I thought I saw from the top of Nitro. The approach to this one tries to build it up as starting from a Gotham City park with a nice front and dangerous back; I kept thinking this looked like it was about where some of the rides I'd get on, when I worked at the park and could ride free before work. (I had the closing shift so there was no after work worth speaking about.)

The Bizarro roller coaster brought up our ongoing discussion about identity --- roller coasters seem to lend themselves oddly well to asking questions about how much and what kind of change turns something from itself into something else, or how much a thing can change without being a new thing. Possibly this just reflects bunny_hugger's particular interests as a philosopher, but I do think they make great object lessons. Bizarro used to be a roller coaster named Medusa, and it was renovated mostly by changing the props around the ride rather than making any appreciable changes in the ride's path or operations. It also lends itself to similar topics because Bizarro, at least in some of his backstories, forms interesting bits of identity questions besides his sad existence (and does he know it's sad) and impossibly tangled grammar (when you try figuring out whether he's naturally sad). This isn't to take away from the ride, which is fun even if it consists mostly of inversion after inversion (it does). It also has neat ride events, including a burst of flame that pops up. It's not timed quite right, at least from our seats, to make you think you're diving into flame; but you do feel the heat, and we were surprised to find we felt the heat more than anything else about that event.

It's easy to get the impression from this that all we did was ride every roller coaster and do nothing else. That's not at all true, most prominently because one of the other attractions was another opening-day ride: what I knew in the day as Ye Olde Carousel, and what's today billed as either The Carousel or the Patrina Williams Carousel. This is a real antique, originally built in 1881 for the Patrina Williams Travelling Circus touring Britain and Europe. I'm not sure how it got to Great Adventure, or just why, other than that original creator Warner LeRoy seems to have wanted some Classic touches to go along with the whimsical-fantasyland motif that the earliest construction offered. (I would not be surprised if rapidtrabbit has more information.)

I remembered the carousel as enormous. Perhaps that reflects how I used to be smaller; perhaps it looms large in memory because it was one of the few rides everyone in my family, including my mother who gets motion-sickness very easily including, without hyperbole, from certain WiiFit exercises, got on; perhaps it felt large because the arrangement of the park in the 70s and early 80s built up to it as one of the centerpieces; perhaps I inadvertently transferred the size of the surrounding shell --- designed, as with all the original buildings outside the Western area, in a ``gingerbread house with soft-serve pillars'' motif --- and housing to the platform.

The reality was almost disappointingly small --- it had been for a travelling circus, and that in the days before circuses could move by motorized truck --- with a shabby, badly worn wooden platform. But it was also surprising in pleasant ways, not just from the real sense that this ride had existed, and been ridden on, since around the time James Garfield was President and Gladstone was Prime Minister Again, but not quite Prime Minister Yet Again. And as a British-made carousel it goes clockwise (viewed from above), that is, the rides pass on the left relative the opposite side of the platform. And only two columns of the rides are horses: the center is roosters. Two-seater roosters, at that. We rode a rooster together.

We also found food. I tend to think of amusement park food as the classical sorts of foods: fried meats on sticks, largely; also fried dough with sugar; maybe a hamburger for actual bulk. And they still have this, again in those gingerbread-and-soft-serve style buildings as well as in modern construction. But they've expanded the array of foods, not just to include chicken or sandwiches but even sushi. We were able to eat a quite satisfying and even vegetarian meal in an air-conditioned combination Japanese restaurant/Johnny Rocket's with an enormously loud video menu system that kept blasting advertisements whenever people might get partway through reading a menu option.

One of the other side attractions and crashing trains of memory was the Log Flume, according to Wikipedia the longest log ride in the world when it opened. This was another ride my family went on a lot, and while I'd forgotten its best feature --- that it drops in several steps rather than in one long drop, allowing for the leisurely tour of the elevated park to have a point besides prolonging the ride --- although not that it gave us glimpses of the seating areas where in years past there would be waterski exhibitions (since closed) or dolphin shows (which I think we missed). bunny_hugger seemed to find this one of the most fun log flumes she'd ever been on.

Outside the log flume we discovered that one of the Western themed buildings was closed; I couldn't think of what it might have been back when it was something. Possibly it was a restaurant; it seemed like the sort of spot that would be good for one. Also outside this ride we found the concert area which was again not in use, and an access road which trailed off into the distance and along which was waddling a small flock of geese. There were three geese that seemed to be responsible adults, and a bunch of goslings ambling along. We found what looked like the comfortable zone where we could take close-up photographs but not be so close as to be attacked by enraged geese. One of the keys to life is always stay far enough to not be attacked by enraged geese.

We did not go on every roller coaster, although they made the prime attraction of the day. Besides the kids' ride Road Runner Railway, we took a pass on Blackbeard's Lost Treasure Train, which took up the space I believe used to house the 180-degree movie ``ride''. That is, it was a shell, and you stood inside, and watched an encompassing projection of various thrill rides, so you could get all the motion sickness of being on a roller coaster without having to build up your courage for the ride. You just stood as close to the railing as you could and tried to touch the screen. The Lost Treasure Train looked decent enough, a compact steel ride, with a train consisting of approximately 400 cars and running two-thirds the length of the ride. bunny_hugger speculated that the whipping effect the back seats feel as the front goes down the hill must be something. I think we figured we could get back to that one later, and just never did.

We also missed the flying coaster Superman, although bunny_hugger later determined the ride wasn't operating anyway that day. Good to have something to get back to, really.

One we wisely did not miss was the Great American Scream Machine, source of considerable mild merriment in online forums where everything is reduced to an acronym. It originally opened in 1989 to my then-untutored eye back then looked like it was kind of improvised; its ride space bit awkwardly into the parking lot, as if Great Adventure was rushed to put it in. bunny_hugger tutored me into how it was: it opened just a few months before Cedar Point's Magnum XL-200, taking for a short while the title of World's Fastest Roller Coaster. I understand from her that the Great American Scream Machine was dated to the late 80s in ways that leapt out at anyone who knew the evolution of roller coasters in past decades. This wouldn't just be from the typefaces used on and around it, but also from the heavy looping and corkscrewing that really scream 1988 and Devlin-esque cars of red-white-blue colors with a stripe of stars midsection.

I'd never ridden it --- in 1989 it had that new-ride queue to speak against it, and in 1990 I was working the far opposite end of the park so didn't get out that way --- so this was my chance to see just how I'd scream. I don't scream, on roller coasters, really; I get giggly instead. After having been on faster and taller rides, this wasn't a terrifying ride despite the amount of spinning around involved in it.

It would, however, be my last ride: Great Adventure closed the ride on the 18th of July, immediately beginning its disassembly to make room for something scheduled to open next year. I'm glad I did get the chance at it, and now bunny_hugger and I have our first closed coaster.

But the one roller coaster we knew we could not under any circumstances miss was Kingda Ka. This in fact motivated the trip and why we couldn't let it wait until next year: while Kingda ka is currently the fastest roller coaster on record, there is a ride in Abu Dhabi scheduled to open later this year which will beat that speed considerably, and another scheduled in Germany next year which won't beat the one in Abu Dhabi but will still beat this one. bunny_hugger has ridden many former record-holders, but she wanted one that was the current record-holder under her belt. As it happens, if I read the Roller Coaster Database correctly, we had some margin yet, though: Kingda Ka's not obviously threatened for its titles as Tallest or for Longest Drop.

This is a big one. It's listed at 456 feet tall, and it's visible from the road as far away as Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania. This had the third-longest line of the day, after the entrance and Rolling Thunder, and by this point we were getting pretty good at the coin-operated lockers so we would, afterwards, just fumble for a few minutes with the belief our receipt was no longer accepted and our wallets and cameras were forfeit. (We'd probably have figured out something.) I was also resolving to put a $5 in before leaving the park so I could build up my Presidential Coin stock. (I forgot to.)

Still, after much winding and overhearing many people talk about how they feared this ride, we got to the approach and final line segment before the station --- literally the first people in front of this dividing line where the final line formed --- when an attendant walked out to crush our spirits. ``I've got some bad news,'' he said, and told us of how there was a technical problem with the ride and it was going to be closed the rest of the day. bunny_hugger shrank about two feet, and I began to think of how to rearrange our schedule for Tuesday or Wednesday to get back to the park so that no matter what we would get on this ride. Then the attendant grinned, saying he was just messing with us, the ride was fine, and he motioned us forward.

He cannot know how fortune he was bunny_hugger's joy was intense enough that his prank did not get him savagely mauled by a bunny.

Kingda Ka is a rather short ride --- 28 seconds --- and it's based entirely on speed --- getting to 128 miles per hour in under four seconds --- and then rising. As a result, if you are slightly prone to the fear that something --- say, your wallet --- will fall out of your pocket, the wait and the watching of those ahead of you will only magnify this fear. I resolved that I was going to buy cargo pants, the kind where you can snap or velcro or preferably both a pocket closed and reduce the chance of an unfortunate mishap, and as we were strapped into the ride I was fiddling with my pocket, trying to fold it over and around and underneath my elastic waistband so that the wallet could not fall out, and then, oh, they were clearing everyone and the ride was starting and look out ...

The acceleration was incredible.

In my seat it felt not much different from airplane takeoff, but in my face, it was wild, free, with the full blast of rushing wind coming at me, right up until before I knew it I was forty storeys in the air, looking over Jackson, feeling myself floating in an unending timeless gap and was my shirt flying up? Were my shorts? And I held my right hand on my wallet to make sure it didn't shake loose in the long fast plunge back to the ground.

Later I would deduce that it was on this day that I lost my pen. I can't be certain where or when, but Kingda Ka seems to be the best candidate. I really hope it didn't hit anybody.

As said, I get giggly on roller coasters, as the expression of my fear and excitement and enthusiasm and keeping me away from panic. This wasn't an exception. I was borderline hysterical at all this. And triumphant. And now bunny_hugger had her triple-record-holder ride, and I did too, and she credited me with courage --- a subject I think might be worth a thoughtful separate essay later --- and pointed out that now, we can feel confident riding anything else in the world. Every other roller coaster: it's smaller than this. It's got less of a drop than this. It's not as fast as this. The scariest elements are within our comfort range. They'll have to scare us with ingenuity instead.

Our riding day would end sadly early --- inexplicably this mid-June day saw the park closing at 8 pm when I'd expected midnight; they didn't even have a decent array of lights on --- although we were able to get the finale ride for The Dark Knight, a wild mouse ride enclosed in a building so that it's mostly a dark ride. It's themed to look vaguely like a ride through the broken-down horrific Gotham City metro station, although for my tastes it occupied a weird spot between having too many things flashing light to be effective as a dark ride and not enough light to see and properly appreciate the settings. bunny_hugger had been on the ride's twin at another park where the inexplicably long line made the ride anticlimactic; while not as fun as Skull Mountain, though, with the walk-right-on aspect to it this made a pleasant closing ride for the night.

Despite the park's nominal closing, we sheltered ourselves in the main gift shop a while, with bunny_hugger deciding which ride T-shirts she would want, and whether she wanted one of the rather cute plush dolls there. Meanwhile I looked over the array of photographs of the park throughout history which they had on display and got another runaway mine train of memory on seeing a picture of the Giant Teepee, which used to be near the Western area and the water ski shell and whatnot. In fact, it threatened to drive me crazy as I could remember the building perfectly but not what was inside it, and finally had to resort to leafing through one of those Images Of Great Adventure nostalgia-print books until I found one which explained it. The Giant Teepee used to be a shop, which would explain why I'd only been in it a few times and not for very much purpose. My souvenir purchases in the day tended to be on the order of a pack of playing cards and a crazy straw or a disappointing trick from the magic shop. (The magic shop is now gone.) The Giant Teepee sold ``Southwestern'' and amusement-park-Indian merchandise, which maybe is why it's not around anymore, what with the Western theme section being so dwindled from its old presence.

Finally, ultimately, we were ready to leave, with bunny_hugger's new shirt but not a new plush. Pausing just long enough to completely forget to pick up a new and un-crinkled map, we walked out of Great Adventure and into the rest of our time together.

Trivia: Following the Trans-Earth Injection burn, Michael Collins reported to Houston that at the current rate of consumption Apollo 11 would not have enough chlorine ampules to treat their water supply to last until splashdown. Houston reminded the fatigued astronaut there was another supply cabinet full of ampules. Source: Carrying The Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys, Michael Collins.

Currently Reading: The American Circus: An Illustrated History, John Culhane.

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