austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

Is worth a trip to L.A.

You know why roller coasters don't go flying off the track? That's because the wheel assembly doesn't just have wheels that rest on the top of the track, like railroad trains do, but also wheels on the bottom (and often the side), which make it physically impossible to fly off the track. These were invented somewhere around 1920. Leap-the-Dips, at Lakemont Park, dates to 1902. So what keeps its cars from flying off the track?


The cars on this ride do leap off the track, although they can't get very far off, and they fall back down into a path marked off by side walls. But it means that this ride, despite its quite small drops --- its greatest is about nine feet and most are smaller --- and low speed, and for that matter low overall height of just 41 feet --- is a really thrilling ride. Better, the cars --- which date back to before the ride's dozen-year closure --- don't have seat belts or restraining bars or harnesses or any of the other ways roller coasters since 1925 have tried to keep people from being pitched out of their sets. There's a bar, which one may grab onto, but mostly, you're held in place primarily by your feeling that it would draw embarrassing attention if you made a spectacle of yourself by falling out.

So you see how this is an attraction worth going some distance out of your way to ride.

Leap-the-Dips (the hyphens appear in some of the signs, particularly the National Historic Landmark plaque, but not in others, such as the station's sign) operated from 1902 to 1986, which is staggering: it's one thing to repair and restore an antique ride, but this is a ride that was just in normal ordinary operation for 84 years, and surely preserved more by it being too costly to replace, first, for that last fifty years or so since the popularity of leap-the-dips type rides dropped once modern wheel assemblies were invented, and second over the dozen years until the American Coaster Enthusiasts and other groups were able to raise enough money and organize enough people to restore the ride to operations.

As partial result of this restoration, the Leap-the-Dips is a separate charge from park admission. bunny_hugger, as a member of ACE, had a coupon good for one free ride; I'd have to somehow find the $2.50 for my own ride myself. We went to the station to find out where exactly to get tickets and where to get her free ticket redeemed. At the station's attached gift shop, behind the register, was an elder man, pudgy, white-bearded, the sort of person who appears to spend all year looking forward to when he can play Santa again. You know this person; you've met him volunteering to set up his model railroad whenever the slightest pretext to show it off presents itself, and once he has set it up asking kids if they want to try the controls. He's the person down the block who thinks that this is a mighty fine day, yessiree. This is who we met.

bunny_hugger said, a bit shyly, that she hoped to ride the Leap-the-Dips --- he thought that was great, because that's the sort of person he is --- and that she had an ACE membership --- which was also great because ACE does so much to restore and preserve classic roller coasters --- and she was supposed to do something to get a ride with her membership. And he leaned over to let her in on the secret of this ride. She has to go down by the station --- this is where we were --- and there was this guy, an elderly gent with a bushy white beard looking a little old fashioned and she'd have to talk to him. ``You're him?'' she ventured. Yup.

He called over to the guy working the station and said to let us have a ride, gratis. He didn't actually check bunny_hugger's ACE membership card, and I basically ghosted my way into the ride.

They only have the one car running, apparently because the work of refurbishing the cars --- which have wonderfully lush seats, the sort you might have in a respectable sleigh from a century ago --- is too much to have too many running. But we could see they had something like eight or ten other cars, including one that's been extensively refurbished to the point it's put under glass and shown off rather than run. (And we found on looking at Leap-the-Dips memorabilia or other photos that they've run a different car too.) But as it seems crazy to run more than one car at a time (and the ride only takes a minute) that's as much as they really need.

We would go back for further rides, although the Santa-ish guy vanished, as if back to the North Pole once we'd been let into the wonderland of the oldest roller coaster in the world. The loose attitude about paying for the ride remained, though. In fact, for our final ride of the night we figured to just buy a couple of loops around (so that, among other things, we could stay in the car and ride uninterrupted over every inch of track), and they charged us only for one ride. They're nice, out in Altoona.

We of course stuffed money in the tip jar, and bought some merchandise --- fridge magnets, travel mugs, that sort of practical thing. We also got ride T-shirts: for me, a cyan shirt with the roller coaster's lift hill on it. I wanted a shirt that was in a color I don't ordinarily wear and this certainly was it. bunny_hugger also got one of these shirts, but in a color better suited to her (and actually one I more usually wear).

I've tried modelling the Leap-the-Dips in Roller Coaster Tycoon 3, which does allow the building of the kind of side-friction coaster that this is. I haven't yet got a good match for track length, ride time, and speeds, but the track layout is roughly correct, and watching a ride does show it's got the feel about right. It comes in, by the game's estimate, pretty thrilling, too, in a class with medium-to-large wooden roller coasters, and that's utterly correct.

Also I've started saying ``Leap-the-Dips'' with a lyrical stress on the first and last syllables wich delights bunny_hugger to no end. There was a stretch there where saying ``Leap the Dips'' threatened to be about a quarter of all the words I said. It's not quite that much now, but it's close.

The attention given Leap-the-Dips unfairly obscures Lakemont's other major roller coaster, the wooden Skyliner. The ride was opened sometime before 1960 in Canandaigua, New York's Roseland Park, and moved out west in 1987 as part of the Boyertown USA project.

This is a really good wooden roller coaster, sending you down and back twice, with particularly an initial hill that's fabulous. You don't just get the sense of the car dropping out from under you as you go down (after a turn to put the track in position) --- and you really get that sense, because there's a single-position lap bar and no seat belts, so if you're small or light for your size you do get left behind --- but also as you reach the peak of the second hill and get tossed up again. There's a lovely string of turns and smaller hills, as well, as the ride curls around the adjacent go-kart track, and you come back to the station applauding. Well, I do. I admit I applaud a lot at roller coasters, but this is one of those deserving it.

It's even painted like a classic roller coaster, all white, with bright green trains and red seats, with restraint bars that buzz satisfyingly as they're locked into position or let to go at the end of the ride.

Oh, also, on the lift hill (and on one of the legs going back out again) off on the right is the Altoona Curve ball park. You're behind the center outfield fence, naturally. We weren't there when a game was on, which is about the only thing I'm sorry we missed about the park. It's got to be thrilling having a game going on when you're on the roller coaster, and I imagine baseball fans should love seeing a roller coaster going about its business too.

The coaster is at the far end of the park, somewhat away from the bulk of the attractions, suggesting that when Boyer put it in they expected it to anchor a new midway perhaps. This probably contributes to its being obscured (along with, really, competing with the significant wooden roller coasters at Kennywood and Knoebels a couple hours away). But the setting, being way off at the end of a small park, also gives it some wonderful accessibility: we were free to tromp all around the ride, and to get pretty close to the tracks, with just a modest chain-link fence restraining us from doing something really stupid. The feeling of being able to crawl all around the ride is present and real.

There is also --- and I find I don't have an adequate photograph of it -- a marker tucked within the roller coaster's footprint, far away from where ordinary people can see it. bunny_hugger learned later that this is apparently a memorial to one of the ride caretaker's dogs, who used to go on the roller coaster with his human. Think now of the wonder of dogs on roller coasters.

We didn't see any dogs on roller coasters, I should point out, although --- well, that's coming later in the trip.

So, Skyliner: in most parks this would be the best, classic wooden roller coaster. It loses out on age by maybe a half-century to Leap-the-Dips, but it's a great ride and we kept hopping back for re-rides on this wonderful one.

There's another non-kiddie coaster at Lakemont Park, an oddball late 60s kind which bunny_hugger used to see at every fair she went to as a kid, although she never rode them back then. She had to build up to riding every roller coaster she saw. I don't remember seeing it as a kid, but possibly I would have failed to recognize it even as a roller coaster.

You get into a wire-cage car. You then go up inside a vertical tube, here painted yellow and cyan and topped with a wireframe and a ball so it looks vaguely like a late 50s comic strip's rocket; when you come out, then, the car spirals around and around and around and around the ``rocket'', until you lose all the altitude again and you go onto some bunny hills to work off the excess speed. It's obviously well-suited to be a travelling roller coaster ride.

The lone ride operator was loading all four cars and then sending each up at once; bunny_hugger and I didn't think we'd both fit in a single car (we probably would have; there's much more leg space than we imagined) and the luck of the line put us in separate groups. bunny_hugger was in the ride first and looked sadly at me, worried how the enclosure and the darkness of the lift hill would affect her. I could think of nothing reassuring to say, so I took a photo of her.

She took it well: the open top of the ride kept claustrophobia at bay, and, there was a bird of some kind circling far overhead to watch and admire. I saw it too, although during the lift I thought about the emergency ladder used to get off the ride in case the mechanism jams: I could surely climb the ladder down, but how would I get from resting on my back in the seat to standing up on the ladder? Poorly, I figure. But the ride didn't jam, and the spirals --- which are pretty heavily banked, so I could easily stare straight down --- were more fun than I expected.

The Roller Coaster Database lists only 22 of these toboggan rides as having ever been built, and only four as definitely still existing. We would see one of these later in our trip, though we'd have never imagined that when we rode this one, and we would not be able to ride the other.

Trivia: Linus Pauling's late 1952/early 1953 model of DNA supposed that it was a triple helix (based on data from desiccated and dead DNA, which coils differently to the DNA in living organisms). Source: The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales Of Madness, Love, And The History Of The World From The Periodic Table of the Elements, Sam Kean.

Currently Reading: Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise And Fall Of States And Nations, Norman Davies. I, ah, can't get behind Davies's upset that the Carpatho-Ukranian Republic doesn't even get a footnote in most histories of World War II, given that it existed for one day after the Sudetenland was annexed and was promptly overrun by Hungarians. Also, the mention of Asimov's telling of ethnic jokes with the ethnicity changed to Ruritanian seems like a real stretch to even mention in passing in talking about how vague Eastern European countries get stereotyped as Vague Eastern European Countryland, considering ... well, I mean, seriously.

Tags: pennsylvania parks trip

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