Love For This Ride Is Unswerving

Posted: March 02, 1987

Down on the Wildwood boardwalk, where the winter sky is gray and the air is blustery, the Sea Serpent's roar is silent.

Marie Miller can already taste her first roller-coaster ride of the coming season. At 71 years of age, she knows it will be sweeter than cotton candy, more spine-tingling than a sarsaparilla.

"I can't put it into words," said Miller, of the Warren County, N.J., community of Washington. "When I'm on a roller coaster, I'm just happy."

Opening day at the amusement piers is six weeks away. But for those such as Miller, who love the thrills of monstrous loop-the-loops and pulse-quickening vertical drops, talking about their passion is the next best thing.

About 110 roller-coaster aficionados got together Saturday in Wildwood, in the shadow of the Sea Serpent roller coaster at Morey's Pier, for Eastcoaster '87, the fifth annual Eastern midwinter conference of the American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE). The daylong meeting at Seasons Restaurant attracted roller- coaster riders from Connecticut to Virginia, all eager to catch up on the state of the art.

Most would agree with Paul Ruben, an editor for a trade publication called Amusement Park Journal, who said, "If you're a roller-coaster enthusiast, it's a wonderful time to be alive.

"We're enjoying what you might call a renaissance in roller coasters," said Ruben, of Penfield, N.Y. "With the modern theme parks, there's been an amazing growth in coasters. Plus, because of the technology, they're bigger, faster and safer than ever before. You can enjoy rides today that would not have been possible 30 years ago."

The conference featured slide shows, videotaped reviews of rides, lectures by industry representatives and - for the experts - a test to identify more than 100 roller coasters in North America.

Clearly, however, the focal point of the day was shop talk among ACE members on the sights and sounds of their favorite rides, including that age- old question: Which roller coaster is the best?

On that matter, there was no shortage of disagreement. Everyone, from traditionalists who prefer the clickety-clack of wooden coasters to newcomers who scare themselves silly on looping steel models, has a top-10 list.

A typical conversation between enthusiasts was conducted mostly in sign language. With hands mapping the route, Becky Brown of New Haven, Conn., told one listener how The Beast in Kings Island, Ohio - her personal favorite - takes riders around and around and up and down.

"It's a vicious ride," said Brown, 36.

Brown, a machinist, said she gets plenty of ribbing from friends and family who wonder about her sanity. "They say I'm nuts," she said, laughing. "But I don't feel it's crazy. When you work a 40-hour-a-week job, it's a great thing to break loose and ride a coaster."

The same goes for Charles Jacques Jr., a western Pennsylvania lawyer who counsels municipalities on the sale of industrial-development bonds. "Bonds aren't the 'funnest' thing in the world," said Jacques, 46. "That's why I ride about 50 to 60 different coasters every year. In my best year, I hit 92 amusement parks in one season."

In his spare time, Jacques also publishes Amusement Park Journal, so he

considers all those rides an enjoyable sacrifice in the name of research. Unfortunately, he said, the amusement industry is beginning to suffer from overzealous politicians and insurance companies "who are constantly harping on the safety issue."

Roller coasters, he said, are the safest rides in an amusement park; more people are injured on poke-along pony rides than 50 m.p.h. scream machines, he said.

"The problem is that by the time you get into the seat belts and the retainers and the high head restraints, you ride around like you're in your living room," he said. "That's no fun."

What is fun?

For James Reed of New Holland, Pa., it's that old standby, Disneyland, in Anaheim, Calif.

Reed, 49, publishes the annual Amusement Park Guidebook, which rates more than 150 parks on a scale of 1 to 5. Just 20 parks are worthy of the top honor, he said.

Disneyland is Reed's favorite for one reason: With 38 adult rides, it has more than any other park in the country.

Wildwood, with four major amusement piers, rates special recognition, said Reed. Because of space limitations, the resort's two major roller coasters are smaller but feature more-dizzying "spin and barf" rides.

"About half of our members won't have anything to do with those rides," said Randy Geisler, president of ACE. "We are all very iron-stomached, but some just don't like them because they aren't roller coasters.

"You see, roller coasters are always the biggest, most noticeable ride in the park," said Geisler, 37, a Social Security administrator from Chicago. ''People are never neutral about roller coasters. They either love 'em or hate 'em, but they'll always try them at least once."

Roller-coaster fans in Pennsylvania have it the best. According to Reed, there are more amusement parks (18) in Pennsylvania than any other state, and most feature at least one roller coaster.

Topping Reed's list of best parks in the state are Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, Hersheypark in Hershey, Knoebels Grove amusement park in Elysburg and Kennywood in West Mifflin.

Charles Jacques waxes poetic about Kennywood. He wrote an entire book about the park, and he is particularly fond of its Thunderbolt.

As with other wood coasters, said Jacques, the Thunderbolt's support structure is designed to shift under the weight of passing cars. "It'll shift as much as 8 to 12 inches," he said. "When you see that, and then go back up and ride it, it's really scary.

"It's much better than any steel coaster," he continued. "Those things have their loops and corkscrews, but they're greatly overrated. They're great to look at, but not so great to ride. You go up, down, around, and then you're into your brake run, and that's it.

"With a wood coaster, there's shifts and unexpected turns and dips and drops. It's two minutes, 50 seconds of pure wonder."

Marie Miller, a petite woman who remembers her first coaster ride more than 60 years ago in a park that is now a shopping mall, said she could hardly wait for the coming season. With a glint in her eyes, she made a case for the Comet, at Crystal Beach in Ontario, Canada, as the best roller-coaster ride.

But with the nearby Sea Serpent looming silently on the Wildwood boardwalk, Miller said, "I just wish the piers were already open so I could get out there and take a ride today."

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