|The author with Bugs Bunny|
When I was a kid, I did my time in amusement parks. When I lived in suburban Detroit there was Bob-Lo Island, which was in the Detroit River between Michigan and Ontario, but is closed now. All I remember is taking the ferry to get there. Detroiters usually go to Cedar Point, a few hours away in Ohio, which is now one of the best parks for roller coasters in the country. I remember having good times there, but no specific memories.
In Philadelphia we visited Dorney Park, in Houston Astroworld. In 1978 or thereabouts I made my one and only trip to Disneyworld, when my grandparents lived in Florida. I feel bad for them now, having to go with each group of grandkids to that place all the time. We went during Christmas week, surely the worst time to go, and it was raining. I remember it being a miserable time, and though Space Mountain was great I'm not sure it was worth the two-hour wait.
In New Jersey we have Six Flags Great Adventure (Six Flags is a huge conglomerate that has bought up existing parks and inserted Warner Brothers character into them). I went in high school with some chums, and then again in 1989 with a friend. I was 28 then and it was about the age to quit going, unless you're with kids. That same friend and I did go to Universal Studios in the early part of this century, because we had free tickets. Most of that experience was spent waiting in line.
So this visit was my first in several years, and the first time I went with kids. I'm left pondering why these places are so popular. I guess there are two kinds--the "theme" park, like Disney's parks, which emphasize a state of mind over thrill rides. Walt Disney called his parks "the happiest place on Earth," and for some people they are, but I can't get past the corporate spit polish. I did enjoy a trip to Disneyland in the late '80s--it is a manageable size that doesn't require more than one day. But Disneyworld, with Epcot and all the other stuff, is like visiting a foreign country.
The other type of park is the "thrill ride" park. Cedar Point, King's Island, and few other places fit in that category. I haven't been to Cedar Point in over forty years, but I don't think it's crawling with costumed characters; it's for die-hard roller coaster enthusiasts. Magic Mountain is a bit of both. They've got Bugs Bunny and his pals, but they've also got more than a dozen roller coasters, each one more terrifying than the next.
If people go to theme parks to get away from their miserable lives and be reminded of the myth of the great America (Disneyworld and it's Main Street U.S.A. is an idealization that never really existed), the people who ride thrill rides are a different sort. There seems to be a fundamental need for humans to scare themselves. Recently there was an article in Glamour, I think, by a woman who couldn't understand why people liked horror movies, and in fact believed that no really liked them. Naturally she was excoriated by the Internet. People watch horror movies for the same reason they ride roller coasters--there must be some kind of endorphin released that makes us feel more alive. Horror movies are much more passive, though. The scares are all in the mind. Roller coasters, though, are much more visceral--you are actually hurtling through space and one little broken widget could send you plummeting to your death.
At 55, I am now officially too old for these kind of rides. I have long been unable to do spinning rides. About fifteen years ago I went to a third-rate park in Maine and my twin nephews wanted to ride that thing where you stand and hold some bars and the whole thing whirls around. They were too short to ride unaccompanied by an adult, so since I'm a soft touch I went on with them. As the ride began to spin, I realized I was going to die. So I stared at my feet and somehow survived, though I had to recover sitting at a picnic table until the world stopped spinning.
I stayed away from spinning rides, but even those that don't make me dizzy. I knew I was in for a rough time on the first night, where I rode nothing but the carousel, and I got a little woozy. Today I got a handicapped access (don't hate me) so I wouldn't have to stand in line, and went on one ride that does a big loop-de-loop. That wasn't too bad, so I tried the Batman ride, which is full of twists and turns. That one really made me dizzy, so for the next one I tried a simple water ride, which was more my speed. I ended on the Goliath, which starts with a 255-foot drop and then zooms around curves. But since there was no upside-down or spinning, it wasn't too bad. But I had had enough.
I'm afraid I'm going to be like my dad, who when he goes to these places finds a comfortable bench and people-watches. My days with roller coasters are over.