Coasting Through Life
Thrill rides aren’t just for kids. Here’s why amusement parks have an enduring appeal for grownups like me
It’s 6 a.m. on a Thursday and I’m on I-15, hurtling toward the California border. I don’t have an assignment, but I do have a plan: Charge through the northwestern part of the Mojave. Arrive at the gates of Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia in time for its 10:30 a.m. opening. Book it all the way to the back of the park, where its newest shoot-the-looper, West Coast Racers, coils through its respective themeland like an unraveled Slinky. The pandemic has kept me from riding it sooner, but I’ll have taken at least one lap by 11 a.m.
From there, pick up my routine: Ride the park’s northern coasters until lunch at the usual barbecue place. Chill for an hour so my grilled chicken salad doesn’t eject full throttle after riding Full Throttle. Hit my favorite roller coaster on the planet (X2), followed by my second-favorite in the park (Twisted Colossus). Ride some more, but stop at the slightest sign of a headache. Drive home — as in, my actual apartment back in Las Vegas — which I walk into just shy of 10 p.m.
This is the third time I’ve turned-and-burned a day trip to Magic Mountain, twice without company. You can imagine my struggle to coax pals to drive 600 miles and walk 15,000 steps in one day. But despite my preference to go to amusement parks with friends, I cared not one whit that I was riding solo. I was partaking in something I can’t do very often, and no one was nagging me about their tired feet or waking up at sunrise or my insistence on waiting for the front row. It’s the same ideal that prompted me to forgo human baggage for my last visit to Walt Disney World. I was on cloud nine — blissfully transported by imagineered worlds that, for me, rival the less visceral escapades of a movie or book.
I’m not alone in this pursuit. Millions of perfectly uncreepy adults frequent amusement parks all over the country — including Las Vegans, who don’t have Magic Mountain or Disneyland-style parks in their backyard, but can get to them with relative ease.
“My friends and I make theme parks a reason to go on a trip,” says 34-year-old John Pavlock, a Las Vegan who grew up going to Southern California parks annually. “We’ll go sightseeing in the city we’re in, but a theme park has to be in the mix.”
The question always surfaces: Why would a grownup without children endure an institution most people associate with long, unshaded queues and stale churros? The reasons abound: nostalgia — specifically, a return to one’s childhood with the benefit of adult control; a safer mode of thrillseeking and escape (cue writer Douglas Coupland: “Adventure without risk is Disneyland”); the increasing sophistication of rides and parks; expanded adult amenities and events (i.e., alcohol stands and wine-and-food festivals); and, with the exception of the ever-more expensive Disney destinations, the general affordability of driving to and visiting a regional theme park.
Some also find their pack through meeting up or trekking to parks. “The (coaster/park) community is quite niche,” Pavlock says. “It’s rare you meet people my age that have done these (park) trips. But I’ve been a member (of the community) since I was a kid. I have a lot of lifelong friends from it.”
And then there are those who go because of the inherent, traditional joys of amusement parks. The beckoning smell of funnel cakes. The wonder of a park’s theming. And the rollergasm — or, less hyperbolically, the pleasure that comes specifically from thrill rides.
“I’m an adrenaline junkie,” says Reichen Gihbsson, 30, a local who’s been crisscrossing the country to visit amusement parks since he was a child. “I’m riding a machine that’s putting my body through an experience that I can’t do anywhere else unless I’m in a fighter plane.”
Someone who could write a thesis on why grown-ass adults frequent these institutions of American teendom is Elizabeth Ringas, the communications director and mid-Atlantic regional rep for American Coaster Enthusiasts. First, she clarifies the difference between someone who occasionally takes their niece to ride Canyon Blaster at Adventuredome and an actual coaster enthusiast.
“We look at it as someone who wants to expand their hobby of riding coasters,” Ringas says. “Maybe they want to read coaster articles, or make (enthusiast) friends or attend the parks in a different way — basically, they want to take it to a different level.”
As Ringas elaborates, adult coaster enthusiasts — more than 6,500 of them are card-carrying ACE members — enjoy the same things the kids do, as well as the details that they might overlook. They are park enthusiasts too. “I would say the coasters are what takes us (to the parks) — that’s why we’re there,” she says. “But most of us really appreciate the distinction about the parks. What else makes it special? Maybe they have a unique dark ride (an indoor ride). Or maybe it’s the food. We treasure those aspects. At an (ACE) Coaster Con, we celebrated a carousel because it was 100 years old.”
Social media has increased the exposure of “thoosies,” as coaster enthusiasts are sometimes called, and subsequently, the parks they frequent. Their Instagram stories and Facebook trip reports serve as public photo diaries of their adventures, FOMO-instilling flexes, and viral marketing that amusement companies couldn’t buy. For some enthusiasts, coasters and parks — and even traveling to them — are enjoyed monthly, maybe weekly, usually possible because of season-pass programs. Gihbsson, who visits Magic Mountain every other month, owns a top-of-the-line membership that grants him not only a slew of VIP perks, but access to every other park in the Six Flags chain. Pavlock has a Six Flags pass as well — along with ones for the Cedar Fair parks (which includes Knott’s Berry Farm near Disneyland) and Universal Studios. But neither will cough up for Disneyland’s annual pass, which costs as much as $1,400.
Passes enable enthusiasts to embark on multi-park, multi-state trips, where they may shoehorn in two, even three parks a day. And when it comes to a forthcoming ride, the parks’ hype game is strong for a reason. “Most members travel out of state commonly, typically when a new coaster opens,” Ringas says. “It’s almost a pilgrimage where everyone I know goes to that park for that new ride.” Last year’s enthusiast mecca was Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando, which opened the Jurassic World VelociCoaster. This year, it’ll likely be 90 minutes away in Tampa, where Busch Gardens finally opened the COVID-delayed Iron Gwazi. Coaster nerds also may travel halfway around the globe, less for specific coasters and more for bucket-list destinations like Phantasialand in Germany, Tokyo DisneySea — Pavlock’s number-one park — and Warner Bros. Movie World in Australia.
And then there are the credit whores. A credit count is the tally of unique coasters someone has ridden at least once. Some forgo certain credits because the coasters just aren’t worth riding (I’m an unabashed coaster snob; you can spare me the painful Vekoma Boomerangs and nauseating Gerstlauer spinners). But many others are completists, even obsessives. You know that kiddie coaster at the Las Vegas Mini Grand Prix? I’ve heard enthusiast tourists admit they Ubered all the way from the Strip to Rainbow Boulevard and Vegas Drive just to ride it. They scour every city they visit for those rare, isolated, or awkward credits, undeterred by anyone’s scorn, zealous in their quest to reach the next credit milestone. I’m within a hair of 250 myself. And that’s no brag — Ringas has north of 560. And the top scorer on the Coaster Count website claims to have 2,934 unique coaster rides — a little less than a third of the 10,943 coasters documented at Roller Coaster Data Base.
That’s where the coaster habit, despite the low cost of most amusement parks, can deplete one’s savings account. Not for nothing is 50 the average age of ACE’s membership — and that’s only nine years older than the average amusement park attendee, per a 2017 report by PGAV Destinations. Among those polled who went to an amusement park in 2016, half traveled 50 miles or more to do so, which may mean having to cough up for hotel rooms and/or airfare.
Locals can feel that price pinch too. Have you ever tried to hit a few of Las Vegas’ scattershot attractions in an afternoon? The expense rivals dinner at a resort steakhouse. A date night at the one-stop-shop Area 15 can cost more than that day run to Six Flags. Circus Circus’ small indoor theme park, Adventuredome, no longer sells tickets by the ride — it’s a $60 all-access wristband, even if you only want to ride the facility’s two big coasters. And then there are the parking and ancillary fees (say, the elevator to Strat’s SkyPod) you’ll incur before you even plunk down for a ride ticket. For some locals, our amusement infrastructure is only worth using maybe once a year.
“August 16 is National Roller Coaster Day,” Gihbsson says. “I go ride and get my picture for the day.”
Las Vegas coaster enthusiasts’ greatest complaint is the absence of two amusement parks: the one we briefly had, and the one a city our size should have. MGM Grand Adventures theme park, which Pavlock calls “ahead of its time” (and he’s not alone; see p. 40), was whittled down over time and closed in 2002, right before it reached its 10th anniversary. And we have the thinnest of hopes for Six Flags, Cedar Fair, or a similar company to plant their flag in Las Vegas. “We don’t have a full theme park — I would love that,” says Pavlock, who was once a local attractions operator and is currently an occasional coaster photographer and on-camera expert for the Travel Channel. “If it was designed properly, it would work. But it’ll be hard to get it started because of our climate. You’ll need indoor queues with air conditioning. Maybe a chain could start small and then make the park bigger over time.”
As such, our so-called adult Disneyland is leagues away from an actual Disneyland.
Until that happens, I’ll keep trekking I-15 with my interstate theme-park visits (see sidebar for regional options). Las Vegas may call itself the City of Entertainment, but until it boasts enough hairpin turns and airtime hills to disorient a stunt pilot, I’ll remain a roller coaster road warrior. Φ
Road Trippable Amusement Parks for Las Vegans
Anaheim’s crown jewel, Disneyland, remains the ultimate get-outta-Vegas destination for both families and enthusiasts (despite the low-thrill nature of the park’s coasters), especially now that COVID restrictions have slackened and all of its new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attractions are fully operational. And with Disney and Universal Studios in an all-out, spare-no-expense war to outbuild, outtheme and outinnovate each other, both Southern California hotspots are at their peaks — though you’ll pay triple-digit ticket prices to enjoy their one-upmanship.
Happily, there are cheaper options in Southern California. Later this year, Magic Mountain will open its 20th roller coaster, a Wonder Woman-themed whoosher that careens and flips on a single rail. Many consider Knott’s Berry Farm a better second-day park than Disney’s other Anaheim gate, California Adventure. Sea World in San Diego has largely pivoted to rides, and recently opened its new 150-foot diving coaster named Emperor. For adults with rugrats, Legoland (and its completely immersive resort hotel), just north of San Diego, is a good option, as is the all-inclusive Great Wolf Lodge amusement center/indoor water park in Anaheim.
And Southern California isn’t our only day-trip option. Phoenix, like Las Vegas, is missing a large outdoor amusement park, but it has two small ones with minor coasters and two water parks. In Salt Lake City, enthusiasts are bullish on the independently owned Lagoon amusement park, populated with 10 legit coasters. I’ve been once, and I’m tempted to return. But a word of warning for you hardcore road-trippers: The six-hour slog through the desolate Sevier Desert may not be worth any thrill machine — no matter its rollergasm potential. MP
Twisted Colossus courtesy Six Flags; illustration by Shutterstock/Goodstudio