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Roller coaster facts for kids

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Luna Park Melbourne scenic railway
The Scenic Railway at Luna Park, Melbourne, is the world's second-oldest operating roller coaster, built in 1912.
Dorney Park Steel Force Thunderhawk
Steel Force (left) and Thunderhawk (right), two roller coasters at Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, Pennsylvania

A roller coaster, also called a rollercoaster, is a type of amusement ride that employs a form of elevated railroad track designed with tight turns, steep slopes, and sometimes inversions. People ride along the track in open cars, and the rides are often found in amusement parks and theme parks around the world. LaMarcus Adna Thompson obtained one of the first known patents for a roller coaster design in 1885, related to the Switchback Railway that opened a year earlier at Coney Island. The track in a coaster design does not necessarily have to be a complete circuit, as shuttle roller coasters demonstrate. Most roller coasters have multiple cars in which passengers sit and are restrained. Two or more cars hooked together are called a train. Some roller coasters, notably Wild Mouse roller coasters, run with single cars.

History

The Russian mountain and the Aerial Promenades

Promenades Aeriennes Jardin Baujon
The Promenades-Aériennes in Paris (1817)

The oldest roller coasters are believed to have originated from the so-called "Russian Mountains", specially constructed hills of ice located in the area that is now Saint Petersburg, Russia. Built in the 17th century, the slides were built to a height of between 21 and 24 m (70 and 80 feet), had a 50-degree drop, and were reinforced by wooden supports. Later, in 1784, Catherine the Great is said to have constructed a sledding hill in the gardens of her palace at Oranienbaum in St. Petersburg.

The first modern roller coaster, the Promenades Aériennes, opened in Parc Beaujon in Paris on July 8, 1817. It featured wheeled cars securely locked to the track, guide rails to keep them on course, and higher speeds. It spawned half a dozen imitators, but their popularity soon declined.

However, during the Belle Epoque they returned to fashion. In 1887 Spanish entrepreneur Joseph Oller, co-founder of the Moulin Rouge music hall, constructed the Montagnes Russes de Belleville, "Russian Mountains of Belleville" with 656 feet (200 m) of track laid out in a double-eight, later enlarged to four figure-eight-shaped loops.

Thompsons Switchback Railway 1884
Thompson's Switchback Railway, 1884

Scenic railways

In 1827, a mining company in Summit Hill, Pennsylvania constructed the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway, a downhill gravity railroad used to deliver coal to Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania – now known as Jim Thorpe. By the 1850s, the "Gravity Road" (as it became known) was selling rides to thrill seekers. Railway companies used similar tracks to provide amusement on days when ridership was low.

Using this idea as a basis, LaMarcus Adna Thompson began work on a gravity Switchback Railway that opened at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, in 1884. Passengers climbed to the top of a platform and rode a bench-like car down the 600-foot (183 m) track up to the top of another tower where the vehicle was switched to a return track and the passengers took the return trip. This track design was soon replaced with an oval complete circuit. In 1885, Phillip Hinkle introduced the first full-circuit coaster with a lift hill, the Gravity Pleasure Road, which became the most popular attraction at Coney Island. Not to be outdone, in 1886 Thompson patented his design of roller coaster that included dark tunnels with painted scenery. "Scenic Railways" were soon found in amusement parks across the county.

Popularity, decline and revival

By 1919, the first underfriction roller coaster had been developed by John Miller. Over the next decade, roller coasters spread to amusement parks around the world and began an era in the industry often referred to as the "Golden Age". One of the most well-known from the period is the historical Cyclone that opened at Coney Island in 1927. The onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, however, significantly impacted the amusement park industry and brought an end to the rapid growth experienced during the Golden Age. This aside, roller coasters were still built with varying success from location to location. In May 1932, the Scene Railway witnessed somewhat of a revival in the UK, including the opening of the roller coaster at Great Yarmouth. Today it is one of only two scenic railways still in operation in the UK.

In 1959, Disneyland introduced a design breakthrough with Matterhorn Bobsleds, the first permanent roller coaster to use a tubular steel track. Designed by Arrow Development, the tubular track was unlike standard rail design on wooden coasters, allowing the track to bend in sharper angles in any direction, leading to the incorporation of loops, corkscrews, and inversion elements into track layouts. A little more than a decade later, the immediate success of The Racer at Kings Island in 1972 sparked a new era of roller coaster enthusiasm, which led to a resurgence across the amusement park industry over the next several decades.

Types

Nokkakivi - Cyclon
Cyclon roller coaster in the Nokkakivi amusement park in Laukaa, Finland

Roller coasters are divided into two main categories: steel roller coasters and wooden roller coasters. Steel coasters have tubular steel tracks, and compared to wooden coasters, they are typically known for offering a smoother ride and their ability to turn riders upside-down. Wooden coasters have flat steel tracks, and are typically renowned for producing "air time" through the use of negative G-forces when reaching the crest of some hill elements. Newer types of track, such as I-Box and Topper introduced by Rocky Mountain Construction (RMC), improve the ride experience on wooden coasters, lower maintenance costs, and add the ability to invert riders.

A third classification type is often referred to as a hybrid roller coaster, which utilize a mixture of wood and steel elements for the track and structure. Many, for example, have a track made out of steel and a support structure made from wood. RMC has notably redesigned wood coasters that have either deteriorated from age or been deemed by parks as too costly to maintain. RMC often replaces the wood track with their patented steel I-Box track design, while reusing much of the ride's wooden structure, resulting in a smoother ride with the incorporation of new design elements, such as inversions, sharper turns, and steeper drops.

Although the term wasn't widely used or accepted until the 21st century, one of the oldest examples is Cyclone at Luna Park, which opened in 1927. It features a wood track and steel structure. Other older examples include mine train roller coasters, many of which were built by Arrow Dynamics. The term hybrid became more prominent after the introduction of New Texas Giant at Six Flags Over Texas opened in 2011. Many in the industry, however, continue to classify coasters strictly by their track type only, labeling them either steel or wood.

Modern roller coasters are constantly evolving to provide a variety of different experiences. More focus is being placed on the position of riders in relation to the overall experience. Traditionally, riders sit facing forward, but newer variations such as stand-up and flying models position the rider in different ways to change the experiences. A flying model, for example, is a suspended roller coaster where the riders lie facing forward and down with their chests and feet strapped in. Other ways of enhancing the experience involve removing the floor beneath passengers riding above the track, as featured in floorless roller coasters. Also new track elements – usually types of inversions – are often introduced to provide entirely new experiences.

By height

Kingdom Coaster 002
Family coaster: Kingdom Coaster at Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is a 55-foot tall (17 m) coaster that reaches a top speed of 40 mph (64 km/h).
Nitro coaster
Mega/Hyper coaster: Nitro at Six Flags Great Adventure, a Bolliger & Mabillard out and back coaster.
Kingda Ka tower
Strata coaster: The tallest coaster in the world, the 456-foot tall (139 m) Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure.

Several height classifications have been used by parks and manufacturers in marketing their roller coasters, as well as enthusiasts within the industry. One classification, the kiddie coaster, is a roller coaster specifically designed for younger riders. Following World War II, parks began pushing for more of them to be built in contrast to the height and age restrictions of standard designs at the time. Companies like Philadelphia Toboggan Company (PTC) developed scaled-down versions of their larger models to accommodate the demand. These typically featured lift hills smaller than 25 feet (7.6 m), and still do today. The rise of kiddie coasters soon led to the development of "junior" models that had lift hills up to 45 feet (14 m). A notable example of a junior coaster is the Sea Dragon – the oldest operating roller coaster from PTC's legendary designer John Allen – which opened at Wyandot Lake in 1956 near Powell, Ohio.

Hypercoaster

A hypercoaster, occasionally stylized as hyper coaster, is a type of roller coaster with a height or drop of at least 200 feet (61 m). Moonsault Scramble, which debuted at Fuji-Q Highland in 1984, was the first to break this barrier, though the term hypercoaster was first coined by Cedar Point and Arrow Dynamics with the opening of Magnum XL-200 in 1989. Hypercoasters have become one of the most predominant types of roller coasters in the world, now led by manufacturers Bolliger & Mabillard and Intamin.

Giga coaster

A giga coaster is a type of roller coaster with a height or drop of at least 300 feet (91 m). The term was coined during a partnership between Cedar Point and Intamin on the construction of Millennium Force. Although Morgan and Bolliger & Mabillard have not used the term giga, both have also produced roller coasters in this class.

Name Park Manufacturer Status Opened Height Drop
Millennium Force Cedar Point Intamin Operating May 13, 2000 310 feet (94 m) 300 feet (91 m)
Steel Dragon 2000 Nagashima Spa Land Morgan Operating August 1, 2000 318.3 feet (97.0 m) 306.8 feet (93.5 m)
Intimidator 305 Kings Dominion Intamin Operating April 2, 2010 305 feet (93 m) 300 feet (91 m)
Leviathan Canada's Wonderland Bolliger & Mabillard Operating May 6, 2012 306 feet (93 m) 306 feet (93 m)
Fury 325 Carowinds Bolliger & Mabillard Operating March 25, 2015 325 feet (99 m) 320 feet (98 m)
Red Force Ferrari Land Intamin Operating April 7, 2017 367 feet (112 m) N/A
Orion Kings Island Bolliger & Mabillard Operating July 2, 2020 287 feet (87 m) 300 feet (91 m)

Strata coaster

A strata coaster is a type of roller coaster with a height or drop of at least 400 feet (120 m). As with the other two height classifications, the term strata was first introduced by Cedar Point with the release of Top Thrill Dragster, a 420-foot-tall (130 m) roller coaster that opened in 2003. Another strata coaster, Kingda Ka, opened at Six Flags Great Adventure in 2005 as the tallest roller coaster in the world featuring a height of 456 feet (139 m). Superman: Escape From Krypton exceeded 400 feet (120 m) back when it opened in 1997, but its shuttle coaster design where the trains don't travel a complete circuit usually prevents the roller coaster from being classified in the same category.

Name Park Manufacturer Status Opened Height
Top Thrill Dragster Cedar Point Intamin Operating May 4, 2003 420 feet (130 m)
Kingda Ka Six Flags Great Adventure Intamin Operating May 21, 2005 456 feet (139 m)

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