I’ve been thinking about roller coasters lately, so I decided to make a list of my all-time favorite roller coasters. I’ll say this right off the bat that there are numerous famed roller coasters that make the “best of all-time” lists that I’ve never had the opportunity to ride, but nevertheless I think I’ve been on some good ones. I’ve loved riding roller coasters since I was a kid when I thought that I would join the American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE) when I grew up, which I’ve never actually done.
I love the thrill of going up a big hill and then taking that big drop straight down, which of course leads to great speed (or at least the feeling of high velocity). I love twists and turns and surprises along the way, as well as novel experiences that are unique to a particular coaster. I particularly love a nice long ride with a lot of track and a combination of a number of features. Loops and inversions are okay, but they don’t excite me as much as other features, and looping roller coasters tend to be shorter with few other thrills along the way. For this reason I tend to favor old-fashioned wooden roller coasters, although you will see plenty of steel roller coasters in my list. I also enjoy a roller coaster more with a bit of Disney-style theming and/or natural scenery, and feel a bit disappointed by roller coasters that run through a weed-filled lot surrounded by a chain-link fence.
NOTE: I used the names of the roller coasters and theme parks that were in use at the time I rode the roller coaster, and they may be different now.
Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, VA is the theme park I’ve spent the most time at, as my family vacationed in Williamsburg several times in the 1980s and then moved there in the 1990s. For a few years I even had a season pass. My favorite ride at Busch Gardens – and possibly of all-time – was the Big Bad Wolf, one of the earliest suspended coasters. The designers of this ride took advantage of its suspension by including lots of curves so that the cars would swing out and feel like they were going to crash into the buildings of a Bavarian village. Towards the end of the ride, the train would be carried up a lift hill which we called “Oh Hell Hill,” because it hugged a hillside and only when you got to the top would you see an enormous drop down a ravine towards a river. It was fun to sit near first-time riders and watch them at the top of the hill as their eyes bugged out and they screamed “Oh, shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiittttttt!!!” (Oh Hell Hill was an inacurate, but polite nickname). My mother, who generally hated roller coasters, absolutely loved The Big Bad Wolf. Sadly, the ride closed in 2009, but I will always remember the joy of “Traveling at the Speed of Fright!”
This is not a fast nor particularly thrilling roller coaster, but oh is it fun! It’s entirely possible that I rode the Disneyland version of this ride when I was six and went there with my father, but it was a visit to the Magic Kingdom two years later with my mother that remains one of the warmest memories of my childhood. It was one of those evenings when the lines had dwindled to next to nothing so we were able to get off the ride and immediately ride again several times in a row. This is the only other roller coaster my mother ever liked and I’ve seen it described elsewhere as The Roller Coaster for People Who Hate Roller Coasters. It’s a simple thing really with lots of small drops, twists and turns, and theming of a mountainside and a mining town that make it a joy to ride again and again. Two years I took my children to the Magic Kingdom for the first time, and they loved Big Thunder Mountain Railroad as well, and so we rode it again and again in the rain (and let me tell you that you get much wetter riding Big Thunder Mountain in the rain than Splash Mountain in the rain). No matter what other big thrill rides I discover, I will always return to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad for the pure joy of it.
I felt like I spent a long part of my childhood craving to ride the famed Cyclone, but I didn’t get the opportunity to do so until I was in my 20s. It was worth the wait, and absolutely classic wooden roller coaster with steep drops and sharp turns. It’s all crammed into a city block so it’s hard to tell where you’re going to go next, and it’s also a long ride although it’s hard to figure where how they fit in all that track. I rode the Cyclone last summer, and perhaps due to my growing age and size, the bumps and jolts felt significantly more violent than I recall from twent years ago. But the Cyclone itself is approaching 100 years old in 2027, so I won’t let age be an excuse for keeping from riding it again in the future.
The Dragon Coaster is a classic wooden roller coaster from the 1920s that is similar to the Cyclone, albeit shorter in length and height, and not achieving the same top speeds. Nevertheless, it is not short on thrills, and as an added bonus there’s a spectacular view of the Long Island Sound from the top, and a portion of the ride passes through the darkened interior of the Dragon itself. I also like that other Playland attractions are built within the footings of the roller coaster supports. You may know the Dragon Coaster from it’s appearance in Mariah Carey’s video for “Fantasy” and the movies Big and Fatal Attraction. I, however, remember it as the first “big kid” roller coaster I ever rode on.
While bigger and faster than Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, this is another ride that’s reliant on theming and tricks to provide the thrills, rather than high speeds or drops. Expedition Everest carries its riders up a steep hill through a temple in the Himalayas and then winds its way through a cave in the mountains until coming to a stop. We can’t forward anymore because the Yeti has torn up the track! So the train rolls BACKWARDS through a darkened tunnel and it feels like you’re falling forever. After another stop where we see the shadow of the Yeti tearing up more tracks we roll forward again through more twists and turns and then through a cave for our final encounter with the Yeti as it reaches out to grab at the train. People make jokes that the Yeti audioanimatronic doesn’t actually work the way its supposed to, but I still find it impressive. It’s a long ride with a lot going on along the way and thus an absolute delight.
When the Loch Ness Monster opened in 1978 it was the first roller coaster with interlocking loops, and today it is the only one left. Many looping roller coasters of that era would’ve said that two loops was quite enough thrill and leave it at that, but the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t rely on one trick and offers a lenghty ride of 3,240 feet with a 114 foot drop and speeds up to 60 mph. If that’s not enough the scenery is gorgeous as the track criss-crosses a river and passes through beautiful forested areas as well as ducking into a cave. Even the queue was charmingly-themed to look as if you’d gone to Scotland to join an expedition to find Nessie. Busch Gardens has gained a lot more newer, faster roller coasters since I’ve left Williamsburg, but if I ever return I won’t pass up another ride on the Loch Ness Monster for old time’s sake.
20 years ago I visited my friend and fellow amusement park enthusiast in Ohio and she took me to Cedar Point, the “Roller Coaster Capital of the World.” Among the many rollers coasters we rode was Magnum XL-200, the world’s first hypercoaster (meaning more than 200 feet high) with 5,106 feet of track, a 195-foot drop, and speeds up to 72 mph, with the added bonus of scenic views of Lake Erie. In short, it’s everything I love in a roller coaster! In the intervening decades, I’m sure Magnum XL-200 has been usurped in all of its superlatives, but I expect it’s still a great thrill to ride.
For a period of time in the 1990s, Paramount decided to compete with Disney and Universal and make their own movie-themed park. At Kings Dominion in Virginia that basically meant slapping names of hit movies on existing rides, but the Flight of Fear was one of the first new rides introduced under Paramount’s ownership. At the time it was themed to the Outer Limits, but mostly I think that was because they couldn’t get the rights to the much more trendy X-Files. The queue wound around a UFO inside an Area 51 hangar as videos showed a team of investigators dealing with creepy alien things happening around them. To get on the ride, you’d walk up a ramp into the flying saucer itself. This was one of the first roller coasters launched by linear induction motors, and it was stunning to feel the deathly silence of the crowd of people waiting in line as they saw the coaster accelerate from 0 to 54 mph in 4 seconds. The ride is entirely indoors in the dark, like a devious Space Mountain, and it feels like you’re spinning around a ball of yarn, with even up and down difficult to distinguish. This is another ride I’m sure has been surpassed, but it was a unique thrilling experience back in the 90s.
I remember the ad below vividly and the desire to check out this intense new kind of roller coaster on a high school field trip to Great Adventure. Ultra Twister was unique in many ways. First, you rode straight up the lift hill, basically laying on one’s back. What goes up must go down, so once at the top you went straight down face forward. The ride was designed with tracks supporting it on the sides of the car so it could spin in a spiral while still moving forward. Then the car was dropped down to a lower track and went through some spirals in reverse. I only got to ride it a couple of times, as on later visits is was down for maitenance and then it was moved to Astroworld in Texas (which no longer exists). While I remember enjoying the ride, it does have several faults as it was a challenge to maintain all it’s moving parts and it was a very short roller coaster with low capacity. But I am a bit disappointed that this pipeline-style roller coaster was never adapted into newer, longer, and more thrilling roller coasters, because it was definitely a unique experience. Apparently, I would have to go to Asia to find one of these in operation today.
The Wildcat is a big, wooden roller coaster in the Pennsylvania countryside which features 3,183 feet of track, an 85 foot drop, and speeds up to 50 mph, plus lots of twists, turns, ups, downs, and other surprises along the way. The thing that’s unexpected about the Wildcat is that it opened in 1996. When I rode it a year later, it felt a lot like the roller coaster equivalent of the Oriole Park at Camden Yards retro-ballpark revival. The Wildcat combines the great features of classic wooden roller coasters with more modern design features. And in the past twenty years a lot more modern wooden roller coasters have opened and I must seek them out and ride them, because it is my destiny.
So those are my top ten favorite roller coasters. Have you taken a spin on any of these classic coasters? What favorite roller coasters would you add to the list.
Doing some research for this post also prompted me to put together a wish list of 15 roller coasters in the United States that I would like to ride. Would you recommend any of these to a coaster enthusiast? And is there anything missing from this list?
Let me know in the comments or on Twitter at @othemts.
- Apollo’s Chariot – Busch Gardens Williamsburg
- The Beast – Kings Island
- Boulder Dash – Lake Compounce
- El Toro – Six Flags Great Adventure
- Goliath – Six Flags Great America
- Incredible Hulk Coaster – Universal’s Islands of Adventure
- Kingda Ka – Six Flags Great Adventure
- Kumba – Busch Gardens Tampa
- Lightning Rod – Dollywood
- Maverick – Cedar Point
- Phoenix – Knoebels Amusement Resort
- Revenge of the Mummy – Universal Studios Florida
- Superman: The Ride – Six Flags New England
- Thunderbolt – Kennywood