Saturday, May 3, 2003

This one goes STRAIGHT DOWN

Cedar Point's new ride is 420 feet high (the tallest) and hits 120 mph (the fastest)

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] The coaster's 120-mph speed distorts the cheeks of Lee Jolly (left) of WKBN Youngstown.
(Associated Press photos)
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SANDUSKY, Ohio - Here's what it feels like when you go from zero to 120 mph in four seconds on the world's fastest, tallest roller coaster: like your hair's on fire, like that extra bit of fat on your jowls is plastered behind your ears, like your eyelids are blasted permanently open and like your stomach isn't keeping up with the rest of you.

It was horrific - each of the three times I did it.

Top Thrill Dragster, with its nose-bleeding 420-foot height and spiraling downhill descent at a 90-degree angle, makes its public debut Sunday at Cedar Point, the 133-year old theme park 250 miles north of Cincinnati.

[IMAGE] The coaster is 420 feet high and drops riders on a 90-degree angle down.
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They expect people to ride this. On purpose. For fun.

Just like the joyriders at this week's preview. "The speed is absolutely insane. It could change your hair color," raved Jerry Flemming, who dyed blue and magenta streaks in his hair for the occasion.

The 32-year-old American Coaster Enthusiast (ACE) member from Van Wert, Ohio, has ridden 330 coasters, so he knows about speed and doesn't impress easily. But on this one, "It's a good thing they weren't recording my audio at the launch," he said with a laugh, "they'd have to bleep it."

About 2,000 showed up for a by-invitation preview of what has been dubbed the world's first "strata-coaster" because of the height and speed of the $25 million monster.

[IMAGE] Top Thrill Dragster towers over Cedar Point theme park.
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"There is no other sensation like it. Nothing, nothing, nothing," said the Rev. Cliff Herring of Allentown, Pa. The 55-year-old ACE member and United Church of Christ minister has ridden about 350 roller coasters - and has performed 50 or so weddings and vow renewals on coasters around the country.

Just take a minute and get a load of some of the other riders as the train glides back into its station: Here's a guy with the chain holding his press credentials looped over his ear. Somewhere on the ride, the name tag was torn from the chain. Here's a woman with her short blond hair standing straight up, saying no amount of gel is going to help. Here's another woman frantically re-buttoning the blouse buttons that flew open along the 120-mph way.

• At 420 feet high, Top Thrill Dragster is 202 feet taller than Son of Beast, Paramount's Kings Island's tallest attraction and the world's tallest wooden roller coaster.
• At 120 mph, it's 42 mph faster than Son of Beast, also the world's fastest wooden roller coaster.
• At 30 seconds, it's 2 minutes and 30 seconds shorter than Son of Beast and 3 minutes 10 seconds shorter than The Beast, PKI's signature ride.
• With 2,800 feet of track, it's 4,559 feet shorter than The Beast and 4,232 feet shorter than Son of Beast.
• It's 14 mph faster than the previous speed record holder, Dodonpa at Fuji-Q Highlands in Japan.
What: Top Thrill Dragster, Cedar Point's 16th roller coaster, more than any park in the world.
When: Opens 10 a.m. Sunday. Then opens daily at 10 a.m. beginning Friday.Getting in: $43.95 for one-day admission; $21.95 anyone over 3 and under 48 inches tall; $29.95 seniors 60 and older.
Getting there: I-71 North to Mansfield, Ohio; exit at Route 13 North and follow to Route 250 North; stay on 250 all the way to Cedar Point. Allow four hours for the drive.
Best days: Park officials say Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in May are the best times to visit because crowds are the lightest. Weekends all season long are heaviest.
Online tours: Check out Web site.
Cedar Point has 68 rides with considerably less kick than Top Thrill Dragster. There's the usual assortment of amusement park rides, including a merry-go-round, train, Dodgems, Skyride and several spinning rides. There are four areas for children. There are also these less daunting coasters:
• Blue Streak is a traditional coaster, the park's oldest, and only 78 feet tall with speeds hitting 45 mph.
• Iron Dragon is a suspended coaster with speeds in the 40-mph range and a height of only 72 feet.
• Woodstock Express is a juvenile coaster - 38 feet high and 25 mph.
And here's what happens to cause all this: The ride doesn't begin, it launches. Riders - they must be 52 inches or taller - are lap-barred in, then seat-belted into molded plastic seats in 12-passenger train cars where they wait a few seconds while a revving engine roars. Then a quiet hiss and squealing tires as the hydraulic acceleration system kicks in and propels the train to 120 mph in 4 seconds.

That's when your scalp tingles, your eyelids fly open and you wish you didn't have cheeks so chubby they flap in the wind.

The train shoots straight up at a 90-degree angle, rotates 90 degrees at the 230-foot level, crests the 420-foot hill with slightly less speed - but wonderful air time; butts are a good inch off the seats despite the lap bar. It then plunges into a free fall and regains top speed as it plummets at a 90-degree angle on a track that rotates the train 270 degrees.

Going up the hill, riders are plastered to the backs of their seats. Going down the hill, they're leaning forward, straining against lap bars and watching the ground approach at an alarming speed.

The entire ride, 2,800 feet of track spread over eight acres,. takes slightly more than 30 seconds.

Matt Kresge, 16, of Allentown didn't care that it was short: "The most exhilarating, amazing ride I've ever experienced. More than anything you can imagine."

Jane Shearin of Indianapolis was delighted with what she called "the merciful brevity. ... I was scared to death I was going to bite my tongue off. I mean, it's so intense you don't know what hit you when it hits you. I rode it so I could say I rode it, but I promise you, it was my one and only ride. Way too intense. I think it burned off one of my tattoos."

The steel-track Top Thrill is decorated in a drag race theme. It's painted red, white and yellow and is accented with checkered flags. The four-car trains resemble race cars. Hot rod rock 'n' roll ("Little Deuce Coupe," "Little Old Lady from Pasadena") is piped in.

The question on a lot of minds before riding - some ACE members got in line as early as 5 a.m. in a raging thunderstorm - was whether people will wait three and four hours for a 30-second kick.

Kresge would: "Are you kidding? In a heartbeat."

Flemming would, too. "It re-defines your notion of coaster riding. There's nothing like it."

Herring hedges, but agrees: "True, it's only 30 seconds, but it's 30 seconds you'll never forget. Ever."


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