THE BUSINESS OF WRITING ABOUT THE BUSINESS OF ROLLER COASTERS
CLIFF’S AMUSEMENT PARK,
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO, JUNE
Albuquerque is hot and bright and infested with moths. Gary Hays, owner of Cliff’s Amusement Park, the only amusement park in New Mexico, tells me the moths return every five or so years. No, Hays doesn’t know where they come from; no, he’s not troubled by them. Hays is tall and ambiguously built with red, waffled skin on his neck from being out in the sun too much. He and I stand about ten yards away from the New Mexico Rattler’s tin-sided tunnel. The Rattler is Cliff’s new wooden roller coaster. It is the reason I’m here on my first assignment of the season, and one of the reasons Hays looks distracted during our interview. A moth crawls unnoticed up the right sleeve of his shirt.
“How big’s the Rattler’s footprint?” I ask him.
Hays seems puzzled and annoyed by my questions. Twice already he’s said, “You came all the way to New Mexico just to come to Cliff’s?”
“Those sled brakes?” I ask.
Now he is walking away in midsentence. I put my pad on the plastic trashcan next to me and make notes while Hays confers with a trio of burly men in wraparound sunglasses. On the back of their Cliff’s polo shirts is printed Courtesy Patrol.
Early morning, and teenage boys mill around the park with brooms and handled dustpans, sweeping imaginary trash and eyeing one another conspiratorially.
The teenagers have sparse tragic goatees, I write.
I’m feeling haphazard in New Mexico. My shorts are covered with breakfast stains and my T-shirt says “Yo La Tengo” on it. I should have worn a Funworld shirt. No wonder Hays isn’t taking the interview seriously. I look like I work at a comic-book store. A Hispanic girl raccooned in silver eye makeup walks by with an ice-cream cone. She reads my shirt and laughs. I’m not even sure what “Yo La Tengo” means.
Three years ago, I dropped out of a graduate writing program in Florida and moved to Washington, D.C., to find a job. I sent out applications and was interviewed at places like the Association of Scholastic Testing Centers, where I was given a confusing multiple-choice personality test, on which the question “Do you consider yourself a silly person?” appeared twice. (No; oh, all right, Yes.) At Georgetown Prep School, the head of the English department asked me, “Could you briefly explain how you would use Oedipus Rex to teach metaphor to a classroom of literal-minded thirteen-year-old boys?”
I answered an ad that asked, “Like amusement parks? Want to write about them?” and was called for an interview. Bill, editor-in-chief of Funworld, was enthusiastic about the magazine, the amusement industry, and, particularly, Funworld’s new computers—he called them machines—which were apparently very fast. When the interview was over, he told me the job was mine if I was interested. I was.
At the time I knew almost nothing about amusement parks and attractions. Publications assistant was the sort of entry-level position that would give me a chance to learn. I’d file contracts and send copies of Funworld to anybody who requested them. I’d edit articles that no one else wanted to edit, like the twenty-six-page case study on the effects of G-forces on roller-coaster passengers (negligible), which had awaited revision for two years. And the article about shuttle coasters, which began with the sentence “Whooooooosh!”
After a year and a half in a writing program, reading classmates’ stories in which people mashed out cigarettes on their cars and snow on trees was “evergreen dandruff,” I appreciated the magazine’s unpretentiousness. Each month the roughly six thousand members of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions receive Funworld as part of their annual dues. Members include amusement parks, zoos, aquariums, arcades, as well as the roller-coaster designers, landscape architects, foodservice companies, and others that want to sell products and services to these parks, zoos, et al. The magazine is slick, colorful, and, as its name implies, filled with good news. It is geared to the amusement-industry insider, so the thrust of articles and editorials is often specific and technical. A typical sentence from a typical feature—one on, say, roller-coaster through-put (the maximum number of guests who can ride a coaster per hour)—might read, “To improve B & M’s floorless inverted’s relatively low through-put, Six Flags has installed a pay-per-go Q-bot.” (A system that reserves a time for a prospective rider to board a coaster, skipping the queue line.)
After the last round of blue-line changes for the month’s issue, there was often little left to do but call industry people and talk to them about their companies or parks. Just about everyone I called was eager to discuss the amusement industry, and nearly every conversation revealed something new. I learned that most people tend to move to the right when entering an amusement park; that Catherine the Great helped promote a primitive version of what’s now known as the roller coaster (the Spanish for roller coaster is montaña rusa, Russian mountain); that the Netherlands has more amusement parks per capita than any other country; that Pax, a Russian designer of roller coasters and Ferris wheels, used to design high-tech equipment for the USSR’s military and space programs. Tom Rebbie of Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters described for me the two types of roller-coaster brakes, sled and magnetic. Sled brakes require a station attendant to pull a lever to stop the coaster; magnetic brakes, used on most newer coasters, do not. Wooden roller coasters are called woodies. The wheels underneath a coaster that prevent the train from lifting off the tracks are called upstops.
Cliff’s Amusement Park is a charter subscriber to Funworld, since 1975, and because the New Mexico Rattler is its largest-ever addition, I’ve come to pay my respects. It is of interest to our readers for two reasons: though it’s classified as a woodie, it has been built on a steel framework, cheaper and more easily adaptable to a limited footprint (ground space). Also, it cost about $2.5 million to construct, extremely cheap for a new coaster, some of which cost ten times that.
The Rattler, whose wooden track weaves in and out of itself and through some of the surrounding rides, is a combination twister/out-and-back coaster. Woodies come in three varieties, defined by track layout. Out-and-back coasters travel out of the station in a straight line, over hills and through banking turns, before returning to the station. Twisters have crisscrossing tracks layered over each other, through which the train weaves. The third type, twins, sometimes called racers, features two trains traveling at the same time, usually side by side. Woodies always ride atop the tracks, like railcars, never invert or loop (except Son of Beast at Paramount’s Kings Island in Ohio), and hardcore enthusiasts seem to have a deep nostalgia for them: the way they look, the tat-tat-tat-tat sound they make on the track, the way you bounce off of your seat against the lap bar over hills, the way a ride aboard one is discernibly faster on hot and rainy days, their scarcity. In the late twenties, more than 1,500 woodies were in operation in the United States; these days, there are about 125.
Hays returns from his conference with the Courtesy Patrol. I’m still writing, so I make him wait a few seconds, maybe gain some upper hand by controlling the pace of the interview. But he continues his story before I finish. While he distractedly tells me about projected percaps, a woman comes toward us, speaking into a walkie-talkie mounted on her shoulder. “I need some cheese. Over.”
As she passes, a voice says, “Do you want shredded cheese or nacho cheese? Over.”
Again Hays is interrupted by the approach of the Rattler. This time, when it heads into the tunnel, there are no passengers aboard it. The track buckles slightly as the empty train passes by. Hays turns to the Courtesy Patrol, who have silently gathered behind us. They nod, scurry off. Something important, I’m pretty sure, has been determined.
Hays sighs. “I came to Albuquerque in ’74 to further my rock-and-roll career,” he says. He waits for me to appreciate the gravity of this before telling me the story of Jonah, which sounds to me like a Christian rock group, but Hays insists it was just a normal rock group. While playing with Jonah he met his wife, daughter of Cliff and Zella Hammond, original owners of Uncle Cliff’s Kiddieland, a name Hays and his wife adjusted to sound “less kiddie.”
After the interview, Hays gives me a lime-green all-you-can-ride wristband and thanks me for coming all the way to New Mexico. I sit down in the birthday pavilion and try to make sense of notes like “We decided to bite…” and “I always figured…” Next to me a parent guards a stack of pizza boxes. Nearby, I can see Hays directing one of the Courtesy Patrol who zealously hammers a wedge beneath the track.
Most coasters rely for their thrill on the specter of danger, the feeling that at any moment the train might derail and careen off the tracks. In fact, fatal coaster accidents are rare. Since 1987, ride-related deaths in the United States have averaged about five a year. The accidents are well-publicized and their descriptions always have a gothic resonance: the American Coaster Enthusiast who undid her seatbelt, stood up, and fell off the Raven; the eleven-year-old girl who choked to death on taffy aboard the Raging Bull; the three-hundred-pound woman who slipped from her shoulder restraint and lap bar and fell from the Perilous Plunge; the woman who, while trying to tighten her grandson’s seatbelt, was struck by the Joker’s Jukebox; the woman who ruptured her middle cerebral artery on Montezooma’s Revenge; the twenty-eight-year-old “mentally challenged” man who undid his restraint and fell off the Rainbow.
As coasters have become taller, faster, and more elaborate, they have attracted increased legislative attention, particularly from Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who has been trying to introduce into law the National Amusement Park Ride Safety Act, in an attempt to close a loophole that prevents federal inspectors from regulating amusement rides. In certain states, Florida for instance, traveling fairs and carnivals are monitored more closely (by the Consumer Product Safety Commission) than are massive fixed-location theme parks such as Disney World, which are exempt from mandatory government inspections. Funworld does not discuss loopholes and coaster injuries, although we do discuss “needless additional layers of federal legislation” in monthly editorials. When Markey’s name is mentioned at an amusement-industry event, it is followed by solemn nods all around, like family members discussing a jailed relative.
I walk around Cliff’s empty, depressing kiddieland section after riding the Yo-Yo and the Galaxi roller coaster (a lame, prefab Italian model). I eat next to a group of girls who are gossiping about a friend, who has dyed her hair pink. She looks, one of the girls says, like a “ho-clown.”
Amusement parks seem to evoke a feeling of increased consequence, and I find myself spending a lot of time eavesdropping on children. The older teenagers move from ride to ride, scrutinizing one another with malignant joy. The preteens are addled with anxiety from the front gate, where they discover whether they meet the forty-eight-inch height requirement, into the park, where the question of what to ride first is almost too much to bear. Watching them is the surest cure for the solipsism of the amusement-park writer. This is their world, not mine. Here they worry about nothing except sustaining their diversion. After they test a ride they immediately judge, declaim, eulogize, abjure, laud. At Cliff’s, I overhear a boy bestow the harshest possible indictment on the kiddieland section: “I’m done here.”
The Rattler has reopened. Queues at parks like Cliff’s are never too long, but the Rattler has only one train (bad for through-put), so it has to complete its circuit before there’s any movement in the line. Moths fly out of the covered station every time the train pulls in. When it’s my turn, I sit down, secure my lap bar, and wait. Usually the operator will call out, “Any single riders?” and some errant teen or tubby dad will jump ahead to take the seat next to mine, but this operator doesn’t bother thinning out the line (also bad for through-put).
Ascending the Rattler’s first hill, I watch the desolate Sandia Mountains briefly rise into view. Just when they are unobstructed, the coaster plunges down the first hill. A smooth fall, undertowed by the machine-gun tat-tat-tat-tat sound woodies are known for. We round a bend, a hill, a high turn, through the tin-sided tunnel, another bend, another hill, and the Rattler’s hydraulic brakes hiss and we slowly coast back into the station. An untroubled ride. My first coaster of the season and I feel a mix of fear, exultation, and expectation. The expectation of bigger, faster, more troubling coasters to come, stand-up coasters, Wild Mouse coasters whose fronts seem to travel past turns before switching direction, coasters that mimic the stilted horizontal flight of Superman.
For the rest of the afternoon, I tour the park trying to get pictures for my article. Wound up from the Rattler, I have little patience to wait for photogenic moments to unfold, so I take a picture of anything brightly colored or smiling. One of the teenagers on the Demolition Disco flashes some sort of gang sign when I aim the camera at him. At Water Monkeys’ Adventure, parents eye me suspiciously while I take photographs of their shirtless toddlers splashing in the wading pool.
I buy a bowl of Dippin’ Dots, these addictive, hyperfrozen pellets of ice cream, and take it to the birthday pavilion. The pizza boxes have been emptied, and the birthday partiers have moved on. After a while, I’m ready to leave too.
I search the parking lot for my rental car, but can’t remember what color or kind it is. I look in the tinted windows of other cars, at my sagging eyes, red nose and ears, my first sunburn of the season; along with the dull queasiness, indisputable evidence of a day at an amusement park. Soon I’ll return to my motel, order Mexican food, and start work on “Cliff’s Notes” or “Cliff’s Takes the Dive, Adds Woodie,” letting Hays’s quotes and information from park press releases tell the happy tale of the Rattler. “Once upon a time, Cliff’s Amusement Park had an identity crisis,” it will begin, moving upward in a predictable arc. Whatever fun I’ve had at Cliff’s will have stayed at Cliff’s.
After fifteen minutes of searching, pressing the keychain car alarm and listening for the horn to sound, I remember that my rental car is a Cavalier. And that it’s beige.
SANDUSKY, OHIO, JULY
While I wait for Janice Witherow inside Cedar Point’s Guest Relations Office, a man with wispy toddler-blond hair yells at the clerk: “Unacceptable, this is totally unacceptable.”
He’s upset about Top Thrill Dragster, Cedar Point’s new attraction, a 420-foot-tall steel linear induction coaster that goes 120 mph. It is five feet taller than Superman the Escape at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California and 13 mph faster than Dodonpa at Fuji-Q Highlands in Japan, making it the tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world, and worthy of inclusion in Funworld’s first annual “What’s Hot” roundup. It is also closed for repairs. After I paid for parking, the lot attendant handed me a Cedar Point map and list of park rules (“costumes and disguises are prohibited”) with an insert that read, “Dear Valued Guest, I regret to inform you that Cedar Point’s newest roller coaster, Top Thrill Dragster, is not currently in operation because of mechanical problems.”
A woman carrying a walkie-talkie approaches, who I immediately know is Witherow. Petite and tanning-booth tan, dressed in a striped long-sleeve shirt and creased black pants, she has the easy, ebullient, officious bearing shared by amusement park public-relations people and sidekicks in romantic comedies. “I am sooo sorry,” she says.
She explains how Top Thrill Dragster “blew a valve in its system,” adding that it utilizes “state-of-the-art technology.” The coaster premiered two months ago; since then, it has run only about half the time. Witherow gestures with the walkie-talkie as she speaks, and smells like gum, though I don’t notice her chewing any.
I lie and assure her I can still salvage my trip to her park; that I can take pictures of the defunct coaster. In fact my trip here is fairly worthless. Without Top Thrill Dragster, my “What’s Hot” roundup has no business at Cedar Point.
Witherow and I tour the park, which has just opened its gates for the day. Groups of kids run past us while she talks about the hobbled coaster. Built by Intamin, a Swiss company which has designed five of the ten tallest coasters in the world, Top Thrill Dragster cost twenty-five million dollars. For almost any other park, the malfunction of a twenty-five-million-dollar ride, one that was supposed to be featured on the Today Show and the Discovery Channel, would be a major calamity. But Cedar Point, about an hour west of Cleveland on Lake Erie, has sixty-seven other rides, and includes a waterpark, a marina, a beach. Owned by Cedar Fair, the same corporation that owns California’s Knott’s Berry Farm and operates Knott’s Camp Snoopy, the park inside Mall of America, Cedar Point has more roller coasters than any other park in the world, sixteen of them, four of which are taller than 200 feet, the high-water mark for coasters a few years ago. Miles away from Cedar Point, driving on the thin peninsula toward the park, you can see the flashing airplane-warning beacons on the taller coasters.
Cedar Point is an active combatant in the “coaster wars,” one of the more tedious recent developments in the amusement industry. In 2000, it debuted Millennium Force, 93 mph fast, with a 310-foot-tall first hill, claiming it to be the tallest and fastest roller coaster ever built. Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California, which owned the entry for world’s tallest/fastest coaster in the Guinness Book of Records for its 415-foot, 100 mph Superman the Escape, disputed the claim, saying that Millennium Force was still more than 100 feet shy of their record. Cedar Point said Nuh-uh, Six Flags Magic Mountain. Superman, a shuttle coaster which goes straight up and then back down, may be taller and faster, but it’s not a roller coaster; it’s definitely the tallest/fastest thrill ride in the world, but roller coasters make a lap, out and back. The argument became irrelevant less than three months later, when Nagashima Spa Land in Japan premiered Steel Dragon 2000, 8’ 3” taller and 2 mph faster than Millennium Force.
This year, Cedar Point has exceeded all disputability with Top Thrill Dragster, officially the tallest, fastest nonworking roller coaster in the world, and one that does not look fun at all. A steel obelisk skeleton, traversed by a warped-horseshoe-shaped track, candy-cane-striped, the coaster accelerates to 120 mph on a four-second straightaway (average coasters max out at about 60), goes 420 feet straight up, banks around the peak of the tower, and then freefalls back down at 90 degrees. Unlike Superman the Escape, it completes a circuit, though the entire ride lasts less than thirty seconds. It is like the id of a regular roller coaster.
Witherow and I go into the Town Hall Museum and look at the displays. Cedar Point started as a bathhouse in the 1870s, renting bathing suits and umbrellas. By 1906, it had become a modest midway, serviced by steamships from Cleveland on Lake Erie. Since 1990, it has added an average of one coaster per year. “Few subjects tend to fire the imagination or captivate the mind,” one caption says, “like the thrill and excitement of an amusement park.” I see that Sherwood Anderson stayed several times at the park’s Hotel Breakers. He even set one of his short stories at Cedar Point, the aptly titled “I’m a Fool.”
A man and a boy walk inside. The boy says, as if tricked, “A museum? What are we doing in a museum? I said I wanted to ride the Mean Streak.”
“Okay, but first why don’t we go to the raft ride and watch people get wet?”
“Because I don’t want to watch people get wet,” the boy says. “I want to have fun.”
On the way out of the museum, Witherow says, “How are you doing?” to a maintenance man sweeping the stairs.
He shrugs, says, “Ehhhh…”
“That’s good,” she says.
In the past three years, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to PR people, and I must admit that, as a species, I sort of loathe them. Most are sneaky and defensive and dependent on an instant camaraderie that will absolve whatever lie or half-truth they’re about to tell you. That said, I can’t help liking Witherow. Because I’m no investigative journalist, or any kind of journalist, for that matter, she doesn’t need to concern herself with script management and damage control, and she’s keen enough to know this. She’s ingenuously enthused about the park, where she’s worked for twelve years. She tells me that a few weeks ago a newspaper reporter from Cincinnati came here as part of an assignment to try all the roller coasters in Ohio, and Witherow rode along with him on all of Cedar Point’s coasters, because she felt bad that he had to go on them alone. How can I be skeptical about someone who would do that?
Indeed, listening to her I feel myself settling into an easy mood, even though I won’t be bringing home a story; or maybe because I won’t be bringing home a story. I’ve put my notepad in my backpack; all that I’m obliged to do is enjoy myself. By the time the tour ends, I’m agreeing with just about everything Witherow says. Not only that, but upping the ante on her enthusiasm. She points out the Good Time Theatre and says, “We have a great live show over there called ‘Snoopy Rocks on Ice.’”
“Awesome,” I say. “I’m really into ice shows,” which I don’t think is true, since I’ve never been to an ice show.
At a crossing of the C.P. & L.E. railroad, a teenager spits a fried-egg-sized loogie onto the walkway. Witherow sneers and points down at the loogie. “That right there is my pet peeve,” she whispers.
“Yes!” I say. “And people who flip cigarettes out of their cars!”
After being paged on her walkie-talkie, Witherow excuses herself and I watch an obese man heap cheese fries with a fork into a manmade lake. The cheese fries, which float disconcertingly well, are attacked from beneath by carp and from above by seagulls. The fat man empties his bucket of fries, scraping it to get all the congealed cheese, and watches the animals, laughing at their hungry gullibility. He scans the faces of those around him to see if anybody else is enjoying his act of defiance, which, unfortunately, several people are. He nods and laughs, looks like a bloated rooster.
Not long ago, Bill promoted me to managing editor of Funworld. I was given a slight pay raise, a new office, a larger monitor for my machine, and I am now in charge of the magazine’s monthly columns, including one called Game Room, written by a man who insists that his byline read, “Michael C. Getlan, director of enthusiasm and opportunity!, Amusement Consultants Ltd.” Four times a year, though, Getlan abandons this byline to write Game Room under the pseudonym Professor Maximillian Smiley (“professional smileologist, Ph.D., Smileology”), who is Getlan’s clown alter ego. The Smiley columns have jaunty titles like “Little Smiles Mean Big Business to You!” and include a photo of Prof. Smiley himself in red nose and rainbow-striped hat. Last month, I mistakenly included the Smiley photo with Getlan’s byline, and was called by Getlan. After I answered the phone, “This is Kevin,” he said, “This is bullshit.”
I have been writing about amusement parks for people who work at amusement parks for three years now. I have been to more than forty amusement parks, eight zoos, four aquariums, three go-kart tracks, and one haunted cornfield. I now know, after riding coasters named after benevolent comic-book heroes and malevolent comic-book villains, that although Superman: Ride of Steel induces the exact abdominal discord as its Spanish counterpart, Superman: la Atraccion de Acero at Movie World in Madrid, both are distinct from the peristaltic tingle caused by Dr. Doom’s Fearfall in Orlando. My articles have been translated into four languages and are read closely by at least one Japanese man. In German, the final paragraph of my profile of Movie World Madrid reads, Das ist nicht Hollywood. Das ist nicht Spanien. Es ist etwas Besonderes. This isn’t Hollywood. This isn’t Spain. It is something squarely, agreeably in between.
I have interviewed Pele as well as Dolly Parton, who, among her better-known pursuits, owns Dollywood, an amusement park, and Dolly’s Splash Country, a waterpark, both in her hometown Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. She used my first name when answering my questions, a few times even abbreviating it to Kev, causing me an undue amount of inner reverie throughout the interview. When I told her that I was from Funworld, she laughed and said, “Funworld? That’s my world.”
After Witherow presents me with a commemorative Top Thrill Dragster pin and cuts me loose, I walk around the park and try to figure out what to do. Since Top Thrill Dragster is closed, I don’t have to hang around. I could leave right now without anyone noticing or objecting, but some rudimentary sense of duty keeps me here. Early in the day, seeing groups of teens sprinting from ride to ride, I start feeling a little eager, too, being near so much dizzy possibility. A boy and his mother walk past; I hear the boy say, “Hey, Mom, let’s go back in time.” Yes, I shall press on.
Besides Top Thrill Dragster, Cedar Point has a standup coaster, an inverted coaster, two hyper-coasters (200-plus feet tall), a giga-coaster (300-plus feet tall), a steel coaster with a wooden frame, a wooden coaster with a wooden frame, a prefab coaster, a bobsled coaster, a kiddie coaster, a double-twisting impulse coaster, a classic coaster, a Wild Mouse coaster, and a mine-train coaster. I ride Mantis first, a standup coaster, which were a big deal a few years ago, but in the canon of Cedar Point’s offerings, pretty unexceptional. At many other parks it would be the marquee attraction, with hour-long lines. Here, I walk to the front of the line and board the coaster immediately. The ride is smooth and fast, with four inversions and a corkscrew, and the usual hydraulic hiss signifying that it’s done.
Second coaster: Magnum XL-200, an out-and-back hyper-coaster, the first coaster in the world to break the 200-foot, 70-mph mark. The guy in the seat next to mine takes off his baseball hat and tidies his hair before the first drop. Another uneventful ride, except for a girl behind me shouting, halfway through, “My boob fell out of my bra!”
Walking to Iron Dragon, I see an albino man wearing a safari hat and sunglasses, the first one I’ve seen in years. Then, a few minutes later, I see another, totally different albino.
Iron Dragon, a suspended bobsled coaster, is slow and tiresome. I ride Raptor, a floorless inverted coaster with six loops, an experience partially ruined by the guy next to me’s sweaty, meaty forearm rubbing against mine through the tight flips and turns.
In the three years I’ve been getting paid to ride coasters, I’ve found that, unless I make a point to note what’s going on while I’m riding, then write it down once it ends, I forget the specifics of a ride almost instantaneously. Afterward, it seems like two and a half minutes of inchoate panic, like a rough spell in an airplane, the quicker forgotten about, the better, which, like I said, comes fairly easy, maybe because I have no one except myself to rehash it with. This is the A-1 predominant fact about my trip to these parks: for most of the day, I am by myself. Many people ride alone on roller coasters—maybe their parents or boyfriends are afraid of heights—but I have yet to meet another person who goes unaccompanied to amusement parks. The amusement park “experience” doesn’t bear close scrutiny, the kind that comes with repeated solo visits. After awhile, the surfeit of foolishness becomes predictable, disagreeable. The boy with the chili-bowl haircut going ballistic against the harness of the riding-lawnmower-sized stroller he is buckled into. The fluorescent fanny packs and stupid T-shirts: 2 Cool 2 Do Drugs, Dad U Da Man, Michigan’s Most Wanted. The obese and the fiercely obese: the guy who begins his order at ice-cream carts with, “We’re gonna need…”
In the Gemini Children’s area, I try focusing on a single kid: over there, the little boy patiently enjoying himself on the Frog Hopper. He is waving to his mom, no malice in her either. I tail the two of them throughout the Children’s Area, watch them confer over which rides he should go on. “Witches’ Wheel looks a little too scary,” he says. A thoughtful boy.
“Are you hungry?” the mom says.
“Sort of,” the boy says. “But not really hungry.”
The two, in their mutual regard, calm me down. Sometimes you need a diversion from your diversion.
Time for some live entertainment.
At the Red Garter Saloon, I order macho nachos, and wait for the show to begin. On stage is a neon outline of the United States with Maine represented as a guitar headstock and America Rocks! in the center. My waitress seems intent on repeating the phrase “macho nachos” as often as possible. “So that’s macho nachos,” she said when I ordered. Bringing my water, “Your macho nachos will be right up.” Bringing my macho nachos, “Here are your macho nachos.” Five minutes later, “How are your macho nachos?” When I’m finished, “How were your macho nachos?”
An elderly woman next to me notices me writing in my notepad and asks, “You in school or something?” I say yes. She offers to buy me a beer and I say yes again.
She tells me about her daughter, a member of A.C.E. which, the woman says, is a “coaster club” (I blankly nod, though I know all about the American Coaster Enthusiasts). The two of them tour the country’s amusement parks every summer, the daughter riding all the coasters (with her fellow Enthusiasts), the mother busying herself in saloons and taverns like this one. As she tells me how good the nachos were at Six Flags Great America, the lights dim and “America Rocks” begins.
“Put your hands together!” one of the performers says, launching into a show that combines all the fist-pumping patriotism of contemporary country music with the toothless swagger of classic rock. It starts with “We’re an American Band,” performed by eight men and women, racially integrated, backed by a leather-vested four-piece, putatively American, band. The male performers are as peppy as aerobics instructors, making extreme eye contact with everybody in the audience at once. The women, wearing leather miniskirts and red chiffon shirts, are medleying into a slow country song with lyrics I can’t quite make out: “I’m on a mission / I got a cause / something honky-tonk / something bars.” Most of the show is spent trying to get the crowd excited about the show. “How y’all feeling?” and “Let’s hear it for America!” Another rock medley. Costume change! I order a second beer. One of the male performers saunters out dressed in drag, twirling a feather boa. The show ends with a rendition of the theme to The Drew Carey Show, and everyone in the Red Garter Saloon cheers, realizing America really does sort of rock. The lights turn on and the elderly woman stands up and says, “Good luck with school.”
Vince introduces himself as we sit down on Millennium Force, Cedar Point’s only working giga-coaster. “I’ll be riding with you today,” Vince says. He’s been waiting in line an hour and a half, and he’s pretty excited, though this is the third time today he has been on Millennium Force. On his forearm is a tattoo of a purplish teddy bear holding a heart in its lap with WHY? in the center of the heart, one of the more unfortunate in the collection of unfortunate tattoos on display at Cedar Point, second only to the wobbly cursive “Lucky You” I saw inked above a woman’s puddingy navel.
As we ascend the lift hill, Vince tells me that there’s a camera in the second tunnel, and that he plans to look as crazy as possible when his picture is taken.
The Millennium Force’s first hill, fast, near-vertical, weightless, is like being driven off a cliff. Lake Erie is a pale blur to the left, the park a bright blur to the right. We roar through the first tunnel and toward the second, so fast that I find myself involuntarily shouting, along with Vince, Wooooooooo! Nearing the second tunnel, I lean forward to try and mug for the camera, but am thrown back in my seat by a swell of macho-nacho nausea. I close my eyes and hold on to my lap bar for the rest of the ride. The coaster is slowing down. Vince is still screaming.
I stumble over to the photo kiosk to look at the rows of televisions, which display still-shots of each car in the coaster. On the second television, top row, there’s Vince and me. Vince is pumping both fists, his face composed in a wolf-howl of extreme coaster partisanship, and I am gripping my seat restraint, grimacing, fighting back queasiness. I take out my wallet and buy the picture.
OLD TOWN, KISSIMMEE,
On my last assignment of the summer I’ve come to Orlando, Florida, in search of out of the way attractions that Funworld’s readers might not be familiar with. Old Town, a collection of shops and rides across I-4 from the Disney World magicopolis, isn’t so much out-of-the-way as buried in Disney runoff. Nearby are Water Mania, a waterpark with menacing-named slides like the Riptide and the Double Berzerker; Arabian Knights, where you can eat slow-roasted prime rib and watch horses run around the world’s largest indoor equestrian arena; Horse World, a stable that advertises “No stress! No phones! No traffic! No exhaust fumes! Just the creaking of saddle leather and the smell of clean fresh air”; Discovery Cove, where you can pay $230 to swim with trained dolphins for forty-five minutes; and Gatorland, where you can watch alligators lunge at dead chickens on a clothesline.
A Florida native, I was familiar with the sunshiny lassitude at places like Old Town long before I started traveling to amusement parks. In high school, friends and I would skip class to go to Circus World, always uncrowded on weekdays, and ride a woodie called Michael Jackson’s Thrill Coaster (never realizing how perilously close we were to the punchline of a Jay Leno joke). Circus World shut down and reopened as Boardwalk and Baseball. MJ’s Thrill Coaster became the Florida Hurricane, but still the park was never crowded—a few teenagers, maybe a family from Illinois who had missed the Disney World turnoff and decided to stop at the first amusement park they came to. A few years later, the park closed down for good and the Florida Hurricane was disassembled, moved to Arkansas, and renamed the Arkansas Twister.
Elizabeth Bishop described Florida as a “careless, corrupt state,” “the poorest post-card of itself.” My most indelible memory of my home state is watching a high-school classmate dig a hole at the beach, pull his Z-28 over it, drain his oil, and drive away, without bothering to cover the hole. In my time at Funworld I’ve come to Orlando, a city I once vowed never to return to, five times. (“Orlando… You Never Outgrow It,” the billboards say.)
Forty years ago Walt Disney sent people to southwest Orlando to covertly buy a San Francisco–sized patch of swampland for two hundred dollars an acre, and now, now people make equally vigorous arguments, depending on their tolerance for hospitality, that Orlando is the best or the worst place on earth. It is one big cruise ship, everyone employed to attack you with a desperate, righteous overattentiveness. Yesterday, handing me the keys to my rental car, the agent hesitated and said, “You know what, Kevin? I’m gonna see if I can’t get you a free upgrade. I just don’t think this Mirage is enough car for you.”
I have two hours until my appointment with Ingrid, Old Town’s marketing manager, time I had planned to use to scope out the amusement park, take pictures, maybe get a chair massage, but I see that I’m hopelessly early. Old Town, laid out like two strip malls facing one another with a pair of sidewalks in between, has just opened. I am one of about ten people here, the others looking like they might have just woken up on one of Old Town’s park benches and now have to find somewhere else to go. I walk toward the amusement park, past stores with names chosen for maximum unambiguity: for pet supplies, there’s Pet Palace; for British goods, Union Jack British Goods; for people looking for a funky boutique, Funky Boutique. There’s a store that offers “corn rowing,” and Sock Exchange, which displays a considerable selection of socks in its front window, including the promise of “naughty socks” inside.
In Lights N’ Beyond, the cashier, a tan, feral-looking woman with an uncombed bob of coarse gray hair, squirts an eyedropper of something into her mouth. On the floor of the store encouraging abstractions have been painted: Bless, Inventive, Praise, Unwind, Miracles, Effortless, Happy. The shelves hold an array of ceramic angels and fairies. “Who is your main clientele?” I ask. She closes her eyes to fully consider the question. “Oh, you know,” she says, sighing and smiling at the same time. “The people.”
In Magic Max magic shop, I admire a wall display of fake vomits as the cashier shuffles cards next to the cash register. “Hey, you like magic?” he asks me.
I turn around. Sure, I tell him, who doesn’t?
“All right,” he says. “It’s my first day. I’m trying to finish this checklist.” He points to a clipboard holding a sheet of paper that says “David Martinez, Magic Demo Checklist.” Out of the thirty or so items on the list, two are checked. David is short, with a shaved head, round silver-rimmed glasses, and well-ironed clothes. While he shuffles the cards, cutting them again and again with his small hands, I notice his arms are trembling.
“It’s my first day,” he repeats. “I told them I wasn’t ready, but they said, ‘You’re ready.’”
The first trick, he tells me, is the Levitating Card. I pick a card, the queen of spades, which, without looking at it, he slips back into the deck. He shuffles the cards, arms still shaking, transfers the deck to the right hand, then to the left, then to the right again, hesitates, and says, “Shoot. I screwed that one up.”
He reshuffles the cards, I pick again, the five of hearts, and he holds the deck in his left hand, “All right, I need you to concentrate on your card. You concentrating?” I try to concentrate on the five of hearts as I watch the heel of his hand flexing to push the card out of the back of the deck. “You’re not concentrating!” he says. He puts the cards down and looks sadly at the checklist. “It’s my fault,” I assure him. “I was still thinking about the queen of spades.”
Walking out of the store, I notice a yellow sign on the front door that says “Help Wanted: Intelligent Outgoing Clean-cut Magic Demonstrators.”
“I’ll get it,” he says as I’m leaving. “Come back in a little while.”
Above the A&W Restaurant, in Old Town’s Business Office, the secretary tells me that the marketing manager, Ingrid, has stood me up. It’s not the first time this has happened to me, and it isn’t the first time I’ve been relieved by it. Any questions I had when I came here have been answered. How do they compete with Disney World? They don’t. Do they plan to expand their amusement park any time soon? Doesn’t look like it. Who is their main clientele? You know. The people.
The secretary seems more annoyed than I am by Ingrid’s negligence. She calls Ingrid’s cell phone, hands me the receiver, and Ingrid tells me she’s on the highway. I hear traffic noise in the background: story checks out. A “big meeting” came up unexpectedly, she’s really sorry, can we reschedule, etc. I tell her I have an appointment at Water Mania, and after that I’m going to Gatorland to see about those alligators, then I’m leaving town. I’m embarrassed to tell her that this trip to Old Town is the main reason I’m in Orlando, that my appointment with her is my sole appointment today. That I’ll end up writing my article based strictly on press releases and the Old Town infomercials I watched last night in my hotel room. I’ll call in a few days for an interview, I tell her.
Outside, I buy ten dollars’ worth of ride tickets at a phone-booth-sized ticket kiosk. Smaller parks have been known to count things like water fountains and snack carts when they advertise “40 Fun Attractions.” Old Town claims its amusement park has more than eighteen attractions, and I’m pretty sure it has included this ticket kiosk in its total. The rides all are running at about 10 percent capacity. I sit in the shade and watch a young boy ride on what might be the slowest-rotating carousel I’ve ever seen. His parents wait behind a metal fence, and each time the carousel comes around, the boy calls out to them. First rotation: “Is this it?”
Second: “My horse’s name is Pharaoh.”
Third: “Giddy up, Pharaoh!”
Fourth: “Pharaoh’s not listening.”
My last assignment of the summer. This late in the season my job has begun to feel more like missionary work than anything else: visiting amusement parks, far-off and not, riding coasters, declaring them awesome. At times I feel like the son in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Everything That Rises Must Converge” who wants to be a writer but, for now, sells typewriters. “Selling typewriters is close to writing,” a woman assures his mother. “He can go right from one to the other.”
The more I write for Funworld, the less these park visits contribute to the articles I turn in. I’ve learned to figure out quickly what angle to use, and I write my column primarily as a means of conveying good news, with exclamation-point-enthusiastic sentences and plenty of specifics about square footage and percaps. Each article takes less time to write than the one before it. I lean heavily on quotes and try to remain factual but upbeat. I’m not exactly embarrassed by the articles, like friends I’ve assigned articles who’ve asked for pseudonyms. But when I read a sentence I’ve written like “If you walk into your local haunted attraction… expecting white-bed-sheet-covered ghosts with cutout holes for eyes or stiff-armed mummies creeping toward you with their hands raised, you’ll go home disappointed,” I can’t help but think, Huh? Who am I talking to?
When I first started working for Funworld I talked about my job a lot. “They are paying me to go to amusement parks,” I’d say. I loved the preposterousness, the total illegitimacy of a job that demanded I ride roller coasters. My whole life I’d been risking absurdity, and here I had finally arrived. Everything I encountered on the job was so perfectly uncanny, like the deadpan asides in a Monty Python sketch. The subject lines of emails I received from amusement manufacturers: “Do You See the Glass Laugh-Full?” and “What to Think About When Buying a Robot.” The pronouncements made by Story Musgrave, space shuttle astronaut turned motivational-speaker, at an amusement-industry convention: “I’ve always wanted to know what it’s like to cry in space,” and “Water is a magical place,” and “Every spacewalker wants a face-full of mother Earth.”
Spend enough time in it, and Funworld becomes a commonplace world. The odd becomes more mundane; the whimsical, more disagreeable. Slowly I began adopting a policy of selective ignoring: not reading the magazine after it’s printed, rarely talking about my job, to avoid the show of envy when people find out I am paid to write about amusement parks. Even my father-in-law, a Greek historian and foe to all things A.D., thinks I’ve stumbled onto a sweet deal. After reading an article about Colonial Williamsburg, the most popular tourist attraction in the United States, he came up with an idea for his own history-land: Platonopolis, a tourist destination based on the work of Plato. “It would attract thousands, millions,” he says. He envisions Platonopolis as a university, agoras, galleries, cafés. But, he insists, “I would not allow cheeseburgers.”
Clouds have gathered over Old Town, not portentous clouds, but typical, puffy late-summer clouds. At the Windstorm roller coaster, I hand five tickets to the elderly man operator. He scowls at the tickets, tells me to put them back in my pocket, and I board Windstorm’s front car and pull down my lap bar. The vinyl-covered seat is hot and cracked. Before the attendant checks the lap bar or looks to see if I’m ready, the coaster starts its ascent, bouncing back and forth on a chain sprocket up the hill…
A confession: aboard the Windstorm, I start to feel a sense of disappointment that the season is over. Empathy, for all the kids who have to return home and to school? Nostalgia, for my misspent, misappreciated summer breaks in Daytona Beach? I have a sense of incomplete completion, of something nearing the end of its circuit. No more Dippin’ Dots and invitations to “fun-ebrations”; no more monthly emails from Funworld’s translator, a second-language English speaker who tries to render my industry-specific prose into Spanish: “Kevin, what is hyper-giga-coaster? What is meant to bungee-trampoline? I have doubts.”
The Windstorm slips from the sprocket onto a metal track that’s scuffed in places, black with grease. Propelled by inertia, I fall into a series of slow, slow corkscrews. I lean back and close my eyes.
When the ride is over, the elderly attendant looks up from the classifieds.
“You wanna go once more?” he asks.
I think: no.
And say: sure.
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