AS my first encounter with the Anaconda roller coaster at King's Dominion began, I swore this newfound recreational outlet of mine had run its course. Just get me through the next 90 seconds, I prayed as the train inched 130 feet to the top of the first hill, and I'll never flirt with high-speed high jinks again.
That ascent to the ride's highest point took only 27 seconds, but it seemed like an eternity. Then suddenly the train made a 90-degree turn, banked to the right and plunged 144 feet into an underwater tunnel.
My eyes closed just before splashdown. No, I didn't get wet, but I couldn't escape that overwhelming sensation of speed as we whipped 100 feet back up into the air and into a series of loops that tossed us right then left then right again. Someone in the back -- with eyes obviously open -- yelled "corkscrew!" just before we went into a 156-foot-long double twisting loop. I didn't completely open my eyes again until the train screeched into the station.
As I unclenched my teeth and pulled my trembling body out of the car, I remarked to my seatmate that the "dive" had to be the worst part of the ride.
"Worst or best," she answered, "depending on how you look at it." Indeed she was right. Some people actually enjoy being white-knuckled. My problem, I fear, is that I may be turning into one of them.
By the time I reached the bottom of the exit ramp and looked back at the 2,700-foot track snaking over the lake, I had begun to reconsider. After all, I survived in one piece didn't I? Maybe it wasn't that bad. Maybe I should give myself credit for riding one of the fastest, highest, most looping coast
ers around. Maybe I should get in line again. Maybe next time I'll even open my eyes.
Such are the ramblings of a late bloomer to roller coastering. For, despite several trips to Gwynn Oak and other parks in my youth, I had never been on a real, "grown-up" roller coaster until two years ago. And suffice it to say that since I remember Gwynn Oak, the popular amusement park near Woodlawn that died nearly 20 years ago, I've been a grown-up a lot longer than two years.
I've always been fascinated by coasters; I just never had the courage to ride one -- until that fateful visit to Hersheypark in 1989. For whatever reason -- maybe it was the desire to conquer my longtime fear; maybe it was the preteen in our group who verged on calling me a "wimp," -- I took on the Sooperdooperlooper.
While the 14-year-old coaster pales in comparison to most coasters built in the '90s, I was suitably impressed. The thrill of having conquered -- I should say survived -- something I had only dreamed of doing was so invigorating that I led our little group on to another, more fearsome challenge -- the Comet, a wooden coaster in the old-time, rough-riding tradition.
The Comet was built in 1946 and remodeled in 1978. It has a drop of 96 feet that can lift you off your seat and another one of 60 feet.
"A piece of cake," I said later, though on immediately disembarking the white wonder I was said to have whispered "never again."
Now I'm taking on challenges at the drop of an editor's remark. "Six loops and an underwater tunnel, you say? No problem, I can handle it."
But after a 1 1/2 -hour wait in line, when my turn came to ride the Anaconda, which, by the way, is named after the largest snake in the Western Hemisphere, I was scared speechless. My derring-do had disappeared.
"You're scared. But it's a fun-type scared," says Ray Ueberroth, president of the American Coaster Enthusiasts, who has ridden more than 300 different roller coasters in his lifetime. ACE has about 4,000 members, who spend their summers cruising the country looking for new thrills, christening new coasters and generally getting high on being scared out of their minds.
"It was great," says Ueberroth, a Baltimore resident, of his first ride on the Anaconda. "That first drop, when you look down [at the underwater tunnel] and you know that hole is not big enough rTC for the train . . . " he says, recalling the specific fear of crashing into the lake.
"That first drop" is right, I agreed; that's where I was when my eyes first closed on me.
"Well," he says with reassurance, "you'll have to ride it again. And next time, as you go through the double loop, look to your left to see the Rebel Yell turning upside down twice."
The Rebel Yell, Kings Dominion's first roller coaster, is made of wood. The train travels over 12 hills, including one gut-wrenching drop of 85 feet, and reaches a speed of 65 mph.
For some, who say you haven't been on a real roller coaster until your shoulder's been dislocated, "woodies" are the only way to go. In fact coaster fans form battle lines over which are more thrilling -- the rickety, usually older, wooden structures or the smooth, new, steel rides.
Actually, steel-framed coasters can do a lot that wooden ones can't. They can turn you upside down in vertical, sideways, figure-8 and corkscrew loops. They can even hurl you backward.
In fact, the new Sidewinder that opened at Hersheypark this year is a "boomerang" design. It pulls you backward to the top of a 105-foot-high lift and then releases you to run through a half-loop, corkscrew and 360-degree loop before stopping at the top of another 105-foot lift. Then it repeats the series backward. The whole trip takes 90 seconds and reaches a top speed of 50 mph.
Steel also allows you to roller coast standing up or sitting in a free-swinging car hanging from the track rather than riding on top of it. And their speed can be dizzying.
Wooden coasters, however, can go pretty fast, too, and rely on those steep drops as their big thrill. They shake and rattle a lot, make intimidating noises and, in some cases, can literally lift you out of your seat.
Ueberroth, who is 54, is among those whose hearts lie with the woodies.
"The wooden coasters give you a different ride each time you're on them," says Ueberroth. They run faster after a full day in operation, and in the rain, for instance. "And on the wooden coaster you have less of a feeling of being in control."
One thing you can control on roller coasters is where you sit. Some die-hards stand in line an extra half-hour to ride in the "front car" of the train, where the thrills are particularly exaggerated.
Up front, Ueberroth explains, you get a lot of "lift," and seem to be pulled out of your seat. In the back, you get pulled down a hill faster and are pushed into your seat more. In the middle, he says, the sensations even out.
"It's the perfect place to start. The gentlest ride is in the middle."
Indeed that's where this neophyte prefers to ride, though I don't know if I'm ready to use the word gentle in the same sentence with roller coaster.
Sure, I'm probably hooked on this hobby. And I'll probably be out there again this summer looking for some new challenge. Probably one of those stand-up jobs.
Hersheypark, Hershey, Pa., 90 miles from Baltimore, Exit 28 off I-83 North. Open daily. Call 1-800-HERSHEY for admission prices.
Sidewinder: New steel coaster that loops three times forward and same three backward in 90 seconds.
Sooperdooperlooper: Steel looping coaster with 70-foot drop and foot-high single loop.
Comet: Wooden coaster with 96-foot drop and 60-foot drop. It reaches 50 mph.
Trailblazer: Centrifugal-force coaster with tight, side-winding turns tilting riders sideways.
Kings Dominion, Doswell, Va., 130 miles from Baltimore, Exit 40 of I-95 South. Opens weekends only through Sunday. Opens daily May 30. Call 1-804-876-5000 for admission prices.
Anaconda: New steel looping coaster with underwater tunnel.
Shockwave: Stand-up coaster with a 95-foot lift, vertical first loop and horizontal second loop.
Grizzly: Massive wooden coaster with 87-foot-high first hill and double figure-eight layout.
Rebel Yell: Wooden, double-track racing coaster that reaches 65 mph.
Six Flags, Jackson, N.J., 144 miles from Baltimore, Exit 7A off N.J. Turnpike. Open daily. Call 1-908-928-1821 for admission prices.
Great American Scream Machine: Steel coaster with seven loops, 173-foot drop and speed approaching 70 mph.
BRolling Thunder: Dual-track, wooden racing coaster with 10 hills.
Lightnin' Loops: Two interlocking coasters that loop and then return along same route.
Shockwave: Stand-up looping coaster that reaches 55 mph.
Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, Va., 200 miles from Baltimore. Take I-95 to I-295 to I-64. Open daily. Call 1-804-253-3350 for admission prices.
Loch Ness Monster: Steel coaster with a 114-foot drop, followed by two 360-degree interlocking loops. It exceeds 60 mph.
Big Bad Wolf: "Suspended" coaster with a free-flight sensation and a 70-foot plunge that skims the water.