Flipping out at Cedar Point

The ultimate ride this summer could very well start up on the edge of the atmosphere where you can see the endlessness of space above and the earth below. We've got two ambition-fueled adventurers — a retired French army officer and a Hollywood stuntman — spending millions to get special balloons up 25 miles so they can jump out and make it back to terra firma with special parachutes and special pressure suits.

Michel Fournier and Steve Truglia, lesser mortals salute you — salute you for your daring, for your cunning, not to mention your future celebrity endorsements should you actually be right about surviving the sound barrier.

Much as we may identify with your madness, we'll do something more modest. For lots of us, a good amusement park ride is bone-rattling enough.

That was the inspiration that put my 15-year-old son, Khalil, and me on the detours of I-75 south headed for a two-hour-plus drive to Cedar Point, the rollercoaster capital of the world with 17 coasters. (Though fans of Six Flags Magic Mountain's 16 rides in Valencia, Calif., have been known to duke it with Point fans over the relative merits of the respective ride sets.)

Actually our plan had gone somewhat awry before we even got out of the house. The original idea was that Khalil would recruit a Friend for this glorious adventure. He and Friend would actually endure the sudden accelerations, dives, dips, spins, gyrations, corkscrews, climbs, tilts, whirls, drops, etc. I, meanwhile, would sit on a bench in the shade leisurely reading Joseph Lanza's Gravity: Tilted Perspectives on Rocketships, Rollercoasters, Earthquakes, and Angel Food. It's a tome I have resisted tossing out for the 11 years since its release, thinking someday, someday, I'll actually need to read this. This could be the day.

Khalil and Friend would report back on the indignities visited upon their bodies by the brightest minds of advanced coaster engineering. I would compare and contrast Khalil and Friend's accounts with Lanza's learned points. Maybe I'd gain insight into passages such as this:

The journey by rollercoaster is Manifest Destiny's next phase. Here the horizontal path that America's pioneers took across the Great Plains and the vertical direction of the astronauts intersect on the Wayward Ho! Trail. This is the new Gold Rush, a new Donner Party where the risks may not be quite as daunting but where the prospects of potentially skewered flesh imply that cannibals are never far behind.

And this:

The rollercoaster's genesis in particular demonstrated how the applied sciences intended to "save" us also were destined to go berserk. … A few otherwise upstanding engineers who contributed their skills to railroads, aviation and military weaponry had been known to conceal rollercoaster blueprints beneath their trench coats, plotting out new distortions in altitude and track alignment to take us ever so much farther over the edge.

But Friend had a last-minute change of mind, and no other recruit could be found late on a Saturday night. I'd suggested that I might make my Summer Guide trip a virtual vacation in the online world of Second Life. We could stay home.

"But you'd be such a loser, Dad," Khalil protested. "My dad is going to play a computer game for vacation?"

Thus we came to the plan that we'd drive to the Point, but I'd give up my bench seat and actually go on rides as the co-guinea pig. If he picked it, I'd ride it too. This would be, as they say, quality father-son time, to be immortalized by the line, "Remember, I saved you from Second Life."

A sunny day, the open road, CDs blaring (his choices with me in mind: the Roots' Phrenology and a Common hits compilation), plenty to talk about from school to summer plans.

I talked about amusement parks in my childhood. Going to the now-defunct Bob-Lo Island, I'd idealized the teens who worked there. My first notion of a job wasn't a paper route, but being the person who checked seat belts on the Wild Mouse, giving a yank, slapping the metal canister of a car and sending folks down the track — to the sensation they were about to tossed to their doom, to that emotional cocktail of giddiness with a twist of terror.

Finally at the park and en route to our first ride, I thought about that sensation as a small child of being swung around by an adult or a bigger kid. Khalil said he didn't have particular memories of that, but he recalled that feeling of being pulled up off the ground way up, all the way to touch the ceiling. That laughing bundle I once could rocket to the ceiling is now shoulder-to-shoulder with me.

We have just a couple of hours, so we'll stick with a few of the greatest hits and, as Khalil puts it, "no buzzkills." No dodge cars, no Ferris wheels, no cable-cars. I will not even suggest peeking at the newly opened Camp Snoopy ...

Our first stop in the Maverick, which a sign proclaims as Amusement Today 's best new ride of 2007. Khalil rode this one last year on a class trip when the line was more than an hour — and worth it. Today, we're at about half that wait time. The name and some of the decor are intended to evoke some sort of mining town in the Old West. But it's less Zane Grey and more The Wild, Wild West, the Jules Verne-ish alternative universe of the old TV show and the more recent movie.

Once strapped in, your "mine car" climbs to the top of a 105-foot hill, then flies down at a 95-degree angle to within five feet of the ground and on to twists, banks and hairpin turns, covering 4,450 feet in all over two-and-a-half minutes. Or at least that's what Cedar Point claims the ride consists of. Maybe with time you learn to parse the ride you've just been on and describe it the way you might, say, sketch a map to your house. But me? Crouched down, suddenly obsessed with the notion that my glasses are about to fly from my face while I'm flying into space? When I clamber out, I can articulate what I've just experienced about as well as a sock can articulate the wash cycle.

Khalil is wide-eyed with a mischievous grin. "You were scared!" he accuses. "Were you scared?" he asks rhetorically. "Say that wasn't sweet!" he dares.

"Sweet!" I say wanly, and sidestep the scared question.

Next stop is the Millennium Force. In line, we notice the chap behind us sporting a well-worn American Coaster Enthusiasts T-shirt; he's a card-carrying coaster fan. He informs us he hits 40-50 rides a year. This, he agrees is the best ride.

"Does it still freak you out?" Khalil wants to know.

"Oh, it still freaks me out," he says, with what I've now identified as the experienced rider's grin.

Strapped into the car a few minutes later, Khalil wants me to hold my hand flat, palm down — the shake test. He does the same. Obviously, we're not scared — right? Then it begins the fairly slow, clanking journey up 310 feet. Somehow the view of placid Sandusky Bay (Millennium Force is near the water's edge) seems like a setup — especially when you crest the first summit. In theory, you could watch the water on the way down as well, but once you start that downward rush, you only want to watch where the hell you're going, which seems to change every fraction of a second. You're wooshing, ultra-wooshing and hyper-wooshing continually. Two more hills, a couple of tunnels, turns where you're almost flipped upside down … and in all of two minutes and 20 seconds, it's over. Trying to pay better attention to the experience this time I distinctly note my stomach seeming to fly upward toward my rib cage.

"Did you scream like a little girl?" Khalil asks.

"No," I say. "My mouth was clamped shut."

By now, between lines, snacks, walking between rides, the odd game of skill (Khalil is good at these, leaving with a basketball and a stuffed monkey), we've killed a couple hours. It's on to the Top Thrill Dragster, so popular when it opened in 2003, that we passed up a line that looked to be hours long for the 19-second ride. It's so awesome that it's the only ride which has its own viewing stand, which I recall being packed back then, and still has a smattering of users on this light-traffic day for the park.

And what's so great about those 19 seconds? They include heading straight up 420 feet and straight back down 400 feet, with top speeds hitting 120 mph. Oh yeah, also with a 270-degree twist both ways.

Afterward, I could feel the rider's grin on my face as well as I could read it on Khalil's. So back in line we immediately went to wait another half hour for another 19 seconds.

"You've got to be fuckin' me dude! You've got to be fuckin' me dude! Shit! Shit!" screamed a dude behind us at the end of the second ride.

What more could we add?

We had another round on the Millennium Force. But for school (and work) the next day, we would have stayed later. And as a consolation, I'd have Lanza's book on the shelf at home still waiting.

Walking through the midway and out into the sea of cars in the parking lot, Khalil dribbling his newly won basketball, the sun sliding toward the horizon, what struck me was how the fading din of machinery was still, now and then, punctured by a rider's scream.

Regular park admission for ages 3-61 is $42.95, with multi-day, evening-only and other specials available. Official park information is at cedarpoint.com, but well worth checking out before a visit is the independent thepointol.com, where fans debate the best strategies for seeing the Point (down to such fine issues as the optimum seats on individual rides). Related to the Point are the Soak City water park and the Challenge Park. Unlike the Point, rides and other attractions at Challenge Park are individually ticketed. The newest addition is the Skyscraper, which flips riders upside down at a height of 160 feet for $20.

W. Kim Heron is Metro Times editor. Send comments to [email protected]
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