Sandusky, Ohio — My parents weren’t wild about the prospect of a family vacation in Sandusky.
It was 1993, I was eight years old, and we had just had an Internet connection installed in the house. Being a techie sort, I took to it immediately and incessantly. On would go the computer, out would come that devilish screeching noise that those slow old modems used to make, and then, “Welcome!” Such was the global domination of Silicon Valley that, even in rural England, we used the web through America Online.
Once in, the search would begin. From the age of three I’d been obsessed with rollercoasters, and now a world of them beckoned in cyberspace — not, as today, in the form of instant 3D videos or nascent virtual reality, but in the form of digital photographs that took minutes to load, and ancient-looking, text-based “newsgroups” that were populated by a peculiar combination of curious college professors, helpful engineers, and assorted amusement-park nuts who, like myself, were really just slightly hipper trainspotters. From these people I discovered all there was to discover about the topic. I learned how rollercoasters worked. I learned who designed and manufactured them — and where. I learned to distinguish between different types of track, train, brake, wheel, launch mechanism, inversion, force, and restraint. I learned the best seats to ride in, and the best time of day, too. I learned the key moments in the development of the technology, and, to my immense delight, I realized that we were on the cusp of a renaissance. And, as with so much in my life, I learned that all tracks seemed to lead ineluctably to America, where the biggest and best models were being built. Through a small VGA screen, my universe expanded.
In the course of my frantic research, two words popped up with disproportionate frequency: “Cedar” and “Point.” That, everyone told me, was the place I needed to go. Cedar Point, near Cleveland, Ohio: “America’s Roller Coast.” “If you love rollercoasters,” one guy wrote in the trip reports I’d hang onto, “it’s Mecca.”
Trouble was, I was just eight years old. My parents weren’t averse to taking us to America, and they indulged my manifold obsessions with a patience befitting Job. But the case for Ohio was a weak one indeed. In California, we had friends and family, and there were attractions for everyone to enjoy. Arizona had the Grand Canyon. Florida had the weather. New York the architecture and the shopping. But Ohio? “So we go to Cedar Point?” my mother said one evening. “And then what?”
And so I watched from afar, as Cedar Point put in one world-beating ride after another. I gasped as the park, having already installed the first rollercoaster to top 200 feet, passed the 300- and 400-foot limits, too. I looked on as they broke the speed records — twice — and as they built the biggest, longest, and newest of everything they possibly could. For 16 years in a row, the park was voted “Best in the World,” a fact that strangers would relate to me as if I didn’t know. “You like rollercoasters?” they would say. “You know where you should go . . .”
And then, 23 years after I’d originally got the bug, I did just that. Early one Friday, I packed a bag and a friend into my car, and I set off on a pilgrimage to Ohio. Eight hours later, I was at the front gate. Was it really that easy?
I was almost certainly more emotional than most of the day’s patrons — driving in, I felt as Dorothy must have when she finally saw the Emerald City — but, my peculiar quest aside, I was likely no less impressed by what I saw than was everyone else at the ticket stalls. To step back for a moment is to realize what a deeply peculiar and emphatically American thing a place such as Cedar Point really is. Here, on a small, pretty peninsula on the edge of Lake Erie, a group of free people has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into building a spaghetti junction of vast, glittering, noisy machines, the sole purpose of which is to fling human bodies in every conceivable direction. And they have done so of their own volition. No dreary central planner or cocksure busybody would ever have consented to such a thing, and no orchestrated economy could ever have hosted it. This is a triumph of imagination, of rebellion, and of evolution — a joyful illustration of what eccentrics do when left alone. Only by trial and error could this niche have been found; only by happy accident could it have grown to such proportions. I had two destinations on my trip: Cedar Point and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Is anybody surprised that neither is located in Moscow?
Since I got back, I have been trying to put my finger on what it is that sets Cedar Point apart from the rest — and why it is not solely obsessives such as I who feel this way — and the best word I can come up with is “soul.” It’s not money; the park does not have anything like the resources that, say, Universal does, and while its parent company is now wealthy and influential, it started buying other properties only in 1978. It is not location, for as attractive as Lake Erie can be, the park has to close for five months a year due to inclement weather, and the venue lacks the natural tourist base that is present in Florida or Southern California (driving from Cleveland to Sandusky, you wouldn’t think you were headed to a world-class resort). And it’s certainly not that the park has unique access to a secret sauce or a monopoly advantage, given that it procures its rides from precisely the same array of manufacturers and designers as does every one of its peers. Somehow, they just get it right.
Cedar Point opened in 1870 — after Lake Compounce in Connecticut, it is the second-oldest operating amusement park in the United States — and it unveiled its first rollercoaster in 1892, the year after it got electricity. Today it has 16, along with 55 other rides. And when I say “rollercoaster,” I mean it. On Top Thrill Dragster, visitors are launched from 0 to 120 miles per hour in around three seconds, thrust 420 feet up in the air (almost as high as the Great Pyramid of Giza), and then allowed to fall back down at 90 degrees, twisting around their heart-lines as they go. On Millennium Force, riders are dropped from 300 feet at 80 degrees before racing along 6,500 feet of tunnel-laden track at speeds up to 93 miles per hour. Valravn, the park’s newest offering, has vertical drops of 214 and 131 feet and three enormous inversions, including an “Immelmann” that follows a path blazed by the WWI fighter pilot Max Immelmann; Maverick’s initial descent is at 95 degrees, and is followed up by a linear-synchronous-motor-driven launch that was initially developed for the propulsion of spacecraft; on Raptor, parkgoers hang beneath the track in a ski-lift-style train and fly through a vertical loop, a zero-g roll, a cobra roll, and two corkscrews. These people are not screwing around.
Disneyland it is not. But then, it’s not supposed to be. What theming there is at Cedar Point remains desultory and rudimentary. Instead, the place evokes an older, more traditional feel: That of the Victorian boardwalk. Where Disneyland is smooth, rich, and carefully engineered toward the family, Cedar Point is blunt and unalloyed. It is a burgers-and-fries-and-shakes sort of a place; a “Come, Ride the Amazing Looping Scream Machine!” sort of a place; a place with a rollercoaster that spins around the ticket gate. Walt Disney wanted a park that felt hermetically sealed from the real world. Cedar Point is unashamedly built into it, in a manner that heightens the contradictions. You can see its rides from miles around, jutting and shoving into the sky and making a mockery of even the proudest of trees. In turn, you can see a long way outwards from the top of many rides; on a clear day, Canada’s Pelee Island is visible.
But who wants to go to Canada? Heck, who wants to go anywhere when there are places such as this? Escapism gets a bad rap in our society, but, as with so much, the key lies in the moderation. The real world is full of big questions and odd surprises and the incessant drumbeats of time and money and strain. And for a few glorious moments, on a sunny day in July, all of that disappeared into the ether, as, after 23 years of waiting, I strapped myself to a seat and was thrown 400 feet into the air at the greatest amusement park the earth has ever had to offer.