I’ll admit it: I’m a roller coaster fanatic. My childhood obsessions always involved wheels, starting with tractors, evolving to trains (like a bunch of tractors connected to each other!) and, finally, roller coasters (like a train that goes upside down!).
The bug bit me at age 8, when I braved a rickety coaster called Cyclone in Denver. Since then, I’ve buckled my seat belt on more than 100 scream machines throughout the United States and parts of Europe. Some of my favorite coasters are right here in the Midwest, which, according to the Roller Coaster Database (yes, there is one, and I check it regularly), contains 122 that are operating.
These five rides range from little wooden thrillers to record-breaking steel behemoths, but the moments you’ll experience on them defy any statistic.
1) Top Thrill Dragster
Cedar Point–Sandusky, Ohio
Debuting as the world’s tallest and fastest roller coaster in 2003 at Cedar Point—home to 17 coasters—the Dragster launches riders from 0 to 120 miles per hour in less than four seconds thanks to the same hydraulic system that zips planes off aircraft carriers. Before you charge up the 42-story hill, a camera snaps on-ride photos as riders’ cheeks are pushed to the back of their seat. It’s a cheap way to look 20 years younger. Blast off from the front seat.
Photo courtesy of Cedar Point
2) The Legend
Arnolds Park–Arnolds Park, Iowa
Hugging the shoreline of Lake Okoboji in northwest Iowa, The Legend lives up to its name for generations of vacationers who ride the 1927-era coaster year after year. It’s hard to get tired of this 63-foot-tall wooden treasure, which tears around the tiny park and bunny hops its way back to the station. One quiet, drizzly day, my friend and I managed to ride The Legend 26 times thanks to operators who kept sending us through the station as long as no one else was in line. It was heaven. Experience The Legend.
Photo courtesy of Arnolds Park
3) Wild Thing
Standing 207 feet tall and stretching for more than a mile, Wild Thing is a rite of passage when you’re a Minnesota kid like me. Located in the Twin Cities suburb of Shakopee, the bright yellow coaster boasts one of the longest weightless zones of any coaster in the world, thanks to a second hill that would send thrill-seekers flying out of their seats if they weren’t strapped in. Yes, those uncomfortable safety bars serve a purpose. Tame the Wild Thing.
Photo courtesy of Valleyfair
4) Superman – Ultimate Flight
Six Flags Great America–Gurnee, Illinois
Superman was my first “flying coaster” experience, which was equal parts terrifying and exhilarating (as any good coaster should be). Riders lie on their stomachs and stare at the ground as a chain carries them up the 106-foot-tall lift hill, forcing any sane person to think, If these shoulder bars fail, I’m going to be lying facedown in that patch of grass down there. After the first drop, it doesn’t take long to get into the superhero spirit, outstretched arms and all. Take flight.
Photo courtesy of Six Flags Great America
5) Outlaw Run
Silver Dollar City–Branson, Missouri
Even without a train in sight, the track of this wooden coaster that opened in 2013 seems eager to chew up approaching passengers. The 16-story, 81-degree initial drop is daunting, but the real intimidator is the series of barrel rolls that sends the train hurtling through a twisted tunnel of timbers at the end of the ride. It all seems like way too much wood and steel for a corkscrewing train to navigate without slicing the riders. But the good news is that after that first drop, you won't be thinking about that—or much of anything. Saddle up.
Photo courtesy of Silver Dollar City
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