Defying gravity: the allure of theme parks

Exhilarating speeds, death defying drops, harrowing inversions and otherworldly sensations: the theme park ride continues to cast its spell over thrill-seekers the world over 

The green light flashes and the riders with a head for heights hang on tight as they travel skywards. Sitting two across in open-air swings attached to a rotating gondola rising up a fairground tower, their pulses start to race: they simultaneously pray for their lives and journey into another dimension.

Here in Texas a new extreme experience is catapulting visitors at the Six Flags Over Texas theme park into a surreal world of endorphin-inspired bliss: the Texas SkyScreamer is breaking records with its staggering 400-foot height, spinning in a 124-foot circle, at speeds up to 35 mph.

Up high, the speed gathers along with the noise of surprise, fear and jubilation. A pinnacle of emotion arrives while riders relax enough to take in a spectacular view of the combined skylines of Arlington, Dallas and Fort Worth.
“We are thrilled to add the tallest swing ride in the world to our premier line up of rides and attractions,” said Steve Martindale, Park President of Six Flags Over Texas. “It offers the most unique ride experience for an attraction of this kind, and also lives up to the Texas mantra that everything is bigger in the Lone Star state!”

High adrenalin

Theme park rides are designed to be a careful balance of fear and joy; terror and elation. With superlatives the most valuable currency in this experience-centred world, riders in search of the ultimate adrenaline-fuelled rush respond enthusiastically to the ‘tallest’, ‘fastest’, ‘most-looped’... Those who love them search out ‘airtime’ and the floating feeling of weightlessness created by negative G forces. “To reach speeds of up to 161 km/hour in just seven seconds and then feel weightless for several seconds as you free fall forward from around 100 metres, is an experience like no other and one you just can’t describe,” says Noel Dempsey, chief executive of the Australian theme park Dreamworld where the mighty Tower of Terror is located. “You have to try for yourself: It’s pure exhilaration.”

As well as the ancient traditions of fairs and pleasure gardens that were popular throughout Europe from the 17th century, the theme park rides of today have their origins in the 19th-century tradition of world’s fairs. George Ferris invented the first Ferris Wheel – devising it as a rival to the recently constructed Eiffel Tower – and exhibited it at the Chicago World Fair in 1893. The concept of passenger cars attached to the rim of a revolving metal sphere in such a way that gravity keeps them upright became a hit in fairgrounds across the globe. The 80.4-metre high Chicago wheel may be long gone but big wheels, including the 135-metre London Eye and the 165-metre Singapore Flyer, keep on turning all around the world.

International Expos proved a fertile ground for next generation theme rides too. In 1939 when the New York World Fair launched under the theme of  "The world of tomorrow", it featured a wooden rollercoaster in the wildly popular Amusements Area. This rollercoaster, which featured the characteristic track rising and falling and trains travelling at speed, was a development of a fairground ride popular since the underfriction rollercoaster had been developed by American John Miller in 1919. 

These days theme rides come with names like Colossus, Insanity and Expedition GeForce, and with major technological advances there is no escaping from the white-knuckle ride that lies ahead. Cedar Point Ohio, USA is known as the rollercoaster capital of world. Opened last month, the US$30m Gatekeeper ride boasts the highest inversion – meaning the riders are turned upside down – compared with any other rollercoaster.

Record breaking

Meanwhile in Alton Towers in the UK, the recently launched Smiler is the world’s first 14-loop rollercoaster. Not for the faint hearted, the ‘marmalising’ rollercoaster also has psychological tricks built in and optical illusions and blinding lights are designed to harry the mind.

In Dubai, thrill rides take a watery turn in impressive theme parks including the Wild Wadi and Aquaventure water park on Atlantis the Palm. The superlative aqua experience here is an enormous 40-metre tall slide, which propels adventurers into a magically beautiful underground cave, part of the overarching theme of a lost underwater civilization.

The emirate is fast gaining a worldwide reputation for its support of engineering marvels and future thrill seekers will likely have their heads turned by developments in Mohammed bin Rashid City. This leisure initiative, which is set to incorporate shopping, hotels and elaborately designed green spaces as well as theme parks, is part of a bigger goal for Dubai to be a global tourism leader. With theme park designers sure to be inspired by the world’s best in class, visitors won’t be short of amusement during their stay.

Whether you love flying through the sky, corkscrew twists with side orders of G forces, or hair-raisingly fast white-water rapids, the theme park rides of today are technological feats as well as unique and playful experiences. Things are only going to get faster, higher and more thrilling. Brace yourself!