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Ten million bucks is a helluva lot of money to spend on a sex toy, regardless of size, speed, or promised climax. Granted, the virile beast situated on the outskirts of suburban D.C.’s premier amusement park is a stunning creation500,000-plus board feet of forest-fresh southern yellow pine, 500,000-plus gleaming nails, screws, nuts, and washers. And, set against the morning’s impenetrable clouds and steady mist of rain, its slumbering strength is overpowering. Still, all that cash spent on a mine-is-bigger-than-yours plaything seems a wee bit childish.
Of course, these are just the foolish little thoughts of the mentally well-grounded. And on this dreary Saturday morning in Largo, Md., the mentally well-grounded are severely outnumbered by the pleasantly maladjusted. Here they are, milling nervously in front of Adventure World’s locked and guarded entrance gate: a hundred or so questionably dressed thrill addictssome motoring up from as far as North Carolinahere to stake claim on a wheeled Valhalla. They’ve braved the shitty wet weather to make sure every last penny spent on Roar, Adventure World’s latest attempt at theme park legitimacy, will be repaid again and again. And again.
It’s not easy getting a handle on the Coaster Zombies, a rapidly growing roller coaster fanatics club (about 80 members and counting) founded by Arlington’s Sam Marks. Not because the inner workings of this male-dominated gaggle of grown-ups are so complex and mysterious, but because the only topic discussedconstantly, often without breath, usually with a fair amount of spittleis riding the rails of the nation’s most harrowing rides. Diverting at first, sure, but increasingly disturbing when you realize that, unlike the rides themselves, the shtick has no end.
Ignore the coaster crazies’ utter lack of fashion sense (the middle-aged guy wearing the beyond-snug “Byte Me” shirt needs a good talking to, not to mention some sun) and their insistence on steering clear of more practical mattersfinancial responsibility, for oneand focus on the basic truths of their existence: There is nothing more important in these lives than a steep incline, a hellish drop, and, if all things go right, a tight camelback turn and maybe a few corkscrews. Nothing else. All other topics are taboo. Bring up the amiability of a coed working the park’s ticket booth, and you’re answered with skittish shoe-gazing and gee-whiz silence. But segue to the curvaceous Steel Force in Dorney Park, Pa., the queen of all coasters, and these guys get so riled up they might as well be waving dollar bills on sniffer’s row. Talking about the opposite sex with the Coaster Zombies is like bringing up wedding planning at a Star Trek convention. I mean, you’re free to try, but what the hell for?
So…the time spent waiting for Roar will be filled with loop-the-loops of thrill-seeking filigree and nuance. In a matter of minuteslong, torturous ticking of the clock for most of those in waitDebbie Daniel, Adventure World’s public relations manager, will personally unshackle the security gates and escort the 50-some well-behaved Coaster Zombies (plus a few American Coaster Enthusiastsdon’t ask) to Roar for the inaugural journey. That’s the polite plan, anywaybut the agitated facial tics playing across the canvas of this mob lead me to believe a Who-like stampede is really just an untied shoelace away.
A few of the Zombies in line discuss the recent nightmare at Six Flags Great America in Chicago: The serpentine Demon, one of the park’s meanest coasters, jerked to a haltthat’s a dead stopat the vertex of a multistory loop. For close to two hours, 20-plus unlucky riders were suspended upside down, hair hanging, hats toppling, blood pumping into heads at an unforgiving rate. The essence of helplessness. The Zombies, however, don’t see this incident as a near-tragedy, but more like a missed opportunity. “Oh, we’d be honored,” Marks says casually. His peers nod and guffaw in agreement, then continue darting nervous glances for the slightly tardy Daniel.
Roar’s highly anticipated unveiling also coincides with Adventure World’s opening day. If the new rideand its impressive neighbor, the mix of metal and menace known as the Mind Eraserisn’t enough to entice the early-season masses, then park officials are hoping that an “MTV Reunion,” featuring Jake from Road Rules and Montana from The Real World, will. After checking out the sandwich board announcing the visit, I inform the Zombies that Montana is “pretty foxy” (then again, that might have been Rachel or Genesis or Puck, for all I can remember) and suggest that we check out the event for a few laughs. But they just stare, their disinterest so apparent I’m immediately ashamed of myself: Lusty thoughts for anything that doesn’t produce a significant G-force are deemed unfaithful here. “I
hope they beat each other up,” Marks snips about the MTVers.
Before I’m allowed to engage in further conversational transgressions, Daniel shows up and begins the arduous task of orchestrating the madness. Several people scurry up to Marks, easily the most powerful man in the park today, and start bargainingbegging, pleading, exhorting, freakingto get on Roar’s initial sojourn. This is history, after all, and only 24 Zombiesthose who have sucked up to ringleader Marks to be among the Chosenwill have the privilege of boasting to their pals about being terrorized and immortalized in the same 90-second burst. The calm, overtly polite Marks promises the wannabes a spot on the standby listyeah, good luck therethen steps aside to discuss pressing matters with Daniel.
And then, in no time at all, the motley crew of coaster fans is being wedged into the promised landthe park doesn’t officially open for another 15 minutesand aimed toward Roar. I take up behind the pack, straggling a few feet from a portly, bespectacled guy in a navy warm-up jacket that reads “Coaster Dan.” I’m about to ask him if he saw the monster shot McGwire hit last night, but then, Coaster Dan just doesn’t seem like a baseball man to me.
In 1920, when the U.S. was enjoying its post-World War I financial boom, there were more than 1,000 active roller coasters in North America. Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, no matter what rung they clung to on the social ladder, were looking for a way to celebrate their patriotic feverapparently the Charleston just wasn’t enoughand coasters became the No. 1 national drug of choice. Oversaturation and severe fluctuations in the economy would eventually send coaster after coaster off the rails for good, and by 1979, the number of Cyclones and Wild Ones and Jack Rabbits running rampant in the U.S. had plummeted to a measly 145.
But prosperity in the ’90s has created a renewed hunger for these beasts of amusement modernity. Thanks to innovations in technology and marketing, there are currently 346 roller coasters in North Americaa modern-day record, according to Park World magazine editor Paul L. Rubenand 34 of them were built in the last year. And with future nastiness already being plannedKing’s Dominion’s state-of-the-art Volcano: The Blast Coaster, which erupts trains out of a mountaintop, is scheduled to open this summerthe trend is showing no signs of slowing.
“I think we can take roller coasters off the endangered list,” says Ruben, who recently gave a spirited lecture on his livelihood at the National Building Museum. “Now the game is bigger, faster, wilder. Engineers are learning how to play with the effects of gravity. They have no shame when it comes to bragging rights.”
Everyone from Disney to Paramount to Six Flags is busy trying to master the physics of fear and consequently suck up tourist dollars by offering the closest experience to actual death. Roar may not be the most expensive roller coaster in the land (that would be the $75 million Manhattan Express in Las VegasI’ve been on it; I almost heaved), but coaster critics worldwide and informed fanatics like our dear Zombiesnone of whom have yet experienced the new coasterare already giving the beast big-time props.
“Roar,” Ruben says with appropriate reverencealmost as if he’s talking about the Lost Ark of the Covenant”is the most compelling new wood coaster being built this year.”
This is what we know about Sam Marks, the roller coaster community’s pre-eminent Peter Pan: He is 40 years old. He is single. He stands close to 6 feet tall and has a scooter tire of overindulgence developing around his midsection. Today, he is dressed in a black T-shirt, khaki shorts, and a beige Adventure World cap pulled low over his eyes. When he’s not traveling to yet another Funtown U.S.A. or working on his Coaster Zombies newsletter or his Coaster Zombies Web page, he’s punching the clock at Pitney Bowes Management Services. He has traveled safely on 199 different roller coasters now, and Roar will mark his very special 200th.
Marks will speak at lengthand I do mean at lengthabout the world’s finest parks, attractions, and employees, yet when asked about his personal affairs, he’s significantly less verbose. Queried about how much he coughs up on his hobby each year, Marks says carefully, “If I watched how much I spent, I wouldn’t enjoy myself.” He’s thought seriously about a PR job at a theme park, but quips, “Let’s just say, my current job pays a little more.” Plus, he adds, “I would miss all the fun. I mean, you have to watch other people ride.”
To Marks, there aren’t many problems life can throw at you that can’t be solved by a few vertigo-inducing rounds on a roller coaster: When his mother was dying last year, Marks traveled down to Florida to be by her side. During a particularly grievous moment, Marks excused himself from his mom and made the short trip over to Busch Gardens to steady himself with so many dips, turns, and drops. It worked. He got through.
As Marks leads the way to Roar, his troops closely in towwe’re halfway there and can see the monster’s highest point challenging the skythe rain mercifully stops, and a few strands of sun fight through the heavy sky. We pass by food stands and arcades and assorted harmless kiddie rides, and Marks comments on nearly all of them. He points to the Tilt-a-Whirl and dutifully informs that “it’s the only ride in the park that’s ever been hit by a tornado.”
When a forlorn-looking kid running the Dead Ringers ring toss game shouts out to the gathering, “Come on, now, who wants to play?” Marks harrumphs out of the corner of his mouth, “The odds of winning that are 1 in 5,000.”
“Yeah,” I huff, trying to keep pace, “no kidding.”
“No,” Marks says earnestly, even stopping for emphasis. “They really are 1 in 5,000.”
Fellow Zombies Daniel Northover, 32, Karen Marshall, 31, and Jim Turns, 23, stay close to Marks’ side, hoping to breathe in some of the minutiae that their leader spews at random. Marshall is one of the rare female Zombies tagging along today. Her smile is genuine and infectious, especially when she recalls her first time: “When I was young, I was definitely afraid of coasters. But the Comet [in Hersheypark, Pa.,] changed all that. I’ve loved coasters ever since.” She flashes the puffed-up pride of accomplishment, and I agree that the wooden Comet is indeed a soul-stirring experience (even though I almost heaved on that one, too).
As our pace gets faster and Roar gets closer, Marks continues shouting out at everything and to everyone. There isn’t an Adventure World worker we pass whom the chief Zombie doesn’t greet with a big smile and a bubbly salutation. It’s all part of a broad-based cultural ambassadorship that Marks believes should be the most important part of coaster life. It isn’t just about the thrills, Mark explains.
“You see, this is what I’m trying to teach the Coaster Zombies and other groups,” he says, waving to a lonely soda vendor. “Be nice to people! Say hello! It’s perfectly all right to be cheerful! There’s a lot to be cheerful about!”
Between Marks’ Mary Poppins routine and Marshall’s warm, wide grin, I start to lose my snobbish footing. I mean, what’s wrong with hitting the roller coaster a little more often than your ordinary civilian? And when I finally ascend Roar’s handsome entrance stepsthe new pine gives off a magnificent scentand glance up at the $10 million horror preparing to feast on its first batch of virgins, I begin to admire the Zombies’ ballsiness and subsequent disregard for nausea. In the shadow of their temple, these few brave men (and sometimes women) make nonbelievers feel cowardly and churlish. Roar, on the other hand, is making me feel like returning this morning’s Egg McMuffin from whence it cameand I’m just looking at the damn ride.
“Are you guys ready to roll?!” Marks hollers as he snuggles into his seat in the train’s lead car, buckles up, and points to the swale of track undulating just before the lift hill. His Zombies respond with whoops and hollers and claps, and the sheer joythe first ride, damnit! the first Roar train ever!that spreads over their collective mugs makes me grin in return. (I’ve declined Marks’ invitation to take part in the inaugural tour, not out of courtesy, but in the belief that some of the beefier nerds might pummel me for big-footing them.)
With a simple press of a button, the glistening black train clack-clack-clacks off into the tall, beautiful maze of lumber, and the riders wave to those who aren’t lucky enough to be among the chosen 24. Coaster Dan has nabbed the last seat in the last carground zeroand the sadistic son of a bitch bares his choppers in sheer bliss as he follows his compadres into battle.
It’s at this remarkably lousy time that I choose to take a gander at Roar’s vital stats: The initial lift hill is 90 feet, which doesn’t sound too awful on paper…until you nose-dive into a 50-degree slant that rockets into a 133-degree right turn. In a matter of seconds (breathe in, breathe out, brea), you get sucked into an 180-degree spiral, which will throw about 3.5 G’s at you and allow plenty of “air time,” the experience of being lifted out of your seat (an informal statistic that Marks, Ruben, and every other cultist use to grade a coaster). While you’re trying your damndest to ward off those ugly forces of nature, Roar picks up speed and, ironically, hits a flat, sea-level straightaway that should be kiddie-train gentle but is more runaway-train hellish. (“Brilliant!” Marks will later chirp about that part. “I call it ‘the intermission.’”) In approximately one minute and 45 seconds, you suffer through 20 crossovers, 12 curves, six reversals, and 12 drops at speeds of around 50 mph for about 3,200 feet of track. Ready to puke yet?
When the inaugural train rumbles back into port, the stench of euphoria steaming off Roar’s first victims is so pungent you expect them all to spark Marlboros. Thumbs up are apparently part of the uniform, and Debbie Daniel and other Adventure World employees, very much aware that this present cargo means sweet summerlong revenue for the park, release smirks of relief. When aficionados like the Zombies drink Roar’s brand of Kool-Aid, you know that there are many more where they came from. Even the fearless Coaster Dan looks a bit humbled as he pulls himself free.
A few more trains go off, return safely, and so on, and eventually Marks gives me a look that says, Suck it up, bub, and hop onboard.
Wedging my hindflanks into the train’s cabooseconfirmed by coaster enthusiasts to be the spot for copping the most intense experienceI instantly have trouble with the seat belt and start panicking that this is my ironic punishment for being such a judgmental prick. (C’mon, I was kidding! The Zombies are good people. Hell, what are they supposed to do with their free time? Read, fer chrissakes?) There is an orange safety bar that lowers and pins you in place, but I knowin fact, I’m 100 percent positivethat if I can’t get this goddamn seat belt cinched and snug, my ass is flying off this fucking ride when we hit that godforsaken 133-degree turn.
Marks is seated in front of me, Marshall next to him, and somehow their presence allows me to settle the hell down and get buckled. As we roll out into the calm before the storm, Marks pulls the cap from his head and reveals thinning brown hair and the makings of a bald spot the size of a fried egg. He is not a kid; he is a grown man. And so am I. And why in the hell am I on this thing? And why was I so high and mighty before? And why oh why did I make fun of the “Byte Me” guy? Jesus, I used to have a “We Came, We Saw, We Party Naked” shirt! I mean, which is worse?
Marks is chattering away as the train gets closer to the topnot that I can see the top from my seat; however, I do have a full view of the horrifying Mind Eraser off to my left, and that’s just not helpingand I really wish a large bird would kamikaze down his cakehole and let me concentrate on the fate at hand. Please shut up. Please shut up. Sam, buddy, please. Alpengeist, huh? Sure, sounds fascinating. Now please shut up. Please?
But this lycanthropic bastard of a roller coaster gives riders very little time to think (or suck in oxygen, for that matter). Our train gets tugged over the zenith of the 90-foot lift hill, teeters into the 50-degree plunge…and then we fall. Too fast. But together. Marks’ arms shoot straight into the sunlight, Marshall’s hair whips in the blitz of wind, and my wussy, white knuckles squeeze the safety bar until I realize that I’m the lone sap still holding on. I gulp hard and let loose a throat-scraping scream as my hands slowly float into the air above my head.CP