We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

It’s hotter than God, but my new pal Kelvin doesn’t give two shits about the heat index. Mention the unhealthy levels of ozone pollution wafting through his pink, young lungs and he’ll snap you off in five quick syllables: “Ain’t nothin’ to me.” What does concern the 12-year-old, however, is the twisting tonnage of scrap-iron hell looming skyward just over his head. Sweat falls into Kelvin’s wide, anxious eyes as he gawks up at Adventure World’s nastiest attraction: the Mind Eraser, a hellzapoppin’ roller coaster in which you

hang—dangle, really—from the tracks above and whip through blitzkrieg seconds of loops, corkscrews, and spins. With the lift of his black Air Jordans and some puffed-chest bravado, Kelvin was able to squeak by the 52-inch height requirement and ease into line. But now, with screams, shouts, and cackling laughter emanating from the next batch of thrill-seekers as they clack-clack-clack up the lift hill, the look on Kelvin’s face says he’s rethinking the wisdom of that recent growth spurt.

After 55 minutes of baking in the queue, Kelvin finally reaches the boarding zone: He’s now two people away from seat-belting himself into raw terror. Behind Kelvin, a young lady skinhead, cloaked in black and sporting a patent-leather dog collar around her neck, lectures a friend on the do’s and don’ts of accessorizing teen angst. Kelvin barely takes notice—not even when the spooky-looking girl, with her alabaster scalp shining in the workhorse sun, starts turning a spanked-fanny red. Every several minutes an Adventure World employee barks ominous orders over a crackling intercom, something about no earrings, no hats, no glasses, no heart problems. These warnings trigger a couple behind me: “Hear that? This ride’s not safe.” “No, honey, it looks fun.” “Uh-uh, baby, I’m tellin’ ya, this ride’s not safe.” “C’mon, honey, you say that about every ride.” “Baby, would you look at the damn thing? Now tell me, does that shit look safe?”

A new load of the brave and the strong jerk into motion, feet kicking and arms waving from their now-rolling prison. As the group climbs out of sight, a heavy-set dude hanging in back hawks a loogie the size of a silver-dollar pancake between his sneakers; he chuckles as the snot ‘n’ spit bomb plummets 40 yards down to earth. Stepping into the on-deck position, Kelvin steadies himself by gripping the thin, red chain that separates him from the launching pad and watches wide-eyed as the next train of seats—his row of seats—roars into port.

But before his appointment with destiny arrives, shouting erupts, and all eyes in line, including Kelvin’s, jerk down to the front of the ride. There seems to be a dispute over ride etiquette, and a Mind Eraser attendant is growling into the face of a sleepy-eyed misbehaver bitching about the wait. More uniformed ride lackeys stumble onto the scene and elbow their way into the middle of the fuss, all bared teeth and throaty shouts about calming the hell down. For Kelvin, this ill-timed development only makes the heat, this nagging goddamn heat on this Saturday afternoon, seem worse than its 95 degrees. In front of him, just three long feet away, is an empty seat. His eyes dart back and forth: fight, seat, fight, seat. He’s lodged in limbo: The coaster’s not moving because of the fracas, and there’s no way in hell he can bail out now and chicken-walk his way through the crowd. So, stuck, scared, and sweating his ass off, he bites down hard and waits.

The tussle continues to escalate. There’s now some pushing, some posturing, and a crooked middle finger waving in the air. A couple of hearty fuck yous are exchanged. Kelvin zeroes in on the employee half of the dispute, the guy whose responsibility might be to make the ride safe and not crash and not stop in the middle of a loop. He is clearly not focused on the task at hand. As if blind to the altercation—not to mention its obvious safety implications—the monotone voice over the intercom orders the next batch of reckless souls to unhook the red chain and proceed directly to the seat in front of them. Almost immediately Kelvin is in his harness, the safety bar snug on his pudgy torso. With a quick, robotic fluidity, the floor drops out from under him, and the train of seats begins to clack-clack-clack. Barely turning his head—he has more important things to worry about now—he whooshes by the ongoing argument: “Fuck me? No, fuck you!” And then, climbing the steep hill, Kelvin closes his eyes, lifts his arms, and smiles.

When Washingtonian magazine asked a bunch of grade-schoolers to rate the area’s amusement parks for its recent best-and-worst issue, Largo, Md.’s Adventure World, a mere 12 miles from D.C., garnered only one mention, and it wasn’t even for scariest ride, fastest ride, or wettest ride. Nope, the park in Prince George’s County was singled out for a less distinguished honor: the worst place to eat. But food’s a very minor matter when you have an appointment with the Mind Eraser and its lesser brethren.

Still, the culinary slam was nothing compared to what went down July 6, as the rip-roaring holiday weekend was coming down from its three-day high and Adventure World was sending people away for the sake of crowd control. Just inside the security gates a fight broke out, and four young men, supposedly trying to protect a female friend, were stabbed in the abdomen, possibly with a smuggled-in pocketknife. There were no fatalities, but for an amusement park that was finally shedding some of its not-so-proud history, the headlines were bloody murder.

In 1983, when the park was still known as Wild World, a 9-year-old drowned in a wave pool, and four years later, behind a women’s bathhouse, a dead premature baby was found. Throw in a few nagging power outages and reports of local gang presence, and the theme park had itself a nightmarish public relations mess. But over the last five years, Adventure World’s newest owners, Premier Parks of Oklahoma City, have opened their wallets and let spill some $40 million to blow off the stink. The money men lured working-man’s hero (read: icon to all races) Cal Ripken to mug it up as the park’s TV spokesman, then shelled out $12 million for the creation of Skull Island, a slick pirate’s hideaway featuring rides, shops, restaurants, and a stunt show.

When the recent stabbings made the 11 o’clock news, not to mention garnering prime locations in the Washington and Baltimore papers, Adventure World spokespeople claimed the debacle was an isolated incident, and that the park was, without a doubt, safe. But the worries and spin control were unnecessary: Attendance continues to swell this summer, and business reportedly continues to improve day after day. Still, questions remain: What’s going on behind the barbed-wire fencing that surrounds this Kmart King’s Dominion? And once inside those well-manned gates, just how rough ‘n’ tumble is Adventure World, the Rasputin of amusement parks?

We’re stuck inside a car without dependable AC, so the three-lane jam getting into the park seems that much worse. The heat on this sunny Saturday afternoon is drier than it has been in weeks, but the mid-90s on a cloudless summer day can still make for some pretty piss-poor weather. A few empty cop cars are plopped like scarecrows here and there (we count six before getting to the front gate), and parking attendants aren’t shy about screaming like drill sergeants when directing incoming traffic. A creep in a beat-up silver Mazda pulls up next to us and flashes his mediocre dental work. When a bikinied blonde graces his front bumper and pats his birdshit-stained hood, the loner flashes a smarmy smile at his neighbors, points to the girl, and asks us, “Would you do it?,” apparently substituting a generic appelation for the personal pronoun. We smile at his bile-inducing query, then send him looking for a space in a lot we know is full. “Cool! Thanks!” he says, snapping a thumbs up and sputtering off on a deservedly futile search.

After paying $25 each to get in (kids and seniors are $18; children 3 and under are free), we squeeze through Adventure World’s front gates like so much spoiled meat churning through a grinder. There’s such an abundance of bare, glistening skin—male and female, young and old (and very old), skinny and fat (and very, very fat)—pushing through the turnstiles that I feel considerably overdressed in shorts and shirt. Once through the gate, all attendees get their first thrill of the day: a swift brush-down with a handheld metal detector. This would be fine at a Metallica concert, but at an amusement park it’s just plain unsettling. To our left, a posse of rent-a-cops gives hell to a trio of teenage girls who say they “all paid to get in the park, really we did.”

After the holdup for the brief pat-down, it’s as if someone has fired a starter’s pistol: Legs pumping, hands reaching out for brother, sister, and grandma, families dart off on multiyard dashes to their preplanned thrills of choice. To the left of the main entrance, Paradise Island Water Park looms like an overbooked oasis, and a cacophony of whistles and sirens and shrieks floods over the wooden fence in a constant torrent. Myriad guests scurry through the waterworld’s faux-tiki entrance, but very few exit. How in the hell are they fitting all these people? Not quite ready to get wet, we head into the main park, the “dry” park, and leave paradise for a little later.

Unlike King’s Dominion or Busch Gardens, where every attraction is taller and more formidable than the next, Adventure World is consistently low to the ground. Roller coasters and water rides appear near-level with the horizon, and even the much ballyhooed freefall ride, the Tower of Doom, is an average phallus compared with its long-dong predecessors around the U.S. But this modest approach to architecture speaks volumes about the park and its patrons: Adventure World caters primarily to hometown folks, and damn if the majority of people don’t seem mighty proud of their park. Despite the lack of bona fide tourist dollars pouring in, the park keeps itself clean and friendly and, well, just tries like hell to please its regulars.

The rides in the dry park—Adventure World boasts 50-plus attractions, total—are fairly run of the mill but offer enough thrills to keep ’em coming back: a few roller coasters (the wooden Wild One is a nice, rickety throwback), a few flume rides, each offering significant soak factors, and the necessary allotment of vomitious spin rides, swinging ships, and wee-kiddie comforts. Of course, the lines are so goddamn long for almost everything you’d think the people were waiting for a gulp of eternal life, not a really good way to lose an overpriced microwave burrito.

You don’t get tired walking the 115 acres at Adventure World; everything is a short, easy distance. And when you see something like the giant skull for which Skull Island is named, you find yourself saying, “Hey, that’s well done—you know, for Adventure World.” Despite the fact that you were expecting a scene from The Warriors to play out across the entire complex, it’s a pleasant revelation nonetheless. Is Adventure World a dangerous place to play? No, not today it isn’t. Are the crowds a little rougher than at most major theme parks? No, not rougher, just a bit more, well, rambunctious. Nothing wrong with making a little noise while you’re having fun, right?

Following the crowd flow into a mock Wild West town, we pass long lines of splotchy, tired housewives waiting patiently for an autograph from either Jason George of Sunset Beach or Austin Peck of Days of Our Lives. The ladies swoon as they get closer to the daytime hunks, but we can’t tell if they are tottering from the sultry heat of the well-coiffed studs or the oppressive power of the sun. And then, like the kraken from the deep, the Mind Eraser explodes from around a corner, its rose and green girders lifting into a tight, tall tangle against the pure blue sky. This is the only ride in the park that defies the low-to-the-ground model. It’s truly a menacing sight, not so much for its sprawl, but for its compact form and Moebius-strip coils. The photographer opts to sit this one out—apparently, the Mind Eraser does not qualify as one of his preferred “tubular rides” (whatever the hell that means). For me, there’s no delaying the inevitable. This is Adventure World’s centerpiece; I have to give it a spin. Plus, what can go wrong? It’s not as if a fight is going to break out or anything.

Wet. We need to get wet. After battling our way through the crowds, onto the rides, and into the bathrooms, we’re desperately ready to take Paradise Island Water Park at its word. This, in our minds, is the only way to enjoy Adventure World: bake to a nice rosy doneness, then dip ’til cool. Water Wars, a pay-for game where kids lob water balloons at each other, and the peacefully titled Rainbow Falls, where four multicolored water slides duck and weave around each other, are mild, relaxing sights. But as we sink deeper and deeper into the giant puddle, everything gets busier and much, much louder. Baby blue inner tubes dominate eye-level vision, and wherever I step is usually where someone else is stepping, too. We soon get caught in a current of hurry and stop just short of toppling into the largest pool party we’ve ever seen. Now I know how Moses felt.

Welcome to Monsoon Lagoon, where a handful of young lifeguards preside over a mass baptism of thousands, all splashing and carrying on in a football field-size pool of waves and general mayhem. If the Mind Eraser is the park’s pride and joy, Monsoon Lagoon is its final destination. The wannabe Baywatchers let blow a series of warning whistles, but they might as well be semaphoring for more help. There appear to be two screaming teens to every inner tube, and three playful toddlers to every mom. Shouts pierce the air, and bewildered onlookers lounging on the Astroturfed beach block sweat-stung eyes and peer into the craziness. Finding an open patch of water is useless. The pool is packed; hell, there’s as much skin as there is water. It looks like what would happen if everybody in Ocean City decided to hit the surf at the same time.

As a basic pool setting, Monsoon Lagoon is a nuthouse, but once the wave machine kicks on—the mini-tsunamis commence crashing every 10 minutes with the wail of an air siren—it’s as if someone opened a giant can of chlorinated whup-ass. Mothers reach for their young’uns toppling under 5-foot swells, and abandoned inner tubes roll like tumbleweeds through the surf. Even standing on the putting-green sand I can feel the surge of adrenaline pulsing from the depths. The waves aren’t that big—the deepest the pool gets is 5-foot-4—but Monsoon Lagoon and its synthetic storm make so many people so damn happy that you just can’t help but grin like an idiot as you go ass over teakettle and land in the crotch of a stranger.

Finally, like a deus ex machina—or at least the finale of an Esther Williams movie—an unseen guard steps to an unseen loudspeaker and sternly asks everyone to clear the pool for a 20-minute respite. As the herd obeys and begins lumbering out of the cloudy depths, you start searching for bodies drifting face down. With all those people, it just seems natural that there should be a few bottom floaters left over.

But the pool empties in an orderly fashion, and in several minutes Monsoon Lagoon has been successfully cleared. Survival rate? 100 percent. Everyone standing or sitting on the bright emerald beach politely waits for the fun to resume. And as they stare into the giant pool, imagining themselves frolicking once again, there are no fights, there is no complaining, and no one seems to give two shits about the heat index. And you smile, and put your face to the sun, and think, “Hey, that’s well done—you know, for Adventure World.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.