Rollercoasters have been entertaining the masses since 1817, when the first coaster, Russes a Belleville (Russian Mountains of Belleville), was invented in France. Beginning as a variation of large slides and wheel carts, which were popular in Russia in the 16th and 17th century, rollercoasters have evolved beyond all recognition, into extreme thrill rides with twists, turns and high speeds. There are almost 300 million visitors to theme parks each year and, for many, a theme park isn’t complete without the adrenaline rush of a rollercoaster. This is why huge sums of money are spent on these rides – the average cost being about £12 million. The most expensive rollercoaster is reported to be Disney’s Expedition Everest in Florida, which cost a staggering £61 million.
Both thrill-seekers and ‘coasterphobes’ have been captivated by these physically and psychologically demanding rides for centuries – whether for the adrenaline rush or the challenge of overcoming their fears. They have fascinated me so much that I decided to go on 17 in the space of a week. Here’s what happened and the psychology behind it.
Tackling the Highest First
Europa-Park, in Rust (south-western Germany), is the largest theme park in Germany and the second most popular in Europe, following Disneyland Paris. The park is home to 11 rollercoasters, one of which is the second highest in Europe – Silver Star. The adrenaline starts to flow simply on driving into the car park as the Silver Star runs through and over the car park. Before you have even entered the park, you witness the heights, twists and bends of this ride – and hear the shrieks of its passengers. You are faced with an internal struggle – a morbid fascination drives you onwards while anxiety spurs you to turn around and run.
Not being inclined to this particular type of adrenalin rush, I was tending more towards the flight response. I gave myself a mental shove and, pushing onwards with a pre-arranged tour of the park, was placed on this beast of a ride first. Fortunately – or unfortunately – I was taken to the back of the ride to face the enormous centrifugal force of up to 4g head on, an effect that is more pronounced the further back you sit on a rollercoaster. While those in front may have had a more gradual transition when changing direction and acceleration, the back position emphasised the various forces that suddenly and dramatically drew my resistant and inert body away from its centre and out of my comfort zone. I felt as though I may be catapulted from the track at any moment.
It didn’t help (or did it?) that I was placed next to a lady who had been on the ride before and described the experience as, “At first you think you’re going to die . . .” Granted, she did follow this with, “. . . and then it’s pure bliss,” but these words were lost on me as by this point I was 239ft in the air and thought I was going to die. At no point did the bliss part creep in, especially not when I hit the high speed of 80.8mph and was propelling towards the ground. Research has shown that stress levels are heightened at speeds of 74mph, so you can imagine how I felt at the speed I was going.
I moved on from the knee-jerking, soaring heights of Silver Star to the slower, but equally stomach turning Wodan – Timburcoaster. This is Europa-Park’s first wooden coaster and has a lot of psychology behind. The ride is 3445ft long, 131ft high and has a speed of over 62mph. It also has a maximal vertical acceleration of up to 3.5g. Adding to the thrill is the fact that it crosses the tracks of two other rides, which gives it an emotional interaction element – people on the different rides literally scream at each other – we were all in the same boat, so to speak.
Special safety measures are taken with people of a certain body size, who need to test a replica seat at the queue entrance. Waiting in the queue is always a key aspect of any rollercoaster ride, but especially so for a wooden rollercoaster, where you hear the creaking, see the shaking, and wonder just how strong the structure is. The perception of not being totally safe on a wooden rollercoaster heightens the suspense and apprehension.
One theory holds that rollercoasters, in mimicking actual danger, administer the illusion of conquering a great peril. The illusion of danger is vital because there needs to be a contrast of pleasure and displeasure in order to create the imminent thrill. There is an area of the brainstem called the reticular activating system that is responsible for transitioning us from sleep to awake and through the different states of alertness. The thrill of danger and the physical extremes of a rollercoaster can activate this area, causing a high level of alertness throughout the rest of the brain. I experienced this first hand as my brain raced to high alert throughout the perceived imminent danger of being on a creaking, shaking wooden rollercoaster.
Hoops and Loops
Craving the adrenaline initially sparked by Silver Star, there was no other option but to tackle Blue Fire Megacoaster. On a track of over 3280ft, one thrill follows another. The ride takes you upside down, around, over, under, and everywhere in-between. You will find yourself head over heels four times, including a 360° roll. The best part of this ride, however, is its starting speed. From a standing position, it accelerates to 70mph in 2.5 seconds, launching upward to a height of 124ft. Just knowing that you may suddenly shoot off at any second intensifies the anticipation and growing trepidation. Then the sudden uphill acceleration exerts a force on your body, making it feel as though your stomach is being pulled down. This causes a surge of adrenalin, responsible for the heart pounding flight-or-fight response that can simultaneously instill a sense of fear and thrill – the psychological effect which the designers of the rollercoaster seek in order to make the ride an exhilarating experience.
The twisted horse-roll has four inversions and partially takes place over water. Can you imagine what it’s like being suspended and inverted at an extreme height over an expanse of water? The vulnerability factor increases when a rider is suspended in the air in inverted coasters. The ride on the Blue Fire Megacoaster presented moments when I felt as though I had no control. Feelings of loss of control can make it difficult for riders to differentiate between fantasy and reality – exactly what rollercoaster designers want. Patricia Czarkowski, Europa-Park Press Officer, says, “We need to provide a safe feeling too. The fear is psychological and not quite strong enough to prevent rational thought. People feel scared but still safe.” It is this feeling of complete loss of control while still rationally knowing that they are safe that makes a rollercoaster fun – it is a challenge. As daunting as Blue Fire was, it was certainly fun and people were laughing as they emerged from the exit looking shaken but happy.
You could Cut the Air with a Knife
After experiencing so many rides, my initial belief that I would never go on Silver Star again slowly but surely dissipated. I had already had a taste of the utter fear of this ride and so it is difficult to not feel cheated by other coasters. I would be cheating myself if I didn’t experience the best that they had to offer again. Saying that, it was with much trepidation that I queued to tackle this monster again. The queue itself is an experience, with no distractions other than the rising apprehension of my fellow passengers. The growing suspense was palpable and I was hoping for a longer queue to delay the inevitable.
You could cut the air with a knife. While most of the people were not speaking English, I didn’t need a translator to know that every word being spoken was centred on the fear and excitement of facing this mammoth challenge. People were biting their bottom lip, fiddling with their fingers, doing anything to prevent themselves thinking of what was ahead. You find yourself waiting to see who won’t make it through the queue. Who can’t stand the tension and will have to turn around and wade through the crowd while sheepishly looking at the ground? Will it be you? You truly don’t know as you waver between thinking you can do it and being convinced that you can’t – and don’t want to. The confusion is unbearable.
The queue for Silver Star is a huge part of the experience that can’t be underestimated. This might explain my very different experience the second time round. This time I could relate to the woman I’d sat next to – at first I thought I was going to die as I looked 239ft down, but as the centrifugal force hit my face I gave in to the experience, held my arms in the air, and felt the pure bliss of being completely weightless. There was something very empowering about this ride. It literally took me to another level and created an adrenaline that I had never experienced before. There is no doubt at all – now that I have adapted to this level of coaster, I would love to ride it again.
Taking to the Alps
My travels next took me to the Alpine Coaster in Hoch-Imst, Austria. This coaster is a whopping 11,598ft in length – with an altitude at the top terminal of 5085ft, making it the longest in the world. This is the ride I had been looking forward to the most – an opportunity to ride a rollercoaster down the Alps. Fortunately, I had a clear run, so I could go as fast as I wanted. Being the adrenaline junky that I was fast becoming, I didn’t use the brakes once. This came at a price, however, as my riding partner ended up losing his cap and camera lens cover.
The views were amazing, but better enjoyed when taking the ski lift up to the top of the coaster. It takes about 20 minutes to get to the top – plenty of time to absorb the stunning scenery and breathe in the clear air.
Was this the coaster to beat all coasters? In all honesty, I was a little disappointed. It certainly got my adrenaline going and it was a lot of fun, but it lacked the steep drops of theme park coasters. Steep free-fall drops provide the ultimate thrill; that is, pleasure, displeasure, and arousal all in one. Brendan Walker, Visiting Senior Research Fellow Director for the Thrill Laboratory, University of Nottingham, highlights the importance of a well-choreographed rollercoaster sequence to give the rider unusual stimuli. It is this choreography that the Alpine Coaster was lacking. The Psychologist Eric Berns describes the designers of rollercoasters as “master manipulators of our deepest fears.” Barring a few nerve-wracking bends when the thought of joining the lost cap and lens cover flits through your mind, the Alpine Coaster wasn’t terribly scary. Exhilarating, yes, but not scary.
Finding my Limits
There is only so much adrenalin a body can withstand and after this intense flurry of rollercoasters I had arranged a visit to a sauna spa to gather my wits and regain my composure. Unbeknownst to me, this particular spa catered to nudists. My partner commented on the fact that no one had clothes on but, thinking it was merely their preference, I continued wearing my bathing suit. It was only 2 hours later, when I was leaving, that I saw a sign stating that no clothing is allowed. Perhaps this wasn’t the best place to regain my wits and composure after all. Off to Skyline Park it was then.
Skyline Park, in Bad Wörishofen, Germany, was my final stop and I must admit to losing my enthusiasm by this point. Every rollercoaster had become a chore. Fortunately, this theme park only had 5 coasters for me to try. As I was in each queue, I was anxious – not because of the fear of what might come, but in case I was sick. My adrenaline levels had reached their limit and I don’t think anything other than Silver Star could kick them into action again. I was numb to the heights before me.
Sky Rider, which suspends you so that your legs are dangling, looked promising; but no joy. Sky Spin looked even more promising – 1391.1ft in length and 50.8ft in height. However, at a mere 37.3mph it did little to bring me back to life. It was Sky Wheel that finished me off and had me sitting on a bench holding my head. At 151.6ft in height and going at 65.3mph, the ride shook me to the core as I looped over – hanging from the sky and praying for it to be over.
A Rollercoaster of a Holiday
So, would I recommend a rollercoaster holiday? Yes! However, I encourage you to remain partially sensible when embarking on such a crazy adventure. Taking a ride on a rollercoaster is a high-velocity trip to great heights, and while these rides may quench your thirst for excitement, they place the body in a phenomenal position that can have both physical and psychological effects.
Take some time-off between rides to give your body and mind some time to recuperate and return to their normal state before getting on another ride. In other words, limit the number of coasters you go on per day to a number that you can reasonably manage. This will vary. A few days off in-between the Alpine Coaster and Skyline Park was enough recovery time for my travel partner, who loved the Sky Wheel despite the trauma it caused me. Clearly, he has a tougher stomach than me and the fact that we had already been on 16 coasters, many of them multiple times, didn’t faze him.
Dr Nicola Davies is a Psychologist and Freelance Writer. You can follow her on Twitter (@healthpsychuk), sign up to her free blog or follow her GoPro down the Alpina here.
Copyright © 2014 Nicola Davies