Life Is A Roller Coaster
How Russian hill sledding and American gravity railroads evolved into the behemoth roller coaster rides of today. Lisa Johnson twists and turns
At the vast Europa-Park in the otherwise modest town of Rust, Southwest Germany — midway between the Rhine and the Black Forest and a short drive from the borders of France and Switzerland — you can stay in a hotel themed as the Colosseum, splash down 50 slides in a Scandinavian-styled water world, soar in a chairlift over multimedia projections of Holland’s tulips in a 'flying theatre’, and watch yourself exploring the world of Amber Blake: Operation Dragonfly — a comic strip created by the Belgian model Jade Lagardère — in the VR centre, YULLBE.
Opened in 1975, Europe’s second most popular amusement park after Disneyland Paris now covers 95 hectares and welcomes more than six million visitors a year to over 100 attractions and 24 hours of daily shows. But the highlights are arguably its 13 roller coasters, including the family-friendly Arthur, the Blue Fire Megacoaster (a catapult launch coaster that accelerates to 100km/h in 2.5 seconds and features a 30m vertical loop) and the giant Wodan Timburcoaster: a 1,050m-long wooden coaster that reaches a height of 40m and a speed of over 100km/h.
To paraphrase Mack Rides, the family company that operates the park and made most of its roller coasters, the aim is to ‘make people smile’.
The History of Roller Coasters
Thrill-seekers have been pursuing the adrenalin rush of gravity rides since the St Petersburg elite starting sledding down ‘Russian Mountains’ of wood and ice in the 17th century. In 1784, Catherine the Great installed a summer version at her Oranienbaum palace, featuring wheeled chariots that trundled along an undulating track and were hoisted back along two side tracks by horses. The idea caught on, resurfacing in 1817 as the Montagnes Russes de Belleville in the Paris suburbs and the Promenades Aériennes in the city itself; Louis XVIII was among the spectators.
Across the Atlantic, the idea for a roller coaster was born in Mauch Chunck, Pennsylvania, when a railroad track built in 1827 to transport coal (and mules) switched to carrying people. This gave the grandly named American inventor LaMarcus Adna Thompson the spark for his Switchback Railway: a five-cents ride launched in 1884 on Coney Island in Brooklyn, in which riders climbed a 15m tower, coasted along a 183m track at 9.7km/h (sitting sideways), then returned on a parallel track. The two most significant innovations came in 1919, when John Miller, !ompson’s former engineer, invented underfriction wheels, effectively locking the cars to the track; and in 1959, when the world’s first tubular steel roller coaster, the Matterhorn Bobsleds, was presented to the world at Disneyland, California.
Today, many roller coasters still operate by gravity: pulled up a lift hill by a chain or cable, then released downhill, via an increasingly inventive assortment of loops and inversions, to ever-decreasing heights. Others, such as the record-breaking Kinga Ka in New Jersey, have a launch mechanism that allows to them to accelerate to their maximum speed within seconds. Extreme coasters such as Ride to Happiness at Plopsaland De Panne in Belgium incorporate elements such as the top hat: a vertical ascent followed by a vertical or beyond-vertical descent. But the holy grail for many riders is air time: the feeling — resulting from the negative G-force created when a car travels at speed over a hill — that they’re floating out of their seat.
In 1780, four years before Catherine the Great unveiled her Russian Mountain at Oranienbaum, a 25-year-old by the name of Paul Mack started building wagons in the Black Forest village of Waldkirch — thus setting the wheels of what would become Mack Rides in motion. The wagons evolved into carriages and stagecoaches, circus wagons and carrousels, and in 1921, a roller coaster for the German showmen Siebold & Herhaus, which toured Europe and led to classic Mack fairground rides such as the Wilde Maus, with its four-seater cars and fast-paced corners.
The idea of building a theme park as a showcase for the rides dates from 1972, after Franz Mack and his son Roland returned from a trip to the USA, where Franz had been selling rides since the 1950s. Eventually the family were able to secure the gardens of the 15th-century Castle Balthasar in Rust; the park opened three years later with 15 attractions on 16 hectares.
Today, Mack Rides is run by Roland with his brother Jürgen and son Michael, and makes roller coasters for theme parks all over the world, from the Slinky Dog Dash at Walt Disney World in Florida to the DC Rivals Hypercoaster at Warner Bros. Movie World on Australia’s Gold Coast; as the company motto goes: Die weite Welt is mein Feld (‘the whole world is my playground’). The weite Welt has also recognised the Macks’ contribution to the art of amusement, with both Franz and Roland incorporated into the Hall of Fame of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA). Back at Europa-Park in Germany, meanwhile, real-world coasters are now enhanced by VR movies, while a 14th coaster, in the shape of a big dipper with inversions and a top hat, is due to open in a new Croatia-themed area in Illustrations: Luke McConkey 2024. One suspects Catherine the Great would have loved it.
Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure, New Jersey, USA (2005)
A hydraulic steel coaster that reaches 139m.
The Smiler at Alton Towers, Staffordshire, UK (2013)
Subjects riders to 14 different types of inversions.
Steel Dragon 2000 at Nagashima Spa Land, Kuwana, Mie, Japan (2000)
A 2,479m-long steel giga out and back coaster with a 94m drop.
Time Traveler at Silver Dollar City, Missouri, USA (2018)
A state-of-the-art ride in an 1880s-themed park — the cars were the first to free-spin and do loops at the same time.
Formula Rossa at Ferrari World, Dubai, United Arab Emirates (2010)
Another hydraulically launched model, styled as a Ferrari sports car, that accelerates from zero to 240km/h in five seconds.
Leap the Dips at Lakemont Park, Pennsylvania, USA (1902)
A side friction coaster, with a figure-of-eight track, that is now a National Historic Landmark.