Roller coaster

Roller coaster
The Scenic Railway at Luna Park, Melbourne, is the world's oldest continually-operating rollercoaster, built in 1912.
Video from inside a roller coaster car (Xpress, Walibi Holland, The Netherlands)

The roller coaster is a popular amusement ride developed for amusement parks and modern theme parks. LaMarcus Adna Thompson patented the first coasters on January 20, 1885. In essence a specialized railroad system, a roller coaster consists of a track that rises in designed patterns, sometimes with one or more inversions (such as vertical loops) that turn the rider briefly upside down. The track does not necessarily have to be a complete circuit, as shuttle roller coasters exhibit. Most roller coasters have multiple cars in which passengers sit and are restrained. Two or more cars hooked together are called a train. Some roller coasters, notably Wild Mouse roller coasters, run with single cars.



Russian mountain

The oldest roller coasters are believed to have originated from the so-called "Russian Mountains", which were specially constructed hills of ice, located especially around Saint Petersburg.[1] Built in the 15th century, the slides were built to a height of between 70 and 80 feet (24 m), consisted of a 50 degree drop, and were reinforced by wooden supports.

Some historians say the first real roller coaster was built under the orders of Russia's Catherine the Great in the Gardens of Oranienbaum in Saint Petersburg in the year 1784. Other historians believe that the first roller coaster was built by the French. The Les Montagnes Russes à Belleville (The Russian Mountains of Belleville) constructed in Paris in 1812 and the Promenades Aeriennes both featured wheeled cars securely locked to the track, guide rails to keep them on course, and higher speeds.[2]

The name Russian Mountains to designate a roller coaster is preserved in most Latin languages. Ironically, the Russian term for roller coasters is американские горки ("amerikanskie gorki") "American Mountains".

Scenic gravity railroads

In 1827, a mining company in Summit Hill, Pennsylvania constructed the Mauch Chunk gravity railroad, an 8.7 mi (14 km) downhill track used to deliver coal to Mauch Chunk (now known as Jim Thorpe), Pennsylvania.[3] By the 1850s, the "Gravity Road" (as it became known) was providing rides to thrill-seekers for 50 cents a ride. Railway companies used similar tracks to provide amusement on days when ridership was low.

Thompson's Switchback Railway, 1884.

Using this idea as a basis, LaMarcus Adna Thompson began work on a gravity Switchback Railway that opened at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York in 1884.[4] Passengers climbed to the top of a platform and rode a bench-like car down the 600 ft (180 m) track up to the top of another tower where the vehicle was switched to a return track and the passengers took the return trip.[5] This track design was soon replaced with an oval complete circuit.[2] In 1885, Phillip Hinkle introduced the first full-circuit coaster with a lift hill, the Gravity Pleasure Road, which was soon the most popular attraction at Coney Island.[2] Not to be outdone, in 1886 LaMarcus Adna Thompson patented his design of roller coaster that included dark tunnels with painted scenery. "Scenic Railways" were to be found in amusement parks across the county,[2] with Frederick Ingersoll's construction company building many of them in the first two decades of the 20th century.

Popularity, decline and revival

By 1919, the first underfriction roller coaster had been developed by John Miller.[6] Soon, roller coasters spread to amusement parks all around the world. Perhaps the best known historical roller coaster, The Cyclone, was opened at Coney Island in 1927.

The Great Depression marked the end of the first golden age of roller coasters, and theme parks in general went into decline. This lasted until 1972, when The Racer was built at Kings Island in Mason, Ohio (near Cincinnati). Designed by John Allen, the instant success of The Racer began a second golden age, which has continued to this day.

Steel roller coasters

In 1959 the Disneyland theme park introduced a new design breakthrough with the Matterhorn Bobsleds. This was the first roller coaster to use a tubular steel track. Unlike conventional rails set on wooden railroad ties, tubular steel can be bent in any direction, which allows designers to incorporate loops, corkscrews, and many other maneuvers into their designs. Most modern roller coasters are made of steel, although wooden coasters are still being built.

New designs and technologies are pushing the limits of what can be experienced on the newest coasters. Electromagnetically launched coasters are examples of such technologies.


There are several explanations of the name roller coaster. It is said to have originated from an early American design where slides or ramps were fitted with rollers over which a sled would coast.[2] This design was abandoned in favor of fitting the wheels to the sled or other vehicles, but the name endured.

Another explanation is that it originated from a ride located in a roller skating rink in Haverhill, Massachusetts in 1887. A toboggan-like sled was raised to the top of a track which consisted of hundreds of rollers. This Roller Toboggan then took off down gently rolling hills to the floor. The inventors of this ride, Stephen E. Jackman and Byron B. Floyd, claim that they were the first to use the term "roller coaster".[5]

The term jet coaster is used for roller coasters in Japan, where such amusement park rides are very popular.[7]

In many languages, the name refers to "Russian mountains". Contrastingly, in Russian, they are called "American mountains". In Scandinavian languages, the roller coaster is referred as "mountain-and-valley railway".


The cars on a typical roller coaster are not self-powered. Instead, a standard full circuit coaster is pulled up with a chain or cable along the lift hill to the first peak of the coaster track. The potential energy accumulated by the rise in height is transferred to kinetic energy as the cars race down the first downward slope. Kinetic energy is then converted back into potential energy as the train moves up again to the second peak. This hill is necessarily lower, as some mechanical energy is lost to friction.

Not all rides feature a lift hill, however. The train may be set into motion by a launch mechanism such as a flywheel launch, linear induction motors, linear synchronous motors, hydraulic launch, compressed air launch or drive tire. Such launched coasters are capable of reaching higher speeds in a shorter length of track than those featuring a conventional lift hill. Some roller coasters move back and forth along the same section of track; these are known as shuttles and usually run the circuit once with riders moving forwards and then backwards through the same course.

A properly designed ride under good conditions will have enough kinetic, or moving, energy to complete the entire course, at the end of which brakes bring the train to a complete stop and it is pushed into the station. A brake run at the end of the circuit is the most common method of bringing the roller coaster ride to a stop. One notable exception is a powered roller coaster. These rides, instead of being powered by gravity, use one or more motors in the cars to propel the trains along the course.

If a continuous-circuit coaster does not have enough kinetic energy to completely travel the course after descending from its highest point (as can happen with high winds or increased friction), the train can valley: that is, roll backwards and forwards along the track, until all kinetic energy has been released. The train will then come to a complete stop in the middle of the track. This, however, works somewhat differently on a launched coaster. When a train launcher does not have enough potential energy to launch the train to the top of an incline, the train is said to "roll back." On some modern coasters, such as Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, Kingda Ka in Jackson, New Jersey and Stealth at Thorpe Park in Surrey, UK this is an occurrence highly sought after by many coaster enthusiasts.[citation needed]

In 2006, NASA announced that it would build a system using principles similar to those of a roller coaster to help astronauts escape the Ares I launch pad in an emergency.[8]


Many safety systems are implemented in roller coasters. One of these is the block system. Most large roller coasters have the ability to run two or more trains at once, and the block system prevents these trains from colliding. In this system, the track is divided into several sections, or blocks. Only one train at a time is permitted in each block. At the end of each block, there is a section of track where a train can be stopped if necessary (either by preventing dispatch from the station, closing brakes, or stopping a lift). Sensors at the end of each block detect when a train passes so that the computer running the ride is aware of which blocks are occupied. When the computer detects a train about to travel into an already occupied block, it uses whatever method is available to keep it from entering. The trains are fully automated.

The above can cause a cascade effect when multiple trains become stopped at the end of each block. In order to prevent this problem, ride operators follow set procedures regarding when to release a newly loaded train from the station. One common pattern, used on rides with two trains, is to do the following: hold train #1 (which has just finished the ride) right outside the station, release train #2 (which has loaded while #1 was running), and then allow #1 into the station to unload safely.

Another key to safety is the control of the roller coaster's operating computers: programmable logic controllers (often called PLCs). A PLC detects faults associated with the mechanism and makes decisions to operate roller coaster elements (e.g. lift, track-switches and brakes) based on configured state and operator actions. Periodic maintenance and inspection are required to verify structures and materials are within expected wear tolerances and are in sound working order. Sound operating procedures are also a key to safety.

Roller coaster design requires a working knowledge of basic physics to avoid uncomfortable, even potentially fatal, strain to the rider. Ride designers must carefully ensure the accelerations experienced throughout the ride do not subject the human body to more than it can handle. The human body needs time to detect changes in force in order to control muscle tension. Failure to take this into account can result in severe injuries such as whiplash. The accelerations accepted in rollercoaster design are generally in the 4-6Gs (40–60 m s−2) range for positive vertical (pushing you into your seat), and 1.5-2Gs (15–20 m s−2) for the negative vertical (flying out of your seat as you crest a hill).[citation needed] This range safely ensures the majority of the population experiences no harmful side effects. Lateral accelerations are generally kept to a minimum by banking curves. The neck's inability to deal with high forces leads to lateral accelerations generally limited to under 1.8Gs.[citation needed] Sudden accelerations in the lateral plane result in a rough ride.

Despite safety measures, accidents can, and do, occur.[9] Regulations concerning accident reporting vary from one authority to another. Thus in the USA, California requires amusement parks to report any ride-related accident that requires an emergency room visit, while Florida exempts parks whose parent companies employ more than 1000 people from having to report any accidents at all. Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts has introduced legislation that would give oversight of rides to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

Ride accidents can also be caused by riders themselves or ride operators not following safety directions properly, and, in extremely rare cases, riders can be injured by mechanical failures. In recent years, controversy has arisen about the safety of increasingly extreme rides. There have been suggestions that these may be subjecting passengers to translational and rotational accelerations that may be capable of causing brain injuries. In 2003 the Brain Injury Association of America concluded in a report that "There is evidence that roller coaster rides pose a health risk to some people some of the time. Equally evident is that the overwhelming majority of riders will suffer no ill effects." [10]

A similar report in 2005 linked roller coasters and other thrill rides with potentially triggering abnormal heart conditions that could lead to death.[11] Autopsies have shown that recent deaths at various Disney parks, Anheuser-Busch parks, and Six Flags parks were due to previously undetected heart ailments.

Statistically, roller coasters are very safe compared to other activities. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 134 park guests required hospitalization in 2001 and that fatalities related to amusement rides average two per year. According to a study commissioned by Six Flags, 319 million people visited parks in 2001. The study concluded that a visitor has a one in one-and-a-half billion chance of being fatally injured, and that the injury rates for children's wagons, golf, and folding lawn chairs are higher than for amusement rides.[12]

Types of roller coasters

Today, there are two main types of roller coaster:

Steel coasters are known for their smooth ride and often convoluted shapes that frequently turn riders upside-down via inversions. Wooden coasters are typically renowned by enthusiasts for their rougher ride and "air time" produced by negative G-forces when the train reaches the top of hills along the ride. There are also hybrid roller coasters that combine a steel structure with wooden tracks, or a wooden structure with steel tracks.

Modern roller coasters take on many different forms. Some designs take their cue from how the rider is positioned to experience the ride. Traditionally, riders sit facing forward in the coaster car, while newer coaster designs have ignored this tradition in the quest for building more exciting, unique ride experiences. Variations such as the stand-up roller coaster and the flying roller coaster position the rider in different ways to provide different experiences. Stand-up coasters involve cars that have the riders in a standing position (though still heavily strapped in). Flying coasters have the riders hanging below the track face-down with their chests and feet strapped in. Vekoma "Flying Dutchman" coasters have the riders starting out sitting above the track, then they fully recline so that the riders are looking at the sky. Eventually, they twist into the "flying" position. B&M flying coasters have the riders hanging below the track like in an inverted (hanging) coaster. To go into the flight position, the section of the car where the riders' feet are raised to the track. That way, they start in the flight position. In addition to changing rider viewpoint, some roller coaster designs also focus on track styles to make the ride fresh and different from other coasters.

See Roller coaster elements for the various parts of a roller coaster and the types of thrill elements that go into making each roller coaster unique.

By train type

By track layout

By mechanics

By height

A Kiddie roller coaster is a roller coaster specifically designed for families and children not able to ride the larger rides.

Kiddie coaster: Kingdom Coaster at Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is a 55 foot tall coaster that reaches a top speed of 40mph.
Mega / Hyper coaster: Behemoth, at Canada's Wonderland, is the highest (230 ft) and fastest (77mph) coaster in Canada.
Giga coaster: The first Giga coaster, the 310 ft tall Millennium Force at Cedar Point.
Strata coaster: The tallest coaster in the world, the 456 ft tall Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure.

Several height-related names have been used by parks and manufacturers for marketing their roller coasters. While often used among coaster fans, their definitions are not always agreed upon, nor are the terms necessarily accepted industry wide.

A Mega Coaster or Hyper Coaster is a complete-circuit roller coaster with a height or drop greater than 200 feet. The first roller coaster to be classified as a hyper coaster is Magnum XL-200 at Cedar Point built by Arrow Dynamics. Ever since its debut, hyper coasters have been among the most popular style of rollercoasters worldwide. Bolliger and Mabillard and Intamin AG are the most prominent hyper coaster manufacturers.

A Giga Coaster is a complete-circuit roller coaster with a height or drop greater than 300 feet. The term was coined by a Cedar Point and Intamin AG partnership after the construction of Millennium Force. So far, there are only three Giga coasters worldwide: Millennium Force at Cedar Point, Steel Dragon 2000 at Nagashima Spa Land in Japan, and Intimidator 305 at Kings Dominion. Millennium Force and Intimidator 305 were built by Intamin AG while Steel Dragon 2000 was built by Chance-Morgan. However, there will be more Giga coasters to come in the future like Leviathan at Canada's Wonderland that is being built by Bolliger & Mabillard.

Name Park Manufacturer Status Opened Height
Millennium Force Cedar Point Intamin AG Operating May 13, 2000 310 feet (94 m)
Steel Dragon 2000 Nagashima Spa Land Chance Morgan Operating August 1, 2000 318 feet (97 m)
Leviathan Canada's Wonderland Bolliger & Mabillard Under Construction May 2012 306 feet (93 m)
Intimidator 305 Kings Dominion Intamin AG Operating April 2, 2010 305 feet (93 m)

A Strata coaster is a complete-circuit roller coaster with a height or drop greater than 400 feet. The term was adopted and attributed by Intamin. Only two Strata coasters have been built worldwide, both using Intamin's hydraulically launched Accelerator Coaster design. The first was Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point, which opened in 2003 and stands at a height of 420 feet (130 m). The second was Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure, which opened in 2005 with a record-breaking height of 456 feet (139 m).

Name Park Manufacturer Status Opened Height
Top Thrill Dragster Cedar Point Intamin AG Operating May 4, 2003 420 feet (130 m)
Kingda Ka Six Flags Great Adventure Intamin AG Operating May 21, 2005 456 feet (139 m)

Tower of Terror II at Dreamworld Australia, and Superman: Escape From Krypton at Six Flags Magic Mountain, respectively, were the first roller coasters to break the 400-foot (120 m) barrier, but are not considered Strata coasters, since they are shuttle roller coasters and their cars travel only 328 feet (100 m) high.


Major roller coaster manufacturers

See also


  1. ^ Robert Coker (2002). Roller Coasters: A Thrill Seeker's Guide to the Ultimate Scream Machines. New York: Metrobooks. 14. ISBN 1586631721.
  2. ^ a b c d e Steven J. Urbanowicz (2002). The Roller Coaster Lover's Companion. Kensington, New York: Citadel Press. 4. ISBN 0806523093.
  3. ^ "Roller Coaster History: Early Years In America". Retrieved on July 26, 2007.
  4. ^ Chris Sheedy (2007-01-07). "Icons — In the Beginning... Roller-Coaster". The Sun-Herald Sunday Life (Weekly Supplement) (John Fairfax Publications Pty Ltd.): p. 10. 
  5. ^ a b Scott Rutherford (2000). The American Roller Coaster. Wisconsin: MBI Publishing Company. ISBN 0760306893.
  6. ^
  7. ^ Robb and Elissa Alvey. "Theme Park Review: Japan 2004", Retrieved on March 18, 2008.
  8. ^ Chris Bergin (November 3, 2006). "NASA will build Rollercoaster for Ares I escape". NASA Archived from the original on 2007-01-01. Retrieved 2007-01-08. 
  9. ^ "Verified Injury Accidents at Theme and Amusement Parks". 
  10. ^ Blue Ribbon Panel (2003-02-25). Blue Ribbon Panel Review of the Correlation between Brain Injury and Roller Coaster Rides — Final Report. Archived from the original on 2006-11-29. Retrieved 2007-01-08. 
  11. ^ Charlene Laino and Louise Chang, MD (2005-11-16). "Roller Coasters: Safe for the Heart?". Retrieved 2007-01-08. 
  12. ^ Arthur Levine. "White Knuckles Are the Worst of It". Retrieved 2007-01-08. 

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