Summer Dispatch: The Thrill of the Ride : News & Views NPR's Donte Adams -- an avid roller coaster enthusiast -- is traveling across the country, riding coasters and filing reports along the way.
NPR logo Summer Dispatch: The Thrill of the Ride

Summer Dispatch: The Thrill of the Ride

The El Toro roller coaster is located at Six Flags Great Adventure. Donte Adams hide caption

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Donte Adams

NPR's Donte Adams — an avid roller coaster enthusiast — is traveling across the country, riding coasters and filing reports along the way. What follows is a dispatch from his first day on the road:

Day One: Six Flags Great Adventure: Kingda Ka

As an avid roller coaster enthusiast and adrenaline junkie, I frequently travel the country with friends and relatives visiting various amusement parks in search of the ultimate roller coaster thrill. This year's trip included me, my younger brother, and two friends. Our itinerary included trips to Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J.; Dorney Park in Allentown, Pa.; Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio; and King's Island in Cincinnati, Ohio. All of the parks have their share of entertaining rides, shows, and attractions. Rather than bore you with those details of the trip, I will get right to the roller coasters.

We arrived at Six Flags Great Adventure 20 minutes before the park opened. It had been a cloudy and rainy morning,and we hoped that would not affect any of the roller coasters we had come to ride. We stood with a crowd of chatty and excited young teenagers eagerly awaiting the opening of the front gate. Once the clock struck 10:30 am, the gates opened and there was a stampede of an indeterminable number of screaming people all heading for their first choice of the ten various roller coasters the park has to offer. We chose to head directly to Kingda Ka, the tallest and fastest ride on planet Earth ...of course.

I first noticed the ride when we arrived in the parking lot earlier in the morning, but I thought it was a large construction crane and platform. I had no idea it was the actual coaster until we followed the stampeding teens and the signs directing us to the ride. We arrived to find two sets of lime green tracks climbing what seemed to be miles into the sky. I thought to myself, "This is an odd looking ride. It better be good."

One piece of advice I must offer to anyone who is not a serious coaster enthusiast or an adventure craving person is, never ever climb aboard any roller coaster train without first watching the ride cycle through the course once or twice. If you fail to do this, you deserve whatever it is that you will be going through on the ride that you chose to climb onto without doing some initial investigation. I fell into this trap.

Looking at the Kingda Ka ride, it appeared harmless ...odd, yet harmless. It had the appearance of a gigantic inverted capital letter U with elongated legs. After a very short wait and some brief safety rules uttered by the ride attendant, I climbed into the very front seat of the train with my brother thinking that I better not had traveled 3,000 miles across the country and stood in line for a ride that is a boring let down. Well that definitely did not happen.

After fastening our over-the-shoulder safety harnesses and seat belts, the ride was dispatched. The 18 passenger green and blue train slowly rolled out onto a long, straight section of track that resembled a runway and then came to a complete stop. After being stationary for several seconds, I thought maybe there was something wrong, especially considering that we were on the first train of the day and we had not seen the ride in operation. After a few more seconds, I turned to my brother beside me and began to speak, but the thought I wished to express never came to be vocalized.

Before the first syllable could exit my mouth, I experienced what can only be described as a mach 10 rocket launch from 0 to 186,000 miles per second. It felt as if we had been launched from a slingshot. I later found out that the ride travels from 0 to 128 mph in 3.5 seconds, but that's beside the point. I know what I felt. As the train rocketed down 1,000 feet of flat track, I could feel the skin on my face being stretched off of the back of my skull.

Kingda Ka
Kingda Ka, as photographed from the parking lot of Six Flags Great Adventure.

Donte Adams

My eyelids were flapping in a wind so strong that I began to sympathize with hurricane and tornado victims. The wind caused my eyes to generate tears which were immediately blown from the corners of my eyes straight into my ear canals. Then the train reached a gigantic curve and we were hurled 90 degrees vertically up into the sky. As we blasted toward the heavens, we passed through a layer of low hanging cumulus clouds.

The sky above was sunny and blue, but we never stopped climbing. Then the sky changed from blue to black. I soon realized that we were now in outer space. We had gone so far out of the earth's atmosphere that I was able to high five the astronauts on the International Space Station. I looked down and I saw the layer of clouds we passed through and I saw airplanes and birds circling below. I could even see the curvature of the earth. I later found out that the ride was 456 feet tall, but that's beside the point. I know what I saw.

When the train reached the crest of the 456 foot hill, it came to a very slow crawl giving riders a breath taking, yet terrifying view of the surrounding cities, states, countries, and planets. We were up so high that I was actually able to verify that there is no visible life on Mars. All of a sudden, a person sitting behind me yelled out, "NOW HERE COMES THE GOOD PART!" I turned to my brother and exclaimed, "THE GOOD PART...?!"

The train came over the crest and we were treated to a 90 degree, vertical drop that included a 270 degree twisting spiral, and a view from above, looking straight down at the ground 456 feet below.

This became a religious moment for me because when I saw what I saw, and when I realized what was about to happen, I screamed out the Lord's name and a few not so religious expletives.

For the first time ever, my life flashed before my eyes and after all these years I finally remembered where I had hidden the Hot Wheels cars that went to my Double Loop Night Glow racing track that I owned when I was 8 years old. But that's beside the point. The train began to pick up an exorbitant amount of speed as it fell from the heavens back down to earth.

As the train began to re-enter earth's atmosphere, I could feel the skin on my face begin to heat up. When we hit the 270 degree twisting spiral, I lost the entire first layer of my epidermis as it was burned up and whisked away.

My hair, which is normally kept in twists, became completely untwisted and began flapping about in the wind. The train then negotiated another 90 degree curve that put us parallel with the earth's terrain again. But it was not over yet.

We were treated to another surprise ... a 120 foot tall bunny hop. While traveling at 128 mph, right after an unholy rocket launch of a take off and a daredevil vertical dive from 456 feet in the sky, the train negotiated a 120 foot tall bunny hop.

For those that don't understand, while traveling at speeds so great, a hill of at least 400 feet would be necessary to bring the train to a comfortable slow down. A bunny hop of such little height sent everyone in the train flying up out of their seats and into the over-the-shoulder safety harnesses that we had so begrudgingly secured before the ride began. Then the train came into a long set of magnetic breaks that brought the coaster to a very smooth yet very quick stop.

I turned to my brother to speak and only a puff of smoke emerged from my mouth. When the train reached the station, I realized that several of the riders on the platform awaiting their turn to ride were laughing and pointing at me.

I thought it was due to the fact that my hair was a complete mess after the ordeal, but my brother pointed to my neck and I realized that the very expensive Calvin Klein underwear that I had worn to the park that morning were somehow mysteriously around my neck like a piece of jewelry. Talk about riding up on me ...

After departing the train, my brother and I ran to the restroom for a very necessary bathroom break. I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror and I was completely shocked. Not only was my hair completely undone and then restyled by the power of Kingda Ka, but the speed and heat from the ride performed a sort of cosmetic surgery on my face.

It looked as if I had a facelift and a chemical skin peel. I got off of the ride looking 15 years younger than I did when I got on. That's a major accomplishment for a ride that is only 17 seconds long.

The friends that traveled with us asked what we thought of the ride and I told them the truth, in 17 seconds this ride puts you though more than the astronauts in space training camp will go through in their entire careers, including Space Shuttle launches.

Verdict: Great ride! Not for those afraid of speed, heights, drops, cosmetic surgery, free falling, or having their lives flash before their eyes. We rode twice. Now I look 30 years younger.

El Toro

I love wooden coasters. Don't get me wrong, steel coasters are great. Some are even fantastic like X at Six Flags Magic Mountain. But most steel coasters have loops, and I can take or leave looping coasters.

I prefer the rough and tumble feel of a wooden coaster with all of the drops and bunny hops that lift you out of your seat and give you that wonderful sensation of weightlessness called air time. Wooden coasters each have their own personality and attitude and if you find the perfect one for you, you can actually bond with it.

El Toro
El Toro is a wooden roller coaster with several major drops.

Donte Adams

Great Adventure has a huge wooden beast known as El Toro. From the parking lot one can see this wooden mega beast sitting in the shadow of Kingda Ka the big steel monster we conquered when we entered the park. After surviving Kingda Ka, I felt invincible. So we rushed to the back of the park where El Toro was located. A sign out front listed El Toro as one of the tallest and fastest wooden coasters on earth. And it boasts the steepest drop ever designed on a wooden coaster ... 80 degrees!

Of course, my brother and I jumped in line as quickly as we could finish reading the sign. We chose to ride in the back seat of the last car because I prefer all of my wooden coasters in the back seat. I like the whipping sensation you feel as the weight of the train pulls the last car over the hills with its might.

The ride looks beautiful. Natural wood color and steep looking drops that seem to go on for miles. I can look at a coaster and get an idea if it will be a good ride or not. I was prepared for this one because it looked like it would be so much fun. Unfortunately, from my experience, the taller and faster a wooden coaster is designed, the rougher and bumpier the ride will be. I like it to a point, but there are some rides that I will never ride again because they are far too bumpy to the point of being painful to ride. I was sizing up El Toro pretty good ... we're going to catch some air time right there, it will be bumpy right over there, it will lose speed here and pick some up right there.

People that say looks can be deceiving are telling the truth. The train left the station in the normal manner that most wooden coasters do. A slow moving left turn and up onto the lift hill. This is where I was greeted with my first surprise. Instead of the normal chain lifts that most rides have the make the clackety clack sound as you ascend the hill, El Toro features a cable lifting system similar to those found in elevators. The ride does not make a single sound as it climbs the hill and it climbs the hill 5 times faster than any other ride. You make it to the top of the 188 foot hill in a few short seconds.

Soon, the train was making a slow moving left turn and approaching the first drop. Then, as my brother so eloquently described it, all hell broke loose. Now I thought my mama had attitude. Her attitude was nothing compared to what this ride had in store. As I expected, the weight of the train whipped us over the first drop, but what I wasn't expecting was for the entire train to leave away from my body.

The drop is so steep that the train sort of pitched my body forward while the train falls down the drop. The safety bar caught me by my hips and dragged my free falling body down with the train. I had a flashback of the Coyote chasing the Road Runner and he falls off of a cliff.

The lower half of his body falls first and then the weight of the lower half kind of yanks the upper half down with it. You experience a complete free fall with your body floating down in the small space between the seat of the train and your safety bar while never touching either of the two. I screamed out, "WHOA!" and my brother screamed, "HOLY..."

The sentence was never finished because just as the train reached the bottom of the first drop, our hind quarters were just gently beginning to touch the seat when we flew over the first bunny hop with more force than I have ever felt on any of the 185 different roller coasters I had ridden before. We were thrown up into our safety bars with so much force so many times that we actually spent most of the ride lifted up against the under side of the safety bar.

That was surprise number two. For the first three drops it was wash, rinse, repeat. Then I realized surprise number three, this wooden roller coaster was smoother than any wood or steel coaster I had ever been on. It was completely silent. The only sounds I heard came from the screaming riders and me of course. This ride is tall, fast, super smooth, quiet, and absolutely incredible, with more attitude than my mama ... now that's a lot of attitude.

After three major drops producing major air time, we encountered a huge, sweeping, 90 degree banked diving U turn to the right. On the return trip we traveled over several more air time filled bunny hops and then came into what is in my opinion, the greatest part of this ride. Most roller coasters toss out their best moments during the first portion of the ride.

You encounter the first big drop and all of the speed and stunts so that when the ride is coming to an end there is very little momentum and few, if any, major elements to traverse. El Toro has changed the mold on that. Coming toward the end of the ride, El Toro maintains its 80 mph speed and tossed out a surprise that was worthy of an award.

The ride makes a sweeping 90 degree banked turn to the left and pops over a 60 foot bunny hop that gave us more air time than any other drop on this roller coaster. At the bottom of this drop, the ride goes through three 90 degree banked S turns in rapid succession. It was a 60-plus mph right, left, right while hugging the ground. This was followed by several more quick bunny hops and then the final brake run. This ride comes into the brakes traveling at more than 50 mph, which is faster than most roller coaster travel at any point during their run.

When we arrived back in the station, I had so much adrenaline pumping through my body that I was shaking as if I were freezing cold. My hands and knees were visibly vibrating. My brother asked me if I was alright and all I could manage to say was, "THAT WAS AWESOME!" So of course we got back in line again.

Verdict: This ride should be renamed The Attitude because it packs pure attitude. If my mother and this ride went head to head in an attitude contest, my mother would win only because this ride had 90 seconds of attitude and my mother's has lasted for over 30 years.

This is now my favorite roller coaster. This is my number one ride out of 186 different coasters. Nothing compares. This ride is perfect in all ways except one; I think it's too short. But I do realize that the length of the ride is due to the nonstop speed from start to finish. My brother and I rode six times and still could not get enough.

We rode 12 different roller coasters this day and many of them were good rides. Nitro deserves an honorable mention for being a big yellow ride with many smooth drops and great speed. But the two stand out rides were Kingda Ka and El Toro. We will be visiting this park again in the near future. The other parks we will be visiting have a lot to measure up to.

— Donte Adams