Slower, Yet Scarier: A New Roller Coaster Era? It's hard to imagine summer without a visit to an amusement park... and a heart-stopping rollercoaster ride. Every year, the coasters seem scarier. In Orlando, Disney seeks to raise a coaster's scream quotient while keeping it deceptively slow.
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Slower, Yet Scarier: A New Roller Coaster Era?

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Slower, Yet Scarier: A New Roller Coaster Era?

Slower, Yet Scarier: A New Roller Coaster Era?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's hard to imagine summer without a visit to an amusement park, and a heart-stopping, stomach-churning rollercoaster ride. Every year, the coaster seems to get taller, faster, and scarier. But this summer, one attraction is going down a different track.

Christopher Elliott reports from Orlando on Disney's efforts to notch up its coaster's scream quotient while keeping it deceptively slow.


Expedition Everest at Disney's Animal Kingdom Park sounds like a typical roller coaster.

(Soundbite of screaming)

ELLIOTT: And like a typical roller coaster, it's got jarring, hairpin turns, and an exhilarating 80-foot drop. But it's hardly a typical roller coaster. Everest looks like a Tibetan village. There's a temple and a train station. And in the distance, narrow tracks climbing a snow capped mountain.

(Soundbite of bells)

Ms. COLLEEN MYERS (Designer, Expedition Everest): So these bells that you see all over the mandir, actually, they were created for this attraction.

ELLIOTT: Colleen Myers is one of the ride's designers. She helped give these props their realistic appearance.

Ms. MYERS: You really need to - everything to look the same age, and to really try to get that feeling that you're standing at an ancient temple. And there's just a huge amount of detail that go into the storytelling of this attraction.

ELLIOTT: The story takes you on an expedition to find the mythological Yeti, the Abominable Snowman. In other words, Disney's obsession with authenticity is designed to immerse you in an experience of a thrill ride that's wholly inauthentic. Hop on the rickety looking train and you'll feel it.

The secret to Everest isn't that the Yeti does or doesn't exist. It isn't even the unexpected twists that the coaster takes. And don't worry. I won't spoil it for you by giving away the ending. Instead, it is that the coaster is actually slow.

Again, Colleen Myers.

Ms. MYERS: Because we do have a lot of tricks that kind of heighten that thrill, that you might not be going all that fast, but we've got ways that you feel like you are.

ELLIOTT: Disney is pretty tight lipped about how it makes Everest seem faster. But Myers cites two examples of what it did.

Ms. MYERS: We've narrowed the path, or narrowed your view, and kind of controlled your perception by how far you can see, or by the strength of the color, or the contrast.

ELLIOTT: The idea is to offer something that seems fast and steep, and maybe even dangerous, without it actually being dangerous.

Abraham Pizam of the University of Central Florida School of Hospitality Management says these psychological thrill rides are as important to visitors as they are to the parks.

Mr. ABRAHAM PIZAM (University of Central Florida School of Hospitality Management): There's a whole new generation of thrill seekers. And these people are looking for the highest, and the steepest, and the fastest. And they come to any attraction that would have that.

ELLIOTT: Rollercoasters are pretty safe to begin with. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, an average of three people a year die on fixed site amusement park rides, a total that includes rollercoaster. But is a slower coaster safer?

Jerry Aldrich is the president of Amusement Industry Consulting, which advises parks on thrill rides.

Mr. JERRY ALDRICH (President, Amusement Industry Consulting): People assume that the newer coasters aren't as safe because they're faster. When in fact, you know, some of the coasters that we were all brought up on were the wooden roller coaster, and some of them didn't have the engineering scrutiny that the rides have today. Because of the computer, it allows you to do so many more calculations of the structure that holds the track up. And therefore it doesn't bounce around and you don't have movement in a track that you're not looking for.

ELLIOTT: In the end, it's all a matter of perception. And for Bernard Bowie(ph), an Everest rider from Lincolnshire, England, the thing that impressed him most was...

Mr. BERNARD BOWIE (Expedition Everest Rider): Speed.

(Soundbite of chuckling)

ELLIOTT: How fast do you think you were going?

Mr. BOWIE: Oh, I wouldn't know. I think perhaps 70 mile an hour, 80 mile an hour?

ELLIOTT: You want me to tell you how fast you were really going?

Mr. BOWIE: Yeah.


Mr. BOWIE: Is that all?

ELLIOTT: That's all. Everest's top speed is 50 miles per hour, less than half the top speed of some of its competitors. And for most guests who will line up to ride on the coaster this summer, that's fast enough.

For NPR News, I'm Christopher Elliott in Orlando.

WERTHEIMER: If you want to take a virtual ride on SheiKra and other high-tech roller coasters, go to our website,

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