Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The thrill ride "arms race"

For most people, a 400-foot free fall from a steel tower is a hair-raising adventure.

Not for thrill-ride enthusiast John Gerard, who can't wait to try what Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia is billing as the world's tallest vertical drop ride, set to open Memorial Day.

"I'm really excited about this," the San Diego doctor said. "I think there are many others like me too."

The ride is the latest example of what theme park fans call the thrill ride "arms race," global competition among theme park operators to set world records for speed, height, distance or greatest number of corkscrew turns in a ride.

On the Six Flags ride, dubbed Lex Luthor: Drop of Doom, riders will be strapped into a set of seats attached to a cable that will pull them to the top of a 400-foot tower before they drop to the ground, reaching a speed of 85 mph.

The current record for this category is held by the Giant Drop at Dreamworld in Queensland, Australia, which drops riders from a height of 390 feet. By contrast, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride at Disney's California Adventure peaks at 183 feet.

Thrill rides, Gerard and other enthusiasts say, include roller coasters, drop rides and any extreme attraction designed to frighten passengers. Even an extreme carnival ride might fit the category. Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, for example, added a new swing ride last year that hoists riders 300 feet in the air instead of the modest 20 or 30 feet of most carnival swing rides.

Such extreme rides appeal to thrill seekers like Gerard, who says he has ridden more than 650 roller coasters and drop rides around the world. But theme park officials say the rides also boost overall park attendance by sparking a buzz among theme park fans.

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