As I was watching the new animated film “Wonder Park,” about a young girl’s imagined amusement park come to life, I wasn’t buying the physics of a roller coaster. “The hills are way too high and steep,” I thought, “the curves too sharp.” And for a moment, it was lost on me that I was analyzing something carrying a giant blue talking bear.
Welcome to my coaster-nerd world. I spend a lot of my summer on some of the wildest roller coasters around the country. While indulging in the thrills (hands up, always), I’m also taking these rides very seriously, thinking about the quality of the engineering and scrutinizing the mechanics of each rise and fall. But I did ultimately give in to the hyperbolic wonders of “Wonder Park.” In dreaming up attractions like the Sky Flinger — spheres with riders that are sent sailing through the air — June, the film’s young lead, displayed the outsize creativity of the best inventors. I admired that, and I could relate. June had her Wonderland. I had my Fun World.
When I was 10, I laid out detailed plans for a theme park and built an entire narrative around it in a notebook that filled up over the years. There were a series of crude ride sketches and a map. Fun World was founded by the pioneering, conveniently named genius H.G. Fun. He divided his park into gloriously themed sections, like Car Land (well before Disney’s Cars Land, thank you), Up Down and Around Land and, yes, Coaster Land. There were 90 rides in all, as well as a giant Fun World Globe and a Fun Dome. But the coasters were what mattered most to H.G.
And so it was with me. Growing up in Oklahoma in the ’80s, I had a good life, surrounded by family and close friends, but I longed to be somewhere bigger, like the places I was seeing in the movies I consumed. Roller coasters gave me the first taste of that wider world.
During visits to the state fair with my family, I discovered my penchant for thrill-seeking in carnival attractions like the Scrambler and the Tilt-a-Whirl. But the fair was missing the majesty of larger-than-life roller coasters. We seemingly had to travel to another country for those: Texas. Each summer, we would drive three hours to Fort Worth to see my cousins and go to Six Flags Over Texas together.
On the highway as we approached the park, one of the most beautiful, most terrifying sights came into view: a steel beast called the Shock Wave. It had not one, but two loops, back to back! I avoided it at all costs. I feared I’d faint after the first loop, leaving my limp, unconscious body gliding through the second. And yet, I was obsessed with it.
Another fearful obsession was the Runaway Mine Train, a coaster with a track that seemed endless and disappeared through the woods. It was even more frightening than the Shock Wave because I couldn’t see the dastardly places it might be going. There were rumors it went underwater. Underwater! It sounded like something a maniac would dream up. But one time, waiting outside the ride, one of my sisters put the pressure on me to ride it. She convinced me, assured me, that it didn’t, couldn’t possibly, go underwater. I finally relented. Lo and behold, the very last part of the ride went through a makeshift saloon and plunged down into an underwater tunnel. I’d never known such deception.
But I’d also never known such excitement. It was a true rush, the moment that solidified my coaster love. I became braver and more willing to give bigger rides a try. I met the Shock Wave head-on, and made it through both loops with my consciousness intact. Theme parks became the place where I, and my imagination, could run wild.
Just as momentous was our epic family trip to Los Angeles. After a three-day Greyhound bus ride that was an adventure in itself, we headed to Six Flags Magic Mountain. Pulling into the parking lot, I faced Colossus, a giant white wooden coaster that was bigger than any I’d seen. (Using many of its original materials, it has now been converted into a wood-steel hybrid called Twisted Colossus, my favorite coaster.)
That trip also brought me in touch with the glamour of Hollywood, entertainment having long been a way that I bonded with my family. Thanks to packed trips to the drive-in and Saturday afternoons spent watching movie marathons on cable, we became steeped in pop culture. In Los Angeles, we were pros at spotting the most minor of celebrities on the street or at the beach — a backup dancer from the TV version of “Fame,” that one guy in that Michael Keaton movie. My entertainment passions and my amusement passions were merging in one magical city, and I didn’t want to leave.
So back in Oklahoma, I started building the world, Fun World, I wanted to live in. My rides were far from practical. Why have a log flume with one big drop when you could build it on multilevel terrain and have three giant splashes? Or how about the ultimate indoor coaster, with the kinds of spirals, inversions and 90-degree straight-down dives that would put Space Mountain to shame? O.K., there would be no Fun World without Disneyland and Six Flags as inspirations. (Also a shout-out to Wally World, the fictional park from one of my favorite movies as a kid, “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” which was partly filmed at Magic Mountain.) But I wanted to create something that would match up.
That notebook started filling up with showbiz inventions, too, including a movie star I named Edrall Casceese. He made blockbuster comedies, mind-blowing sci-fi spectacles, musicals, you name it. And there was a pop star, Jayson. All of his songs were chart-toppers; I even recorded them on a cassette. Years later, indie movies would be of great interest to me, but as a kid, I craved hits.
As I got older, the characters and the park stayed in my head. By high school, my interest in movies had only grown, and I wanted to learn more about how they operated. The interest in roller coasters also expanded, leading me to more parks in many more places over the years.
My first move after leaving Oklahoma in my early 20s was to Dallas, a mere 20-minute drive from Six Flags Over Texas, where the Shock Wave and the Runaway Mine Train first prepared me for something bigger. I would eventually make my way, not to Los Angeles but to the opposite coast, covering the movies and occasionally cataloging my roller coaster experiences.
In my theme park travels, I’ve seen some of the wacky propositions from those youthful drawings (like a raft ride that requires an elevator to get the raft to the top, or coasters with straight-down dives) become technological realities. As with June and her Wonderland, having the courage to dream big, and even a bit outrageously, has led to some surprising places.
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