New Roller Coasters Are Faster and Safer

Their very names evoke monsters to be conquered: Titan, Serial Thriller, Steel Eel, Poltergeist, Raging Bull, Son of Beast, Goliath.

Roller coasters are enjoying a renaissance at amusement parks across America. The United States alone had more than 1,500 of the rides in the 1920s — the first golden age of coasters — but there were only 145 in the mid-1970s. Today, there are 1,429 roller coasters worldwide, according to the American Coaster Enthusiasts, a group of coaster lovers.

Every year, more than 300 million people — more than the population of the United States — ride roller coasters at U.S. amusement parks, generating more than $9 billion in revenue, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, a trade group.

A big reason for that resurgence is that new technology is making the rides faster and more thrilling.

"Definitely want to feel some speed," says Marco Goicochea, who experienced the rides at Six Flags America in Largo, Md., just outside Washington, D.C.

"And afraid," says Lindsay Cooper. "I want to feel afraid a little bit."

Roller-coaster designers are eager to please.

"You want to see them get off the ride and high-five each other, as if they have had a very unique experience, one they are going to remember for a long time," says Jim Seay, president of Premier Rides of Millersville, Md.

Thrill Rides

Premier Rides pioneered the use of linear induction motors, or LIM, in thrill rides. Seay, a former aerospace engineer, says it is the same technology that NASA is considering to launch the space shuttle.

Aluminum fins on the cars literally surf on an electro-magnetic wave, sending roller coasters from a standing start to 60 miles an hour in just over three seconds. That eliminates the need to send roller coasters up long, slow hills to build up speed on the other side.

"It just completely blows your mind, a total adrenaline rush," roller coaster enthusiast Sam Marks says of the Jokers Jinx, a Six Flags America ride that uses an LIM. "From the minute you launch, it seems like the entire world has just gone wrong."

The technology can also bring a 60-mph ride to a bone-rattling stop in as little as 75 feet.

Designers say technology not only makes the rides faster, more exciting and more fun, it makes them safer, too, thanks to computer modeling and biomedical engineering that can precisely measure the forces exerted on riders.

"You can see the turns, the way they are banked and the way they twist, they're much smoother than they were in the past because everything can be developed on computers," says Seay.

The challenge is to keep the thrills coming. That's because each innovation ramps up riders' expectations for even bigger ones.