Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 19, 2017
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Scream queens

Our expert crowns the wildest
thrill rides in the US

Like a sandy beach and a triple-scoop ice cream cone, an amusement park thrill ride makes for a nostalgia-laden, iconic image of summertime fun. What, exactly, is the appeal of thrill rides -- which are apparently designed to scare the you-know-what out of us?

Perhaps the allure of the amusement park is placing yourself in harm's way -- real or imagined -- knowing deep down that everything is going to turn out all right when the ride ends.

The good news for amusement park aficionados is that we're in a golden age: rollercoaster cars are faster and the tracks soar ever higher, ever steeper. Meanwhile, so-called "dark rides" (indoor rides) now use the same sort of cutting-edge special effects as big-budget movies.

To get the adrenaline surging, I recently decided to check out some of the newest and most notorious rides south of the border.


Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
Where: Disneyland's Adventure Theme Park, Anaheim, CA
Top speed: Not available
Duration: 2 minutes, 30 seconds
What's the deal? The Tower of Terror has the potential to make anyone elevator phobic given that it features several freefall drops and launches, as well as periods of prolonged weightlessness.

The building that houses the ride -- which looks like a 1930s Pueblo Deco hotel -- is nothing short of gorgeous: Disney spent a reported US$60 million on this attraction. The storyline for this ride is that the now-abandoned 13-storey Hollywood Tower used to be the swankest hotel in town until October 31, 1939, when it was struck by a massive bolt of lightning. At the time, four guests and a bellhop were in the elevator, which plunged into an abyss. Everyone else fled the property and the hotel remained frozen in time. The bodies of the five unlucky elevator passengers were never recovered.

Cue the Twilight Zone theme: "Doo-doo-doo-doo doo-doo-doo-doo…"

It's now the present day and 21 riders (perched on three rows of terraced seats) take a ride on the "refurbished" Hollywood Tower Hotel elevator. Surprise, surprise: the cursed elevator has a tendency to "malfunction." Namely it soars up and down, while its doors randomly open and slam shut. And sometimes when the doors open, there's a surprise -- such as the ghostly-looking folks decked out in 1930s garb.

After the various theatrics, the ride climaxes with a series of gravity defying ascents and plunges -- as if it had become an oversized yo-yo. Of course, you'll arrive safe and sound in the lobby, but you'll feel as though you left your stomach behind on the 13th floor.


The Big Shot
Where: Stratosphere Tower, Las Vegas, NV
Top speed: Not available
Duration: Seems like an eternity
What's the deal? I don't normally scream on thrill park rides, but I was yelling like a schoolgirl at a Backstreet Boys concert on the Big Shot.

My only regret is that I didn't take a before and after photograph of my face: I swear that when I disembarked, I was sporting several new white hairs on my otherwise auburn cranium.

Granted, so-called "tower rides" are not that novel anymore. But what makes the Big Shot so unique is that it's located on the roof of a 100-storey tower. So, when riders reach the summit, they aren't suspended 45 metres off the ground, but rather (gulp!) 300 metres up.

And it's not just the sheer height that makes the Big Shot an exhilarating experience: getting there is more than half the fun (or terror, as the case may be). Once you're strapped into your seat, the ride announcer plays a devious mind game. "Get set everyone," she instructed the night I was riding. "Ten, nine, eight, seven…" Her countdown never did make it to zero. We were prematurely ejected an extra 48 metres into the vast Nevada darkness in less than three seconds.

The really horrific part was the few seconds of zero gravity prior to freefall. It wasn't the speed or the height that was psyching me out: it was the terrifying feeling that my seat had become detached from the tower, and that I really was plummeting all the way to the neon-festooned casinos below.

Only when the freefall stage ended was I able to determine that the ride was functioning properly. That's also when I stopped uttering the sort of expletives that would make a sailor blush. I then promptly took the regular elevator down to the Stratosphere Casino on the ground floor to partake in a big shot of another kind.


Top Thrill Dragster
Where: Cedar Point, Sandusky, OH
Top speed: 195 kph
Duration: 27 seconds
What's the deal? When Cedar Point unveiled its awe-inspiring Millennium Force roller coaster in 2000, it held the world record as the planet's highest and fastest coaster. Alas, a few months later, an even higher and faster ride debuted in Japan.

The folks at Cedar Point were mightily miffed and decided to reclaim the record. The result is the Top Thrill Dragster -- a US$25-million coaster that will make you gasp just by looking at it. Indeed, some of the best enjoyment comes from watching other riders.

When the train takes off along the straightaway up a 41-storey incline (going from zero to 190 kilometres per hour in less than four seconds), just look at the riders. Sure, most are screaming. But the truly memorable sight is their cheeks flapping every which way, like sails in a hurricane -- going 190 without a windscreen tends to do that.

There is no gradual ascent or descent: rather, the train climbs the tower at 190 kilometres per hour. The angle up -- and down -- is a staggering 90 degrees. The most gut-wrenching moment occurs when the coaster slows at the summit before it descends. That's when riders experience a brief moment of zero gravity in a landscape of sheer blueness: the light blue Ohio sky above, the dark blue Lake Erie below.

Then there is the uncanny silence; the cacophony of the midway doesn't reach that high. It feels as though you're having an out of body experience. Not to worry, though: what follows is a 90-degree plunge right back down to reality. Tip: you may want to bring along a defibrillator just in case.


Ride of Steel
Where: Darien Lake (near Buffalo) NY
Top speed: 115 kph
Duration: 90 seconds
What's the deal? There are roller coasters that are longer, higher and faster than the Ride of Steel. So why, you may ask, does Ride of Steel warrant a mention? Two words: air time.

Those are the moments when a coaster reverses course at high speeds and riders rise from their seats, experiencing a few seconds of weightlessness. This experience can be one of exhilaration or terror, depending on your mindset.

In any event, Ride of Steel is known for its awesome air-time factor. On the first 63-metre plunge down its 70-degree-grade main hill, riders can expect to experience about 10 seconds of weightlessness. More air time follows on the smaller hills. For the hard core coaster aficionado, such periods of weightlessness translate into sheer bliss.


The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
Where: Universal's Islands of Adventure, Orlando, FL
Top speed: Not available
Duration: 4 minutes
What's the deal? The moment Spider-Man jumped onto our car, which was meandering through the crime-ravaged streets of New York, I knew this ride was going to be special.

For starters, this particular Spider-Man wasn't a costumed actor or a robot: he was a three-dimensional holographic image. What was especially astounding was that the precise second the hologram leapt on our car, there was an audible "thump!" accompanied by a physical jolt. The car's shocks actually gave way. The realism was absolutely uncanny.

If anything, riding Universal's Spider-Man attraction -- considered by several theme-park aficionados the best dark ride on the planet -- can be a tad disconcerting.

For starters, you'll be amazed as you witness the 3-D Spider-Man taking on various 3-D members of the Sinister Six all the while asking yourself: how'd they do that? Indeed, this motion-based simulator ride represents many technological breakthroughs, most notably its 3-D battle sequences, which are rendered from multiple perspectives as the vehicle is always on the move.

This is perhaps the most tactile ride around. For example, when the Hobgoblin hurls a flaming pumpkin at riders, you actually feel the heat: the projectile all but singes your eyebrows. When Hydro-Man -- a giant villain consisting entirely of H20 -- raises his watery fist over the car to smash riders into smithereens, droplets of real water rain down on your face.

It was a huge logistical challenge to make it look real, but the technical wizards pulled it off. Thanks to the ride's numerous sensory assaults, your brain is often at a loss to decipher reality from virtual reality.


Revenge of the Mummy -- The Ride
Where: Universal Studios, Orlando, FL
Top speed: 70 kph
Duration: 4 minutes
What's the deal? Universal bills this attraction as a "first-of-its-kind psychological thrill ride" that taps into riders' primal fears through "immersion in a total multi-sensory environment." Do believe the hype -- this is perhaps the world's most state-of-the-art dark ride from a special-effects perspective.

Based on the studio's blockbuster monster movies (The Mummy and The Mummy Returns) the Revenge of the Mummy ride is essentially an indoor roller coaster festooned with every imaginable special effect, including space-age robotics and sound.

Using a smorgasbord of engineering wizardry, the ride plays on the common human phobias: fear of the dark, insects, speed, heights, losing control and evil spirits. And, oh yes -- fear of death. And this is the only indoor roller coaster that employs forward and backward motion thanks to linear-induction motors and elaborate use of track switching.

The storyline, meanwhile, centres around an enraged evil mummy who is hell-bent on punishing the 16 riders strapped into a mine car for refusing to offer him their souls. The mummy dispatches everything from a legion of enormous zombie foot soldiers to a swarm of carnivorous scarabs. And then there are the flames -- very hot, very intense flames.

There are also several high-speed turns (some as steep as 80 degrees), a legion of multi-coloured screaming apparitions, and seven opportunities to experience weightlessness. There are also two -- count 'em, two - surprise twist endings which I dare not reveal lest I incur the wrath of Imhotep himself.

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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