The Imagica Blog

A sneak peek into the world of roller coaster fans

Catherine the Great was a screamer. Lest that sound bawdy, we're talking roller coasters here. The sight of one of Russia's greatest monarchs shrieking with delight in a wooden sled, in all her imperial finery, would be one to behold. But we digress.

Eighteenth century roller coasters were more slides than thrill rides. These specially-constructed 'Russian mountains' – 65-80ft high, with 50 degree drops – were tame compared to 456ft tall Kingda Ka (US), the world's tallest roller coaster with a heart-stopping 90-degree descent. But these ancestors of the contemporary coaster were so loved by Catherine (she had several built on her property) that European elites just had to have them too. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Marcus Gaines doesn't have thrill rides in his backyard, but he's no less of a roller coaster fan. Gaines sat on his first ride at age five, spent at least a day or two during family holidays in theme parks and, in later years, started travelling the world for them. "I've been to 250 parks in 20 countries, riding 1,200 different roller coasters," says the 38-year-old Englishman. "From Chengdu to Toronto and Havana to Munich."

So deep is his passion for roller coasters that the Daily Mail wrote about him in 2013, with a headline shrieking several decibels higher than those experiencing that 90-degree Kingda Ka drop: Theme park fan blows £33,000 riding 1,099 roller coasters... and he doesn't plan to stop.

"Some people pay to go abroad to lie on a beach or by the pool. I pay to ride coasters," says the member of the European Coaster Club. "And while people often make fun of what I do, when they find out about places I've been to, they realise being a coaster enthusiast isn't so bad after all."

Clash of the titans

The web servers in Duane Marden's basement in Wisconsin, US, had kept his Roller Coaster Database (RCDB) website alive until 1996, when he started hosting it from a server farm. As the name probably suggests, RCDB is to roller coaster fans what the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) is to film buffs.

"Keeping pace with the never-ending flood of data is the biggest challenge. It takes the greatest amount of time," says Marden.

He's referring to contributions by fans, who update RCDB with ride descriptions, images, videos and tidbits on upcoming attractions. The site also has a roller coaster 'Census', according to which there are 3,929 roller coasters (and counting) worldwide – including ones that are standing but not operating (SBNO). Information provided includes manufacturer details, length, height, number of loops or inversions, speed, ride duration, etc.

"Nothing unofficial or unconfirmed is posted to RCDB. Regardless of what fans submit, I'm in no hurry to post rumoured information," Marden points out. RCDB also has a 'Record Holders' list – the tallest and fastest rides, as also rides with the maximum loops – sorted according to the materials used to build them: wood, steel or both. And yes, there are 'woodie' and 'steelie' camps within the community.

If you think roller coaster fans form a fringe fraternity., think again. This is a subculture that fuels the billion dollar roller coaster business – a business so cut-throat, it is the arms race of the theme park industry.

Three years after American company Morgan built the world's longest roller coaster in 2000 – Japan's Steel Dragon 2000 (over 8100ft) – Swiss manufacturer Intamin created the tallest one, Top Thrill Dragster, for Ohio's Cedar Point park. Then in 2005, Intamin outdid itself by building Kingda Ka for a rival park – Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey. And in 2013, German company Gerstlauer built The Smiler in Staffordshire, UK – the roller coaster with the maximum inversions (14).

Due to several technical issues, The Smiler is SBNO.

"It's like the Android vs. iPhone battle," smiles Tobias Niepel, chairman of Freundeskreis Kirmes und Freizeitparks e.V (FKF). At 750 members, FKF is Germany's largest roller coaster fan club. And like many such clubs, it has a members-only magazine – Park+Ride.

Unlike coaster wars elsewhere, Germany focuses on themed rides, adds Niepel. "Most American parks don't attach great importance to theming. Germans don't always build 'bigger, taller, faster' rides. But some of the best roller coasters in the world – like Expedition GeForce – don't need to be record breakers."

The battle between the superlative roller coasters and their fans is fizzling, feels Marcus Gaines. "To build bigger coasters, one needs more space and material. And you won't always hold a record – to do so is very expensive. Now it's about enhancing rides, offering a better experience." One such development is the offering of virtual reality and 3D projections during rides.

Great escapes

It's not unusual for roller coaster fans to be dismissed for indulging in 'childish pursuits'. Their willingness to spend money and travel long distances for a few seconds (at most, few minutes) of euphoria is hard for many to fathom. But underpinning their passion is a love of physics. To them, roller coasters aren't mere theme park attractions: they are works of art, engineering marvels. Where else can one experience such fluctuations in G-force that one feels both, weightless and weighed down by pressure equalling twice one's weight, in a matter of seconds?

"Most of us have stressful jobs and use our hobby to escape into another world," says Niepel, of his love for roller coasters. "It may be 'un-adult', but that's what makes life worth living: having fun and doing what you like." Nowhere is the subculture peaking as fast as in China. "There are now more roller coasters in China than in any other country," says Duane Marden (977 at last count). "Few Western enthusiasts have travelled there, so it's fun to be the first to discover new things."

India's also seeing a rapid growth of roller coasters, he adds. Directing one to RCDB's India index, he says: "Many have been built in India in the last five years. Look at the five years before that... I think one can see the trend there."

At 132ft, Nitro at Adlabs Imagica is touted as our biggest, baddest coaster. India could do with a roller coaster war on its soil.

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