More than child's play

Suzanna Drew-Edwards takes the rollercoaster trip of a lifetime, and guides us through the best children's activities this summer
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The Independent Online
Standing in the queue below the rollercoaster, the little bubble cars whizzing along the skyward-bound track look surreal, almost docile. It's not until you hear the shrill screams of the riders as they start a downward descent that your stomach gives a sympathetic flip and you begin to wonder what it's really like up there.

Coasters aren't a new phenomenon. Adults and children alike have screamed in them for years. Since 15th-century Russia in fact, when ice slides were built and the first coaster cars were hollow blocks of ice with straw for cushioning in the chiselled-out seat. The first specially built rollercoaster appeared in the US at Coney Island in 1884. The Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway was a series of wooden waves and passengers paid a nickel each to sit in cars that reached a top speed of six miles per hour.

Rollercoasters arrived in this country at the turn of the century. At first, they needed an attendant, who would apply the brakes near the top of the hill to avoid the cars coming away from the tracks. But in the 1920s, an under-friction system made the brakeman redundant.

Later, steel rollercoasters were built which enabled a smoother ride and meant passengers could go through 360-degree loops and corkscrews. And today we've got the Megacoasters, like the Pepsi Max Big One at Blackpool Pleasure Beach - the world's tallest, fastest rollercoaster at 235ft-high and with speeds of up to 85mph.

"The real aficionados prefer the 'woodies'," says Geoffrey Thompson, President of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, which is running the 1996 International Year of the Rollercoaster. "There's been a resurrection of the big old wooden rollercoasters recently, and there's a big argument between those who support woodies and steelies. The steel tube ones go faster, but the woodies have a more traditional "rickety" ride."

Record-breaking rides - the fastest, longest, highest - don't always equate to being the best. "My definition of a good ride is that it has to hold your attention from beginning to end - Nemesis at Alton Towers does that in spades," says Justin Garvanovic, editor of First Drop, the magazine for rollercoaster enthusiasts. "And rides differ depending on the weather. On a wet day, the ride will be faster - and they're even better at night. Wooden rides are more alive and they're a lot faster at the end of the day because the wood has 'broken in' - the time just flies."

So what do people get out of it? "It's a bit of escapism, something out of the ordinary," explains Garvanovic. "Unlike a hobby such as stamp-collecting, I get to travel to places where many people would never dream of going. At the end of the day, riding rollercoasters is very enjoyable. When you find a really good one, you don't get bored of it."

According to psychologist Glenn Wilson, some sensation-seeking rollercoaster riders may have low levels of a brain chemical called AMO, so they use the outside world to "wake themselves up". Wilson explains: "Driving fast cars, participating in dangerous sports and rollercoaster riding are just some of the things they might do. In more general terms, however, the appeal of rollercoasters to the masses could be because when you put yourself under stress, you evoke the producion of endorphins. These brain chemicals give you a high, which makes you feel good when you stop."

Geoffrey Thompson agrees. "It's a safe form of fun. Most people live very sheltered lives and don't experience physical thrills. Rollercoasters are one way of really proving yourself to be brave and having the excitement you would normally obtain in your home environment. We've had people aged 85 and 90 on." But aren't they ill? "In the two years the Pepsi Max has been open, no-one's been ill. It scares the pants off people, but because you don't go round in circles like a fairground ride, no one gets sick. Let's face it, the majority of the world's population both fears and loves a good scream machine."

THORPE PARK, SURREY "No Way Out" and "Flying Fish". (01932 562633)

ALTON TOWERS, STAFFORDSHIRE "Nemesis" and "Thunder Looper". (0990-204060)

CHESSINGTON WORLD OF ADVENTURES "The Vampire Ride" and "Runaway Mine Train". (01372 729560)

BLACKPOOL PLEASURE BEACH Pepsi Max Big One plus 10 more. (01253 341033)

0AKWOOD PARK, CANASTON BRIDGE, PEMBROKESHIRE "Megafobia" and "Treetops". (01834 891376)