Ohio: The highs (and lows) of the world's fastest roller coaster

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For the past 10 years, Cedar Point in Ohio has been voted best amusement park in the world. Ben Ross nervously samples the ups – and very fast downs – of America's 'Roller Coast'

There's nothing Mickey Mouse about Cedar Point, Ohio. But let's face it, you don't get to be voted "Best Amusement Park in the World" for 10 years straight by Amusement Today magazine with nothing but a Magic Castle and a dog called Goofy up your sleeve. No, you do it by concentrating on the important things in life, such as accelerating your paying guests to 120mph in four seconds along the horizontal axis before sending them vertically upwards to a height of 420 feet with a 270-degree twist, and then sending them back down to earth with another twist and decelerating to a standstill – all in 18 seconds flat. Simple, really. You'd think someone would have mentioned it to Disney by now.

For most of us, there's a straightforward answer to the question: "Why do you like amusement parks?" And it's not because we've harboured a lifelong urge to shake hands with Daffy Duck. It's because of the epic, screaming, shrieking, bottle-it-and-you'd-be-a-millionaire sensation of riding a good rollercoaster (such as Cedar Point's Top Thrill Dragster, the mechanics – rather than the thrills – of which are described above). It's for that reason, I suspect, that Amusement Today magazine picks Cedar Point year in, year out. Because Cedar Point is a no-nonsense sort of place which is almost entirely about sending you up – and down and around and about – on rollercoasters, with no Mickeying around whatsoever.

This, as it says in the literature, is "America's Roller Coast". Cedar Point is – or was – an island: you catch your first glimpse as you drive across the causeway from the city of Sandusky, which lies on the shore of Lake Erie, Ohio's northern frontier. Remarkably, Charles Dickens visited Sandusky back in 1842 and his less-than-flattering account in a letter home is faithfully recorded by Ohio History, the scholarly journal of the Ohio Historical Society: "The town, which was sluggish and uninteresting enough, was something like the back of an English watering-place out of season."

Poor Dickens – he arrived 28 years too early. In 1870, the first public entertainments were constructed out there in the lake, which makes Cedar Point the second-oldest amusement park in North America (after Lake Compounce in Bristol, Connecticut, which is enjoying a boggling 162nd season). Things grew from there: the island was connected to Sandusky by a road in the 1950s. Ever since, the 'coaster has been king in these parts.

From a distance, the park's skyline has a strange, science-fiction-like complexity to it, the shapes gradually resolving into the spindly towers, Möbius strips and monstrous, impossible gradients of the rides themselves. It feels as if you're visiting a forbidden planet; the ticket booths stand like military checkpoints, granting VIP access to a zone where the gravity is a bit wonky and the vehicles run on rocket juice.

Inside, though, things are a bit more homespun; at its core, Cedar Point is an old-fashioned funfair. Bryan Edwards began working for the park 17 years ago, as a lifeguard on the mile-long beach that runs along its eastern shore. Now he's the park's public-relations manager, and is clearly still in love with the place.

"When you first see it, it's almost like Oz rising out of the lake," he said, adding that his favourite part of the day was watching the gates open and seeing the punters race inside to be first in line for their favourite rides.

Despite the intimidating size of the rollercoasters, Cedar Point is the sort of place that appeals to families. There are six resorts within the park, a couple of them with hook-up points for Recreation Vehicles. And the under-eights are catered for in the one part of the island where a cartoon character holds sway: Planet Snoopy. Luckily, the big beagle keeps himself to himself. Bryan certainly didn't feel the urge to give him the hard sell: "Our theme, if we have one, is rollercoasters."

There are 17 of these to choose from at Cedar Point, which is a world record for a single theme park; the owner, the Cedar Fair Entertainment Company (motto: "Fun from coast to coast") has spent the past decade or so amassing an astonishing collection of high-adrenalin options. But there's also plenty on offer if you aren't a fan of looping the loop or losing your lunch, with a total of 75 rides available (another world record), including a Ferris wheel, carousels and dodgems. Traditional fairground distractions are also plentiful: you can buy candyfloss from vendors at virtually every corner, heft mallets at test-your-strength machines (a sideshow at which I failed utterly), or just barge through the swing doors at the Last Chance Saloon and chow down on a "Colossal Hot Dog" for $5.89. Seagulls squawk about the place; children attempt to win cuddly toys by throwing hoops. There's a separate water park called Soak City, too, if you measure your fun in flumes.

But I was there for the rollercoasters. Or at least I thought I was.

Millennium Force, when it opened in 2000, was the highest, fastest rollercoaster in the world. It still rates as one of the most popular – i.e. terrifying – rides on the planet. I have to confess to a teeny-tiny pang of fear as I contemplated it, so I turned to Bryan for some reassurance. But Bryan, although a devoted advocate of Cedar Point, was in this instance absolutely no help whatsoever.

"I hate these things," he said. "I have no business being that high up in the air going that fast." Thanks a bunch, Bryan. I wasn't going to die up there, was I? "Oh, we've never had a ride-related fatality," he said, airily. Then he tried to distract me by pointing out how nice the landscaping was around the dinky steam locomotive that has pottered round the northern end of the site for the past 45 years. "My favourite is this train," he said. "It doesn't go too fast and doesn't get off the ground." He considered the other options: "The paddle boats are pretty slow, too – I like them as well."

I left Bryan to his paddle boats and joined the back of the line for Millennium Force, with a yawning sensation growing in my stomach.

People come from across the Midwest to take this ride, inspired primarily by the harrowing drop from the top. John Gerard, who works for an organisation called the American Coaster Enthusiasts, insists these people aren't insane: "They just want to be really thrilled, so they want speed, changes in direction and what we call 'air time', which is that floating sensation that you get. Just a good, out-of-control type of ride."

Well, Millennium Force certainly feels out of control. The gist is this: you go upwards for what seems like a very long time, during which period you would quite happily swap your place with someone at the u o back of the queue, or ideally someone sitting in a Starbucks in a distant state. Then you fall down vertically, really very fast indeed, with your heart (and other vital organs) in your mouth.

After that, my memory gets a bit fuzzy, but there are a lot of twists and turns and you spend a brief period in a big, black tunnel. Others braver than I have recorded the entire thing for posterity on their mobile-phone cameras; just type "Millennium Force" into YouTube and you'll get the general idea.

There's a riddle: "What's high in the middle and round at both ends?" The answer? O-Hi-O. If it's true of the name of the state, then it's an even more apt description of its rollercoasters. Indeed, the whole of the Midwest seems to love amusement parks. There's King's Island down near Cincinnati, Six Flags Great America in Chicago and Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana, to name just a few. But according to John Gerard, Cedar Point has a special aura that keeps the locals coming back: "It's just a piece of Americana, and to give them credit they really try and keep on that that old-time, old-fashioned sort of feeling."

Some of the rollercoasters, such as Gemini and Mean Streak, are so old-time that they're made of wood, which gives them an added frisson. "Wooden rollercoasters are never going to go away, because they've got their own feel and their own cachet," John says. "People look at a wooden rollercoaster, and just looking at them gives people that extra kind of edge, because they go, 'That rickety thing, that's never gonna hold up.' Though wooden rollercoasters are usually over-built so that they do not fall down."

Good-oh. Bryan was big on the safety aspect, too. According to him, teams of carpenters check the wooden rides each morning to bang down any loose nails. Indeed, compared with the modern steel rollercoasters such as Blue Streak, which snakes down the park's western side, the old-school versions did look reassuringly over-engineered: dense lattices of struts, planks and batons.

The roller-phobic can take advantage of the usual caveats to avoid public humiliation: "Guests with a history of recent surgery, heart trouble/high blood pressure, neck trouble, back trouble, or any other condition that may be aggravated by riding, or who are pregnant, should carefully heed all warning signs at each ride entrance," it says on the site map. If that doesn't rule you out, then try to make sure you're too young, or too short.

Conversely, thrill-seeking toddlers shouldn't try to cheat the system. The small print for small fry states: "A child is not permitted to wear platform shoes to help meet a height requirement. Cedar Point reserves the right to ask that shoes be removed to ensure that a child's height is not being artificially enhanced or manipulated."

Who are these maniac minors who are prepared to risk life and limb by attempting to sneak on to rollercoasters? Maybe the Midwest just breeds 'em brave. There were certainly plenty of just-tall-enough-to-scrape-throughs on the rides, most of them acting a great deal more calmly than I was.

I joined an orderly but – in my case, at least – slightly panicky line for Top Thrill Dragster, the vast steel U-bend that, back in 2003, usurped the likes of Millennium Force to claim its spot as the newest, tallest, fastest ride in the world. (There's a lot of one-upmanship in the world of rollercoasters: Top Thrill Dragster now has to make do with second place, behind the almost identical, but just a little bit higher, Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey.)

Luckily, there's plenty of bonhomie in a rollercoaster queue. A local called Crystal Lee, just in front, kindly offered me some chewing gum to steady my nerves. She then confessed to being a rollercoaster addict. "I queued for four hours the first season that Top Thrill Dragster opened," she claimed. "Then I queued for another four hours to do it again." Her friend, Summer Knepper, was equally keen: "They say Walt Disney World is the happiest place on Earth. But in fact it's Cedar Point. My mom was pregnant with me when she first brought me here."

Top Thrill Dragster proved utterly terrifying and lasted for almost exactly the same length of time as it took for me to compose the first two lines of my will. Bryan had promised that I'd be able to see Canada from the top, but I'm afraid I didn't notice, being primarily concerned with keeping my lungs inflated during the absurd initial period of acceleration. Crystal and Summer had no such problems: they screamed continuously throughout our 18 seconds of shared adrenalin rush, then high-fived me brutally at the end.

Once you've done the Dragster, though, you get to watch everyone waiting to do the Dragster. This is possibly one of the best things about Cedar Point. The punters are loaded like bread in a toaster, then left to cook for a good 30 seconds before being popped out on to the ride itself. The ecstatic fear on everyone's faces is worth the price of admission alone, a factor the park has taken into account by setting up a terrace of seating next to the ride, from which spectators gain vicarious pleasure by watching the agonies unfold before them. After all, there's no going back once you're strapped in.

This is heartland America. Indeed, a glance at the map reveals Ohio to be, in shape, rather like a shrunk-down version of the US itself. (Look, there's Lawrence County down there, pretending to be Florida.) And Cedar Point distils this patriotic essence still further. As dusk fell and I queued for one last whirl round Maverick (subtitle: "The Old West Was Never This Wild"), sustained by martial blasts of chest-beating Country music, I gradually became aware of a general drift towards the centre of the park by anyone not standing in a line. By the time I'd lurched, wobbling slightly, from Maverick's awful embrace, it was dark and the rest of the rides were closing. Slowly, steadily, walking through the neon-lit night, we all converged on the square in front of Cedar Point's giant screen. Some groups sat in huddles, others stood solemnly, as a fanfare announced that the park was closing.

"Please join us," announced the public address system, "in singing 'God Bless America'." And everyone did, accompanied by video footage of space shuttles, war veterans, local football teams and heroic Americans of days gone by.

Eventually the spell was broken by a round of fireworks and stirring applause. It was time for America to go to bed, secure in the knowledge that the nation's values were still being proudly upheld, even if the laws of physics had spent the day being stretched to their limits.

State lines: Ohio

Population 11 million
Area six times the size of Wales
Capital Columbus
Date in Union 1 March 1803
Flower Scarlet carnation
Motto "With God, all things are possible"
Nickname Buckeye State

Adrenalin agenda: theme parks around the globe
By William Shomburg

The fastest rollercoaster

Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey is the home of Kingda Ka, the tallest and fastest rollercoaster in the world. It accelerates to 128 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds, and boasts a 456ft drop (001 732 928 1821; www.sixflags.com).

The oldest theme park

Opened in 1583, Dyrehavsbakken in Denmark is the oldest theme park in the world. It is known for its Circus Revue (00 45 39 63 35 44; www.bakken.dk/english).

The oldest rollercoaster

Leap-the-Dips at Lakemont Park in Altoona, Pennsylvania, is the world's oldest wooden rollercoaster, with a 9ft drop and a thrilling top speed of 10mph (001 800 434 8006; www.lakemontparkfun.com).

The largest park

As a whole, Walt Disney World Resort in Florida is the largest in the world. It attracted 17 million visitors last year, making it the world's most visited park. (0870 242 4900; disneyworld.disney.go.com).

Britain's most popular park

Blackpool Pleasure Beach is the UK's most popular theme park, with six million visitors a year. It also has the most rollercoasters: 12. (0871 222 1234; www.blackpoolpleasurebeach.com)

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

The writer flew from Heathrow to Detroit, Michigan, with KLM/NWA (0870 507 4074; www.klm.com) then drove to Sandusky, Ohio.

Getting around

Avis (0844 581 0147; www.avis.co.uk) offers five days' car hire in the Michigan/Ohio region from £115.

Visiting there

Cedar Point (001 419 627 2350; www.cedarpoint.com) is at 1 Cedar Point Drive, Sandusky, Ohio. Day tickets cost $43.99 (£24) for adults, $19.99 (£10.50) for children. The park is open until the first weekend of November, then reopens in May. Accommodation can be booked through the Cedar Point website or by calling 001 419 627 2106. A double room at Hotel Breakers costs approximately $240 (£127) per night, excluding breakfast.

More information

Great Lakes of North America: 08456 020 574; www.greatlakesnorthamerica.co.uk

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