The rollercoaster index: How ambitious new theme parks reflect economic ups and downs

It's not just about height and speed – big rides can say a lot about the places they're built in.

The unmistakable sight of a helical steel track streaking across the horizon, combined with a soundtrack of whooshes and screams, makes your heart quicken. If you think back to the fondest memories of childhood, the chances are rollercoasters are writ large in them.

Remember when Jim fixed it for Sutton St Mary's Cub Scouts to eat their lunch on Blackpool's Revolution? But rollercoasters don't just offer base thrills to kids (and big kids). They are stark statements of intent; unwitting symbols of a country's ambitions and economic prowess.

The United States has been at the peak of the rollercoaster game since Disneyland opened on orange groves outside Los Angeles in 1955. The ever-increasing size, speed and spread of US rollercoasters in the latter half of the 20th century asserted the primacy of American pleasure in the same way as the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan asserted the primacy of American capital in the first half of that century.

Now the world's most famous architects build theme parks: Frank Gehry designed Disneyland's back offices. Rollercoasters fetishise railways – their steel gigantism crows about the might of industrial society. They subvert the utility of the form, tricking boring physics into playing games with our senses. The quest to build bigger, longer, faster coasters is constant. "Most record-breaking rollercoasters have been built in the US," Robert Coker, author of A Thrill Seeker's Guide To The Ultimate Scream Machines, says. "But Japan boasts several record-breakers, and China is building enormous coasters at a frantic pace."

This architecture of excitement, predicated on sinuous slithers of track stretched into awesome shapes to better scare the living daylights out of us, is rising in the East. "The development of new coasters in emerging economies is significant," Robert Niles, editor of, says. "It shows these economies have developed a middle class to support discretionary tourism."

Colleen Mangone, from the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, confirms that "the attractions industry is experiencing tremendous growth in Asia". Take the £23m Takabisha (high-flying car) that opened last year in Japan and boasts the world's steepest drop. South Korea's Everland and Japan's Disney offshoots are among the most-visited theme parks in the world. In Abu Dhabi, the new Ferrari World has the world's fastest rollercoaster.

"Rollercoasters provide a stream of services, a stream of thrills. Naturally we would expect the Bric (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economies to show a relatively high current rate of investment in the 'thrill industry', compared with early industrialisers such as the US," says the economist Shane Bonetti, a former St Andrews University academic who now advises the Australian government. "Investment in rollercoasters isn't a measure of the robustness or health of an economy – it's an index of the economic maturity the Brics are approaching."

Robert Niles adds: "The challenge will be to keep investing in these new world parks so that locals keep coming and don't save up to go to Florida instead." These days, Orlando airport rings with excited children speaking Russian, Chinese and Brazilian Portuguese. The city has elevated the theme park to mythic status, building an entire economy around rollercoasters. Its former swamps are America's front door: this is the first taste of the country many people get. For those kids theme parks are America – and America is a theme park.

Rollercoaster development was pioneered in the US – this is a country in thrall to them. Hollywood even set a kitsch thriller, 1977's – yes – Rollercoaster – on one. Perhaps surprisingly, austerity America is still blowing greenbacks on new ones – 20 this year. "2012 is a blockbuster year for new coasters in the US," Mangone says. At 7,160ft, the world's highest, Cliffhanger, has opened at Glenwood Caverns in Colorado. "It's a great combination of thrills and the views," the park's Mandy Gauldin says. "You see the Colorado River way, way down there."

Globally, theme parks are a £15bn industry. Switzerland, with a history of cable car innovation, is home to the greatest designers: Intamin and Bolliger & Mabillard. Britain's contribution to the coaster canon is modest. Yet rollercoasters have infected our psyche. We build them over our country estates: if you'd told the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury that his brooding gothic revival pile, Alton Towers, would become synonymous with rollercoasters, he and its pious architect, Augustus Pugin, might have choked on their roast snipe. Galleries, too, have morphed into theme parks: each summer parks get a big new ride and each summer Tate Modern gets a big new artwork (or in the case of Carsten Höller's slides, a big new ride).

Are the forthcoming Louvre and Guggenheim outposts in Abu Dhabi art galleries or art theme parks? Coker sounds a note of caution about overdoing it in the Gulf: "Nearly all the ambitious plans to turn Dubai into the next Orlando are on hold. Perhaps permanently." Yet our enthusiasm for ever more thrilling rides seems undiminished. Might these rides come to define the point where capitalist countries stop building for money, and start building for fun? As Bonetti says: "It's a delicious irony that something so apparently childish as rollercoasters are a symbol of economic maturity."

Coasting along: three of the scariest rides

10 Inversion, Chimelong Paradise, Guangzhou, China

This bolshier version of the Monte Makaya coaster at Terra Encantada in Rio de Janeiro boasts 10 to its predecessor's eight stomach-churning inversions.

Formula Rossa, Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi

The world's fastest rollercoaster hurtles up to 150mph in under five seconds, exerting a hefty a g-force of 4.8 on riders.

Skyrush, Hersheypark, Hershey, Pennsylvania, United States

Coaster enthusiasts have been posting excited notices about this new ride, which opened six weeks ago. It boasts a terrifying 200ft drop.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Jennifer Lawrence was among the stars allegedly hacked
peopleActress and 100 others on 'master list' after massive hack
Radamel Falcao
footballManchester United agree loan deal for Monaco striker Falcao
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
A man shoots at targets depicting a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a shooting range in the center of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv
voicesIt's cowardice to pretend this is anything other than an invasion
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
Fifi Trixibelle Geldof with her mother, Paula Yates, in 1985
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Day In a Page

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor