Just how tall can roller coasters get?
This is not a rhetorical question these days. Theme parks have engaged in a dizzying quest for height in recent years that has spawned a number of roller coasters as tall as skyscrapers. Altitude rather than velocity has become such a defining characteristic that rides that take advantage of their soaring heights have been given a name befitting a mammoth frame: the giga coaster.
Enthusiasts use the term to apply to a roller coaster with a drop of 300 to 399 feet, meaning that its riders fall the length of a football field. (Anything beyond 400 feet and you’re in strata coaster terrain.) Four of the five giga coasters in the world are in North America, at theme parks all owned by the same chain, Cedar Fair Entertainment (the fifth is in Japan).
“We want the biggest ball of twine,” said Rob Decker, senior vice president for planning and design at Cedar Fair Entertainment.
Being hurtled down a dramatic descent may seem like the same experience regardless of the ride, but each of these four giga coasters has its own appeal. A guide to what to expect when you ride each (that’s your plan, right?) is below.
Height: 325 feet
Top Speed: 95 mph
Location: Carowinds; Charlotte, North Carolina
Designer: Bolliger & Mabillard
Great element: a dive under a pedestrian bridge
Fury 325 is the newest addition to the giga coaster family and is the tallest of the group. It traverses a walkway and the state line.
From the moment you enter Carowinds, you can’t ignore the Fury 325. The first lift takes you high above everything around it, affording you 360-degree views of the park and the nearby forest, and then the track does the unthinkable: It goes over the park’s main entry walkway, which happens to straddle the North Carolina-South Carolina line, and then goes under it. That means that while you’re making sense of the park map, you may be interrupted by a roaring coaster flying underneath you.
But enough about the way it looks. Here’s how it feels:
The first drop, at an 81-degree angle, is steep and assured. You gain speed at a rapid clip before you head back up into a sharp barrel turn that leads to a 190-foot drop. If you’re OK with that plunge, then you’re probably fine with going 95 mph, the speed you’ll reach when you come out of it.
The coaster maintains the breakneck pace throughout the considerable ground it covers. Moments of airtime, when you feel weightless, are sprinkled liberally throughout the ride. The standout is the dive under the pedestrian bridge that you’ve already hovered above sideways.
It’s a nice long journey (3 minutes, 25 seconds), and it delivers an experience both smooth and exhilarating.
Height: 310 feet
Top Speed: 93 mph
Location: Cedar Point; Sandusky, Ohio
Great element: tunnel
The first giga coaster ever built, Millennium Force was a game-changer in terms of what was possible with height in a ride.
As this roller coaster climbs to 310 feet, to your left are stunning views of Lake Erie, and to the right is an equally inviting overview of the park.
A cable lift pulls the train up to this height rather than the traditional chain lift. Cables are lighter, faster and quieter, making the ride up Millennium Force a smooth and speedy experience. There’s less time to anticipate what’s coming, but just enough to give you butterflies.
They won’t dissipate at the peak, when you realize that you can’t see the path of the coaster. Although you won’t know exactly where you’re going, you can be assured you’ll be getting there fast.
The drop is an intense plunge and then, just after the descent, the track veers sharply right at speeds of up to 93 mph. Next is a dark tunnel during which you can contemplate your existence before emerging to go up, then down, a 182-foot hill that provides one of the most thrilling moments of airtime on the ride. You truly feel as if you’re floating.
Once you’ve landed — that’s what it really feels like — a bundle of tracks you see ahead is something of a feint. It tricks you into thinking you’re heading one way but the ride sends you another, through trees, around a dinosaur exhibit and through another tunnel. This ride goes easy on the brakes until the end, allowing you to speed through it with abandon. It may have been the first giga coaster, but it is still one of the best.
Height: 305 feet
Top Speed: 90 mph
Location: Kings Dominion; Doswell, Virginia
Great element: three sharp twists in succession
This coaster, named for the late NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, seeks to mimic car racing with sharp turns and significant speeds.
“Gentlemen, start your engines!” the speakers say as the ride begins on this red, towering and, yes, intimidating, roller coaster. Think of that as the warning shot.
A rapid (17 mph) climb up the cable lift takes you to a peak from which you can survey two curves below, one to the left and one to the right. The train barrels down the hill and takes the path to the right. But instead of immediately going back up another hill, you hug the ground and speed at 90 mph around a low curve that turns you 270 degrees. Then you pop up into a hill that leaves you weightless at the moment you pass back underneath the lift hill.
The rest of the ride sticks close to the ground, taking you through heavy curves that build up G-forces that press you to your seat. But the track will twist the other way like a pretzel, and suddenly you’re heading right when you were just heading left. Three of these twists happen in succession, leaving you wondering which direction the ride will take you next.
The design, a twisty bundle of shiny track, glimmers in the sun and re-creates a racing experience while also taking you much higher than Nascar ever could. It’s one of the few rides that makes you feel as if you’ll fly out of your seat one moment and pins you to it the next. It’s still unclear which is more thrilling.
Height: 306 feet
Top Speed: 92 mph
Location: Canada’s Wonderland; Vaughan, Ontario
Designer: Bolliger & Mabillard
Great element: tunnel dive
Canada has not been a country known for roller coasters, but this behemoth steel wonder has brought some deserved attention.
When you arrive at Canada’s Wonderland, this aqua-colored twist of steel that runs along the park’s perimeter is the first thing you see. From the ground in the parking lot, the coaster disappears during its first drop. When you’re on the ride, you see why: That drop goes a bit below ground level, hurtling you through a tunnel. You come out and right up a sharply banked turn, challenging your equilibrium, then go up and down a series of airtime hills, floating out of your seat for what seems like seconds as the car moves along the park’s perimeter.
This coaster, much like Fury 325, creates thrills by using the park’s landscape, interacting with bystanders. The coaster speeds through parts of the parking lot and over walkways where pedestrians and riders can catch a glimpse of one another. It also goes under some parts of the track and over others, so you don’t know for certain the route it is taking. And at 3 minutes, 28 seconds, it’s among the longest coasters in this classification.
This is all the more thrilling because of the four-person-across open-air seating. A lap restraint holds you in, leaving your upper body free to flail. That freedom makes a difference, giving you airtime that truly makes you feel as if you’re in flight.