I guess the idea was always out there at the tip of our brains, “go ride coasters, must ride coasters.” I had been a late bloomer in the world of theme parks and scream machines. I grew up in small town Mississippi and if you have ever been to Mississippi you know there aren’t any thrill rides around (well not legal ones anyway). Now I will add that my small town sits right outside the capital, Jackson, so if there were any attractions worth seeing surely they would be there right? Well we did have a small water park with some amusement rides and we do have a big fair that comes every year in October, but alas none of those ever brought a true roller coaster for me to experience. So how did I go from a coaster desert to a coaster smorgasbord? It did not come easy.
During my elementary school days and before, my family always took a huge two week vacation to some destination in America. No my family was not the “Disney family” that went down to Orlando every Spring Break or Summer. My family chose to visit National Parks instead. See back then most National Parks were free to visit, not even a charge to park or drive through. So we planned our trips around seeing history and natural beauty. One year it was the Rocky Mountains, one year the Smokies, one year it was Yellowstone, and another it would be Gulf Shores, Alabama. This is not a complaint. I loved it. I was just ignorant of rides and attractions as a vacation. That all changed in 1998: the year our destination was the vacation capital of the world.
Orlando was the city area, but the destination was Walt Disney World. Now I knew way ahead of the trip the destination, so naturally I was excited. But I also had a sense of foreboding. This was no National Park. This place had rides and I was terrified of rides. Somehow throughout my life I developed a fear of heights. Also I had a fear of weightlessness and G-forces, but I didn’t know what those were yet so I just stuck with heights. I remember refusing to ride some of the more intense carnival rides at the fair and feeling so dumb about it. Also there was the time my family went to the St. Louis Arch. A huge portal that stands 630 feet tall at its highest point. To get to the top, you take a small elevator pod with seats in a U-shape inside, all the way to the top. At the summit there are small windows peer straight down to the city. So after lots of tears and trepidation my mom and dad forced me on the elevator and to my surprise I loved the view. I think truly I had the fear of the unknown. I surmised that if I knew EVERY detail about said ride or attraction that I was going to experience, then I would not be afraid. Thus began my dive into the rabbit hole of Disney and Theme Park geekdom.
I started my research for Walt Disney World with the Birnbaum’s Official Walt Disney World Guidebook. Being an official guidebook there were maps, pictures, and small blurbs on each ride. But also I noticed that the book was extremely vague and positive. For instance, the small write up on It’s Tough to Be a Bug, said that the ride would have some moments in the dark that might startle young children. It did not mention that black widow spiders fall from the ceiling directly overhead. I screamed through the entire show. That’s another story. Through the research I poured over maps and routes and enjoyed every minute of it. My fear of the unknown rides was diminished for the most part. There were always a few wild card attractions that I knew to avoid. The top of the list was the ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter (I still regret intentionally avoiding this). But I did ride my first coaster here. Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. These two albeit on the tame side coasters were my first and I have to admit, I didn’t really count them at first. Now this was 1998 so those two were the only coasters around Disney property. Although I did ride two coasters, I still had not actually been on a true scream machine. Then I joined the band and entered high school. That’s when my exposure to coasters hit a high that I never quite returned from.
My first true roller coaster was at Disney World just not in 1998. In the Spring of 2002, I traveled to the World with one of my good friends Geoff and his family. Geoff was someone I knew I couldn’t complain to like my parents and I knew we would be riding the “new” to me roller coaster at Walt Disney World. The Rock’n Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith was my first true extreme roller coaster. The ride boasted a launch from 0 to 60 mph in less than 3 seconds, 3 inversions, and a great on ride audio system that plays Aerosmith hits as you ride. I was in fact terrified as I sat in the ride vehicle and was locked in. I clenched my eyes shut as the ride began. Also I feared a large drop because I was disoriented and didn’t realize that we were actually launching from the ground level. Well at the end of the ride I was elated about the experience. I could not wait to ride again. At that moment, I was hooked on coasters. To many people I have come in contact with in Mississippi, their favorite roller coaster is Rock’n Roller Coaster. They truly think it is the most intense and fun coaster in the world. And while it was my first and it does have a fun theme and is kept up pretty well, there is no way this coaster is the best and scariest in the world. Again people just don’t know what is out there. Just like me. I didn’t know what was out there. But band trips soon changed all that.
Throughout high school I visited many Six Flags parks with my band. We hit Six Flags Over Texas, Houston, and St. Louis. With my family we started including theme parks in our family trips. My family visited Dollywood, King’s Dominion, Hersheypark, and Busch Gardens Williamsburg to name a few. Also the coasters I rode got taller, faster, and more intense. No coaster was too tall or intense for me. In college, I didn’t ride too many new coasters, but instead chose to revisit old ones. It was after college that I fulfilled my coaster dream of visiting Cedar Point in Ohio. I traveled to Cedar Point in the summer of 2009 with my sister, Becca. We took the trip specifically to ride Millennium Force, the first Giga-coaster, among other legendary rides that are located there. We drove over two days to get to Cedar Point and the one ride we had on Millennium Force was worth way more than that. Millennium Force stands 300 feet tall and hits speeds over 90 mph. After conquering Millennium Force I knew there was no coaster that could ever be as fun or thrilling.
Meanwhile back at home a good friend of mine, Zach, was having similar experiences through life. Zach and I met in high school, because our sisters were friends. This happens in a small town in Mississippi. Everyone knows you personally or knows of you. While my focus on rides mainly dealt with history of the theme parks, Zach’s knowledge of the coaster world is highly technical and detailed. Zach dove into the rabbit hole of coaster developers. He knows all the big names like Bolliger and Mabillard, Intamin, Vekoma, and Rocky Mountain Construction among others. I honestly couldn’t tell you the difference between a B&M and an Intamin track, but Zach can. Of course I found out pretty quick after a day in a park with him.
Zach and I went taught at the same high school right outside Jackson, Mississippi. He taught history, I taught math. Our classrooms were located on different sides of the school, but we kept a good email thread going most days. Somewhere along the way in the bleak midwinter of Mississippi, we began talking coasters. It started where it always starts with big coaster fans: Cedar Point. We had both been and talked a good bit about the experience. Zach even did a big school project on coasters back in the day. I had visited more theme parks. Finally the words left our mouths: we should go on a trip.
Now to give some history, Zach, Jordan (Zach’s wife), Carly (my wife), and I have traveled together before. We went to Walt Disney World in 2014 together for a week and enjoyed it immensely. Carly and I actually really enjoy theme parks. Since we were married back in 2011 we have been to Disney World a few times, Disneyland, Six Flags Over Georgia, and Dollywood together. Carly does not hold back when it comes to coasters and I love her for that (along with thousands of other reasons). Zach and I knew that we could travel well together, but from work complications our wives would not be joining us. The great thing about teaching (everyone says) is that you get an entire summer “off.” So we decided that for our first act after leaving school in May would be to hit the road to ride some scream machines.
People would hear Zach and I plan our trip and say, “wow that sounds fun,” “I wish I could go,” “what made you guys think of that?” etc.
Well here is the deal: we love riding coasters and experiencing theme parks. So we decided to go ride coasters and experience theme parks. It’s that simple.
Every day I see people like and comment about pictures of exotic locals or beach pictures or even pictures of food at local restaurants and say how they wished they were a part of that and were there. And here is what I don’t understand. Why are they not doing those things? My first thought is always about money. But even the most meager salaries can still take trips and enjoy life. My second thought was education. Maybe people just don’t know how to plan trips and travel. But again there are free and cheap travel agencies that can take care of that for you. My last thought was just that they don’t really want to go. This stuck with me. If you want to travel to Paris, plan a trip, do some research, save some money, and then go. If you want to take a weekend to the beach, plan a trip, do some research, save some money, and then go. If you want to go ride roller coasters, plan a trip, do some research, save some money, and then go. Go do what you love. Don’t sit around and dream about it all day. Do the dreaming and then get busy. Life is not waiting on you to keep moving. It moves no matter what you do.
This is one of the reasons I wanted to write this journey. To encourage those who are dreaming to get out there and do. Also to save the memories of this trip in a place where I can go back and look at it anytime. So deciding to take a crusade to ride roller coasters? That was the easy part. We knew we were going to do it. Once that was decided the questions stopped being about what if we went. The questions became when, how, who, and most importantly what. What would we ride? That question is always the hardest because it decides the entire course of travel and planning. What was our endgame? What would be the one attraction that would bring us halfway across the country to ride? That answer was easy because it had opened in March of 2015, the same Spring that our trip would occur. It was a beast of enormous size and speed. The goal would be: Fury 325.