Rollercoaster Road Trip!


Jun 22 2021

Gold Tape
I'm planning a Rollercoaster Road Trip! But do I even deserve to enjoy myself? (yes). This essay is about articulating dreams, the sense of presence a coaster provides, my love of getting ready, and femininity in a male-dominated fandom.

Dear Reader,

I’m planning a Rollercoaster Road Trip!

I’ve been dreaming it up for years, and taking it seriously for months. At first I kept this sacred secret to myself. Maybe it felt frivolous, or even irresponsible, given the state of the world. But the theme parks on my list — Alton Towers and Blackpool Pleasure Beach — are now open. I could drop everything and go right now if I wanted to, and the government would be like, have fun!

When I felt confident, sturdy enough in my dream, I unleashed it to a few select confidants. I’m planning a Rollercoaster Road Trip!, I said, with some personal conditions, some qualifiers, of course:

  1. Vaccines
  2. Theme park shoes
  3. Contact lenses
  4. OPTIONAL: the Perfect Blackpool Pleasure Beach-inspired Vintage Glam Outfit, Possibly Romper? (Coaster Friendly Of Course)

This list was my way of protecting my dream by communicating it with restrained excitement. No coaster pun intended, although that is what they are: excitement with seat restraints, keeping you safe!

A funny thing happened when I told people. When I wrote down that list of things I’m waiting on, they started to happen — faster than I could keep up with.

[Insert rollercoaster metaphor here on purpose this time… how about… the items on my list shot out of the station with a hydraulic launch!]

By ‘telling people’, I don’t mean ‘holding myself accountable’. What happened was more like magic wish paper. I wrote down the conditions, and they started to come true.

My vaccine letter I excepted in July at earliest, arrived the next day, assigning me a May appointment. 

Organising our paper file, I found my latest glasses prescription, and the date that it expires: I’m due to go in for my 2-year eye exam in the next month anyway. I’ll get contacts then!

I did take the initiative by going to a shoe store, just to get started. The first pair of sneakers I tried on were the most comfortable shoes my feet had ever met. I looked up more colours online, and found a cuter version of the same shoe, which was even more comfortable in person. I could not believe it.

So, is the moral of the story to dream big on paper? To allow the possibility of going on the coasters, sooner than I imagined?

Partly! After all, before I got to this point of sharing the news, the trip’s itinerary evolved in stages.

The little baby version of the dream was to drive down for one epic day at Alton Towers. Then I thought, huh. The park has pretty short opening hours. It’s a long journey. Maybe we should do two days. Then I realised Blackpool Pleasure Beach is just 40 minutes out of the way on our route home. Decisions! Should we do two days at Towers (the cool kids drop the Alton and call it Towers), or one day at each park? I went back and forth for a while, before a third option floated quietly across my consciousness: why not both?

It felt like a lot to ask of Steve, who’s doing all the driving. I brought up this 3-day proposal as a maybe, and allowed him some silence to consider it. He said,

“On our second day at Alton Towers —“

“Towers,” I corrected him.

“On our second day at Towers, can we do some of the stuff that’s not on the plan? That just looks cool when we walk past it?”

“Like flat rides?”

“I don’t know the names of things. I mean like the ones that lift you up and spin you, or drop you from really high, but it’s not a rollercoaster.”

“Oh yeah flat rides.”

“Sure. I just think we’ll be going around the park and I’ll see something fun and you’ll say ‘but that’s not on the plan.’” That is exactly what would happen.

Two days at Towers it is! Day 1 follows my considered coaster-focused strategy, Day 2 we rope drop our favourite Day 1 coaster and then follow Steve’s whims. Everyone wins.

I am content now, with the bigness of my dream.

Three days at two parks. Amazing. I don’t need to push it further. I don’t need a whole week, or an annual pass. I don’t ever want to go so often that it no longer feels special.

But it’s an important part of the process: letting myself wish for something at all, then gauging how big to go. How far do I dream to reach peak indulgence? It’s an important exercise, finding that answer in myself before other factors kick in: time, money, and, perhaps the hardest one for me of all: do I even deserve it?

There’s this moment in Jane Austen’s Emma when she realises she likes someone (no spoilers). There are practical matters to consider, notably: Does he like her back? In a rare moment of maturity, she decides that the first step is to get sure of what she wants in her heart, before considering all the reasons it could go wrong. It’s a good strategy, Emma!

To get clear of what I want, I must be present and attentive to my intuition.

Maybe this presence is part of the appeal of rollercoasters themselves. In the queue, my mind may wander to what’s for lunch? On the ride itself, I am nothing but present, in wonder, in fear. Attached to this track for these couple of minutes, I am exactly in this place experiencing this thing. Terrifyingly, blissfully HERE.

That said, some of my fondest Rollercoaster Kid memories are of anticipation.

I grew up in Ohio, 45 minutes from Kings Island. We had season passes, and the best Saturdays were spent there. I remember piling into the car early in the morning, and beginning to spot the rides above the trees as we got close. I remember watching Vortex looping, so loudly, and one day being tall enough to ride.

Then in Virginia, we were two hours away from my new home park, Busch Gardens Williamsburg. One coaster in particular converted me into being a proper coaster nerd, albeit, all by myself. I didn’t realise until last year that there’s a whole community, who call themselves Enthusiasts. This coaster, Alpengeist, was not only thrilling, but an art: the elegance of its elements, the subtle theming. I went home and discovered RCDB — Rollercoaster Database. I memorised the stats: height, drop, speed, track length. I learned that my favourite coasters, the kind where the train hangs beneath the track, are called ‘inverted coasters’. I now know that Enthusiasts call them ‘inverts’. ‘B&M inverts,’ if we’re getting specific about the manufacturer, which we are, because I love getting specific.

We went to Busch Gardens maybe twice a year. Most of my obsession played out at home, reading RCDB and theme park news on the family PC, planning out my day, laying out my cargo shorts and Alpengeist t-shirt the night before. 

Would I rather spend a day riding my favourite coaster over and over? Or half the day riding, and the other half the day getting ready for it? I might choose the latter.

I savour the moments of not having. I love the feeling of looking forward to something that I know will be amazing. I’ve always been this way — while my friends ‘couldn’t wait’ for the next Harry Potter book, I was happy for the years to stretch on. I enjoyed theorising, rereading the current books in their current form before new knowledge changed the way I saw them forever. I remember reading Book 6 one last time, knowing that after reading Book 7, I would never read it the same way again.

I’m enjoying being here, right now, not knowing which of the Towers coasters will be my darling favourite.

Knowing me, probably the B&M invert! But I’ve never ridden a flying coaster, or a dive coaster, and those are B&M too. I’m a sucker for theming and a story, so perhaps Wicker Man. I love inversions, and what people say about The Smiler being too rough is what they also say about unpopular coasters that I enjoy, like Mind Eraser.

The funny thing about being an Enthusiast before knowing there were more of us, is that I have my age-old opinions about coasters based purely on my own impressions. I now know, for instance, that Vekoma SLCs like Mind Eraser are considered to be the worst, but I actually enjoy them! These days, we can’t help but glimpse popular opinion as we’re still forming our own — we see follower counts and star ratings at first glance. I remember listening to Olivia Rodrigo’s song “drivers licence” the morning it came out, and realising later the same day that it was a record-breaking chart-topping sensation. The song sounds different to me when I contextualise it like that. At least, my conversation around it shifts, from pitching it to defending its greatness.

Of course, balancing popular with personal opinion is nothing new, and it took a lot of resistance to even pick up the first Harry Potter book, being overwhelmed by the hype. I had to find my own way of reconciling its mass appeal with my own experience.

I’m going into my Rollercoaster Road Trip with so much information, so many other people’s opinions. I can guess what I’ll enjoy, but the fact is I don’t know. I love not knowing. I only get this once. When we rope drop the park on Day 2, I will have the beginnings of my own framework. Soon I’ll be there, surprised when the park map I memorised is not to scale in wonky ways.

I won’t know what the highlights of my trip will be until they have happened. No amount of preparation can clue me in, nor do I want it to, but I do love getting more and more ready. I’ve memorised the sections of the park, can recite all the rides, but I could learn the names of more elements. Even though I know it doesn’t matter, it still feels good to know what to call a thing. It’s kind of like learning rock climbing terminology. I remember going bouldering with my sister and she called jugs ‘happy holds’. “They’re called ‘jugs,’” I explained. “I prefer happy holds,” she said, and I do think her term is better, even if technically inaccurate. Most of all I envy her decisiveness to do things her way, nerd cred be damned.

I enjoy spending months planning my outfits.

Sure I have clothes to wear, but I can style myself the Perfect Pleasure Beach look. I’m picturing a romper, but could also go for a high waisted short. I own just one pair of shorts right now, and if I get a second pair for this trip, they will forever be my theme park shorts, and I like that story.

Getting ready for my Rollercoaster Road Trip brought me back to being 13, packing my bag for Busch Gardens, complete with digital camera. Back then shorts and t-shirts were the norm — comfy clothes, no brainer! — until I realised I could go to a theme park and dress up. This was probably inspired by Gala Darling at Disneyland — from her blog, mind you, not Instagram. One time, I went to Universal in a sundress, sunglasses, and an enormous hat. My sister said she overheard someone asking who I was, assuming I was famous, because who dresses up at a theme park besides a celebrity? That made my Leo day. And that also dates this as a pre-Instagram moment, because now so many people dress up at theme parks.

Today, I occupy female-dominated spaces, like the Jane Austen fandom, but re-entering the male-centric coaster world does remind me of what it feels like to be self-consciously feminine. My rollercoaster t-shirt collection made me feel credible, like wearing band march, even though no one was asking me to prove myself. My guy friends I went with did not know or care to cite the stats. They were like, “That purple one was awesome.” (Apollo’s Chariot, world’s first B&M hyper coaster at 210 feet).

Choosing what to wear is like choosing how many days at the park to do, or knowing for myself what my favourite ride is. I could dress to look a certain way, to be perceived as a Serious Coaster Enthusiast. I could wear a dress but go around explaining “I’m not even ON Instagram!”. Not caring what people think is easier said than done.

Being really sure of what makes me feel good, though, is all that really matters.

I feel good learning coaster terminology, even though I now know that I don’t have to. For me it’s like knowing the lyrics to the song. That said, I could be less annoying about imposing the vocabulary on others!

I feel good in the Alpengeist t-shirt I ordered online, faster than I’ve ever purchased a garment in my adult life.

At first, even my feminist self-assured, present-day self felt a little silly for grouping outfit choice with learning the names of the coasters. It took me back, for a moment, to feeling like those two things could not go together. I know, and now embody, how I love both rompers and rollercoasters. I can wear short skirts and t-shirts. Actually, I still don’t like short skirts and they are not practical for theme parks. But I no longer feel smug about this personal preference of what feels good on my body.

Some days I dress like a theme park tomboy, other days like a theme park princess. Some days it’s a little bit of both, but aren’t we all so many things at once? I don’t want to separate these parts of myself; I have more fun when they’re together. For instance, I have not heard B&M described as the Chanel of rollercoaster manufacturers, but aren’t they? Classic, well-built, committed to a few key styles, and yet, were innovators when they were first established? You heard it here first, folks.

One final doubt stuck in my mind.

Who am I to even plan a rollercoaster road trip when not everyone can? Just like the other factors on my list, as soon as I wrote this down, a string of texts came through from my friend: 14 photos from her surprise trip to Disneyland, that made me happier than I’d felt all week. Her joy brought me joy too. It also brought me an answer: I can’t know for sure, but if I can trust that maybe, just maybe my happiness will lead to someone else’s? I have an easier time allowing myself that happiness.

Until the Next Chapter,


P.S. Favourite rollercoaster? Comfiest shoes you own? Let me know!

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