Thrill me

One writer, one day, 11 bone-jarring rides

John Katsilometes

They kept asking, “Just you?”

The woman issuing tickets at the Stratosphere. The young man who led me onto the big boat at Rim Runner at the Circus Circus Adventuredome. The guy from Houston whom I met in line at Manhattan Express at New York-New York. The kid who clumsily buckled me into the powerful Desperado at Buffalo Bill’s.

“Just you?”

Yes, just me. A solitary adult male, riding every roller coaster and thrill ride on the Strip and in Primm, 40 miles or so to the south.

Why would I do this? Because I can. Barely, as it turns out. I might have been suffering from vertigo, except I vividly remember every moment.

I started my long and winding road Thursday morning at the Stratosphere and worked my way south. Following is a recap of my daylong odyssey, the rides I rode and the people I met, followed by my own five-star ratings (which are binding, of course):

11:03 a.m., Insanity at the Stratosphere. While in line I meet a 15-year-old kid named Laci. She’s from Colorado Springs, and her mom brought her to the top of the hotel, but she is afraid of heights and even more acutely afraid of high rides. So together Laci and I take the three rides that sit about a thousand feet above the Strip, starting with Insanity. The ride is aptly named. We are strapped into open seats and dangle, while spinning, off the edge of the hotel while supported by a giant mechanical arm (this is the ride on which a couple of tourists were once stranded for 90 minutes because high winds activated the ride’s automatic shut-down mechanism). I can tell you that there are three moments when I am truly frightened during my day on the rides. The first is when Insanity pushes out over the Strip. As that happens, I am telling Laci, “This is a good way to see the city.

Down there is the Clark County Government Center OH (EXPLETIVE)!” To which she replies, “There are a lot of words that I want to say right now, but I can’t say them!”

As with all of the Stratosphere rides, the altitude makes all the difference on Insanity. It would never work at ground level. But even so, it’s worth four stars.

11:21 a.m., Big Shot. Here’s how it is to be seated on the Stratosphere’s explosive ride that blasts you up the hotel needle: You’re seated, thinking, “Hey, Encore at Wynn Las Vegas is really making progress ... ” Then, “WHAAAAA!” My Second Moment of Panic is as the Big Shot hits its peak on its first shot up the needle and you begin to free fall. There is a split-second when you are sure you are going to be cast into the great beyond. This is my fourth trip on the Big Shot over the years, and I have felt that moment of fear each time. The ride is short, just a few passes up the needle, but the memories ... they linger. Four stars.

11:33 a.m., X-Scream. This is the big green teeter-totter on the side of the Stratosphere opposite Insanity. Laci, who by this point is in charge of seating assignments, refuses to sit at the front of the ride, which is the best position because it provides an unobstructed view of the ground far below. I argue this point and am talked down (a timely reminder of why I don’t have kids), so we take our places in the very back. As we are fastened in, I laugh at the song playing on the ride’s blaring sound system, “The Crying Game” by Boy George. X-Scream shifts back and forth, fairly boringly, over the lip of the hotel, until the terror-stricken woman seated in front of us gives the ride operator the old cut-throat sign and the ride ends at once. X-Scream is sufficiently creaky and jerky, but fairly routine in comparison to Insanity and Big Shot. Three and a half stars.

11:57 a.m., Speed at Sahara. While in line I talk to a man who says he is from Switzerland. He is also embarking on a day of roller coasters, with his family along for the rides. He asks, “Just you?” and I tell him what I am up to and that his next stop should be the Stratosphere. I describe the Big Shot, and he turns to his family and, in some language that is not English (I’m going to guess it was Swiss) makes a few animated comments, using his hands, mime-like, to form an imaginary Big Shot. “Ooooh!” they respond, in English. Then we step onto Speed, and the Big Shot is quickly forgotten. Speed starts in a hurry, charging from zero to 70 mph before we have time to grip the handrails. Speed humps it up there pretty good, yes, and gives you a few good bounces and a unique trip up its 225-foot tower and backward through its single loop. But it only lasts 45 seconds. Another 45 and Speed would be the Strip champion, no question. But as it is, three and a half stars.

12:15 p.m. As I drive from the Sahara, a dull ache begins whistling through my head. Eight rides to go.

12:45 p.m. Upon arriving at Adventuredome at Circus Circus, I notice I am the only UAM (Unaccompanied Adult Male) in the place, which is slammed with sugar- and adrenaline-fueled children half my height who yelp instead of speak and crash into my legs while scrambling to their next customer experience. I become self-conscious and tell everyone I come in contact with—snack bar vendors, ride operators, the occasional mom gripping a stuffed SpongeBob SquarePants figure—that I am working on a story about thrill rides. Nothing odd happening here, just doing the journalism thing. And I am sad to notice a sign informing that one of the park’s best rides, the Sling Shot, is not operating. In these instances, the park should run the scene from Vacation, where John Candy dutifully says, “Sorry folks, park’s closed. The moose out front should have told you. ...”

1:02 p.m., Canyon Blaster. After Speed, the Adventuredome’s signature coaster is pretty serene—at least at the start. It kind of meanders along for several seconds, then boom! You’re in the first of two corkscrews. You duck in and out of darkness and are forced, hard, to either side of the car. There are two loops on the 2,000-foot-long track, and the ride moves fairly swiftly at 55 mph. As I disembark from the Blaster I am leaning to the right, like an old pickup in need of realignment.

At one minute, 45 seconds, the Blaster is longer than Speed by a good shot, and for that reason deserves the same rating as the faster Sahara coaster, three and a half stars.

1:25 p.m., Chaos. The entire pink-bubbled Adventuredome complex should be renamed this, but Chaos is but one ride. The seats are for two people, and I’m alone until just before the ride is to start, when a kid (and by this point, all kids seem to be 15 years old) is led to the open seat next to me. He has a look on his face that says, “Oh great. I get to sit next to the dork.” So I put him at ease: “The reason I am here by myself is, I’m writing a story about thrill rides ...” Before I can finish, we are off in full spin. Chaos is a lot like the old Zipper, a relic still popular at state fairs, but there are no cages, and the ride spins in a counterclockwise rotation. There are some jarring moments as you are jostled and flipped upside down in tilt-a-whirl fashion.

Not bad, but a cut below the best Stratosphere rides and the two roller coasters I’ve ridden today. I notice that I am developing a discriminating feel for these rides, that I am becoming an expert. Chaos gets two and a half stars.

1:35 p.m., Inverter. Trouble! And maybe danger! I’m seated in one of the six four-person rows on the Inverter, and the young woman operating the ride is fixed with a stricken expression. She presses the green button, which is to activate the harnesses to keep us in place, but the harnesses will not stay in the locked position! And the green button—it is flashing! Two women in my row get up and leave, which is somewhat unnerving, but the rest of us—we’re staying, until we’re told to get off.

Then the girl says we will have to leave the Inverter because a technician will have to inspect the ride, which sends you upside-down and keeps you inverted for up to four seconds. Except when the infernal green button is flashing. Everyone off!

1:40 p.m., Rim Runner—the wait. I make sure to track the time because the line to Rim Runner—the Adventuredome’s water attraction —is the longest of any ride I will take all day. It lasts for more than a half-hour, giving me time to tell everyone around me that I am actually working, writing a story about thrill rides, and that is why I am by myself ...

2:12 p.m., Rim Runner—the ride. The kid who seats the riders, who to me seems to be 15 years old, leads me to my own row on the big boat that carries riders on the Rim Runner. The floor of the craft is a puddle, and my Tevas are instantly wet, and I am still annoyed because of the long line and unnerved about the Inverter episode.

Then the ride begins and we casually meander along the Adventuredome canal—hey kids, notice the empty Dasani bottle floating to your right!—before dropping 60 feet into the drink. We get soaked. This is lame. One star.

2:25 p.m., Inverter revisited. The topsy-turvy ride is back in action. The defeated young female ride operator has been replaced by another kid who seems to be 15 years old, and the Inverter is functioning perfectly. Yet another uncomfortable episode unfolds as a young girl, probably 15, moves into my row. It’s just us two, with one seat between us, and I say, “I’m writing a story about thrill rides ...” and I swear, she gets up and moves to the seat furthest from me. I need to leave this place, pronto. The ride, which is fine for those who enjoy the singular butt-over-head experience, gets three stars.

3:21 p.m., Manhattan Express, New York-New York. Say this about the Coney Island-like arcade area that leads to the roller coaster at New York-New York: It is far less chaotic than the Adventuredome. There seem to be more adults, which is a relief for this UAM. One of my fellow fellows is Jeff Tracey, who is from Houston and is on vacation with his wife, who has either developed or was born with a healthy fear of roller coasters. I would ask more about her, but she ducks into the Manhattan Express gift shop as we hop in line. The couple are on their first trip to Vegas, so I tell Jeff (who is wondering why I am alone) that I am writing a story about thrill rides.

Then he asks, “What’s your real job?” Moments later we are buckled into the Manhattan Express, a wild two-minute, 45-second trip that reaches nearly 70 mph. The biggest drop is a bit higher than 140 feet, and midway through the ride we are taken on a 540-degree spiral. In a blur, we catch glimpses of the Strip and of the faux New York skyline. My noggin takes a few glancing blows, and we are sufficiently exhausted as we stagger from the long, checkered-cab designed cars. Manhattan Express features all the best components of the Strip roller coasters and lasts long enough that I do not feel an immediate need to ride it again. Thus, it is the champion of Strip coasters at four and a half stars. But far off the Strip, several miles to the south, Buffalo Bill’s awaits.

4:25 p.m., Turbo Drop, Buffalo Bill’s. This is the junior varsity version of the Big Shot, the chief difference being that the ride starts at ground level, climbs slowly and drops you downward instead of skyward. The kid operating the ride (probably 15) seems surprised to see me walking to the ride and doesn’t bother buckling me in. I do that myself. The only other person on the ride, a kid (again, 15) seated on the opposite side of me, shouts, “I’m not coming back from this one!” I think he is yelling at his father, who, at hearing this high-volume warning, distractedly checks his watch. After a day of violent tossing and turning, the Turbo Drop is relatively tame. The kid makes it out okay, as expected, and remains seated for another launch. Two stars.

4:37 p.m., Desperado. Where thrill rides meet David Lynch. As I arrive I hear the recorded announcement, “Smoking is not allowed on the Desperado.” This means that at some point, someone—David Blaine?—has attempted to light a cigarette on this ride. Wow. Then the 15-year-old kid who herds riders onto the Desperado leads me to my seat, and I notice the harness laying flat. “Do I sit on that?” I ask. “Yeah,” he says. But I’m not getting in. There’s no way I’m sitting on that contraption—half of my body would be exposed outside the ride. Then he says, “Wait. Lift that up and I’ll buckle you in.” Now we are getting somewhere. I slip in and hold tight. The ride inches through a tunnel toward the 209-foot apex and, to my left, I see a couple of young boys—15, likely—poking their heads out of a windowed opening. I don’t know if they work on the Desperado or what, but they fix me with faintly devilish grins. I then notice that the coaster rattles and does not at all ride smoothly. Built 13 years ago, the Desperado is loud and rough, fast and high—it is among the tallest coasters in the country at a height of 209 feet at its highest point. The first drop is about 225 feet into a darkened tunnel, and when I hit the bottom of that drop I honestly feel as if I am going to be shot from my car. That is Moment of Panic No. 3, after which I want this ride to be over. For nearly three minutes it just beats the crap out of you.

We reach a high speed of 80 mph and four Gs, but it might as well be 180 mph and 16 Gs. The best way to describe the Desperado is to imagine what Muhammad Ali felt like during the rope-a-dope heavyweight title bout against George Foreman. The Desperado hits you with everything it’s got. As I limp out of my car, the kid who sat next to me asks, “Is it better than Manhattan Express?” To which I glower, “Who the hell are you? And why are you in my yard?” Five glimmering stars.

Epilogue. Since embarking on this journey I have been asked how I felt during and after the experience. I didn’t, how you say, “retch,” but did feel as if I might, especially after hanging upside down from the Inverter. I was sore all over, in the predictable places—spine, shoulders, neck, head, legs—and, somewhat surprisingly, in my feet. You don’t realize how tense your feet become on these rides; they are curled and braced on each one (except for the Rim Runner, on which one could nap).

Two days after taking the rides something very strange happened to me as I pulled off a sock. The nail on the little toe of my left foot, which was particularly painful, fell off. I picked up the disembodied nail and gave it a name: Desperado.

John Katsilometes is the Weekly’s writer at large.

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