A theme park: not just somewhere you pay to gain access to, before spending the majority of your time standing in a line. These tourist attractions—these paved, fenced-in arenas of looping, colorful steel—are also churches, places of worship to hordes of so-called "coaster geeks."
Roller coaster aficionados tour the world in search of new rides, spending thousands on trips and merchandise and swearing allegiance—kind of like football fans—to their favorites. They obsess over the nuts and bolts of the roller coasters they ride; for a true coaster geek, it's not enough to just stand in line and spend two to three minutes upside down—they have to forensically understand each coil and curve.
Serena Cherry, a 27-year-old from the UK who has the Saw ride from England's Thorpe Park tattooed on her arm, says a true coaster fan should know who has built a ride from over a hundred paces.
"Those built by B&M have very thick, chunky looking tracks—a cross-section of the track typically looks like a W shape—whereas Swiss manufacturer Intamin often uses quad rails, so its rails are cube-shaped," she explains. "Years ago, you'd have to peer over a fence to know who was building what, but now coaster geek sites will have already done that for you."
In some cases, it seems, enthusiasts will go to extreme lengths to get their hands on exclusive information. Merlin Entertainment—the company that owns basically every theme park in the UK—reported that its social media had been hacked by fans looking to get news of Thorpe Park's rumored (and now confirmed) collaboration with Derren Brown.
Cherry's Saw ride tattoo
For Cherry, a guitarist in the post-hardcore band Svalbard, committing her love for her favorite theme park to song was enough. "I composed a song called 'Thorpe Park (On a Week Day)'—it's a bit of a parody," she says. "On a weekday at Thorpe Park, there are no queues. It's like winning life—a completely blissful day where there are no obstacles to your enjoyment, your relationship to the roller coasters."
Like many coaster geeks, she can chart her adoration of adrenaline right down to the first coaster she fell in love with. "When I first saw Nemesis [at Alton Towers] in 1994, when it just opened, it was like nothing on earth—the structure, ambition, and scale of it was like something from another planet," she says. "It was inverted, pulling off in all directions, yet mixed with all these alien themes. It looked mythological. I watched my dad ride it and begged him for every detail. I then had to wait four years until I was exactly 1.4 meters [about 4'5"] tall to ride on it."
A POV ride-through of Nemesis. POV ride-throughs are pretty popular in the coaster geek community.
Remembering her first Nemesis experience, Cherry compares it almost to an early romantic encounter: "I was nervous, I was excited, and then it was over all too quickly. That day I went on it twice and queued for two-and-a-half hours each time."
Most of us have been to theme parks—perhaps on a school trip where you all had to wear matching backpacks the wrong way round, or a deathly silent first date over a burrito in the park's Mexican cantina—and have enjoyed the day out. But for coaster geeks, there's a lot more to it than that.
"They are art installations that you can experience," says Cherry. "It's not about just stepping on the train—the moment begins when you see the structure, how otherworldly it is. You study each fragment of the theming; it's like enveloping yourself in a story."
Middleton outside Thorpe Park
Jordan Middleton, 25, from Essex, has ridden 772 roller coasters at over 100 theme parks, burning as much as £1,000 [$1,400] on trips to her favorite rides in Japan, America, and Europe. She insists she doesn't dress like a typical coaster geek but says you can spot one a mile off.
"They look like they're going hiking," she says. "Trousers with loads of pockets so you don't have to check a bag in and out. Sensible shoes... I'm actually mocked a lot because I'm a bit more fashion-conscious and don't wear hiking boots. Detachable hoods, boots with zips so you can get them on and off easily for rides. People bring flip-flops, so they can wear them off after they've been on a water ride."
Middleton—whose obsession with rides began as a teenager playing RollerCoaster Tycoon, a game where you can build your own theme parks—describes how online coaster geek forums are full of oneupmanship.
"My fiancé thinks he's a coaster geek, but he really isn't. He has some knowledge, but it's not at geek level yet. Other geeks would judge him," she says. "It's not just about knowing the rides; it's about knowing manufacturers, plans, build spends. Everything. There are geeks who know how many bolts are in any Disneyland ride. Others have spreadsheets charting their top ten rides and what dates that order changed. It's very, very serious."
Online arguments rage about favorite restraints—the bars that hold you in your seat – and what body type is best for roller coasters: tall, short, thin, or fat. The obsessiveness isn't just consigned to the tracks, says Middleton: "There are specific bits inside theme parks that only coaster geeks would know about. Inside the ride Colossus at Thorpe Park, the developer, Intamin, when building the ride, accidentally created a seat-shaped alcove in the structure which is now known among geeks as the 'Intamin Throne.' A lot of coaster enthusiasts pose for pictures on it, and many propose or get engaged there."
Middleton didn't get engaged on the Intamin Throne—that honor was reserved for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, Tokyo. Not that that's her favorite ride. "There's a roller coaster in Pennsylvania called Skyrush. Imagine you're riding a roller coaster that's like a bucking bronco, constantly trying to throw you off, but it has a comfortable restraint that holds you on. It's really smooth and fast," she says, describing her holy grail of coaster. "Also, Six Flags Magic Mountain—that's roller coaster mecca. You pull up, and all you can see is roller coasters as far as the eye can see."
Pritchard in Thorpe Park
Phill Pritchard, 30, works in a pharmaceutical company, but—perhaps unsurprisingly—pharmaceuticals are not his primary passion. His primary passion is theme parks. And one theme park in particular.
"There wasn't enough about Thorpe Park on the internet already, so I created Memories of Thorpe Park. It now has around 30,000 to 50,000 photos from around Thorpe Park," he says. "I just reached out to people who blogged and asked if I could share usage. I have everything from old logos, pics of disused rides, even the old 'Thorpe Park Rangers'—the site mascots."
Pritchard points to a pivotal time in the theme park's history as a game changer for his website. "The fire in 2000 was a very worrying time," he says. "It's still sad to think about it now. The two rides that were lost were important to me growing up—the Phantom Fantasia, a slow moving ghost train, was my favorite ride as a child. That was a big shock to me, especially the way it went. Nothing officially has ever been announced, but it's supposed to have been a cigarette fire."
Pritchard, who does still visit other parks besides Thorpe Park, says his fixation with roller coasters comes from the otherworldly set up. "There's nothing like a theme park. It's like walking onto a film set," he says. "Nowhere on the planet can you go from being in outer space to a pirate ship to a horror theme without thinking it's ridiculous. I love to suspend my disbelief like that."
A POV ride-through of Thorpe Park's Saw ride
There's a community aspect to coaster geek culture, and of course, the basic appeal of these rides is obvious: They kind of make you feel like you're flying. I get that. I get why people become interested in roller coasters and how a passing interest can snowball into a full-blown passion. But surely these coaster geeks get bored of riding the same two-minute experience again and again?
Cherry, who has now ridden the Saw ride nearly a thousand times, says it never gets dull—and, in her explanation of why, sums up why many coaster geeks become so enthralled with lining up for hours for that brief rush of adrenaline.
"For me, a truly brilliant roller coaster tells a story. As a coaster, Saw is beautifully paced. It has an indoor section, plenty of interactive points as you go past on the carriage, and you notice different elements every time. From the moment you see it, to queuing up, to riding it, a story should unravel. I like it best in the pouring rain. Did you know that, when the track is wet, it makes the wheels more slippy and a tiny bit faster? Saw in the rain, in the dark, that's my absolute favorite."
Follow Andy on Twitter.
Follow Jake on Twitter.