A roller coaster is a funny thing. It seems dangerous, but it’s actually quite safe. On average, only four deaths occur annually in the United States out of more than a hundred million rides. That makes riding a roller coaster safer than driving a car or crossing a street in a densely populated city. Indeed, with roller coasters it’s not about danger, it’s about the illusion of danger. Riding a roller coaster is more like watching a horror movie than going skydiving. Tallest, steepest, fastest is the rallying cry for those who strive to provide the greatest thrills with the least amount of risk, and it’s a cry they know well at Cedar Point, Ohio, the roller coaster capital of the world.
Roller Coaster Capital of the World
Cedar Point is a 364-acre amusement park located on a narrow peninsula along the shore of Lake Erie in Sandusky, Ohio. It boasts a whopping 71 rides, more than any other amusement park in the world, including 18 roller coasters, six of which are at least 200 feet in height. From 1997 to 2013 Cedar Point was awarded the Golden Ticket from Amusement Today for “Best Amusement Park in the World” for 16 years in a row. But what really sets it apart are its roller coasters.
Unlike other contenders for the title of roller coaster capital of the world, Cedar Point has a long history. It started out as a picnic grove in the 1890’s when the Lake Erie and Western Railroad purchased the peninsula and hired Indiana businessman George A. Boeckling to develop it. Boeckling built the historic Hotel Breakers, one of the largest hotels in the Midwest at the time, and the Coliseum, a large arena with a grand ballroom. But roller coasters were never far from his mind.
Even before the railroad purchased the peninsula, a roller coaster existed on the property. Called the Switchback Railway, it opened in 1892. It stood 25 feet high and had a top speed of 10 mph. When Boeckling took over, he recognized it as a popular attraction and added another, introducing the Figure-Eight Roller Toboggan in 1902. That proved such a hit he did it again six years later, introducing the Leap the Dips in 1906. For reference, Walt Disney was five-years-old in 1906. Yet Cedar Point had already established itself as the go-to American amusement park for roller coasters.
The Cyclone and Surviving the Depression
During the 1920’s Cedar Point expanded its offerings, adding a circle swing, a tilt-a-whirl and a pair of fun houses. Then in 1929 it took a giant leap forward, introducing the Cyclone, a classic wooden roller coaster touted as “Scientifically Built for Speed, Thrills and Safety”. It was the kind of attraction that would characterize Cedar Point in the years ahead, a groundbreaking thrill ride practically guaranteed to increase attendance. But then the depression hit.
During the 1930’s Cedar Point hung on, narrowly avoiding bankruptcy. In 1938 the Coliseum ballroom was remodeled to accommodate the popular Big Bands of the era, and it hosted some of the biggest names, including Guy Lombardo, Benny Goodman and Woody Herman. Nevertheless, the war years were difficult for Cedar Point. The only addition to the park of any long term merit was the Midway Carousel, installed in 1946. Today, it is the park’s oldest existing ride.
Roller coasters have a life span. Most don’t last more than a couple of decades before they become obsolete and are removed. By the late 1940’s all the coasters that pre-dated the Cyclone at Cedar Point had been removed. In 1951 the Cyclone itself was taken down. For the first time in its history Cedar Point was without a roller coaster. It appeared it was the beginning of the end for the park on the peninsula. Then in 1958 new management came on board, and the tow chain of the future locked onto Cedar Point’s front car and started pulling it steadily upward.
The Wild Mouse
George Roose and Emile Legros were the executives that set Cedar Point on the road to roller coaster glory. In 1959 the park added The Wild Mouse, a single car roller coaster where the car’s wheels were positioned near the rear of the car so the front of the car traveled past the turn before changing directions, making it feel as if the car would fall off the track.
The Wild Mouse created the sensation of danger, but fell short of another of the park’s new requirements for profitability: rider through-put. Without high through-put, ride capacity suffered, which meant long lines and disgruntled customers. The Wild Mouse could only load one car at a time. That was a no-no to Roose and Legros, so it was removed after four years—or was it five?.
Among roller coaster aficionados there seems to be some debate about when the Wild Mouse was removed. I can add my own two cents to the debate because the Wild Mouse was the first roller coaster I ever rode on. If it was removed in 1962, I would’ve been five-years-old, too young to remember. But if it was removed in 1963, I would’ve been six, which is a world of difference when it comes to a child’s memory. I’m going with 1963 based on personal memory.
In 1964 Cedar Point introduced Blue Streak, its first traditional roller coaster since the Cyclone. It was a wooden coaster that climbed to 75 feet before plunging into two short hills and banking around a 180-degree turn. For reference, 75 feet is about the height of a 7-story building. The ride speed reached 40 mph. It was tame by today’s standards, but it was a new start for Cedar Point. In fact, Blue Streak is so beloved it’s still around today, more than 50 years later.
In 1969 the park unveiled the Cedar Creek Mine Train. Taking its cue from the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland in California, the Mine Train rides on a tubular steel track. It rises to 48 feet before passing through couple of turns and banking around a lagoon. It was the park’s first themed ride, picking up on the Disneyland innovation of building its rides around a narrative. Cedar Point has never been a theme park, but it has dabbled in theme rides from time to time, always returning to the tried-and-true approach of taller, faster, steeper as a way to grow attendance.
Cedar Point found its mojo with the introduction of Gemini in 1978. One of the world’s first racing coasters, it runs on two parallel tracks. The cars seem to be racing each other. This was sweet nectar to Roose and Legros who were keen to increase ride capacity, and thus profitability.
The ride’s 125-foot lift hill is equivalent to the height of a 12-story building. Speeds reach 60 mph. Gemini was neither the tallest nor the fastest roller coaster in North America when it was introduced, but that didn’t stop the park from claiming it was, and throwing down the gauntlet to other amusement parks. Cedar Point was drawing a line in the sand and challenging its rivals. It would have to punch hard and fast to stay ahead of them.
The Coaster Wars
In the fall of 1978, after both parks had closed for the season, the employees of Cedar Point met the employees of King’s Island, an amusement park near Cincinnati, OH, for a friendly touch football game. After the game was over, they got together for some beers, and that’s where the employees of Kings Island let slip their new secret weapon. It was called The Beast and it was designed to be the tallest, steepest, fastest and longest roller coaster in the world. It had an initial drop of 141-feet, reached speeds of 65-mph and covered more than a mile. When it opened in spring of 1979, Cedar Point had no answer. King’s Island had topped them. The coaster wars were on.
Throughout the 1980’s Cedar Point kept adding rides. White Water Landing (1982), Demon Drop (1983) and Iron Dragon (1987) to name a few, but nothing topped The Beast at King’s Island. Attendance was beginning to suffer. Then in 1987 Cedar Point became a publicly traded company and got an infusion of capital. It used the money to strike back at Kings Island. In 1989 it introduced a new coaster and reclaimed the title of tallest, steepest, fastest.
Magnum XL-200 is 205-feet in height. For reference, that’s about as tall as an 18-story building. After cresting the massive lift hill, the train plummets down a steeply pitched 60-degree slope, reaching 72 mph before rising again to 157 feet across a hump-backed hill and curving into a tunnel. Coming out of the tunnel, it rises again to a third, 80-foot hill and then drops into a pretzel-shaped turnaround before rocketing into a tunnel and whipping up and down over seven smaller hills before entering the brake run.
Magnum XL-200 was a huge hit when it opened in 1989. It led to record breaking attendance figures for several years in a row and cemented Cedar Point’s reputation as the roller coaster capital of the world. It was the new gold standard.
Inversions, Loops, and Stand-Up Coasters
The other big American amusement parks didn’t take this lying down. In 1992 Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, IL introduced Batman: The Ride, the world’s first inverted roller coaster, where the trains run under the tracks and swing on pivot bars as the cars whip around curves. Cedar Point answered back in 2012 with Raptor, a taller, steeper, faster version of the same thing.
This sort of one-upmanship was par for the course for Cedar Point. Back in 1976 Cedar Point introduced Corkscrew, a roller coaster that features three vertical loops that turn riders upside down three times in the course of the ride. It was a direct response to the groundbreaking ride called The Revolution at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, CA, which the previous year had introduced the first modern looping roller coaster, albeit with just one loop.
In 1984 King’s Island opened King Cobra, the world’s first purpose-built stand-up roller coaster. Cedar Point responded in 1996 with Mantis, a taller, steeper, faster version, which was enhanced further in 2015 to become a floorless, stand-up roller coaster, now called Rougarou, which was itself an answer to Bizarro at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, NJ, the first floorless roller coaster introduced in 1999.
Taller, Steeper, Faster
In 1997 Six Flags Magic Mountain introduced Superman: Escape from Krypton, a mega-coaster with a 415-foot drop and speeds that reached 100 mph. Suddenly Magnum XL-200 looked meek by comparison. Cedar Point had its work cut out for it. Six years later in 2003 it answered back with Top Thrill Dragster.
Top Thrill Dragster is a 420-foot strata-coaster. For reference, that’s as tall as a 30-story building. The train is hydraulically launched, going from zero to 120 mph in four seconds. It rockets up a steep hill to its highest height and then goes through a half twist before plunging straight down at a 90-degree angle. The whole ride takes only 19 seconds, but it’s 19 seconds of sheer, adrenaline pumping terror.
Once again Cedar Point had seized the crown of tallest, steepest, fastest, but it wouldn’t last. Two years later in 2005, Six Flags Great Adventure opened Kingda-Ka, a 456-foot tall strata-coaster that reaches a top speed of 128 mph. Then in 2010 Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi shattered the speed record with Formula Rossa, a roller coaster that reaches a top speed of 149 mph.
Diving into the Future
How Cedar Point will respond to these new challenges remains to be seen. In 2016 the park opened Valravn, its first dive coaster, which provides an almost vertical drop from a height of 223-feet, giving riders a sense of free-falling. To add suspense, it dangles riders on the edge of a precipice for a long moment before plunging straight down. Valravn is neither higher nor faster than Kingda-Ka or Formula Rossa, but it is a nice placeholder until the park can figure out how to top them.
Cedar Point has been dropping hints about a new roller coaster arriving in 2022. Nothing has been revealed yet, but the obvious next step would be a roller coaster with a height of 500 feet and a top speed in excess of 150 mph. Where this all ends is anybody’s guess, but it appears the coaster wars aren’t over just yet. Cedar Point has a reputation to uphold, and it won’t be content until it has regained the crown it has worn for so many years: tallest, steepest, fastest.
Previous Stop on the Odyssey: Rochester, NY
Next Stop on the Odyssey: Flint, MI
My American Odyssey Route Map
Hildebrandt, John H. Always Cedar Point: A Memoir of the Midway, Casa Flamingo Literary Arts, 2018
IAAPA Ride Safety Report – North America – 2017 website
Cedar Point with Lake Erie behind it, Malcolm Logan
The Skyhawk, Malcolm Logan
Switchback Railway at Cedar Point, Public domain
View from the top of the Cyclone roller coaster, Coasterpedia
Dancers at the Coliseum Ballroom 1940s, Sandusky History
The Wild Mouse, Roller Coaster database
Blue Streak, Nick Nolte
Cedar Creek Mine Ride, Gregory Varnum
Gemini, Nick Nolte
Millennium Force, Malcolm Logan
MagnumXL-2000, Jeremy Thompson
Corkscrew, Malcolm Logan
Top Thrill Dragster, Craig Lloyd
Valravn, Malcolm Logan