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In the world of computers, Moore's law states that the speed of a microprocessor doubles every eighteen months. In the world of amusement parks, there's something akin to Moore's law at work on rollercoasters. The rides are getting more terrifying by the season as park operators try to outdo the competition by building rollercoasters that attract superlatives such as fastest, tallest, most nausea-inspiring. Our colleague David Brancaccio, the host of Marketplace, can't stand rollercoasters, but he has an eleven year old son who worships them. We thought that tension would produce a good story.

David & Goliath

By David Brancaccio, 6/22/2001

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So, here's the bind. The Savvy Traveler gang offered to pay for two tickets to an amusement park called Six Flags Magic Mountain if I'd take my son on the rollercoasters and report back. Thing is, I'd sooner swap out my own kidneys than ride one of those things but what kind of lame-ster says "no" in this situation? Then the newspaper arrived the Monday before our weekend adventure.

Nick reading paper: "Rollercoaster blamed for death. Woman who died after riding Magic Mountain's Goliath suffered fatal injuries caused by the ride."
A 28-year-old woman had ridden Goliath, the very rollercoaster we were set to confront, and died soon after. The coroner eventually backed off blaming the rollercoaster and the cause of death won't be determined for weeks. I needed more information.
Gallardo: ..."Golliath is and always has been a very safe ride and since it opened in February, we've already given a million and a half safe rides. It is one of the most popular rides in the entire country."
Andy Gallardo, a spokesman at Magic Mountain, a Time Warner company. Now, I did find a piece in a medical journal about an apparent rollercoaster induced brain injury in Japan. And Congressman Edward Markey of Massachusetts staff faxed some data suggesting that rollercoasters have a higher death rate than buses, airlines and trains but lower than cars. Markey wants the Feds to regulate thrill rides.

Our last consultation was with a Barry Glassner, a University of Southern California sociologist who wrote The Culture of Fear. He says while the woman's death was a terrible tragedy, there's a danger that dad, here, will draw the wrong lesson.

Glassner: "If you pay attention to these alarming stories in the media you're going to have to keep your kids home from everything because virtually everything you do with them will be at least this dangerous…We need to raise children who are confident about themselves and about the world around them and they're not going to be if we blow every little danger way out of proportion."
I put the research before my sixth grader for an opinion. The fellow had more Clarence Darrow in him then I anticipated.
Nick: "You plan Sundays on going swimming and stuff. That's what your risk is, is getting bit by a shark. There's less of a chance of being bit by a shark than being struck by lightening and there's less of a chance of dying on a rollercoaster than being struck by lightening."
See, all of this was all pre-ordained. Nick's saying this in a car already pointed toward Magic Mountain.
Nick: "Hey look there's Six Flags! I can see the top of Goliath..."
105 dollars and 98 cents for one 6 foot dad and one four-foot-ten kid to get in.

The first order of business, Gold Rusher, a weenie ride so ignominiously tame that-unlike some of the other rides-there's no warning to put away your hearing aids.

Nick: "You can keep your hat on for this..."
Hats still in place post Gold Rusher, we set off for Colossus, one of the largest, traditional wooden rollercoasters in the world. What it lacks in hair pin turns, it makes up for in drops...
David: "Wuuuuh, I thought this was going to be an easy one."
Nick: "I thought it was, too. I forgot how high it was! Yeehaa. Oooh."
Colossus now behind us, we pass Goliath, site of the fatality a week earlier. It's mercifully closed.

Nick has his sights set on a section of the park known as Gotham City home to a very nasty ride that involves 2 loops, 2 corkscrew spirals, and what's advertised as a "one of a kind" zero-gravity spin.

Nick: "Gotham City!"
David: "Does that rollercoaster look like it's even going?"
Nick: "It is, just nobody's on it."
David: "Because it's too scary!"
Nick: "Exactly! There it is!"
David: "Oh no...feet dangle. I hate feet dangle..."
Nick: "Shoosh!"
David: "So what if it's way scarier than has been advertised?"
Nick: "Then you're screwed."
I take this opportunity to reflect on the numbers, (as is my habit): typically two people die a year on theme park rides around the country, three dozen are hospitalized. Bad things can happen and for someone like me with a well-developed imagination of disaster, the old thrill ride formula - fear minus death equals fun - doesn't compute. But for an eleven year old, whose sense of death is mercifully so abstract as to become inconsequential, it's a formula that works are surely as the laws of physics guiding our trajectory:
Nick: "Oh yeah! Oh yeah...Oh yeah...that was so fun! That was SO fun!"
David: "That was not fun..."
Nick: "That's the best ride I've ever been on, I'm not kidding. And now you can't walk straight, huh!?!"
The sociologist had talked of the wisdom of letting young people take controlled risks. It's seen as a necessary stage for both adolescents...and their parents. It's a step toward maturity, I suppose. We already knew he was demonstrably better than dad at digital animation and cartooning. Now it's clear he's braver, too.
Nick: "Can we go on that again later?"
David: "NO WAY!"
Nick: "Can I go on it by myself later?"
David: "It's possible..."
Nick: "That was SO FUN!"
Later, when I finally gain my freedom and Nicholas sinks exhausted into the backseat of the car, he seems aware that there's a natural rhythm to the day's challenge:
Nick: "In about 20 or 30 years my kids are going to be dragging me on these things."
David: "What do you think the rollercoasters will be like in 30 years."
Nick: "A lot worse, because they keep getting worse and worse and worse. Unless the death rate gets so high and they stop doing them it's so bad."
At Six Flags Magic Mountain in Santa Clarita, California, I'm David Brancaccio for the Savvy Traveler.

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