How to Design a Roller Coaster That'll Make You Beg For Mercy

A terrifying ride on the Fury 325

Just looking at it makes me sick. I’m standing at the base of the world’s tallest roller coaster lift hill, staring at a track that rises to a 325-foot-high apex in the clear, blue Carolina sky. Soon, I’ll be dragged up there and dropped almost straight down. My stomach isn’t happy about it.

Why would anyone pay to have the crap scared out of them? To find out, I’m meeting with Rob Decker, the senior vice president for planning and design at the amusement-park conglomerate Cedar Fair. In late 2012 the company started planning a new tent-pole attraction for its Carowinds Park on the outskirts of Charlotte. Working with Switzerland-based amusement-ride builders Bolliger & Mabillard, Cedar Fair devised a 325-foot “ultimate thrill machine,” as Decker puts it, that in the course of a three-minute ride achieves a top speed of 95 mph. The result, Fury 325, debuted on March 28, the opening day of the park’s 2015 season.

The company won’t share attendance and revenue figures, but if it keeps Fury 325’s seats filled, more than a million customers will ride the coaster in 2015. “It’s a big ride for them,” says amusement park consultant Jerry Aldritch. “It lets them market a new product to bring more people to the park and generate more revenue. It’s not just about clicks of the turnstile, it’s about the merchandise and the food and all the other revenue generators.”

The key to the ride’s success isn’t so much what it does to riders physically, but how it works them over psychologically, wringing them out with alternating applications of terror, surprise, and exhilaration. Decker gave me a section-by-section explanation of how the coaster generates its effects, then accompanied me for a ride shortly before the coaster opened. (As it turns out, understanding the ride’s psychodynamics doesn’t reduce the urge to scream one’s brains out.)

The Approach

The monster exerts its pull from across state lines. Driving south on I-77 from Charlotte toward Carowinds, which straddles the state line in Fort Mill, S.C., I see the lift hill rising over the horizon from 5 miles out. Already, the ride is messing with my brain. “It looks magnificent and terrifying,” Decker says. “Your visit [is] validated before you even open the car door.” Fury 325 stretches to the parking lot and dives underneath the park’s entrance bridge, so I hear the screams the minute I arrive. As I walk toward the gates, a queasy stomach and sweaty palms signal that my fight or flight circuitry is prepping me for danger.

Anticipation

Waiting in line, we see riders strapping in while others disembark. The mob seems to vibrate with adrenaline. Powerful emotions are contagious in a crowd, research has found; we subconsciously pick up on visual and aural cues as well as stress pheromones. “People are so excited to get on the ride, and then the people coming in from just having ridden are getting off, and they’re all excited—they’re all full of laughter, and screaming and jumping up and down and high-fiving each other,” Decker says. “We don’t hide any of that.”

As we settle into our seats, we’re secured by a belt and a folding fiberglass-and-metal restraint. Research shows that the two most powerful factors in amplifying fear are ignorance and lack of control—both of which the coaster is designed to cultivate. Within moments, the 32-seat train moves forward, then lurches up at a 40-degree angle. We’re powerless, unable to see what lies beyond the top of the hill. “You’re staring at the sky, thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what did I get myself into?’” Decker says. “You just want to survive the experience.”

Panic

Just before the train reaches the top of the hill, it slows down, threatening to strand us at the peak. The world below stretches in every direction, and for an instant there is calm. Then the descent begins, and we’re sliding headlong toward the ground, the track ahead still invisible due to the curve of the hill. This will be the worst part, I tell myself. I just have to get through the next few seconds.

But the train is falling nearly straight down from the height of a 30-story building. My stomach floats up to my ribcage and my thoughts are magnetically erased. I’m screaming. This is the moment of maximum system overload, in which self-talk disappears and the conscious mind fuzzes. Studies have found that intense fear works like a mind-altering drug, warping perceptions of time, heightening memories, and shutting down complex cognition. “It’s a break in reality,” says Mike Fehnel, Carowinds’ vice president and general manager.

False Security

We settle into a slope at the bottom of the hill, going from weightlessness to 4 Gs within seconds. “Everyone can withstand that many Gs and enjoy it, so long as you’re in and out of it,” Decker says. Now traveling at approximately 95 mph, the train’s momentum carries it up a 190-foot banked barrel turn and then shoots it through a series of S-curves. Centrifugal forces keep us planted in our seats without any sense of side-to-side swaying. For a few seconds, the ride seems to be settling into a predictable rhythm.

That’s a setup. Suddenly we’re flung up into what looks like another barrel turn, this time pivoting sideways in a 91-degree “overbanked horsehoe” so our heads pointed outward toward the parking lot. A zero-gravity drop gives the impression that we’ve been catapulted sideways off the rails and are about to land amid the cars and SUVs. I was wrong, I think. The first drop wasn’t the worst part. This is.

Near Misses

While I’m still floating in my seat, I realize we’re plummeting toward a tunnel entrance that seems too small for the ride. “We’ve calibrated that aperture to the degree that we know exactly how many inches people can stretch out and get out to touch the bridge — everyone’s going to clear it by several inches,” Decker says. “But it looks like there’s no possible way. It scares everyone into thinking they have to tuck and duck.”

The coaster then ascends a 101-foot hill. Just before it crests, a computer-controlled magnetic braking system clicks on for a split second. We rise from our seats as if we’ve been flung from a catapult. For a moment, I experience the discomfiting sensation that the train is no longer connected to the track.

The ride then whips thorough a 360-degree-turn helix, providing more near-miss sensations as it ducks between support columns, then tosses us up several hills. Traditionally, a roller coaster loses energy toward the end of a ride, and the hills become progressively smaller and less intense. The Fury 325’s final hills actually get larger, giving us the alarming sensation that things are getting worse just when they should be getting better.

Relief

When the train returns to the station, we’re still moving quickly. “We wanted to come so hot into the brakes—we didn’t want to slow it down at any point,” Decker says. “The takeaway we want to leave everyone with is, ‘Oh my gosh, that is the fastest coaster, and I couldn’t even catch my breath during the whole sequence of the elements.’”

Stunned relief washes over me, accompanied by elation and a strange sensation of calm alertness. I’m experiencing what psychologists call parasympathetic rebound, a serenity that sets in when a period of intense stress suddenly ends. Deep within my brain, my emotional centers are getting their payout.

Cedar Fair, Decker tells me, doesn’t tap much psychological research to pull off crazy rides. “We have an innate sense for what might work,” he says. “[And] we conduct some level of market research in addition to simply talking to our guests about what freaks them out.” Decker and his colleagues are after what they call re-rideability: a quality of pleasurable, surprising tension and release that makes customers want to relive the experience.

“Roller coaster enthusiasts can go on a ride thousands of times in a year,” Decker says. I might not be one of them, but the ride does scratch some primal itch: Five minutes after it ends, I’m strapping back in for another run.

(Corrects ownership of Cedar Fair)