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What Is a Roller Coaster?

Jessica Ellis
Updated: May 23, 2024

Roller coasters are thrill rides that operate like a railroad track and are a highlight of theme parks around the world. They are made from steel or wood and comprise a series of hills and drops, sudden turns, track loops and corkscrew-like elements. The roller coaster is a favorite ride of thrill seekers, and has evolved considerably from its days as a glorified slide.

Experts argue about the first roller coaster ride. Some suggest that purposely build ice slides in 17th century Russia qualify. Others claim an 1812 French construct that featured cars locked onto a track is the first true version of the ride. In 1881, designer LaMarcus Adna Thompson envisioned what would become America’s first coaster, the Switchback Railway. The Coney Island ride featured bench-like seating and consisted of coasting down a 600 ft (182 m) track to a second station, where the car would be switched to a return track. The track was replaced with a complete oval circuit a few years later.

A major innovation was the lift hill, created by Phillip Hinkle in 1885 and first used on his ride, Gravity Pleasure Road. The lift hill was placed at the beginning of the ride, using a cable or chain to haul the ride cars up a steep slope. The lift hill remains common in modern coasters, although the original hills were about 40 ft (12 m) high, while today they reach soaring heights of up to 456 ft (139 m).

In 1959, Disneyland opened the first steel-track roller coaster, the Matterhorn Bobsleds. Until that point, most coasters were wooden structures. Steel tracks, unlike their wooden predecessors, are highly flexible in design, since the steel components can be manufactured in any shape desired. This new technology allowed the incorporation of the thrill elements enjoyed today, such as loops and corkscrews.

Early roller coasters — and some modern ones — were propelled by a chain or cable lift to the top of a hill, and then allowed to coast through their circuit. Modern innovation has created several alternative ways to power a coaster. Since the late 20th century, launched rides have become popular, using electromagnetic, hydraulic, or pneumatic systems to propel the car through its course. These systems are believed by many to provide a smoother ride than early chain/cable versions. Some new coasters feature an elevator lift, which launches vertically to place the train at the top of the lift hill, eliminating the long, uphill climb.

Roller coaster records are sought after by manufacturers and parks alike to give distinction to their rides. As of 2012, the records for tallest steel coaster and highest drop belong to one ride, Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey. The fastest is Formula Rossa, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, which can achieve 149.1 mph (240 kph). As of 2012, the record for tallest vertical loop goes to Superman: Krypton Coaster at Six Flags Fiesta Texas, at an impressive 145 ft (44 m), although a ride with a 160 ft (49 m) loop was under construction in California. For those who truly cannot get enough of thrill ride fun, the park featuring the most coasters is Six Flags Magic Mountain in California, with 17 active rides and one under construction until 2013. Canada's Wonderland, in Ontario, has 16 active rides, while Cedar Point, in Ohio, has 15 different rides (and one due to open in 2013).

In line with these technological advancements in roller coaster design, Universal Studios Hollywood stands out as a prime destination for coaster enthusiasts. By purchasing Universal Studios Hollywood tickets, visitors gain access to some of the most thrilling and technologically advanced roller coasters in the world. These coasters, famed for their immersive themes and cutting-edge designs, offer experiences that go beyond traditional roller coaster thrills, inviting guests into the heart of their favorite movies and stories.

Despite their reputation as thrill rides, modern roller coasters are extremely safe and controlled systems. A 2001 study by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that out of 319 million visitors per year to US amusement parks, 134 people received injuries needing hospitalization and two fatalities occurred. Modern coasters employ multiple safeguards, however, accidents can occur.

Most often, these are the result of ride-operator carelessness in following safety procedures, but can also be caused by mechanical failure. Other accidents can be caused by riders with previous injuries or those with medical conditions unsuited to extreme thrill rides. Before boarding any coaster, riders should review the safety information and check with a medical professional if they have any health concerns.

WiseTour is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for WiseTour. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By David84 — On Jul 21, 2016

I have to say roller coasters are amazing. I like the ones that flip you upside down multiple times. I go crazy about roller coasters.

By Ana1234 — On Jan 18, 2013
Ever since I had a bad experience I don't like going on roller coasters. It wasn't what you might expect though. I was on one that goes in a bunch of loops and was next to a person I didn't know all that well.

Halfway through the ride she announced that she was going to be sick and proceeded to throw up everywhere. You can just never tell when that's going to happen and unfortunately, we couldn't get the ride operator to stop so we had to go through the remainder of the ride in that condition.

I guess this probably doesn't happen that often but I'm never going to risk it again!

By umbra21 — On Jan 18, 2013

When I was a kid I was always scared of the roller coasters and wouldn't go on one without someone I knew to hold my hand. Now I love them, although I do get nervous, but that's part of the fun.

I do kind of regret my nerves as a kid though, because I had a lot more chances to go to theme parks as a kid and so I missed out on a lot of chances to have some fun.

By SarahSon — On Oct 14, 2012
My son could not wait until he was tall enough to ride the roller coasters. Some kids are kind of scared to get on this ride, but not my son. Every year he would hope he had reached that magic mark that would allow him to ride the big roller coasters.

Even when he was young he liked all the roller coaster loops, turns and hills. If it went upside down it was even better. I used to enjoy roller coaster rides, but try to avoid them anymore. I find them too rough and many times end up with a headache after I get off the ride.

I don't have any specific health issues that would prevent me from getting on, but I can't handle them the way I used to. I will leave riding the roller coasters for the young people and prefer to just watch them ride.

By sunshined — On Oct 13, 2012
@bagley79-- I have waited in line many times for an exhilarating roller coaster ride. When the ride is over, I am usually ready to run to the back of the line and go again.

There is a theme park about 10 miles from my house and every year we buy an annual pass and visit the park many times throughout the year. Some of our favorite memories are being there at night when the park is not very crowded.

There have been many times when we have been able to stay on the roller coaster without getting off if there are only a few people in line waiting to get on. We love to ride it over and over again, especially when we don't have to run to the back of the line to get on again.

By bagley79 — On Oct 13, 2012

I remember riding the Matterhorn at Disneyland when I was a kid. I don't remember a whole lot about the ride itself, but I do remember standing in line for over an hour just to ride it. It really seems kind of crazy that you would wait in line that long for a ride that only lasts a few minutes.

By golf07 — On Oct 12, 2012
When I was younger the roller coasters were always the main attraction for me when I went to an amusement park. One roller coaster ride experience has really stayed with me all these years.

When I was about 15 I was riding an old wooden roller coaster at a small park close to my home town. My cousin was a few years younger than me and she was afraid to ride, so I went by myself.

As the car was making its way up the first hill, it got halfway up and just stopped. We sat there for several minutes until they told us the car was broken and we would have to walk down. Everyone had to get out of their car and walk down the old wooden track.

At that point, my cousin who was watching from the ground was really glad she had declined going on the ride. I can't remember if I ever rode that roller coaster again or not, but it didn't stop me from enjoying a lot of other rides on different roller coasters.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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