Still crazy after all these years
Let’s celebrate the Coney Island Cyclone on National Roller Coaster Day
Today is National Roller Coaster Day, which is celebrated every August 16. Oddly, it commemorates the day in 1898 that ride designer Edwin Prescott patented the first vertical loop roller coaster, the Loop the Loop. The coaster itself did not open until 1901 at Coney Island, the famed Brooklyn, New York amusement district. It wasn’t even the first looping coaster. The infamous Flip Flap Railway, which opened in 1895 at Paul Boyton’s Sea Lion Park, also at Coney Island, was the first in the U.S. Apparently, there was an earlier looping coaster that sent hapless passengers upside down in 1846 in Paris.
So why was the date that the patent was filed for the second looping coaster in the U.S. chosen for National Roller Coaster Day? Beats me.
It seems quite arbitrary. I’m willing to bet that some reverse engineering was at play. It’s likely that the folks behind Roller Coaster Day wanted to celebrate it in mid-August to keep attention focused on the industry and help drive attendance on midways in the waning days of summer. (Most seasonal parks wind down their seven-days-a-week schedule on Labor Day and switch to weekends only.) Edwin Prescott’s vertical loop patent happened to coincide with the target date. That’s my theory anyway.
At least the looping coaster is connected to Coney Island, which certainly deserves to be recognized for its significance in the annals of amusement parks in general and roller coasters in particular. After all, the Gravity Pleasure Switch Back Railway, created by LaMarcus Thompson, the “father of the American roller coaster,” opened in 1884 at Coney Island.
In 1927, the Cyclone was built on the same site as the Switch Back Railway. It debuted to great acclaim and remains popular to this day. It is among the most noteworthy and famous roller coasters on the planet. Let’s shine the About Theme Parks spotlight on the beloved Cyclone this National Roller Coaster Day.
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The Cyclone at Coney Island
4.25 (out of 5)
A treasured piece of living history (a term that applies to much of Coney Island), the classic Cyclone evokes an earlier era, yet packs a surprisingly potent punch–even when compared to modern-day coaster behemoths. It is, perhaps, the archetypal roller coaster. While the Cyclone can get more than a bit rough, coaster freaks and casual fans alike nonetheless adore the sentimental favorite.
Thrill Scale (0=Wimpy!, 10=Yikes!): 6.5
Especially steep first drop; traditional coaster car lacks seat dividers and seat belts (the only safety restraint is a single-position lap bar); plenty of airtime; can be excessively rough; traditional rickety wood coaster ride
Coaster type: Wood (although the hybrid coaster has a steel structure), prototypical “cyclone” twister layout
Top speed: 60 mph
Height of lift hill: 75 feet
Angle of descent: 58.6°
Ride time: 1:50
Screeching into the Coney Island station on the New York City subway, the landmark comes into view: the white lattice, the faded red railing, the “CYCLONE” block letters at the top of the lift hill. Generations of passengers have peered through the trains’ windows and shared the giddy sensation of having arrived at Coney Island as well as the anticipation of joy and fear that the sight of the roller coaster elicits.
Visitors line up along Surf Avenue under the Cyclone’s glorious, vintage, neon sign. After paying the cashier in an old cage booth for a ticket, passengers snake under the track and through the structure up to the loading platform. The ride has never been updated with a computerized brake system, and the Cyclone is one of the few classic coasters that still uses manual brakes. It’s a hoot to watch ride operators slow and stop the trains by pulling on the ride’s tall brake handle.
Hey, let’s go!
The scene in the station is sooo Brooklyn-esque. The Cyclone’s crew members hustle the exiting passengers out of the trains at one end of the station, hop aboard the cars as they creep into the loading area, then accost riders with hand gestures and chiding commands to “Get on! Come on, come on! Hey, let’s go!” They have to be the most efficient and aggressive ride-op team in the business. It’s as if they get paid by the number of trains they fill per hour.
Like nearly everything else about the Cyclone, the design of the traditional 24-passenger trains has essentially remained unchanged for decades. The low-slung seats do not have headrests, and the only safety restraint is a single-position lap bar. The two-person bench seats do not have dividers, so seatmates need to really like each other. The seat bases, the chassis, and the sides of the cars are articulated so that they can move independently and accommodate the wild ride.
Once cleared for departure, the brakeman eases up on the handle, and the train rolls out of the station to engage the chain lift. Riding past the wonderful “Final warning: No standing!” sign and up the 75-foot hill to the stirring clackety-clack sound, passengers can feel the odd movements of the articulated car as it navigates the track. Facing the beach and the ocean beyond, the view from the top of the hill is spectacular.
The Cyclone is a “good” aggressive coaster
Then all hell breaks loose. At nearly 60 degrees, the first drop is quite steep. A friend has aptly described the drop as the equivalent of riding down a 75-foot ladder and hitting every rung along the way. A 180-degree turn at the bottom of the hill sends the train racing up the second hill and delivering the first of many bursts of airtime. The turn also sends the passengers on one side of the train slamming–and I mean slamming–into their seatmates. There are six 180-degree turns in all, so there are plenty of lateral G-forces and opportunities for riders to crash into one another.
The Cyclone features 12 drops and loads of euphoric airtime. There are also 18 track crossovers. Unlike an out-and-back coaster which travels a single loop, the Cyclone is able to fit 2,850 feet of track into its compact footprint by twisting in and out of itself. The thrill machine is so groundbreaking and legendary, twister roller coasters are generically known as “cyclone” coasters in its honor. Through the years, a number of coasters have liberally copied the Cyclone’s layout.
The ride varies according to the seat position and other factors such as the time of day and the weather. The back seats, especially, can be insanely rough, although I once had a front-row ride that was not for the squeamish. The structure groans and shakes, riders get tossed to and fro with abandon, and the trains can suddenly lurch skyward only to whack into the upstop wheels tethering them to the track. For all of its punishment, however, the Cyclone is, at its core, an exciting and decidedly fun ride. It invariably elicits equal doses of laughter and screams.
There are “bad” aggressive coasters (such as the hideous Big Apple Coaster at Las Vegas’ New York, New York Casino) and “good” aggressive coasters. The Cyclone falls squarely in the latter category.
It’s a figurative and literal landmark
The Cyclone has, ahem, had its ups and downs. It quickly gained worldwide fame after its debut in 1927. Coney Island’s popularity waned through the years, however, and the Cyclone’s customers dwindled. Its fate appeared grim when the city condemned it in 1969.
Thankfully, its owners at the time lovingly restored the Cyclone and reopened it in 1975. New York listed it as an official city landmark in 1988. In 1991, the state of New York entered the Cyclone in its Register of Historic Places. That same year, the ride gained National Historic Landmark status, which protects it from the whims of developers. The protected Cyclone will remain intact and delight riders for years to come. The coaster is now operated by Luna Park.
As the Cyclone comes roaring back into the station at the end of the ride, crewmembers jump on the sides of the train and hawk re-rides at a reduced price. If you want to score a front-row seat (highly recommended), pay for a re-ride and try to quickly hightail it to the front car. Then, get ready for another sweet Cyclone slamfest.
Other Coney Island gems include the Wonder Wheel (also an historic landmark) and the Spook-A-Rama, both of which are located at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park.
Have you been on the Coney Island Cyclone? What memories do you have of the experience(s)? Did you celebrate National Roller Coaster Day in any special way?