I once lived less than an hour’s drive away from Coaster Mecca: Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. I rode my first coaster there. I fell in love with coasters there. And, like real life Mecca, I make a pilgrimages there, usually every four years or so.
It’s cold and dark winter, which means no coasters. But when it warms up, the screams of riders, the smell of hot asphalt, and the joy of climbing into the first coaster of the season will occur.
This is not necessarily a list of the best coasters I’ve ever ridden, but a list of my favorite coasters. When putting this list together, I thought about three things: the ride experience itself, the atmosphere of the ride, and personal context. I present to you my favorite roller coasters.
10. Griffon – Busch Gardens Williamsburg
Over the past 20 years or so, there has been an explosion of ride varieties, due to the globalization of the amusement park industry as well as leaps in technology and construction skill.
One of the most interesting ones is called the ‘dive coaster,’ and its hook is exactly as it sounds: it dives. Straight down. About 200 feet or so on average, depending on the ride. Furthermore, these coasters feature oversize tracks and few rows with many seats–between two and four rows and between six and ten seats, again depending on the ride. This means that some riders won’t have any track below them for the entire duration of the ride.
For some of you, that might sound completely insane. For those of us who love coasters, it’s a recipe for a great ride. Griffon is neither the tallest nor largest dive coaster I’ve ridden–the other two being Sheikra in Busch Gardens Tampa and Valravn at Cedar Point–but it is the first one that I rode, which counts in the nostalgia factor. It is also the best experience among the three, as it swoops under a bridge and features an exciting splashdown, and its ten-wide rows make the outside few seats truly special.
9. Raptor – Cedar Point
I can’t fathom being a coaster enthusiast prior to the 90s, as there was just too much innovation that happened during that decade. The biggest one was that of the now-ubiquitous suspended roller coaster designed and built by Swiss company Bolliger & Mabillard. Good ol’ B&M are titans in the industry today, as they should be.
But despite a few decades of honing their suspended roller coaster craft, the Raptor remains my favorite. You begin with a fantastic view of Cedar Point’s beautiful midway, and then are immediately plunged down and into a quick loop, and off you go. What sets the Raptor apart is its intensity: it’s unrelenting, has lots of inversions, and curls in and around itself which makes it seem even faster.
Certainly better than one of the ten billion Batman rides built by Six Flags. Design something new already for Pete’s sake.
8. Prowler – Worlds of Fun
I know that a lot of coaster enthusiasts love wooden rides because of their old-timey feel that is impossible to replicate by steel rides. They are simple, with few gimmicks, and each one is bursting with history.
Personally, I find this to be hogwash. You know what else is old-timey, impossible to replicate today, and bursting with history? Dying of smallpox. While wooden coasters won’t kill you, most are borderline un-rideable due to their shakiness and roughness. Steel is just a much better material.
That being said, there are newer wooden rides that capitalize on wood’s strength and minimize its weaknesses. One of those rides is the Prowler, my favorite wooden coaster that happens to be in my backyard of Kansas City. It’s not too big or fast, limiting its roughness, but it is devilishly compact, swerving and dipping like a panther in pursuit of its prey.
This is also, hands down, the best coaster to ride at night. It’s in the woods and purposefully not lit up. You can’t see anything.
7. Behemoth – Canada’s Wonderland
This ride is my most recent addition to my top ten list. I took a road trip with my wife and two of my best friends to a handful of theme parks last September, and this beauty was one of my favorites.
Like Raptor, this ride is a B&M ride, one of the so-called ‘hypercoasters’ due to its size. Hypercoasters are relatively simple: they feature no inversions, and have uncomplicated out-and-back layouts. But they are my favorite type of coaster, because they do the two best things a coaster can do better than any other coaster type: 1) speed and 2) airtime. Speed is self-explanatory–hypercoasters are fast because they are over 200 feet tall and feature large drops. And for those of you who don’t know, airtime is the feeling of weightlessness you get at the crest of the hill as you experience zero downward Gs.
Behemoth is a great ride, but what places it here is our experiences on it. We rode it a lot: in the day and at night, with no wait and a long wait, with all four of us and with a stranger or two. Two nights in a row, our train was the last to go through for that night. It was cold, we were tired, but our fraying sanity made for funnier experiences than should have been possible on a simple roller coaster. Long live Behemoth.
6. Apollo’s Chariot – Busch Gardens Williamsburg
A lot of parks are situated in boring places. Highways and houses are all well and good, but they do not make good scenery on a ride.
And while that doesn’t affect most rides–coasters are coasters, after all–great scenery can take a good ride to the next level. It’s part of why Cedar Point is so magical, and it’s part of why Canada’s Wonderland is, well, not.
Apollo’s Chariot is a great ride. It is B&M’s first hypercoaster, and while it doesn’t have as many bells or whistles as some of their other ones, its scenery takes it to the next level. There are no other rides near Apollo’s Chariot after you go down the first hill. All you see are trees rushing by, a lake beneath you at the turn back towards the station, the purple track glistening in the sunlight. The woods add a feeling of speed and immerse you in the ride.
5. Top Thrill Dragster – Cedar Point
Top Thrill lasts all of 17 seconds. You go out, you go up, you go down, you come back. The whole thing is in view. There are no tricks. It is what it is and that’s that.
But what it is is a completely unique and exhilarating experience where every part of the ride adds to the suspense and release once you rocket down the track. You can see every car as you wait, watching the faces of the riders before and after The Launch. Once you get to the station, sound effects and music keep up the suspense. You get in the car, continuing to hear the varying noises and a voice recording. Keep your arms down, head back, and hold on! You think you are prepared. After all, you’ve seen it a bunch of times as you waited your turn. Despite that, your heart races. The suspense is building.
You are launched from zero to 120 miles per hour in four seconds. You go 420 feet straight up, glimpse a beautiful view for two seconds, and go 420 feet straight down. Turns out you were not prepared for that.
Top Thrill is a ride that you must experience once, but should experience at least twice. It’s such a gigantic and unique rush that you need to ride it multiple times to fully comprehend the thrill. If that’s not a good coaster, I don’t know what is.
4. Mamba – Worlds of Fun
I was nine years old when I first rode the Mamba. It was my first Big Ride, my first hypercoaster. When I stepped onto the train after waiting excitedly, a voice came over the intercom…
Welcome to the Mamba, one of the tallest, fastest, and steepest roller coasters in the world!
Eighteen years later, there are taller, faster, and steeper roller coasters on this list. No longer does a disembodied voice boast that to a station of riders.
That doesn’t change the fact that the Mamba is a great ride. It has a fantastic, 205-foot drop that immediately shoots you up a second hill, almost as large, for some intense airtime. It ascends again, descending into a tight spiral with a cool effect. As you go down and around, the coaster supports get lower and closer to the train. When the supports almost seem close enough to lop your head off, you pull out of the helix, and then the coaster merrily sends you back a bunch of nice bunny hills before lunging back towards the station.
But what really separates the Mamba in my mind is my relationship with the ride, which at this point can almost vote. I’ve ridden it with friends, family, and total strangers. I’ve ridden it in rain and in sunshine, in daylight and in the dark. I’ve ridden it once in a trip, I’ve ridden it a dozen times in a day.
Yes, there are more intense rides, faster rides, better rides than the Mamba. None represent the coaster comfort food that is the Mamba. I know that ride inside and out, and I get excited to ride it every time I walk to the station.
Welcome to the Mamba…
3. Diamondback – King’s Island
I rode the Diamondback in 2011, during a college road trip in May. It was dreary, with slight drizzle going on every once in a while. We went there before school got out for the summer, so there weren’t too many kids there.
So, obviously, my friend John and I road this eight times in a row. Without any wait.
Diamondback is a B&M hyper, just like Apollo’s Chariot and Behemoth. It features an odd seat configuration–two up front and two elevated behind, but further each side so that the formation looked like a trapezoid. All four seats have a full view of what’s in front of you, and the side seats let you stick out your arms and legs as far as they will go.
Those seats were a revelation for me. They are the best seats that exist. And they made a great ride even better.
2. Maverick – Cedar Point
There’s nothing quite like riding the Maverick. Most rides either go big or go loopy (sometimes both), but the Maverick does neither. Rather, the Maverick feels like you’ve been placed on a metal stallion that has lost its heckin’ mind.
You start on a drop that’s greater than straight down–meaning it curves back into itself–and off you go. You twist, you turn, you slide around a lake and between giant rocks, giving the appearance of even greater speed. While you go upside down, the ride’s signature sections are the instances that it snaps you sideways and back straight before you can comprehend it.
Then, halfway through the ride, you slow down into a shed and are catapulted from 0-70 MPH in three seconds. Outside you go again to finish the ride. The result is that Maverick never slows down, and the ending sections are just as quick as the first ones.
Ride it in the very front seat on your first ride of the day sometime. It’ll really wake you up.
1. Millennium Force – Cedar Point
There are few rides with the cultural significance of Millennium Force. Built in 2000, it is an icon that is known even among those coaster fans who have never been to Cedar Point. It represents the great coaster arms race of the time, and its giant sleek track have come to also represent Cedar Point in general.
To this day, it remains one of the biggest and fastest roller coasters in the world. It ascends to 310 feet, offering a stunning view of Lake Erie and the Cedar Point peninsula, a view that is unmatched by any other ride I’ve ridden. From there, you drop 300 feet, and then the ride is on. It reaches a max speed of over 90 MPH, and sends you zipping through tunnels, over hills, and hanging off overbanked turns. It’s a long ride, and it snakes through and around the woods and over water.
The Golden Ticket Awards are the amusement park industry’s Oscars or Emmys. There are a bevy of awards, including Best Steel Coaster. Since there are so many coasters, they supply a ranking of the top 100. Every year since its construction, Millennium Force has been either first or second. That’s 18 consecutive years.
Unlike some of these rides, I don’t have a specific emotional connection to Millennium Force. It’s just the best one.