Toupees, tube tops, car keys, cameras, cares, inhibitions and lunch: A great many things are routinely lost on roller coasters, as demonstrated by the items found on, near or beneath the tracks. These include glass eyes, hearing aids and—in quantities that resist rational explanation—underpants.
"False teeth," adds Ronald V. Toomer, revered architect of approximately 80 coasters worldwide. "They find lots of false teeth." In 1994 workers at the Blackpool Pleasure Beach amusement park in England drained the reflecting pool beneath two coasters and found 25 sets of false teeth.
At historic Kennywood amusement park in West Mifflin, Pa., a passenger on Sky-Coaster parted with his false teeth, and they pitched, in a hideous parabola, into the french fries of a passing pedestrian. "That person showed up at the lost and found," park spokesperson Mary Lou Rosemeyer reluctantly confirms, "with the teeth"—how shall she put this?—"still in the fries." While the disembodied dentures did not, alas, devour the fries, they remain a coffee-stained symbol of what man will sacrifice to stir, if but for a moment, his jaded viscera.
This is a story about roller coasters, so throw your arms in the air. Not literally, mind you. "I am told," Toomer says with neither pride nor embarrassment, "that someone's prosthetic arm was found under one of my rides."
Workers at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, last year collected more than $11,000 in loose coins and bills shaken free from riders of the park's 12 roller coasters (there are now 13). But the most valuable item ever found on a coaster belonged to Emilio Franco. In 1949, Franco, a West Virginian coal miner rendered mute by a nervous disorder, rode the terrifying Cyclone at Coney Island in Brooklyn and found, for the first time in six years, his voice. He screamed on the Cyclone's second descent and, upon disembarking at the platform, spoke his first words since World War II.
While those words were I feel sick, a larger point remains. "Riding a roller coaster," says Phil Hettema, who designs these diabolical devices for Universal Studios theme parks, "is a way of telling yourself, I'm alive."
"We are living in a roller-coaster Renaissance, a second Golden Age," says industry analyst Paul Ruben, North American editor of Park World magazine. The 50 most popular amusement parks in North America hosted a record 242.9 million visitors in 1998, vastly more than the attendance at all NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball games combined, and a number close to the country's population.
"There's an industry saying: A carousel is the soul of an amusement park, but a roller coaster is its heart," says Jim Futrell of the National Amusement Park Historical Association (NAPHA). The roller coaster is the vital organ, the indispensable engine, the Great American Scream Machine (or GASM), and it has never been more robust. There are about 1,000 roller coasters operating in the world. While the U.S. alone had more than 1,500 in the late 1920s—the end of the first Golden Age—by the mid-'70s they had dwindled to 145. Think about that: Twenty years ago, the U.S. roller coaster was nearly extinct. You may now lift your jaw off the ground with both hands.
Mercifully, the late '90s have been a time of unprecedented construction, and Futrell says 520 coasters, more than half the world's total, are operating in the U.S. About 80 coasters opened around the world last year, and at least 90 more have debuted in 1999, including one in the Micronesia Mall on Guam. All of them do unspeakable things. "The idea is to knock your socks off," says Hettema, whose newly opened Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure in Orlando—with its catapult launch into an immediate 180-degree barrel roll—also tends to knock off bikini tops.
Swimsuits are recommended on the amphibious BuzzSaw Falls coaster, which opened last month at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo. There are 27 varieties of roller coaster, including stand-up coasters such as The Riddler's Revenge, at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, Calif. More preposterous contraptions are on the drawing board, such as the coaster set to open next March at Paramount's Great America in Santa Clara, Calif., on which passengers will lie back and be propelled into concentric circles of hell. In Utah there is one prototype for a coaster on which the car itself turns, and another for a ride on which the car races through the threads of a cylindrical track like an Archimedes' screw.