the elegance of roller coasters

i think roller coasters are the most elegant amusement park ride.

roller coasters are unique because they’re unpowered. they get all their energy from their first hill, and from that point on, nothing alters the course of the ride—just pure physics. other rides, like carousels, pirate ships, and the Scrambler, just consist of a motor moving you around repetitively for an arbitrary length of time. inherently boring, i say.

on a roller coaster, you feel the power of the Earth, not the power of a motor, which is so much more exciting. why is it that can’t you read about roller coasters without learning about potential and kinetic energy? people don’t care so much about the physics of the Scrambler. people love the physics of roller coasters. physics is the whole point of a roller coaster.

unlike most rides, roller coasters tell a story. the engineers have to decide things like, what should happen first? what should happen next? what will the audience be expecting now? how can we break those expectations? what’s the overall theme of the experience? in that sense, a roller coaster is more like a show or a tour than most other rides.

and some engineers apparently have a brilliant sense of humor. sometimes they’ll design a loop just right so that you slow down at the top and hang upside-down for a second before you come back down. i love this moment in The Riddler Revenge, which circles you around and looks as if you’re about to smash right into a rail you rode across earlier—and then flings you off to the side at the last second. that’s storytelling. it’s fun.

it’s the combination of all those elements together that, to me, makes roller coasters not just entertaining, but elegant.