I recognize the fact that roller coasters are probably fun for most people, but they turn me into a frightened, whimpering child. For a guy who’s afraid of heights and gets car sick in the back seat of anything, roller coasters are really one of the scariest ‘safe’ things out there. Yes, I’ve ridden a few mild ones in my life, if only to convince myself I’m not a complete chicken, but when I go to a theme park it’s certainly not for the coasters.
Last weekend we went to Dollywood, a wonderful theme park just a couple of hours up the road from us – lots of country, gospel, and bluegrass music, great food, great shops, atmosphere – it really has it all, including a few terrifying roller coasters that, until now, I had avoided (for the most part) like the plague. We’ve taken the family there, several times – to a nice, safe area they have that I call the ‘kiddie section.’ There they can ride close-to-the-ground contraptions like piggies, duckies, and bees. It’s not exactly ‘fun’ for us parents (OK the first time is fun – the 10 times after that, not so much), but it’s safe and Daddy doesn’t wet his pants in front of his children.
Problem is, as we’re finding out, kids tend to get bigger (and bigger and bigger). Now that’s all well and good when it comes to saving money on diapers and them being able to bathe themselves and help more around the house, but when kids get older they tend to want to test those wings in ways that we as parents might not be as comfortable with. What, you ask, could your 7 year old possibly want to do that would make you uncomfortable? Smoke? Drink? Get a girlfriend?
Worse! He wants to ride a roller coaster. Now most parents would be thrilled at this state of their child’s development. I’ve written before, and quite recently, that there are things in parks that are tough to do with small kids, things parents just have to walk by and think ‘maybe next year, or the year after that’ – well trust me I wasn’t talking about roller coasters. In case you didn’t know, Dollywood has this new coaster called the ‘Wild Eagle’ that enough people around here have been raving about to reach the ears of a fairly sheltered 7 year old thrill-seeker. It’s all Nathaniel had been talking about the week before our trip to Dollywood last weekend. So, when he got measured and received the coveted ‘blue’ wristband that allowed him to ride any ride in the park, he couldn’t wait for me to take him on the ‘Wiiiiild Eeeeaaaaagle.’ Now, tell me, how was I going to get out of this one?
I could have made him aware of the tenuous relationship between roller coasters, irrational mind-numbing terror, and myself. I could have, but then who wants to tell their 7 year old they are afraid of something they see KIDS riding? It’s one thing to be afraid of grizzly bears, but roller coasters? Really? My first thought was to see if Kim wanted to take him (yeah don’t bother posting your ‘hide behind the skirt’ comments because they won’t get posted, and she wasn’t wearing a skirt anyway), but when the time came to let him ride, something came up with the girls that made it tough for her to leave them right then. That’s what she told me anyway… my loving, sweet wife (grrrr…). Nathaniel looked at me with those wide eyes, “Is it time Dad, for the Wild Eagle? I can ride ANY ride you know.” Yes, yes buddy, I know.
So he and I started walking up the hill, the part of Dollywood where the coasters lurk, the part I hadn’t seen for many many years. We walked fairly slowly, with a restroom break between, a few shops I just had to look in, an outdoor show I wanted to check out – but the Wild Eagle only got closer, and closer, and putting it off wasn’t going to stop my date with the inevitable.
Enter the Tennessee Tornado – on the right, before the Eagle. As we walked past it a ‘brilliant’ idea hit me, “Nathaniel,” I said, “Why don’t we ride this ride and you can see how roller coasters feel, to be sure you like them.” Surely this ride wouldn’t be as bad. I thought I probably had even ridden it before as a teenager. To be honest, the Wild Eagle frightened me to the point that I thought, worse-case scenario, a warm-up would get my juices flowing and build up courage for the next one. Best-case, he would be a little scared and not want to get on the Eagle at all.
So onward to the Tornado we went. The line was, unfortunately, pretty short. Nathaniel was so excited, looking over at the departure point on his tip-toes, eyes wide open. Me, I was looking over there too, only with different thoughts, looking at the people in front of me laughing and talking, the people coming back from the ride, screaming in exhilaration. Women, children, teenagers – if they could do it surely I would survive this. I mean, surely my son would survive this. I had done this before, years ago, and survived. They would have shut the coaster down if people had died, right? What about heart attacks? Would they shut them down for too many of those? Did I have time for an I-Phone Google search?
Unfortunately, no. We had reached the moment of truth. The attendant asked where we wanted to sit. I asked her what the best spot for ‘new riders’ would be, patting my son on the back of the head. We didn’t want to scare him off, don’t ya know. She said the 3rd or 4th car, so that’s where we went. I took my hat off and put it between my legs, said a quick prayer, then looked over at Nathaniel. He was raring to go. What if he liked it? Suddenly, amusement parks didn’t seem so amusing anymore. The restraint came over us and it wasn’t coming off. I felt trapped. If I shouted would they let us out? What excuse could I make? Would I look like a complete chicken in front of the whole ‘world’ and my son to boot? For a second there it didn’t matter…
Too late. Off we went like a rocket, a violent jerk, a quick downhill lunge, then a sudden shift upward, the slow, foreboding click-click-click of a coaster climbing that first giant hill. How many stomachs had been left at the top? This wasn’t the coaster I remembered, no way (for you coaster enthusiasts, turns out the Tennessee Tornado replaced the much milder Thunder Express years ago, not that I knew that then!). Nathaniel didn’t know what was coming – I knew what those horrible clicks meant. I told him to be ready, that it would be really fast very soon.
Click-click-click… I wanted it to end, but I wanted it to last forever. Eight seconds seemed like eight minutes. Finally, a quick breath, then down, down into the abyss in a terrifying, sickening, stomach churning drop. I decided to close my eyes and just grimace, the entire time. If I didn’t open my eyes I couldn’t get motion sickness (as easily anyway), couldn’t see the rocks I was about to fall onto. The rest is a blur – some more terrifying drops, an upside down spiral, and before we knew it we were crashing into the terminal. I opened my eyes, thanked God it was over, then looked at Nathaniel.
His eyes were like saucers, his mouth open wide. We slowly exited the coaster. I wanted to collapse on the floor of the station but pride kept me standing and walking (barely), zig-zagging out the entrance. I was almost sick, but I needed the verdict, because it would determine the rest of my day. If he liked it, off to the Wild Eagle (and off to my doom) we would go. “So, Nathaniel,” I said as calmly as I could muster, “what did you think?”
He turned to me and said, “Bad! Dad, that was scary and it really hurt my neck.” Now I’m really sorry that my son’s neck was jarred by this roller coaster. Turns out the Tornado is notorious for this (again, not that I would have known). But my sadness over seeing my son in temporary discomfort was mitigated by one silver lining. He decided to ‘wait ‘till next year when I’m bigger’ to ride the Wild Eagle. Apparently, thanks to all that is Holy and good, the Tornado had done him in, for now. I told him that was a wise choice. The Eagle would be much faster than this coaster was. Next year his mother can take him.
PS – If you like what we are doing, please consider helping us grow our brand-new FB page by ‘liking’ us on Facebook (see the box to the right of this page). If you do, we’ll enter you in our contest