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THE THRILL IS ON
An amusement-park day brings back old memories while making new ones
By Scott Renshaw
It was right around the third roller coaster of the day—when the car on Lagoon's Jet Star in which I was riding with my daughter dove into a particularly sharp curve, and my neck snapped in a way that didn't seem quite right—that I wondered what the hell I was doing.
The concept seemed like sheer writerly perfection: For a City Weekly Summer Guide with a thematic connection to childhood memories of summer fun, I was going to be re-living a particularly vivid memory. After my eighth-grade graduation in central California, my class visited Six Flags Magic Mountain, the amusement park in nearby Valencia famous for its then-state-of-the-art roller coasters like the Great American Revolution. What would it be like now, more than 30 years later, to spend a day dashing from one thrill ride to another?
In another spark of inspiration, I invited my 13-year-old daughter, Anna, to accompany me on this visit. Her own eighth-grade class would be making a trip to Lagoon in early June. Perhaps I could see my own decades-removed experience through her eyes. Perhaps a torch would be passed.
There were a few potential bumps in my plan. The years since my last visit to Six Flags Magic Mountain had turned me into an avid fan of Disney parks, with the emphasis more on the atmosphere and theme than thrills. Additionally, I was simply older and creakier, and whatever yearning I ever had for being spun around and turned upside down had dwindled to a level approaching zero.
Nevertheless, Anna and I entered Lagoon on Mother's Day and found the bliss of every amusement park enthusiast: The place was practically empty. Not only were most folks taking their moms out for brunch that day, but the fact that it was Sunday (and pre-season) and gloomy clouds hovered in the air after a string of storms, it made it feel as though we (along with a few hundred other hardy souls) had the place to ourselves. Sure, the big new attraction for 2015—the much-anticipated Cannibal roller coaster—was not yet operational as engineers worked out a few final kinks ahead of the busy summer season. But we'd be able to stroll from one headline attraction to another with less than a five-minute wait.
An amusement park without lines—would it even feel like an amusement park at all?
There was, however, a wee bit of a downside to such an efficient day: No downtime for the old body to settle down between jolting rides. We started with Wicked, the coaster that begins by blasting riders up a 110-foot-tall tower, then plunges them down the other side before corkscrewing, inverting and generally G-force-ifying them for 90 seconds. Then it was over to the wooden piece of amusement-park history simply dubbed Roller Coaster, for all the creaky clickety-clacking and deep dives of one of the classics. And then it was the Jet Star, and that aforementioned certain special pop at the base of my skull.
By that point, it was time to break for lunch—or, as I thought of it, "sit down for a while before I snap in two." We checked out one of the park's "dark rides"—the low-tech haunted-house attraction Terroride—immediately thereafter, but there was no indefinite putting off of a return to the coasters. There was the swooping, surf-like ride of Bombora (perhaps my favorite in its thematic simplicity), and the suspended flight of The Bat. And after a brief drenching break on the undulating Rattlesnake Rapids raft ride, it was back to the double upside-down loops of Colossus: The Fire Dragon, then the hey-you're-about-to-plunge-to-your-death-ha-ha-fooled-you hairpin turns of the Wild Mouse.
This was the point at which my inner ears, stomach and various joints called it quits. I'd already made it clear to Anna that I wasn't remotely interested in the "spinny rides"—those many attractions whose only purpose appears to be testing one's personal queasiness red-line—and I bailed out on trying the Spider, a rollercoaster where the passengers rotate 360 degrees while the car dips and dives around the track. On some level, I worried that I had failed. I wasn't re-living my carefree adolescence; I was simply reminding myself how far from it I now was.
So instead, Anna and I grabbed a bowl of Dippin' Dots and sat in the shade by the park's carousel. We wandered Lagoon's capacious midway area, and paused for a game of Whac-a-Mole that won her a plush animal. We strolled into the arcade and plunked down a few tokens for a rousing game of air hockey. We discovered a video-game version of Deal or No Deal, where I made my final deal (51 prize tickets) before discovering that I had, in fact, picked the suitcase with the grand prize of 200 tickets. We took a couple of very happy-looking selfies before heading across the freeway to check out the show fountain at nearby Station Park.
That's the thing you realize about youthful visits to amusement parks, and in a similar way, about any special summer moment: They weren't about the rides. As cool and exciting and dizzying as any individual feat of engineering imagination might be, they were only a delivery system for memories, shared with the people who matter in our lives: friends, significant others, children. Those who fixate on how many rides they can squeeze into a day are missing the point. Being there together is the thing. It's the thing you'll remember, whether you spend the entire day walking around or upside-down.
Around the time this story goes to print, Anna will be making that next visit to Lagoon with her school friends. She was careful to note the location of photo booths where they could take pictures, and where lockers are located to store valuables prior to turbulent or wet rides. They'll have a day that they'll probably recall with a smile 30 years from now, when it has become even clearer that a place like Lagoon delivers its biggest thrills in the joy of shared experience. I'll still have that—long after my neck has returned to normal.