My Life on a Roller Coaster

A terrifying rite of summer becomes a family tradition.

(Illustration by Robert Neubecker)

Look around any theme park and you’ll notice two kinds of kids: the daredevils who ride every roller coaster, waving their hands in the air and screaming their heads off. And the timid ones, like I was, secretly praying they’ll fail the “you must be this tall to ride” test.  

The first time my parents convinced me to ride Kings Dominion’s Rebel Yell, now called Racer 75, I swallowed my eight-year-old fears. But as the coaster plunged and soared, my tiny body levitating from the seat, I clung to the narrow front handlebar like sap on a windshield. Hands in the air? Are you kidding? For months after that first ride, the clank, clickety, clank-clank of the coaster climbing that first awful, steep hill haunted my childhood dreams.  

Years later, at Busch Gardens, I couldn’t escape riding the Loch Ness Monster with my younger, braver sister. But now, as we flew upside down through the interlocking loops, twisting in the dark tunnel, the screams and clickety-clanks thrilled me. Each time the Loch Ness screeched to a halt, we delighted—as adolescents do—in jumping off the coaster and fast-walking right back to ride it again. It was gleeful magic on a late summer night. 

Some families vacation at a familiar mountain cabin or beach house. Our family went to Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens. Each summer, the parks always seemed to have some crazy new ride that gave roller-coaster-addicted families like mine another reason to return.   

But it wasn’t just the roller coasters. In fact, my very first amusement park memory is of walking out of Kings Dominion with a balloon in one hand and cotton candy in the other. My parents rarely splurged on treats, but I realized that there’s something special about amusement parks, where the day-to-day rules didn’t apply. You can scream, eat way too much, and walk around with a balloon. Does it get any better for a kid? 

Kings Dominion, a short drive down I-95 from our Vienna home, had the Candy Apple Grove midway, funnel cake, and a comfortable Americana feel. Not far from the Rebel Yell was the Grizzly—still my favorite wooden roller coaster—and, for a while, the bizarre Time Machine, with its late ’70s disco music and neon lights. Riders would stand, backs to the circular wall as it spun faster and faster. Then they’d squeal when the floor dropped away, the centrifugal force pressing them against the wall like helpless bugs.  

As a teenager, I started visiting the parks with friends. One special year at Kings Dominion, I ditched them to ride the Rebel Yell with a cute girl. This time, I didn’t put my hands in the air. They were intertwined with hers.  

Later, as a law student in Williamsburg, Busch Gardens—with its wee Euro-themed villages, meticulous landscaping, and tasty food—became my go-to park. Like the Time Machine, some favorite Busch Gardens rides are long gone. But my Rebel Yell girl was now my wife. We rode the Big Bad Wolf on one of its last runs in 2009, front seat, of course. A full moon hung over us, spooky wolves howling, as we dropped 100 feet towards the Rhine River, feeling that familiar rush of warm Virginia night air, one last time.

Now it’s our teenage daughter who thrills to a screaming coaster ride, then runs back to do it again. She’s got her mother’s courage, not her father’s pathetic dread. She brags about blacking out on Kings Dominion’s insane Intimidator 305 with my brave sister’s kids. Did this really happen? I don’t want to know.  

As for me, my roller coaster list is shrinking. I twisted through my last Alpengeist years ago, but I can ride the mesmerizing hills of Apollo’s Chariot all day long. My wife now prefers the relaxing Wave Swinger or lazing the afternoon away on the Busch Gardens Railway and watching the shows.   

I’ve gone from timid child, to hand-holding teenager, to parent who craves “smooth” over “twisty.” Still, my family keeps coming back to capture those feelings I had so long ago. At night, when the park lights are glowing, coasters whooshing through the darkness, the humid Virginia air cools off a bit, and I can still feel the magic. 

This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue.

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum