“I got my first real coaster ride, rode it down at Darien Lake, rocked it till I was dizzy…
it was the summer of ’88.”
Your first day at school, first kiss, and your first trip to the porta-potty; these are experiences timelessly engraved into your heart. For me, my fondest “first” was my inaugural journey on a roller coaster. Most people’s initial encounter is a kiddie coaster and are gently eased into coastering. Not me.
While growing up in a suburb of Buffalo, a healthy helping of amusement parks was at our disposal. Fantasy Island, Crystal Beach, and Marineland were within a 30 minute drive, and juggernaut Canada’s Wonderland just two hours to the north. My family often took trips to Crystal Beach, with each time being a disappointment. I never measured up to the Comet’s 48 inch requirement.
Though in the summer of 1988, at the anxious age of seven, I tasted my first thrilling track of terror. Mom worked days at the hospital and Dad battled the moon on the graveyard shift, which meant my kiddy butt was dumped at Sheridan Day Care. Which was kind of a good thing; each summer they took a 45 minute trip east to Darien Lake.
What I miss most about being a kid is that everything is new. Having never been to Darien Lake before, I didn’t know what to expect. My only comparison was Crystal Beach. So naturally when our pudgy yellow bus rumbled over the gravel, fear raced into my veins. “What is that?” My finger shyly pointed towards the towering mass of black steel. Unlike my fear of spiders, ghosts, and milk, this one gave me a rush. “I’m going on that!”
While Darien Lake had the Ladybug kiddie coaster, I already had my coaster crush. I nagged and begged our pimple-faced group leader and a few hours later found ourselves at the que. There she was. The Viper! This slimey, slithering dame had fangs longer than my body. Thankfully to tame the Viper, you only had to be 48 inches tall, and that day… I made the cut!
I didn’t know what to expect as I cautiously progressed under it’s massive structure. 1, 2, 3, 4…5!?!?! This baby had five inversions, which at the time of its debut in 1982 was a world record. Instead of quickly dumping riders after its 121 foot lift, it forced your to careen slowly over a turn to think about your impending doom.
It felt like we were in line for days, but in a good way, kind of like the countdown to Christmas. In the jamble of juveniles, I realized I had to choose my partner. But this choice was easy, as only two in our group had the height or brass to ride. It was me and a soft spoken Native American lad. In fact, he didn’t want to ride, but something about seeing how scared he was made me feel better. I urged him into the que, and took my role as the “brave one” seriously.
I’ll never forget slowly climbing that clankety lift hill looking over at the endless landscape and spying a similar gaze in my partner. There were no adults to coddle us. Just him and I alone on this hair-raising journey. He was Huckleberry Finn to my Tom Sawyer, and boy did we have a blast. So much that we wanted to ride again (well I did), but the scaredy-cats pouted and we were dragged to kiddy land.
And since that day my love of coasters slowly developed like a well-scripted romantic comedy. And here we are!