The hardest things about amusement parks for me are eyesight, age, and Judaism. I grew up riding the Coney Island Cyclone with my hands in the air for the whole ride. Back when my inner 11-year-old was still 11, I learned the trick–propping your legs just so under the restraints and holding on with your knees. That’s how native New Yorkers like me best tourist after tourist on the world’s most famous woodie. Back then I didn’t even have glasses to worry about flying off my head, much less a yarmulke.
I suppose I’ve always been an amusement park junkie. I can remember my sister taking me on a classic Toboggan coaster at Flushing’s long-defunct Adventurer’s Inn. In the 1980s, when a tooth was broken on the Atom Smasher at the equally now-defunct Rockaways Playland, it was my nephew’s, not mine.
In the 90s, I got to practice my knee-riding on every coaster at Great Adventure, the always-grimier-than-you-remember-it Six Flags park near NYC. In the early 2000s, when I fell in love with Disneyland and spent more time than you’d believe me if I told you flying cross-country to ride Anaheim’s Space Mountain, age began to catch up to me. I had to learn how to keep my glasses on my face–or at least in my possession. It wasn’t so hard.
Boy, have times changed. It took me eight years living in Chicago to finally visit Great America, our local Six Flags park. I was surprised to learn the place is only an hour up the lake in the ‘burbs, not an hour and forty-five minutes across New Jersey in the Pine Barrens–the obnoxious distance Great Adventure sits from New York. I was charmed at the old-time amusement park feel to the place–not to mention the lack of grime–as if Disneyland and Great Adventure had a lovechild.
But I was stunned to find the Cyclone there. Most visitors probably don’t know it, but Viper, Great America’s second wooden coaster (built in 1995), is a mirror-image replica of the Coney Island Cyclone. I knew it the moment I saw it. The hills, drops, and turns that seemed uncannily familiar from a distance were equally familiar while riding the ride for the first time. It’s Ryan’s favorite ride at the park.
For me, it’s my childhood. Viper isn’t an exact duplicate of the Cyclone, but its differences are so few and its ride–and first drop–so similar, each time I ride it (which is many times by now), I’m transported back to the Coney Island Cyclone of my youth. And each time, just like back in Brooklyn, I’m still holding on with my knees with my hands in the air the whole ride, while macho big-shots riding for the first time drop theirs in the middle of the first drop.
But I’m almost 42 now. I can still spend an entire day at an amusement park, but the next day I’ll be looking for the Icy Hot. And with glasses and a full-time kippah, just boarding a coaster takes repeated prepping. Off with the kippah first, stowing it with its hair clips in a zippered pocket. Followed by my most beaten-up pair of glasses, usually stowed haphazardly in the same pocket. (I can tell you from experience, kippot are a lot more durable than eyeglasses in a cargo-pants pocket.)
Once the ride’s over, I usually empty my pockets in the exit queue, popping my kippah back on to the occasional surprise of the people walking off the ride behind me. I used to feel self-conscious about it. Then I noticed how many other people wear traditional religious garb to Great America. Now, whenever I walk by a group of Mulsim women wearing hijabs–which is surprisingly frequently at Great America–or the occasional Jewish father and son wearing tzitzit–I feel like I fit right in at the park.
As if the fact that my inner 11-year-old loves to “wave the train” whenever the Great America Scenic Railway goes by wasn’t clue enough that this is, indeed, my new home park. (Backstory: It’s mandatory for Great America employees to stop what they’re doing, smile–often vacantly–and wave at riders as the train rolls slowly by. It’s such a silly pose that regular park visitors make fun of it by doing their own versions of the train wave.)
Tomorrow, the Coney Island Cyclone’s new owners, Luna Park, are celebrating the coaster’s 85th birthday by coordinating a first-hill drop with Viper and Six Flags Over Georgia’s Georgia Cyclone. It’s happening at 11 a.m. in the middle of Shabbat, so I won’t be at Great America for the festivities. (Ryan and I have decided to make the park a Sunday pleasure from now on.) Still, it’s a nice idea. It certainly brings back a lot of memories for me.
But, like I said, times change. The Cyclone’s dingy neighbor that I knew from my youth, Astroland Park, was razed to make room for Luna Park. The Cyclone’s new owners have performed controversial renovation work that changed the profile of the famous first drop. And as I discovered in Anaheim, Disney California Adventure’s Mickey’s Fun Wheel (the former “Sun Wheel” was such a better name!) feels equally thrilling but a lot safer than Deno’s Wonder Wheel.
More importantly, I’m 30 years, 700 miles, five states, a larger visual acuity denominator, and a different religion away. No, Viper isn’t my father’s Cyclone, nor the Cyclone of my youth. But on a summer’s day trip to the theme park, middle-aged me couldn’t ask for anything more.
Except maybe a yarmulke with a sun visor.