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Old-fashioned roller coasters still offer thrills

"Leap the Dips," a wooden roller coaster in Central Pennsylvania, thrills riders with its lack of modern day safety equipment

With the summer theme park season winding down, many park operators are turning their attention to the future, laying the groundwork for new thrill rides that promise to climb higher, drop faster and stimulate even more adrenaline.

Not Lakemont Park in Altoona, Pa., or dozens of other smaller parks around the country where century-old roller coasters give riders “thrills” of another sort entirely.

“The industry has become very sophisticated in terms of design but it’s still kind of fun to ride something that’s 60, 70, 80 years old,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, Inc. “People still have a warm spot in their hearts for those rides.”

Take Lakemont Park and its signature ride, Leap the Dips, which has earned the distinction of being the world’s oldest operating roller coaster. Originally opened in 1902, the wooden coaster still lacks seat belts and other restraints, and uses a “side-friction” system that means the wheels aren’t locked into a track.

The result is a retro-flavored ride in which the superstructure shimmies and shakes, the trains bang from side to side and riders can hit dizzying speeds of up to 15 mph.

Mary Altaffer / AP

Warning signs are posted before the first and steepest climb of the Cyclone roller coaster, a New York City landmark.

“In the days of horses and buggies, that was pretty breathtaking,” said Dave Hahner, a longtime fan and historian with the American Coaster Enthusiasts. “Sure, it’s not a thrill-a-minute ride but it’s still a lot of fun.”

According to Hahner, the popularity of Leap the Dips and other early coasters fueled an industry boom. By the 1920s, there were more than 2,000 coasters in the U.S., he told NBC News, many built by trolley lines hoping to boost weekend ridership — hence the term “trolley parks” — and capitalize on Americans’ increasing leisure time.

Today, most of those rides are long gone, although some remain at local and regional parks. Among the oldies but goodies:

  • Jack Rabbit (1920): This coaster at Kennywood Amusement Park, outside Pittsburgh, is still famous for its double dips, says Hahner: “You come flying out of your seat like it’s an ejector seat, although it’s never thrown a person.”
  • Giant Dipper (1924): Once upon a time, roller coasters were a standard beachside attraction. This one on the boardwalk in Santa Cruz, Calif., is one of the nation’s few remaining ones.
  • Cyclone (1927): Quite possibly the most famous of the early coasters, this Coney Island classic has been scaring the pants off riders for 85 years. It could be the steep drops reaching 60 mph — or the fact that the wooden frame feels like it could shake itself apart at any moment. 

While the Cyclone clearly upped the hair-raising stakes, it’s still a throwback in one crucial regard: Instead of dishing out big bucks for general park admission, which can approach $100 per person at the major theme parks, riders can purchase single rides (for $8). The same is true for the Giant Dipper ($5), while rides on Leap the Dips are $2.50 each on top of daily admission of $5 to $10.

That approach is not only easier on the wallet, says Speigel, it’s also more accommodating to multi-generational family visitors with limited time and varied interests.

“The economics of picking and choosing allows adults to join when and how they want on a pay-as-you-go basis,” he told NBC News. “The grandparents can join the family, sit on a bench or have a hot dog without having to ride the rides.”

Of course, with a low-key ride like Leap the Dips, it may turn out that grandpa and grandma are first in line just like they were back in the day.

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

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