In 1994, when my son Frankie was 5 years old, the two of us took our first roller coaster ride together. Three seconds into that maiden voyage, we were literally hooked for life to the exhilaration and daring feats that these amazing scream machines provide.
Nearly 2,000 breathtaking rides later, my son and I are now considered roller coaster enthusiasts. For the last 12 years, we’ve devoted entire summer vacations to traveling around the country, racing from one amusement park to another, to ride coasters of all sizes and heart-thumping capabilities. The result has been close to 300 days spent together, visiting 40 parks throughout the United States and riding 160 distinct coasters. My daily diary entries have captured every manic detail of the shared experiences.
It was never my intention to soar to heights traveled by Evel Knievel. Although I grew up in the shadow of the world-famous Palisades Amusement Park in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, I never once worked up the nerve to ride its huge roller coaster, The Cyclone. My dreadful fear of heights that caused me to quiver on mere stepladders also prompted me to duck into the nearest penny arcade whenever my friends and I approached the ominous thrill ride.
By my early 40s, I still hadn’t ventured onto anything more daring than a kiddie-version of the flying swings. And I saw little chance of that ever changing. However, a certain 5 year old had his own intentions for his perpetually-grounded father.
“Please, Dad, can we go on Rolling Thunder?” my son begged. “Can we go on, just once?” The words were not exactly music to my ears as Frankie serenaded me with his inquiry, over and over again, one summer evening at New Jersey’s Six Flags Great Adventure theme park.
Rolling Thunder was a roller coaster. Rolling Thunder was very tall. I immediately started looking for a penny arcade, when suddenly a rescue plan dawned on me: My son wasn’t close to meeting the minimum height requirement needed to ride this contraption. We would get on line, I’d fake my displeasure as we got thrown off and we’d blissfully be on our way home.
But, we made the cut. “Whooooooaaaaaaa, that was great!,” Frankie screamed. “Can we do it again, Dad? Please, Dad, can we go on just one more time?”
At least I think that is what I heard my son exclaim— as I looked over at him with my heart in my throat, my new Andy Warhol disheveled hairstyle and dead gnats covering half of my face.
That solitary journey on Rolling Thunder forever hooked the two of us on amusement parks and roller coasters. Somehow my fear of heights was gone. And, after my son’s first taste of “flying machines,” Frankie would count the days until he could become airborne again.
Though we started our exploits gradually, with weekend trips to local amusement parks, we were soon embarking on full-blown “Flying with Frankie” extended coaster getaways. The euphoria we experienced during our maiden voyage set the merrymaking tone for the next ten years, and included some of the most notable thrill arenas in Pennsylvania and Ohio, including Dorney Park, Hersheypark, Kennywood, Cedar Point and Geauga Lake.
As Frankie and I pulled into the driveway of our humble abode after 17 straight days in an amusement park— 1,000 miles driven, 32 different coasters ridden and 110 total coaster rides conquered— I had a feeling we’d nix the following year’s vacation plans of going crabbing for a week at the Jersey Shore.
“Dad, I can’t wait until next year’s trip,” were the words that confirmed my suspicion. The next year, we took a sleeper car train out to the Midwest and our coaster journey continued from there. Then we gave the South a whirl; and in 1999, we went South and West. By our 2000 “Millennium Tour,” it was full steam ahead as we wandered close to 3,000 miles throughout a good part of America in search of our heavenly joyrides.
All the while, a fervent rapport was burgeoning between my son and me that endures to this day. Yet, the coaster rides played only a small part in our bond. Today, as Frankie and I discuss our decade of madcap adventures, we agree that many of our fondest memories had little to do with our death-defying drops from the sky.
The coaster rides were surely memorable. However, so was the drive-in movie we shared, right smack in the middle of the cornfields of Indiana, while not giving an ounce of concern to the two huge dents we put in the hood of my car as we sprawled on the top of it to get a perfect view of the movie The Perfect Storm.
The coasters were often one-of-a-kind moments, but no coaster ride compared to the sleeper-car train ride we endured that even Rip Van Winkle wouldn’t have slept through. The train lumbered 26 mind-boggling hours from New Jersey to Ohio.
The coasters were definitely adventurous, but not nearly as daring as when we inadvertently strayed a bit too far from New Orleans’s French Quarter and suddenly found ourselves in an especially seedy part of town. For the rest of the afternoon, I was left to answer my son’s “Dad, what did those women want?”
The scream machines could be gut-wrenching, but no more so than the Britney Spears concert Frankie dragged me to at a Paramount park, and the resulting “Baby, Baby……” lyrics that screamed inside of my head for the following three days.
Every so often we found the thrill rides to be too thrilling. However, we’d use that rare occasion as an excuse to hang out on a park bench together and pick at an oversized fluff of cotton candy in a winning effort to regain our strength.
And our beloved coasters could always be counted on to give us almost as many laughs as we received from the thousands of conversations we shared, driving from locale to locale, while attempting to solve all of life’s great mysteries.
“Dad,” Frankie continues to say, “the coasters were fun, but just hanging together was even more fun.”
My son is now 18 years old. Naturally, we don’t get to “hang” as much as we did during Frankie’s childhood. Regrets? I’ve had a few, but none when it comes to how Frankie and I decided to spend the fleeting years of his youth— and I need only look at our steadfast relationship today as living proof of our incredible bond.
Frankie and I certainly derived enough thrills from amusement parks and roller coasters to last several father-and-son lifetimes. Yet, they pale in comparison to the heartfelt memories my son and I shared merely in pursuit of that perfect ride.