Believe it or not, there is NO agency at the federal level with authority over fixed amusement-park rides and state-level organizations only exist in about half the US. As a result, the major forces governing ride safety today are negative publicity and class-action lawsuits, which tend to shut down rides and/or parks that feature more than the usual number of decapitations. Here are nine of the most dangerous thrill rides ever built.
SWITCHBACK GRAVITY RAILROAD - MAUCH CHUNK, PENNSYLVANIA
Established to haul coal up Mt. Pisgah to canals on the Lehigh River, the Switchback Gravity Railroad was only the second railroad built in the United States, but in terms of design and operation was arguably the first rollercoaster built anywhere.
Instead of using steam locomotives directly pulling mine carts up and down the slope, the Switchback used stationary engines to haul coal up before releasing the carts to coast back down, gradually braking to a stop back at the minehead. It wasn’t long before enterprising miners started letting locals ride the carts back down for a price, soon leading to a regular passenger service that eventually eclipsed the railroad’s original purpose.
Long after the mine shut down, American thrill-seekers like Ulysses S. Grant and Thomas Edison sought out the country’s most exciting industrial coal transporter to enjoy a scenic four-hour long trip up followed by a half-hour-long downhill dash that would quite likely be faster than any of its passengers had ever experienced.
The one concession to safety—a ratcheted rail on the upward track that prevented cars that broke their cable from hurtling back down the hill—eventually evolved into the anti-rollback device used on modern rollercoasters.
BUENA VISTA GUANACASTE WATERSLIDE - COSTA RICA
Four hundred meters of solid concrete fun, the Guanacaste Eco-Slide of the Buena Vista Lodge is the world’s longest waterslide and one of the few that requires a helmet. Details on the Eco-Slide are oddly hard to come by (the Buena Vista Lodge’s “Frecuently Asked Questions” page is empty) but information on the rest of the sustainable eco-tourist resort paints a picture of a scenic if unconventional mountain getaway, including a guided tour of the regions twenty varieties of huge, deadly snakes.
Given that the eco-slide is an open-air chute through the jungle, you might well have a chance to see those snakes during your slide as well.
SCAD TOWER - MULTIPLE LOCATIONS, BASED IN DALLAS, TEXAS
The Suspended Catch Air Device (or “net, hung from poles, that you fall into” in layman's) is the centerpiece of specialist theme park Zero Gravity Thrill Park, a collection of nets, poles, cranes, and slings that you fall into or out of.
The SCAD is noteworthy for keeping you facing upright for the duration of your 110-foot drop, preventing your conscious mind from really registering the fact that there’s a net beneath/behind you that will prevent you from pancaking and creating an illusion of imminent death so convincing that scientists have used it as a way to safely simulate near-death experiences.
Best of all, the SCAD is a mobile carnival attraction that tours fairs around the country, allowing citizens of all walks of life to experience what it feels like to piss your pants in free-fall.
ACTION PARK ALPINE SLIDE - VERNON TOWNSHIP, NJ
The Alpine Slide as a basic concept is already toeing the line between awesome and lethal. Most examples consist of concrete-and-fiberglass chute that patrons scoot down on crude sleds or carts featuring cruder brakes and (if you’re lucky) seatbelts.
The Alpine Slide of New Jersey’s infamous Action Park (known by some as “Traction Park” or “Class-Action Park”) upped the ante by combining these rickety sleds with customers who were almost always wearing swimsuits for the nearby water park and were quite often drunk.
Action Park’s first fatality was due to an employee taking a sled at full speed through the course, then hurtling off an embankment. The management added safety measures in the form of haystacks, but the slide was responsible for most of the park’s injuries and legal troubles—in the 84-85 season alone, sliders suffered 14 fractures and 26 head injuries.
HUMAN TREBUCHET - MIDDLEMOOR WATER PARK
The trebuchet was the most advanced and powerful methods of throwing something a long distance before the invention of gunpowder, but not even the maddest, baddest, or most syphilitic medieval warlord ever thought of it as a fun way to get from point A to B.
Luckily for the suicidally bored residents of Somerset, England, the Middlemoor Water Park finally came up with the winning combination of “lethally powerful siege engine” and “super-fun amusement park ride for all ages” by selling rides on Oxford’s Dangerous Sports Club period-authentic trebuchet.
As it turns out, catapults aren’t the most accurate or safety-conscious devices, and after an Oxford undergrad disastrously missed the safety net the police finally stepped in, arresting the two ride operators on the charges of “operating a medieval siege weapon without a license” and “being a crazy idiot.”
CANNONBALL LOOP WATERSLIDE - ACTION PARK
In recent years, ride engineers and safety specialists have managed to design gravity-defying and looping waterslides that are safe, fun, and reliable. None of these people were available (or asked to help) during the summer of 1985, when Action Park unveiled the waterslide that came to define the park until the day it closed.
Ironically, the park’s most famous feature was so dangerous (employees were offered $100 apiece to “test” the slide after a crash test dummy exited the bottom minus its head) that it was only operational for a month after its opening, then a handful of semi-secret unannounced events that the state’s Carnival Amusement Ride Safety Board was kept in the dark about.
Despite unusually attentive and detailed safety instructions from the least-inept members of the Action Park staff, many people emerged the loop with hurt backs and broken noses—except for those that didn’t emerge at all, getting stuck at the top of the loop and requiring rescue.
GIANT CYCLONE SAFETY COASTERS / “TRAVER’S TWISTING TRIPLETS”
Theme park pioneer Harry Guy Travers set out to revolutionize rollercoasters in the late twenties with a set of three nearly-identical coasters of hybrid wood and steel construction, incorporating all the newest features of roller-coaster design: high-angle banked turns, twisting “trick-track” segments, and terrifying runs through enclosed areas full of “headchoppers.”
More than any single feature, however, Traver’s rollercoasters were known for running at 110% and over-stressing the track and support structure, with the Ontario-based “Cyclone” frequently having to shut down for repairs after a few runs. Revere, Massachusetts’ “Lightning” had a better maintenance record, but passengers were thrown from side to side so violently that the phrase “take her on the Lightning” became Boston-area slang for a back-alley abortion.
After two fatalities and the termination of an unknown number of zygotes, the Cyclone and Lightning were finally shut down; the third of the “Traver Trio” was never opened to the public for (understandable) safety reasons.
TIDAL WAVE POOL - ACTION PARK
Are you starting to get the idea that Action Park was a bit… sketchy? Because if not, you might want to consider the statistics on their uniquely large and powerful wave pool, which inevitably became known to fans as the “Grave Pool.”
Featuring 40-inch-tall waves for twenty minutes at a time at a park where half the people were drunk and the other half didn’t know how to swim (in the words of park officials, the low-cost attraction tended to bring people in from urban areas who had little other chances to swim), the Tidal Wave Pool killed two people and hospitalized hundreds more.
Twelve lifeguards were on duty at all times, and former employees claimed as many as thirty rescues each day—compare that to the average lifeguard workload of maybe one or two people for an entire summer and you might better understand just how nuts this innocuous-seeming wave pool really was.
Surprisingly, the wave pool was one of the few features to survive Action Park’s lawsuit-aided demise—it exists in much tamer and shallower form as the High Tide Wave Pool at Mountain Creek Waterpark, which stands on the old Action Park site and reuses much of its infrastructure, albeit with much more comprehensive state-mandated safety rules.
Next: The 10 Worst Roller Coaster Disasters
ECO-ADVENTURE VALLEY SPACE JOURNEY - SHENZHEN, CHINA
As one of the four zones in the giant resort and theme park Overseas Chinese Town East (which is presumably less of a mouthful in Mandarin), Eco-Adventure Valley is described as “entering a mysterious Zen’s Fairyland which combines human and the Heaven into one’s Zen’s Fairyland.”
Presumably this was some attempt at a warning to the customers aboard the “Space Journey” ride, which was billed as a flight simulator but appeared to be some kind of multi-car centrifuge that whirled inside a domed screen portraying movies about space.
At some point during this Space Journey, one of the cars suddenly came loose, ricocheting around the chamber, starting an electrical fire, and killing six people. All this in spite of the fact that the China Special Equipment Inspection and Research Institute gave the ride an A-level safety qualification when it first opened.