A few weeks ago my friend had a birthday and decided to spend it riding roller coasters. She arranged a day outing to Thorpe Park, a Six Flags-style amusement park outside of London. I bought a ticket, made childcare arrangements, waited for the appointed day, got on the train to Thorpe Park, looked out the window and thought to myself Holy fuck, I do not want to do this.
I loved amusement parks as a child. Loved them. I planned my entire year around the annual appearance of a skeezy traveling carnival in our church parking lot and still remember how my friend and I wept after we waited an hour for the Zipper and were told we were too short. I once asked my cousin “Would you rather have a million dollars, or go to Disneyland?” He wearily pointed out that with a million dollars you could easily afford a Disneyland ticket, but I brushed him off because I did not really believe that mere money could purchase an experience as wonderful as Disneyland. I imagined an adulthood of endless weekend trips to carnivals, an annual Disneyland pass and unrestricted access to a Dionysian world of loops, corkscrews, death drops and funnel cakes.
What changed? Age, I guess – you start to notice the relentless materialism of the Disney machine and the film on the water in the flume rides and Jesus Christ, does that Monkey Cages operator only have one hand?? Maturity stole some of the joy, and the rest fell hostage to a case of motion sickness that started sometime in my twenties and has come to manage my traveling life with a roadie’s leering aggression. I stopped going on roller coasters, and as a result they stopped being fun and just got scary.
So I don’t know why I said yes to this little adventure. I don’t want to go on these roller coasters and I don’t want to be the wimp who stands to the side and I don’t want to be the person the coaster-cam captures mid-vomit, and there’s no way to avoid all three of these things. On the shuttle bus from Staines train station to the park, I twist around in my seat to talk to the person behind me, and when I turn back around a wave of nausea washes over me. We aren’t even in the parking lot yet. This is bad. This is so very, very bad.
We wait in line at the entrance turnstiles with cautious-looking parents, amped-up kids and a group of drunk girls in slutty superhero costumes. A member of our party gets held up while security searches his enormous backpack. I’m hoping that maybe he has drugs in there and we’re all going to get thrown out but he doesn’t, and we’re set free in a popcorn-scented hellscape. I see the roller coasters looming over the park, and it’s fair to say that I don’t want to go on a single one of them. They are huge and roaring and scary and make me feel like one of those kids in the Jurassic Park Jeep. I don’t need this.
It’s decided that we should start our day with something called the Vortex, a giant ring of seats that rises into the air and then swooshes around like a club being swung by an invisible giant. A glance at the kid behind the controls confirms that it’s actually controlled by a 16-year-old tweaker, and that’s not any less upsetting.
We take our seats and pull down the heavy harnesses that fit a lot more snugly than they did when I was twelve. I know that these are safety inspected and that nothing can actually hurt me; I know that this ride lasts for barely 90 seconds. Still, I am tingling with fear. I look over at the birthday girl, who is clapping with excitement and so plainly happy to be spending this day with friends. Do I need people like this in my life? Aren’t we supposed to giving up on new experiences and settling into our ruts? I don’t want to be strapped into this death trap. I don’t want thrills. I want my rut.
The machine grinds into gear and the ride begins, swaying at first, then swooping across the metal platform, then swinging up into weightlessness before plunging back down. It’s terrifying, but deliciously so. I see this feeling of gleeful abandon on my daughter’s face every day when I push her on the swings, but I can’t recall the last time I felt it myself. When the ride resettles itself onto the platform, I am laughing. And not sick.
After that, Thorpe Park is fine. It’s even fun. I don’t throw up once. I learn a lot. Skeeball horseracing requires utter concentration. The English call cotton candy “candy floss.” They also serve fried cod as a refreshment to people who are about to ride the corkscrew, and it’s decisions like that that ensure the Empire will never rise again. And while at first it’s so much worse to look, after a while it’s so much better if you do.