Riding the world's fastest, tallest coaster

Sunday, May 29, 2005

JACKSON, N.J. -- They say you can see Manhattan from the top of the world's tallest and fastest roller coaster.

All I saw was my life flash before my eyes.

The new 456-foot-tall ride, Kingda Ka, opened at Six Flags Great Adventure on May 20, and I got a preview the day before. Along with other reporters and winners of an auction, I was catapulted down a track from a standstill to 128 mph in 3.5 seconds, then shot up at a 90-degree angle to more than 45 stories in the air.

For a few breathtaking seconds at the top, the coaster slowed almost to a stop before it plunged, twisting as it hurtled back to earth.

Six Flags officials say that, on a clear day, brave riders who open their eyes at the summit can see the buildings of downtown Manhattan, 84 miles to the northeast.

But for the nanosecond I peeked, all I could see was a green blur.

After plummeting to the ground, the coaster straightened out, rose over a smaller, 129-foot hill and then coasted back into the station.

The whole thing was over in less than 51 seconds.

Six Flags auctioned off first rides to the public to raise money for the Children's Miracle Network, a nationwide alliance of children's hospitals.

Roller coaster enthusiast Jeremy Delong, who is serving in the Navy in Newport News, Va., spent $1,691.66 for a seat at the front of the coaster.

"This is a great ride!" said Delong, 22, after taking two trips on the coaster. "The adrenaline rush you get from this is amazing. It's better than skydiving!"

Like Delong, many of the people at the preview were members of American Coaster Enthusiasts, a group of about 8,000 people who ride coasters around the world. Delong said the Kingda Ka was his 147th coaster.

Others riders were roller coaster novices. Ten of the 18 seats on the first ride were purchased by Hank Freeman, owner of a Holmdel-based Web site design company. He spent about $7,500 on tickets for his employees.

"It's just something unique," said Freeman, 34. "Usually we go to a ball game every year."

One employee, Melanie Hrbek, of Middletown Township, rode the coaster twice, holding on for dear life.

"The first ride, I couldn't even scream," said Hrbek, 34, after climbing out of the coaster, her hair blown back and a smile plastered on her face. "You can't even see when you're on your way up. It's just a blur of color."

Six Flags began designing and building the Kingda Ka about two years ago, said spokeswoman Kristin Siebeneicher.

Its nearest competitor is the Top Thrill Dragster at the Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio, which stands 420-feet tall and launches its passengers to 120 mph in four seconds.

The Kingda Ka was originally scheduled to open at the end of April, but Siebeneicher said the park had to delay the launch until May because of bad weather and the need for further tests.

Not all the kinks seemed to be worked out the day of the preview. The ride had to be delayed at one point, and its passengers removed from its car at the starting point, while engineers checked the ride. Siebeneicher said she did not know the reason the ride was stopped, but said it was not unusual for new rides to be closely monitored. The ride, however, does not operate in high winds or rain.

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