The majority of roller coasters, especially at big theme parks such as Great America, are not meant for children. I remember that there were these cartoon characters holding out an arm (it did seem rather beckoning to me, at the time) to indicate how tall that you needed to be to enter the line. Every summer, I'd hopefully go and measure myself against these wooden cut-outs, hoping that I finally reached the height to be allowed to ride.
That particular summer, I wasn't quite tall enough to reach the cartoon character's outstretched limb, but if I stood on my tippy-toes, my head touched. I was, perhaps, a couple inches too short (my shoes made me an inch taller), surely, that was close enough.
The Tidal Wave was a huge single looping roller coaster that went upside-down twice, once forward and then backwards, before the ride ended. I don't recall being particularly scared of the ride; I remember being much more concerned about someone noticing that I was too small for the ride.
I stayed on the edge of the line, far away from the second measurement cut-out next to the boarding area, so that my shortness would not be readily apparent. Given that it was a popular ride, there was a strong push of people past the teenage attendant as the crowd rushed for their seats of choice, either front or back. I easily merged, undetected, into this mob. I ended up seated somewhere in the middle.
There was a seat belt and a thick padded shoulder harness that was lowered over your head. The harness sort of looked like a puffy life preserver. The seat belt was snug, but the harness was huge, it sort of hovered around my upper half, like a halo, not touching my body.
I was joyful and excited as the ride started—my first real grown-up roller coaster! I will now clarify that memory isn't always reliable. In truth, I did not recall that the ride went upside-down, twice, until I located an online video of the Tidal Wave to go along with this blog. I only recalled going upside-down once.
Like a crime scene tech, working with faulty witness testimony, I'm able to piece together what must have happened… When the ride went forward and upside-down for the first time, I must have been fine. On the second loop, however, when the ride went backwards, I felt the seat belt give. It was no longer holding me in place and my body fell out of the seat while upside-down, dropping a full six inches, where the shoulder harness finally caught my shoulders, stopped me from completely falling out.
This is the memory that dominates, falling, with the seat belt giving way. I don't recall screaming, if anything, I think I was frantically trying to hold on to the belt, but I couldn't stop my downward momentum. It was probably five seconds, max, but I thought that I was going to die. It was the single most horrifying experience of my life.
Here's the truth about horror. We all know that most horror stories seem to involve punishing people for not following the rules (don't talk to strangers, don't go skinny-dipping, and if a serial killer/escaped prisoner is on the loose, don't decide to take that short-cut through the woods). Fear is sometimes a good thing, it stops you from doing stupid stuff. That's the basic job of horror, to remind you to be fearful, and to reassure you that you'd never end up in the same situation (since you understand the rules).
I will admit that I have tried to conquer this fear. I stood in line for the Batman roller coaster for three hours when it first opened (a better strategy may have been to select a coaster with no line and less time to think about what I was about to do).
I went as far as sitting down in one of floating seats, legs dangling, as the harness system was brought down and locked. The attendant, a really kind girl, noticed that I was shaking, uncontrollably. She unlocked the harness and let me escape. It was a close call as the ride took off 30 seconds later. I finally realized that there was no point in trying to ride a roller coaster. I broke the rules, once, and I was lucky to survive. As we all know from numerous horror classics, if I tempt fate, again, it may not turn out as well...
I still love amusement parks (shout out to Disneyland, Indiana Beach, and Wisconsin Dells)—the smells, the crowds, the lights, even the screams of the riders on a roller coasters, but only while I'm safe on the ground, watching.