Love Rollercoaster

I may have mentioned a time or two that Dante is a sensitive little guy. He is easily overwhelmed at events like movies and even has trouble handling the sound of school plays. In fact, recently I took him to a fancy miniature golf emporium nearby, which happens to feature an 18th hole on one of its courses which rewards a hole-in-one with a fiery blast from the head of a fake Mesoamerican idol. We were standing in line next to the hole in question when one of the blasts happened, and Dante was traumatized. Despite wearing headphones for the rest of the night and going all the way across the park so that he was as far away from the blast as possible, he just could not get past it. Every time he’d hear it again, despite the fact that had the volume of a whisper, he’d re-experience the upset all over again. We finally ended up leaving after playing about 6 holes, because I just could not talk him down and he could not manage the feelings on his own.

So when he announced that he wanted to ride a rollercoaster for his 7th birthday, I approached the notion with some trepidation. How he got interested in roller coasters, I’m not sure, but it was one of his recent brief obsessions. He watched a bunch of rollercoaster POV videos on YouTube, and read through a library book that taught him all about coaster history and various mechanical and physical aspects of how coasters work. As his (June 21) birthday approached, he settled in firmly on the idea that he wanted to give it a try.

In the Denver area, there are basically two amusement park choices: Elitch’s and Lakeside. They aren’t exactly Gallant and Goofus — maybe more like Dr. Evil and Mini-Me. Except, you know, fun. Elitch’s is a big, sleek, elaborate theme park, which graduated from its humble neighborhood beginnings to occupy a swanky spot alongside the Pepsi Center in lower downtown Denver. Lakeside is a scrappy underdog, one of the oldest operating amusement parks in America, whose appeal lies as much in nostalgia as thrill. More relevant to us is that Lakeside has a substantial kiddie ride section and charges a total of $16.50 for gate admission and unlimited rides, compared to $30-$45 plus $12 or so for parking at Elitch’s. We opted for Lakeside.

The kiddie rides open first, and that’s where we wanted to start anyway. Dante started reacting to the noise of the park almost immediately, so on went the headphones. We took him to the gentlest ride we could find, some turtles that go round a central point over some very small hills. The ride was going as we walked up, and Dante was inspecting its mechanics. “It doesn’t look like it has a trim brake — I think it just keeps going.” When the turtles stopped, he walked up and got into a car. We couldn’t go with him — the weight limit on kiddie rides is 100 pounds — so we waited by the rail. “He’s going to be terrified as soon as those turtles start moving,” I said to Laura. “He’ll freak out, and we’ll play miniature golf for the rest of our time here.” Then he made a liar out of me, because as soon as the turtles started moving he lit up with joy. He loved it.

We went from there to a bunch of different kiddie rides — racing cars, flying rockets, and something called a “Frog Hopper”, which lifts the kids up and then drops them in staccato jolts. He loved each and every one of them. Finally, it was time to face the king of the kiddie rides: the kiddie coaster. Despite his success up to this point, we faced this thing with quite a bit of apprehension. It has a genuine lift hill (as Dante informed us), and gets the kids moving pretty fast after it crests. Maybe this would be the one to activate his anxiety? We needn’t have worried. He loved that thing most of all, beaming ecstatically as the ride sped him along, and talking to us the entire time, despite the fact that we clearly could not hear him. He actually did that on every ride — he’s got a funny quality of continuing the conversation even when the door is closed, or the car has pulled away.

After a few rounds on the kiddie coaster, he wanted to move on to adult rides! So we said okay. We rode Lakeside’s Matterhorn, not to be confused with Disney’s Matterhorn. This is basically a circuit with cars that swing outward, and which travels up and down at a pretty good clip. As before, he loved it. So we moved on to others — bumper boats, carousel, and one called the Hurricane, which gives you the feeling of flying. Success, success, success. In fact, Dante’s biggest disappointment of the night was the discovery that he’s still too short to ride some of the adult rides, combined with the fact that we weren’t going to have the time to ride everything he was tall enough for.

But we did a few more. Laura and I actually bonded early in our relationship over our shared dislike of Ferris wheels. I don’t mind when they’re moving, but man, when they get you to the top and just halt there, leaving you precariously swinging dozens of feet above the ground — no thank you. And yet, Dante wanted to ride the Ferris wheel, but he couldn’t get on without an adult. So Laura stepped up to the challenge, enduring the terror for the sake of our kid’s thrill. We would not have dreamed that at the end of this night, we would be the frightened ones! I tried to pay her back by taking him on the Tilt-A-Whirl, which I like but she couldn’t tolerate. Actually, if I liked it, I guess that’s not paying her back. Oh well, given how amazingly great this trip went, I’m sure we’ll be back again, and I’ll get to do something that terrifies me and thrills Dante.

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