On Roller Coasters and Aging

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One of my biggest life lessons came at an amusement park.

My wife and I had kids fairly young. Our first daughter surprised us when we were 26. Another girl showed up 18 months later. When the girls hit pre-school, we rounded out the family with a son. Seven months later, we left him with his grandparents and headed down to Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

Our girls loved Disney like most every six- and seven-year-old in America, but it was getting autographs from Mickey and Tigger and the Tweedles (Dee and Dum) that got them jazzed—not the rides. It was my fault. I made the fatal flaw of starting us out on Snow White’s Scary Adventure, which terrified my oldest. She cried all the way through. At the end, her piercing look of betrayal made her mood clear. “Why would you do that to me?” her eyes seemed to say. I couldn’t convince her to go on something as innocuous as even The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh for the rest of our trip.

Both girls did, however, adore The Mad Tea Party.

I haven’t been particularly fond of things that spin since a high-school trip to Six Flags Over Georgia. Rain had scared off most of the visitors, and we rode The Wheelie a half dozen times in a row. As a kid, I loved to spin and even had aspirations of attempting a Guinness world record if only I could figure out how to get a representative to come time me. Before I turned 20, however, I no longer had a wound-up predilection for things that go ’round and ’round. By the time I’d had the girls, even those The Mad Tea Party cups made me queasy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an incredible father—top five perhaps—and I’d still do my best to grab that center wheel and twirl the kids as fast as I could. For this sacrifice, it should be noted, my efforts as a top-notch dad were rewarded at the end of our Magical™ day when my wife entertained our children so I could run off to Space Mountain.

Which leads me to my next point: I love roller coasters.

I grew up reveling in every new ride at Six Flags in Atlanta. When I was old enough, I’d get a season pass, and our parents would drop my friends and me at the park, where we’d ride every rollercoaster, stomach-twister, and white-knuckle job until closing. Over and over, I’d wait for the front car of The Scream Machine, a rickety old wooden coaster whose biggest drop sent you flying 68 mph. With each hillcrest, scrawny kids like me would lift about a foot out of our seats. The Mind Bender took all the courage I had, but I ended up loving its trio of loops. Those were dwarfed in my mind, however, by a fading memory of Disney World’s Space Mountain. The older I grew, the more vaguely I could recall its twists and turns in utter darkness.

At the age of 34, I returned alone, my exhausted wife standing in line for the signature of some obscure Jungle Book character still missing from my kids’ souvenir books. I waited a few extra minutes to ride in the front car, so I’d having nothing but darkness in front me. I enjoyed it as much—perhaps more—than I remembered.

As my kids got older, we’d repeat that pattern at Six Flags. Take the kids on the little rides and once per trip, dad would disappear to try all the new rides that had cropped up during my amusement park-free 20s to make Space Mountain seem quaint by comparison: The Goliath, the world’s tallest wooden roller coaster; and Superman: Ultimate Flight, which straps you in horizontally like a hang glider and soars above the park. I couldn’t wait for kids to get old enough to go with me on these rides.

And suddenly they were. They all found the courage on our family’s second trip down to Orlando. Our son was only seven, but he’s tall for his age—just enough for some of the rides. His older sisters weren’t about to be upstaged and volunteered for several of the biggest coasters. I was ecstatic.

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The first sign something was wrong came on one of the few big rides at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Expedition Everest. Its folklore involves a tea company building a railroad through a forbidden pass and the legend of a Yeti. When the coaster encounters the Yeti inside the mountain darkness, the coaster does a full-on reverse. My kids, though terrified each time, couldn’t get enough. But each time that coaster jerked backwards, my whole body protested. It wasn’t just run-of-the-mill nausea. The immediate sick feeling in my stomach was coupled with sudden sweats and a sense that my whole being was completely out of sorts. The third time my kids rode it, I opted out and waited for them at the station.

There were other rides we all enjoyed. The girls had read the entire Harry Potter series and I was reading through it all with my son, so The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was a delight. At 53 inches tall, he was just shy of the 54-inch requirement to ride the Dragon Challenge and was heartbroken. He woke up the next morning asking, “Did I grow an inch last night?” But for me, the highlight of the whole trip was that my kids now wanted to ride the big coasters. I even got to take my whole family on Space Mountain. I put Expedition Everest out of my mind as a strange aberration—I just don’t like coasters that go in reverse, I thought.

But the following year, our annual trip to Six Flags brought back that now familiar sensation of overwhelming motion sickness. The Mind Bender’s loops became torture. The Scream Machine’s boxy wooden cars lost their charm as my queasy body slammed into all its angles. I was approaching my 40s in fine shape. I’d even started playing soccer regularly and felt much younger than my years. But roller coasters started making me feel, well, old.

On a recent trip to Six Flags with my two youngest kids a couple of weeks ago, I was done after three rides. Even Superman gave me moments of pause, and—with temperatures in the mid 90s—the five minutes of waiting to return to the station while strapped face-down in the train car was utter hell. If the kids wanted to do any more big coasters, they were on their own.

The Motion Sickness Guru says, “Sadly, our tolerance levels for rides tend to drop as we get older. For some people the moment of truth comes in their 40s, for others it’s later.” But that moment of truth hit me out of the blue. No one ever told me that when my children would finally be old enough to ride roller coasters, I’d be too old for us to really enjoy them together. Who would have thought I’d grow up faster than my kids?

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