These spinning, swooping, and snapping attractions are old enough to have given your great-grandmother the vapors.
Americans have been hurled, spun, twisted, and bounced by amusement park rides since the mid-1800s—and in some rare cases, the oldest of those parks still feature rides that have been terrifying people for over a century. Here are the oldest rides at 10 of the country’s oldest amusement parks—plus one attraction that’s been terrorizing riders on a New York beach since 1920. So fasten your seat belts (if there are any), keep your hands and feet in the car at all times, and enjoy the ride.
The Wildcat (1927) at Lake Compounce
WHERE: Bristol, Connecticut
You’d be hard-pressed to find any remnants from this park’s first 82 years (legend has it that the 17th Century Indian Chief who once owned the park’s land drowned while trying to cross Lake Compounce in a big tea kettle, which could qualify him as the world’s first theme park casualty). The Wildcat, which replaced an even-older coaster, has for 90 years rewarded thrill ride aficionados with the jarring curves and bouncy drops that only a vintage wooden coaster can provide. Maybe it was a bit too rickety: The ride was recently fitted with smaller, less bone-rattling cars to appease riders for whom authenticity was synonymous with loose fillings.
INSIDER TIPBefore the Wildcat arrived, the park’s 1911 Candy Carousel—still spinning today—had already made Compounce, which started out as a picnic park in 1845, a must-see destination for fun-starved New Englanders.
Thunderbolt (1941) at Six Flags New England
WHERE: Agawam, Massachusetts
Prior to being swallowed whole by the Six Flags theme park conglomerate in 2000, this 1870 park on the bank of the Connecticut River was known as Gallup’s Grove, then Riverside Grove, then Riverside Amusement Park. But in 1941 it became mostly known as the home of Thunderbolt, a wooden coaster built from the blueprints of the immortal Cyclone, the sensation of the 1939 New York World’s Fair and still a landmark at New York’s Coney Island.
INSIDER TIPThere’s an old carousel here, built in 1909 and moved to the park in 1940. If you’re a Massachusetts child of the Sixties, you’ll have fond memories of the Wild Wheels, an antique car ride that’s been putting kiddies in the driver’s seat since 1962.
Great American Racing Derby (1921) at Cedar Point
WHERE: Sandusky, Ohio
Only two of these babies survive today, and it’s easy to see why: The mechanical nightmares involved in running and maintaining what amounts to an upside-down merry-go-round must be mindboggling. Riders mount their horses like on a regular carousel, but there’s no pole extending to overhead gears. Instead, the poles head down through slots in the floor, where carousel-like mechanisms push a circle of horses up and down and round and round in an uncanny simulation of a horse race.
Riders hold the reins while the horses zip along at twice the speed of their equine counterparts on Cedar Point’s Midway Carousel, built in 1912 in Sandusky. This venerable old ride was built for the now-extinct Euclid Beach Park in Ohio and moved here in 1967.
INSIDER TIPIf you’re looking for a truly tame go-round, head on over to the Cadillac Cars ride, which has been providing kids with the simulated experience of driving their grandparents’ Caddies since 1958.
Rollo Coaster (1938) at Idlewild
WHERE: Ligonier, PA
If you’re hoping to see the skyline of Ligonier, Pennsylvania from the apex of the Rollo Coaster’s first hill, you won’t for two reasons: 1) Ligonier doesn’t have a skyline, and 2) even if it did, the highest this coaster gets is about 23 feet off the ground. But that’s part of its charm—the ride hugs the natural contours of the local landscape, rattling past trees and parked cars in a way that makes it seem a lot faster than its top speed of 25 mph.
INSIDER TIPIdlewild’s carousel spent its first year, 1930, in Atlantic City. It’s been turning here ever since.
The Jack Rabbit (1920) at Seabreeze
WHERE: Rochester, New York
They called Seabreeze “The Coney Island of the West”—of course “they” should probably have consulted a map beforehand. Still, this charming park on Lake Ontario’s Irondequoit Bay near Rochester boasts one of America’s very oldest rollercoasters. The Jack Rabbit starts with a seven-story drop and, just as the ride is winding down, deposits you in a dark tunnel.
INSIDER TIPEqually noteworthy at Seabreeze is the park’s beautifully preserved Kiddie City, a young children’s section opened in 1955 (the same year as Disneyland). The area’s six vintage rides—spinning miniature planes, ’55 T-birds, rockets, boats, swings, and flying turtles (!)—have just as much squeal appeal today as they did more than 60 years ago.
The Whip (1920) at Dorney Park
WHERE: Allentown, PA
There was a time when it seems amusement park designers were actively trying to kill their customers. Seriously: Just look at the old movies of enormous slides that dumped unsuspecting riders on top of each other, or rapidly spinning turntables that hurled guests into a gutter. Dorney Park’s Whip, built in 1920, is of that pre-Gloria Allred era. Riders sit in shell-shaped carriages that travel sedately in a straight line, then suddenly snap through a violent half-circle that throws their heads back like NFL players without helmets. It’s probably safe, but the effect is ghastly.
Sunlite Pool (1925) at Coney Island
WHERE: Cincinnati, Ohio
No, not that Coney Island; this Coney Island near Cincinnati was originally called Parker’s Grove, until locals started referring to it as “The Coney Island of the West” (Hey, wait a minute…). The park has had its ups and downs over the years, but the Sunlite Pool, opened in 1925, has remained Coney Island’s splashing puddle of hope: At 200-by-401 feet, covering more area than a football field, it remains the world’s largest recirculating pool.
INSIDER TIPMisguided owners sold off most of the park’s old attractions in 1971, but subsequent management replenished those with vintage rides from other parks.
Tumble Bug (1925) at Conneaut Lake Park
WHERE: Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania
In a park with several vintage rides, Conneaut Lake Park’s crown jewel is the humble Tumble Bug ride, one of only two remaining in the world—and this is the older one. Five attached metal cars—each resembling a cross between a bathtub and the Civil War Ironclad USS Monitor—travel in a circle, riding up and down an undulating metal track. The thing creaks and groans, and it takes two tries to get over the first hill, but riding in the Tumble Bug brings as tangible a link with the past as you’ll ever feel.
INSIDER TIPRoller coaster enthusiasts rave about the park’s Blue Streak Roller Coaster, built in 1938, which still uses its original rolling stock and braking system. And of course there’s a vintage carousel, installed here in 1910.
The Roller Coaster (1921) at Lagoon
WHERE: Farmington, Utah
“This is the place,” said Brigham Young when he first laid eyes on The Great Salt Lake in 1847, and barely 50 years later a guy named Simon Bamberger said much the same thing about a little pond in nearby Farmington, where he erected a dance hall and some rides. In 1921, the park’s roller coaster—bearing the most prosaic ride name in history—was built, and there it remains. Locals call it The White Roller Coaster because in the ride’s earliest days the timbers were whitewashed. Years of freezing Wasatch foothills winters and blazing Salt Lake summers have rendered it decidedly wood-colored.
INSIDER TIPAll the wooden animals on the park’s carousel—including a chicken, a swan and a snail—have been making the rounds at Lagoon for more than 110 years.
Leap-The-Dips (1902) at Lakemont Park
WHERE: Altoona, Pennsylvania
Here’s the granddaddy of them all, the oldest roller coaster in the world. A national historic landmark, the Leap-The-Dips closed down for nearly 15 years in the 1980s and ‘90s and very nearly came to ruin. A fundraising campaign saved it, and craftsmen managed to keep 70 percent of the original lumber intact. As the name implies, the ride never takes any precipitous plunges in its one-minute, 10 m.p.h. course. In fact, there’s no dip greater than nine feet, but considering Leap-The-Dips opened the same year Teddy Roosevelt became the first President to climb into an automobile, that was probably plenty wild at the time.
Wonder Wheel (1920) at Coney Island
WHERE: New York City
Coney Island, New York—presumably known as “The Seabreeze of The East” —doesn’t qualify as an amusement park per se, since for the past half-century or so it’s been little more than a collection of independent rides caught in the grips of a real estate war. Still, at nearly 100 years old, The Wonder Wheel still stands as the scariest ride ever built, bar none. It’s a Ferris wheel with a twist: cars bolted to the outside rim are stationary, as on any traditional wheel, but cars on the inside ride on tracks, zipping from the central axis to the outer rim, carried along by an unholy alliance of gravity and centrifugal force, as the great wheel turns. No matter how many times you tell yourself “Relax; this thing has not lost one of its 35 million passengers,” your survival instinct keeps screaming, “Stop this crazy thing!”