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After 100 Years, Lagoon’s Roller Coaster Still Has People Lining Up For Its Timeless Thrills

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Renee Bright
The Roller Coaster at Lagoon turns 100 this week, and it turns out, things in 1921 weren’t quite as different from today as one might think.

The White Roller Coaster. Lagoon Dipper. Giant Coaster. It’s been known by many names, but these days just goes by “Roller Coaster.” It’s one of Lagoon Amusement Park’s most popular and enduring rides, and this week, the Utah landmark celebrated its 100th birthday.

The Roaring Twenties Take Off

Lagoon finished construction on the “Roller Coaster” on May 23, 1921, and it opened just a few days later.

“I think it would have upped the atmosphere and kind of kicked the Roaring Twenties into gear there in Farmington, at Lagoon in a big way,” said Randy Geisler, who’s on the history committee for American Coaster Enthusiasts.

At the time, the United States was emerging from years of global war and pandemic flu.

“There was risk-taking, there was wildness, there was partying and amusement parks were very popular, and coasters especially really took off,” he said.

Geisler called this the “Golden Age” of roller coasters.

The Ogden Standard-Examiner described the Roller Coaster as providing ‘all the thrills of airplane flight’ with none of the risk. Airplanes were still new, and Geisler said comparing coasters to aerial stunts was a common way to pique people’s interest.

“So people would have looked at that and went, oh, boy, this looks like an exciting ride,” said Geisler.

Cutting-Edge Technology

Lagoon Coaster CB.jpeg
Caroline Ballard
The Roller Coaster at Lagoon is the fourth oldest roller coaster still running in the United States and the seventh oldest in the world, according to American Coaster Enthusiasts.

Precursors to the roller coaster were tamer, more like a railroad with some gentle hills. John A. Miller designed Lagoon’s Roller Coaster. It featured new technology called “up-stop wheels,” patented just a couple of years before by Miller. They locked the train’s wheels under the track, making it possible to push the limits of what a roller coaster could do.

“You could go steeper or taller, faster. Drops that could be dramatic,” said Geisler. Now, “you'd go up and over the hill, but the coaster would stay on the track and you would kind of float over it as a passenger.”

Adam Leishman, a spokesperson at Lagoon, called it “iconic looking, iconic sounding [and] iconic feeling.”

He said the ride has been around for 100 years, but if you were to look at every single piece it’s made of, its age is really just an illusion.

“There is no one piece of original wood on it. There just isn't. That’s because they've been replacing sections of it for 100 years,” Leishman said.

Leishman said it takes Lagoon’s maintenance workers about seven years to make it all the way around the track. So, the materials may be new, but the footprint of the ride and even its gears and mechanics are exactly the same as in 1921.

You Must Be This Tall To Ride

Lagoon Coaster Ride CB.JPG
Caroline Ballard
According to park spokesperson Adam Leishman, the Roller Coaster continues to be one of the park’s most popular attractions.

After a century in operation, the Roller Coaster boasts fans of all ages.

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Caroline Ballard
Emma Bassett waits in line for the Roller Coaster with her mom, Mackenzie Bassett.

Eight-year-old Emma Bassett from Idaho is one of them. On a recent Sunday she visited Lagoon with her family, and took full advantage of finally being tall enough to ride a lot of new rides. But she was quick to point out this is not her first time on the Roller Coaster.

“No, I actually just rode it yesterday,” she said. “It’s really fun. You don’t go, like … it’s not really scary, but it’s, like, fun and intense.”

Emma’s mother Mackenzie Bassett joined her on the coaster. But of the two, it’s Emma pushing her mom to go on the big rides.

“When we went on [the roller coaster] Wicked she wanted to bail [at] the last minute when we were up in the stairs. And I’m like ‘suck it up! You need to be more brave,’” Emma said.

Emma loves riding roller coasters — for now. But as people age, the experience can sour.

Why We Love The Thrill (Or Don’t)

Lagoon Roller Coaster Side CB.JPG
Caroline Ballard
Parks spokesperson Adam Leishman expects business to pick up this summer, as people look to get outside after a year of pandemic restrictions.

“I do like roller coasters,” said Richard Gurgel, a hearing and balance specialist at the University of Utah.I don't ride on them as much as I did, but we do have a season pass to Lagoon, and my kids love them. I think most would agree that as we get a little bit older, maybe they’re not as enjoyable.”

Lagoon Coaster History CB.jpg
Caroline Ballard
John A. Miller designed the Roller Coaster, which featured new technology that allowed it to be built taller, faster and steeper than previous rides. Miller is credited with designing around 150 roller coasters, including rides at Kennywood, Six Flags America and Coney Island.

Gurgel said our inner ears and our brains process a lot of information when we ride a roller coaster.

“Your brain is sort of recognizing that there's potential danger and it releases adrenaline and makes your heart rate go a little bit faster,” he said.

When we’re young, our bodies are good at handling these changes. As we get older, Gurgel said the experience can be more uncomfortable.

But for those who do still enjoy the thrill, Gurgel said it’s about anticipation. A study published in the Journal of American Medical Association looked at how our bodies react on roller coasters.

“They actually had people on a roller coaster wearing a heart monitor just to see what happened. And the heart rate was actually the fastest when they were right at the top of the roller coaster before it drops down,” he said.

Climbing a hill, heart pounding in your chest, knowing you can’t turn back. It’s just like the 1921 advertisement promised: ‘thrills without the risk.’

And that kind of controlled risk-taking could prove to be cathartic after a year of pandemic restrictions, isolation and political upheaval.

Geisler with American Coaster Enthusiasts said that just like a century ago, he can see roller coasters having something of a renaissance this summer.

“In this time that we are finally passing through, I feel the urge out there on the public's part to get out. We want to have some fun. We need to have some fun,” he said.

Besides, where else can you shake off your frustrations, let it all go and just ... scream?

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