What actually qualifies as a roller coaster? – In The Loop

Ask 10, 100, or even 1,000 theme park enthusiasts what a roller coaster is and you might receive as many different answers.

roller coaster

Editor’s note: We recently tweeted a video construction update for the Tron roller coaster at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. In the tweet, we said Tron’s opening will make Magic Kingdom the roller coaster capital of Orlando. Boy, that sure stirred up a lot of controversy. We were basing that only on the number of coasters, not quality, and Tron will make them tied with SeaWorld, depending if you consider Journey to Atlantis a water ride or roller coaster, and if you consider Space Mountain’s two tracks two different coasters. We usually keep our magazine articles exclusive, but we figured with all this discussion, it’d be a good time to post the “In The Loop” column from our Fall 2020 issue online. Read it and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Oh sure, we can agree that an old classic wooden coaster, a la the Coney Island Cyclone, is a roller coaster. Likewise, there is no doubt that any of latest steel giants like the Kings Island’s Orion giga coaster or Hershey’s Candymonium hypercoaster are roller coasters.

The Oxford Languages dictionary defines a roller coaster as “an amusement park attraction that consists of a light railroad track with many tight turns and steep slopes, on which people ride in small fast open cars”. This is similar to Merriam-Webster’s definition of “an elevated railway (as in an amusement park) constructed with sharp curves and steep inclines on which cars roll.” The roller coasters mentioned above all meet these criteria.

If we dissect the term itself, there is a decent definition. “Roller” implies that the vehicle is rolling, as in rolling on wheels. “Coaster” speaks to the motion involved. Going way back to high school physics, a roller coaster train is loaded with potential energy as it ascends a lift hill. That energy begins to be released as the train coasts down the first hill. Again, the referenced coasters above meet these criteria.

Yet another way to define roller coaster is to rely on someone else’s definition. Some trust the parks themselves. Good or bad, parks are often all too eager to add to their total coaster count and define rides as coasters that some believe are not. There are other “authorities” out there. Wikipedia has extensive listings for roller coasters. The Roller Coaster Database at rcdb.com boasts listings for more than 10,000 coasters.

roller coaster

The debate heats up when an attraction defies convention. Shuttle coasters have been around for decades. Shuttles travel from point to point and often go in reverse to get back to the station. Most define these shuttles as roller coasters due to the trains and track being identical to traditional coasters. The only point of contention is the fact that they do not complete a circular circuit. Mr. Freeze Reverse Blast shuttle coaster at Six Flags Over Texas utilizes 16 LIMs to launch riders backwards 0-70 mph in 3.8 seconds up a 90-degree curve, then back down to the station. Is it a roller coaster?

Another popular ride to appear on park coaster counts is Zamperla’s Disk’O
and other half-pipe rides. Mia’s Riding Adventure at Legoland Florida is one
such ride. Think of this ride as a skate or snowboard halfpipe where rather than a skateboard, riders sit on a rotating disc on a track traveling back and forth. The ride gives a weightless feeling on either end of the track. These are definitely not the Cyclone. These rides all roll, but depending on the manufacturer, they may not coast. For this reason, some are absent from the rcdb.com. Are they roller coasters?

Imagine your favorite looping roller coaster. Then, take away the whole ride, except the loop. You have yourself a Larson Loop. Six Flags has been installing these at several of their parks, like Mardi Gras Hangover at Six Flags Great America near Chicago. The not-a-coaster argument here is that the train is constantly being pushed. It is rolling, but not coasting. Is it a roller coaster?

roller coaster

What about the attractions that push the envelope? I will throw out a few examples. Blazing Fury at Dollywood is more dark ride than it is roller coaster. A vast majority of the ride is filled with firefighter-themed scenes and audio animatronics, but there are some coaster-style dips. You sit in trains and ride on a track. What about Journey to Atlantis at the SeaWorld parks? The ride vehicle is essentially a boat with roller coaster wheels on the bottom. It travels on a track, goes up a lift hill, but also converts to a splashing water ride! The Joker 4D Free Fly Coaster at several Six Flags
parks is unique in that the seats spin in a head-over-heels fashion as it travels along a rather unconventional track design. Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts is another dark ride-style attraction with a deep storyline. It starts, it stops, but also has coaster-like elements. It is, frankly, next-level storytelling with audio animatronics, projections, and plenty of thrill, but is it a roller coaster?

In the end, what one actually calls any of these attractions is perhaps an unwinnable debate. Perhaps the winner is all of us who get to ride all of these fun rides. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.


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  1. I don’t think there is any universally accepted definition of a roller coaster. Duane at RCDB has arguably the most reliable working definition in that if it’s on his database then many would consider it a coaster. I believe he insists the ride goes uphill under its own momentum at some point…so rides that purely go downhill would not be included. These days there are just too many variants to be definitive. I personally don’t include ‘powered coaster’ rides (i.e. for me the ride must ‘coast’ using gravity) but there are many enthusiasts that include powered rides in their count if it looks like what they perceive a roller coaster should look like (for example powered go gator rides and many smaller dragon coasters that wouldn’t have the height to run solely on potential energy). I personally count alpine coasters, although some don’t as the rider controls the speed of the ride – which is another element of a definition that splits opinion. Most enthusiasts agree, however, that there is no one size fits all, and it’s down to each person to decide what they count – after all, roller coasters are all about having fun, so why fight each other arguing whether the latest ride design counts or not – it’s just not worth the hassle. By the way my count is 1247…but I guarantee that if you had ridden the same rides as me you would probably get to a different total!