Quick! What comes to mind when you think about amusement parks? Chances are, it’s roller coasters.
Coasters are the kings of the midway and have been since the earliest days of the amusement industry. Parks love them and prominently feature them. Fans love them and can't stop riding them. But which ones are the best?
We've had the good fortune of riding tons of thrill machines and have been reviewing them for years. People often ask us to run down our picks for favorite coasters. It's a fluid list. Parks keep introducing new ones, and the latest rides sometimes turn out to be among the greatest. We are always tinkering with the best coasters countdown.
Beginning in the early 1990s, the rides began their second Golden Age (the first was during the Jazz Age 1920s when the wooden lattices dotted the U.S. landscape), and their numbers and variety show no signs of letting up. While the basic concept—trains racing around a track—has remained more or less intact, ride manufacturers have been incorporating all kinds of innovative designs and features. Today, you can find magnetically launched coasters, hydraulically launched coasters, inverted coasters, and hybrid wooden and steel models, to name a few varieties.
Just as book reviewers tend to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction titles, and film reviewers maintain categories such as documentaries, animated films, and narrative features, we’ve developed three lists of best coasters. All of them are based at parks in North America. Are you ready to ride the best?
Most roller coasters today are tubular steel. They trace their history back to 1959 when Disneyland opened the Matterhorn Bobsleds (which are still slaloming down the mountain today). It was the first thrill machine to use a tubular steel track and polyurethane wheels.
Roller coasters go all the way back to the 1600s when Russian ice slides were introduced (and to this day, coasters are known in Spanish as montañas rusas, or "Russian mountains"). But mechanical roller coasters that featured a wooden structure and a wooden track started the modern-day love affair with the thrill machines.
Even though they've been around since the late 1800s and have been eclipsed in popularity by steel coasters, wooden ones still abound and have die-hard fans (we include ourselves in that group). The top contenders are at many parks, such as Holiday World, Coney Island, and Six Flags Great Adventure. Here are the the 10 best wooden coasters.
There have been many coasters which have combined elements of steel and wooden coasters (including the Cyclone, the famed, classic ride at Coney Island. Its tracks are made of wood, but its structure is steel). But in 2011, an innovative ride designer developed a type of coaster that featured a wooden base and a newfangled steel track. You can read more about it our feature, "What is a Hybrid Wooden and Steel Roller Coaster?"
The rides are wonderful and distinct. In our estimation, the unique coasters deserve their own category. The top hybrids are located at a few parks, including Six Flags Magic Mountain, Six Flags Over Texas, and Six Flags Fiesta Texas. Let's run down the greatest wooden and steel hybrid coasters.
It used to be that coaster trains climbed a lift hill, built up kinetic energy, and then used that stored energy along with gravity to navigate their courses. Then ride designers developed launch systems using magnetic motors, compressed air, hydraulic motors, and more to propel coasters, often from a standing start. Let’s run down the coolest launched coasters, including the most thrilling, the best themed, the best inverting, and the best wooden launched coaster.
These aren’t necessarily the “best” coasters. (We cover those in the lists cited above.) But these are the thrill machines that we have determined you really should board at least once. They include coasters that are nostalgic, exhilarating, underrated, super-smooth, crazy-fast (and crazy-tall), and just plain crazy. You’ll discover gems at Silver Dollar City in Missouri (home of the best spinning coaster), The Great Escape in New York (home of one of the most underrated woodies), and Kennywood in Pennsylvania (home to one of the oldest and best-preserved coasters). These are the coasters you have to ride.
More Coaster Fun
There are other ways to rank roller coasters. Let's explore how the thrill machines stack up against one another in some different categories.