Roller coasters can trace their origins to Russian ice slides that first began delighting riders—including Catherine the Great—in the mid-1600s. But the thrill machines that we refer to today as steel coasters didn’t exist until Arrow Dynamics built the first one for Disneyland in 1959. This new type of ride quickly gained popularity and started eclipsing wooden coasters; there are now less than 200 wooden coasters operating in the world, but more than 5,000 steel ones.
With so many steel coasters vying for attention, which ones are the most iconic? By “iconic,” we aren’t necessarily referring to the best coasters. We are singling out the rides that are the most popular, have the greatest name recognition, are the most beloved, and have stood the test of time. For a variety of reasons, they have established themselves as standard bearers and are generally known even among many people who wouldn’t consider themselves park fans or coaster enthusiasts.
Okay, on to the most iconic steel coasters in the world.
One of the most iconic steel coasters is the original steel coaster. The ride manufacturer, Arrow Dynamics (which has since shuttered), caused quite a revolution in attraction design when it introduced the first modern-day steel coaster, Matterhorn Bobsleds, at Disneyland Park in 1959.
Among the innovations it incorporated into the ride were a tubular steel track system and trains that use polyurethane wheels. Arrow (and subsequent ride designers) discovered that steel pipe could be bent in ways that traditional wooden tracks couldn't, opening up all kinds of opportunities to design rides with novel elements and features. They also found that the steel tracks and structures provided smoother rides. The concept ushered in a new era of roller coasters.
Matterhorn Bobsleds was the first coaster at Disneyland, and it still thrills visitors today. It's kind of hard to miss Matterhorn Mountain, the imposing structure (which is made to look even larger through the use of forced perspective) that looms throughout the park and houses the attraction. The fact that the ride is located at the industry’s first theme park, which is universally recognized and bears the personal stamp of Walt Disney himself, helps make Matterhorn Bobsleds all the more iconic.
Matterhorn Bobsleds may have started a coaster renaissance, but Disney’s Space Mountain might be even more iconic. It is arguably the most famous coaster in the world—and quite possibly the ride that has logged more passengers than any other coaster.
Helping to cement its iconic status, there are multiple versions of Space Mountain around the planet. The first iteration opened at Magic Kingdom, one of the four theme parks at Walt Disney World in Florida, in 1975. The second followed a couple of years later at Disneyland Park in California. Over the past few decades, Space Mountain has gone on to open at Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland. (The only Disneyland-style park that does not feature a Space Mountain is Shanghai Disneyland; instead it offers Tron Lightcycle Power Run, an incredible attraction that will likely become an iconic coaster over time, especially after a clone of it opens at the Magic Kingdom in Florida in 2021.)
The indoor coaster has a space travel theme and uses the cloak of darkness to present cool effects. The lights-out ride, which is fairly wimpy compared to more thrilling coasters, also tricks passengers into thinking it is delivering a more aggressive ride experience. Would you believe that the original Space Mountain reaches a top speed of only 27 mph? Believe it!
When it comes to roller coasters, speed isn’t everything (see Space Mountain above), but it certainly is one of the most important characteristics of thrill machines. The fastest coaster in the world is Formula Rossa, the highlight of Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi. Using a hydraulic launch system, the auto racing-themed ride accelerates passengers from 0 mph to a blistering 149 mph in just under five seconds.
Located in the desert, where temperatures can regularly reach well above 100 degrees F, Ferrari World is housed in a climate-controlled dome—but Formula Rossa blasts riders out of the dome and sends them careening outside through the desert. To help protect their eyes from damaging grains of sand, the park issues safety goggles to passengers.
Alton Towers has a number of incredible coasters, but perhaps none more iconic than Oblivion. Opened in 1998, the ride features a couple of firsts. With an 87-degree plunge, the park calls Oblivion the world’s first vertical drop roller coaster. It was also the first dive coaster, a model that sends its trainload of passengers just over the precipice of the first drop and lets it momentarily hang there to build suspense in anticipation of the ensuing mayhem.
But what truly makes Oblivion unique is its underground tunnel. Though the lift hill is a mere 65 feet tall, this just means that only 65 feet of the nearly vertical drop is visible from the midway. The train is swallowed by the ground as it enters a subterranean, fog-filled, darkened corridor that extends the drop to a total of 180 feet. Yikes!
Home to 17 coasters, many of them legendary, there may be no more iconic roller coaster haven in the world than Cedar Point. It’s tough singling one of its rides out as the most iconic, but Millennium Force is the likely candidate. Introduced in 2000 (hence, its name), the ride held the distinction of being the tallest (300 feet) and the fastest (93 mph) full-circuit coaster when it debuted. The park coined a new term, “giga-coaster,” to describe the breakthrough ride. Other coasters (including one at Cedar Point) have since broken its records, but Millennium Force remains an icon.
Holding the title as the park with the most thrill machines in the world, the sprawling Six Flags Magic Mountain boasts even more coasters (19) than Cedar Point. It too has a number of coasters that could be considered iconic, but one, The New Revolution, rises to the top.
There are a couple of reasons for its status. Introduced in 1976 as Revolution, it was the first modern-day, steel coaster to include a 360-degree vertical loop. And because of its proximity to Hollywood, movies and TV shows have often shot on location at Magic Mountain. Most famously, the park was the stand-in for Wally World in the original National Lampoon’s Vacation. In the movie, characters take a memorable ride aboard Revolution, which helped bolster its cachet. In 2016, the ride got a makeover and was rechristened The New Revolution.
Steel Dragon 2000 at Nagashima Spa Land in Kuwana, Mie, Japan
There are many worthy coasters throughout Asia. Perhaps the most iconic is Steel Dragon 2000. At 8,132 feet, it is the only roller coaster to break the 8,000-foot threshold and is the longest coaster in the world. It climbs an incredible 318 feet, drops 307 feet, and hits an attention-grabbing 95 mph (making it among the tallest and fastest coasters in the world). At four minutes, it is also one of the world’s longest-duration coasters.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad has earned its place in the pantheon, too. Designed by famed Imagineer Tony Baxter, the original Big Thunder opened at Disneyland in California in 1979. With its striking mountain structure, Wild West theme, three lift hills, exceptionally long runtime, and runaway train motif, it was an immediate hit. A copy of the ride soon followed in 1980 at Magic Kingdom. Tokyo Disneyland got its own version of Big Thunder in 1987, and Disneyland Paris received theirs in 1992. Like the Space Mountain coasters, tens of millions of passengers cycle through the rides each year, giving them unparalleled visibility and recognition.
This is something of an outlier on our list. Although it has taken up brief residency a couple of times at Wiener Prater, the venerable amusement park in Vienna, Olympia Looping is primarily a transportable ride that goes on the road and appears at temporary carnivals and festivals in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. With a track length of over 4,000 feet, a height of 107 feet, a top speed of 50 mph, and an incredible five vertical loops (arranged to resemble the Olympic rings), the behemoth ride is the world’s largest moveable coaster. It is one of the highlights of the annual Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany.
Manufactured by Schwarzkopf, the same ride manufacturer that created Olympia Looping, Mindbender resembles the portable coaster. It features three vertical loops, rises 145 feet, and hits 60 mph—which is all the more striking since the ride is located inside at Galaxyland, the indoor amusement park at the West Edmonton Mall. The many visitors entering the popular, humungous mall traverse a bridge that passes through one of Mindbender’s loops.