Your Shortcut to… Roller Coasters

Comprehension Activities

Ferrari drivers ride at Ferrari World: https://video.link/w/jfdrd
Kingda Ka tallest rollercoaster: https://video.link/w/afdrd
Upside down 14 times on The Smiler: https://video.link/w/2edrd
Roller coaster records: https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2017/8/national-roller-coaster-day-10-theme-park-ride-records-for-thrill-seekers-486590
Richard Rodriguez’s 112 days on a roller coaster: https://www.lancs.live/news/lancashire-news/man-who-spent-112-days-22071897 

They used to be known as “Russian mountains”… Australians spend millions on them every year … and on some, it’s impossible not to scream. This is your Squiz Kids Shortcut to roller coasters—the podcast where we dive into the who, what, when, where, why and how of the big news stories. I’m Amanda Bower.

And I’m Bryce Corbett.

Bryce, it’s school holidays! Which means that thrill seekers are heading to amusement parks all over the country, and all over the world … we’re talking roller coasters that are as tall as 45-story buildings (pause for Bryce reaction) that get you going at 200 km/h in under four seconds (pause)… that honestly, I think I’d need a sick bag for (pause)…

Today, we’ll take you through when rollercoasters were first invented; why people don’t fall out when they go upside down; and where you can find some of the craziest coasters.

Listen carefully – there’s a S’quiz at the end!

We’re going to need the time machine for this one, Bryce… let’s go back… way back… to Russia, in the 1600s. Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, has learned about a gravity-powered thrill ride that involves people sitting in a sled made of a massive hollowed-out block of ice, and then sliding down wooden chutes that are packed with ice and snow to make them extra slippy and fast. The Empress is commissioning – that means special ordering – one for herself.

And once an Empress gets on board, word gets around.

To this day, roller coasters are still known in some languages as “Russian mountains”. Although apparently in Russia, they’re known as American mountains.

I have to admit, I thought that they were invented in America!

Well, that’s definitely where they became a real phenomenon. In 1873, people in Pennsylvania took an old coal mining train and sent passengers hurling down a mountain in it, just for the thrills. Historians aren’t sure, but they think that mules – which are a cross between a donkey and a horse – would be sent on the ride down as well, so they could pull the carriage back up the mountain.

I can’t imagine the mules loved either of those journeys!  Terrifying on the way down, hard slog on the way up.

Yeah, I don’t think roller coasters would ever have caught on if they kept using mules. The first traditional roller coaster was a wooden one, built in Coney Island, New York. The man who invented and patented it was charging five cents per ride when it opened in 1884, and it was so popular he was making $600 a day. That’s a decent amount in 2022, but an absolute fortune back then!

Wooden rollercoasters starting popping up all over the globe, including in Melbourne, at Luna Park, in 1912. It’s one of only seven roller coasters in the world that still has a brake operator riding on the carriages with the passengers… I’m talking a man who stands at the back and applies the brakes as you head into the corners – and it’s the second oldest continuously operating coaster in the world.

Nothing much really changed in the roller coaster world until 1959, when Walt Disney was on holidays with his family in Switzerland. He sent his ride engineers a postcard of the Matterhorn Mountain, and wrote on the back two words: “Build this.” And they did, and opened up a whole new world of roller coasters. Disney’s Matterhorn team moved away from wood and came up with a steel track system … and because steel could be bent, it wasn’t long until roller coasters had loops, and corkscrews, and inversions.

Which is a fancy way of saying that passengers are hanging upside down. Which brings me to ask you about the science of rollercoasters, Amanda… why don’t people fall out when they go upside down?

Okay, Bryce, I know I’m going to sound like a teacher now…

well, you are a teacher, so that makes sense…

Good point. So why do YOU think people don’t fall out when they go upside down on a roller coaster?

Well… I guess I think there are two reasons. One, they have those safety bars that you have to pull down before you ride… and two, most roller coasters I’ve been on, the wheels sort of have two parts, one bit that grips under the track, and one that goes on top.

Yes, those are officially called “up-stop” wheels, and like the name suggests, they’re supposed to stop the carriage coming up off the track. But actually, both those things are just additional safety measures. It’s centripetal force that’s your safety friend…

Centri… what?

Ready to do an experiment?


Find a bucket with a handle, and fill it about 1/3 full of water.

Okay, done.

Now hold the bucket by the handle, and swing it around really fast, kind of like you’re doing a tennis serve. What’s happening to the water?

Wow… the water is staying in the bucket, even though it’s upside down! What’s happened to gravity? Where did it go?

Don’t worry, gravity is still there! But the speed of you spinning the bucket has its own force… and it’s causing the water to get squished up first against the side of the bucket, and then, when the bucket is over your head, it’s being squished up against the inside bottom of the bucket. Gravity is still there and pulling, but the strength of the squish is stronger than the pull of gravity, so the water stays in the bucket.

What happens if I don’t swing the bucket as fast?

I DEFINITELY think you should find out.

I think you knew I was going to get wet! By swinging more slowly, the water wasn’t getting pushed up as fast, and the force of gravity was greater than that upwards push. Meaning… the water fell down…

You know, Bryce, they always say we learn best by doing! The next time you’re on a roller coaster and you’re going upside down, I bet you’re going to notice that it feels like you’re getting pushed UP into your seat… just like the water was being pushed UP inside the bucket. Of course, even though
that will stop you falling out, you should still follow ALL the safety measures!

Of course. So, where should I go to ride some of the world’s craziest coasters?

Well Bryce, it all depends on what you’re looking for. The world’s FASTEST roller coaster is at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, in the Middle East. The track sits on a racing course and cars are built to look like, you guessed it, Ferraris. Within five seconds of starting the ride at 0 km/h, you’ll be going an eye-popping 240km/h. I’ve popped a link in your episode notes to a video of Formula One Ferrari drivers riding the coaster at its opening in 2010. It’s pretty funny…

I love how one of them is saying “ai ai ai” before they’ve even started!

There’s also a video from the tallest coaster in the world, Kingda Ka in America. The track goes up to a height of a 45-story building, then sends you hurtling down at 205 km/h. It’s really weird how when you watch the video, you get that sensation of going up and down… your eyes are sending a message to your brain that you’re really doing what they’re seeing!

Sounds like some of these videos shouldn’t be watched on a full stomach!

Ah, no. I’ve also included a video from the ride with the most inversions – remember that’s when you go upside down. At England’s Alton Towers, you can do that 14 times on The Smiler.

Asking for a friend, Amanda… what if you don’t want to go on the fastest, or steepest, or the one with the most upside downies?

Your friend could find The Wicker Man interesting… it’s based on an old horror movie. There’s a pre-ride show, then you ride through something that’s on fire… okay, maybe that’s a bit scary too. Or your friend could try to break a Guinness World Record for the longest ride… 112 days, with only five minutes’ break each hour to go to the toilet.

Um… no thanks. An entire summer on the same roller coaster ride?

Well, there’s always the Scenic Railway at Luna Park… 110 years of continuous operation can’t be wrong! Let’s go to Melbourne.

The S’Quiz

This is the part of the podcast where you get to test how well you’ve been listening…
1. What was the early name for roller coasters, still used in some countries to this day?
2. The fastest roller coaster in the world is in Abu Dhabi at WHAT world?
3. How much did one ride cost on the first wooden roller coaster in Coney Island?