The World's Most Thrilling Roller Coasters
The first amusement park roller coaster opened at New York’s Coney Island in 1884. Known as the Switchback Railway, the ride used gravity to send daredevils along 600 feet of dips and inclines at a blistering 6 miles per hour. Today, following more than a century’s worth of efforts to supply ever more dramatic spikes in adrenaline, roller coasters can reach speeds of more than 100 miles per hour and can feature drops of hundreds of feet, as well as loops, spins, back flips, and corkscrew turns. There are roller coasters you ride standing up, lying down, dangling from a harness, and twirling independently of the track. These modern contraptions resemble the Switchback Railway about as much as a newborn resembles a ‘roided-up bodybuilder.
For all you thrill seekers, we’ve assembled this roundup of the world’s most exciting roller coasters, including recent innovations in wood and steel along with old standbys that still get our hearts racing. So lower your safety bar and find someplace to stow your sunglasses—we’re taking off!
Photo: a roller coaster at Beijing Shijingshan Amusement Park in China
- Where it is: Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
- Why it’s special: Fittingly for a ride located in a park named after a sports car, Formula Rossa is the fastest roller coaster on earth. It reaches a speed of 149 miles per hour in just under 5 seconds—a rate of acceleration that’s even zippier than that of the Formula One cars the ride pays tribute to. In fact, the thing moves so fast that passengers have to wear goggles to protect their eyes from motes of dust and splats of bugs.
Where it is: Carowinds in Charlotte, North Carolina and Fort Mill, South Carolina (the park straddles the border)
Why it’s special: If you’ve ever wondered what it would feel like to be a mutant hornet hepped up on amphetamines, Fury 325 should give you a good idea. (The hornet comparison is deliberate—the ride's designers intended to evoke Charlotte’s reputation as a “hornets’ nest of rebellion” during the American Revolution.) Classified as a “giga coaster” for its extraordinary height of 325 feet, Fury 325 offers a dizzying and, yes, furious ride featuring an 81-degree drop, snaking turns, and speeds up to 95 miles per hour. In 2016, it won Amusement Today’s prestigious Golden Ticket Award for best steel roller coaster, and it’s not hard to see why.
Why it’s special: Scenic Railway is the oldest continuously operating roller coaster in the world. It’s been clicking along its wooden track next to Melbourne’s scenic Port Phillip Bay since 1912. One especially old-fashioned feature: A brakeman, standing up in the center of the car, has to ride along on each and every go-around; in the photo above, he's the guy with the raised fist on the right. Though there aren't high speeds or dramatic drops, views of the water are excellent and there's a cool time-travel aspect to taking a ride on a coaster that predates World War One. Leap-the-Dips at Lakemont Park in Altoona, Pennsylvania, is actually an older structure by 10 years, but that ride sat vacant and forlorn from 1985 to 1999 (when a refurbishment was completed)—a gap of time that made Scenic Railway the record holder for continuity. Other noteworthy entrants in the longevity category include Roaring Twenties creations Jack Rabbit at Kennywood Park near Pittsburgh; another Jack Rabbit at Seabreeze Amusement Park in Rochester, New York; and, of course, the Coney Island Cyclone in Brooklyn, near the spot where the modern roller coaster was born.
- Where it is: Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California
- Why it’s special: Roller coasters are supposed to be discombobulating. But when X2 (formerly known as just X) opened in 2002, it took things to a whole new level—er, dimension. The ride was the first ever 4-D roller coaster, which means, in amusement-park-ese, that the seats extend from the track on wings and can therefore be spun 360 degrees, independently of whatever the track is doing. So while you’re zooming along a twisting, looping steel frame, your seat is also doing somersaults and backflips so that you quite literally don’t know which end is up.
- Where it is: Alton Towers in Staffordshire, United Kingdom
- Why it’s special: You know that expression about making grins by turning frowns upside down? Well, a frown doesn’t stand a chance on The Smiler, because it goes upside down 14 times—more than any other coaster. These “inversions” (as they’re called in the biz) include loops, rolls, twists, and corkscrew drops, all of which come at you one after another, allowing no time to get your bearings or gather your wits.
- Where it is: Lake Compounce in Bristol, Connecticut
- Why it’s special: Whereas most roller coasters look like giant tangles of colorful wire dropped next to a highway, the designers of Boulder Dash made an effort to blend its wooden track into Lake Compounce’s rustic surroundings. The ride follows the slope of the mountain it’s built on, barreling through lush forest and passing natural rock walls and an expanse of water along the way. Consequently, the experience is not just thrilling but beautiful too—which might explain why Boulder Dash is frequently named the best wooden roller coaster in Amusement Today’s Golden Ticket Awards, aka the theme-park Oscars.
- Where it is: Fuji-Q Highland in Fujiyoshida, Japan
- Why it’s special: The Fuji-Q Highland theme park stands at the base of Mount Fuji, Japan’s tallest, most famous, and most photogenic peak. Maybe that 12,000-foot landmark put the makers of Takabisha in a vertical mood; the ride’s distinguishing feature is a 141-foot drop set at a spine-tinglingly steep 121 degrees—quite a few clicks beyond a straight-down 90 degrees. Those brave enough to climb aboard are rewarded with a spectacular view of Fuji-san in those few breathless seconds before the plunge.
- Where it is: Walt Disney World near Orlando, Florida (and four other Disney parks around the globe—but the original ride is in Florida)
- Why it’s special: Disney theme parks are better known for providing a magical experience than getting the pulse pounding. But there are thrills to be found, particularly on this perennially popular indoor roller coaster, opened in 1975. The ride’s engineers capitalized on the chief advantage of not being outside, plunging passengers into near-total darkness for the duration. That feature, along with some hairpin turns and well-timed flashing lights, helps disguise the fact that you’re not actually going that fast (the top speed is only 28 miles per hour) and the technology is old-fashioned. But for millions of children, Space Mountain is their first coaster thrill.
- Where it is: Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri
- Why it’s special: For decades, an ironclad rule of amusement parks was that the cars on wooden roller coasters couldn't go upside down. Attempts to—quite literally—overturn that convention had limited success until Outlaw Run came along in 2013. This wooden beast flips riders not once, not twice, but three times, all while effortlessly incorporating other high-octane elements usually associated with steel coasters, such as high speeds, dizzying altitude, and a near-vertical drop. Score one for dead trees.
- Where it is: Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio
- Why it’s special: The self-described “Roller Coaster Capital of the World” is Cedar Point, which has 17 of them. And while several rides have noteworthy features—the steep drops and bucking-bronco lurches of Maverick, the blink-and-it’s-over speed of Top Thrill Dragster—it’s Millennium Force that gathers all the best aspects of coasterdom in one place. It’s got height (310 feet), speed (93 miles per hour), size (1.25 miles), and scenery, zooming smoothly over hills, through tunnels, and past aerial views of the rest of the park and Lake Erie. The records it set may have been broken by other rides, but since opening in 2000, Millennium Force has never placed lower than second in Amusement Today’s highly regarded annual roller coaster rankings. Put simply, this is the gold standard.