Ever since the Ferris wheel debuted (at the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago), there’s been an unofficial competition to design and build a taller version. The original topped out at 80.4 meters all those years ago, while today’s leader – the “High Roller” in Las Vegas – rotates over twice that high.
To complicate the matter, there’s great debate about what defines a Ferris wheel. The tallest wheels for example – including the High Roller and the London Eye – are labeled “observation wheels” because they’re more than just an amusement. Newer designs eliminate the spokes and hub to give the illusion of a free-wheeling ring. Whatever. Thanks to my acrophobia, even a kiddy amusement park Ferris wheel is thrill-ride enough for me.
Go figure – I enjoy the highest, fastest roller coasters anywhere, but I wimp out when it comes to a standard Ferris wheel. Why? Because Ferris wheel gondolas are neither enclosed nor replete with safety bars. You’re just sitting up there in the open air, 250 feet off the ground, realizing nothing is preventing you from falling (a peek into the mind of an “acrophobe” – you’re welcome). Conversely, when the roller coaster safety bar ratchets down to the waist, almost taking your breath away, there’s a sense of being one with the coaster, like you can’t possibly fall out. Much better.
Let’s change the channel and focus on big ships. If you’ve ever taken a cruise, you should be able to name one or more “amusements” you didn’t expect to find in a floating hotel. Golf driving ranges. Skeet-shooting. Water slides. Again, it’s an unofficial competition. But what about a roller-coaster, traveling up to 37 mph, with an elegant sweep out over the ocean? Yep; coming soon to a Carnival Cruise Line ship near you.
I hereby retract my earlier statement about tolerance for roller coasters. Riding the rails, plunging down towards the ocean and back up to the sky, two hundred feet above the keel of a moving ship – Carnival’s “Bolt” is too much for me and my acrophobia. Almost a little too much for the coaster’s engineers, too. They faced a pile of challenges with the design. What would be the impact of a moving vessel on the gravitational requirements of a roller coaster? Will the weight of seven hundred feet of track twenty stories above the water tip the ship? How will the vessel’s structure tolerate the forces of heavy cars speeding here and there? And what about all that noise?
Put the cart before the horse – as Carnival did – and things get easier. First design the coaster; then design the ship. Make the roller coaster cars self-propelled so they don’t depend on gravity. Eliminate the chains and sprockets in favor of small booster engines to reduce the noise. Then design a ship keel three football fields in length. Reengineer the structural elements – from the water up – to accept the distributed forces of the coaster. Overweight the whole thing so coaster cars can go almost vertical and still not tip the ship. Behold Carnival’s Mardi Gras – a virtual floating amusement park – breaking the champagne bottle next winter.
I still think a roller coaster on a ship is nuts, but I seem to be out of touch with the latest amusements. You can already partake in “Sky Pad” – also on Carnival – a bungee-jumping-trampolining-virtual-reality mash-up. Or Royal Caribbean’s “RipCord”, a column of air for skydiving simulation. Or Norwegian’s “Ultimate Abyss”, a four-story sort-of toilet bowl, where you’re flushed in circles and dropped down a 200-foot water slide.
If you’ve ever seen Katy Perry’s music video, “Chained to the Rhythm”, you probably laughed at the outlandish amusement park rides, like the coaster with the heart-shaped loop-the-loop, or the pseudo Ferris wheel catapulting riders out into the air. But considering Carnival’s “Bolt”, maybe Katy’s got a keen eye on the future after all. As for me, I’ll stay grounded in my local kiddy amusement park.