Six Flags is aiming to be the king of the hill, top of the heap–of amusements–right here in New Jersey, New Jersey, with its Great Adventure park, and is pulling out all the stops to make that happen. Frank Sinatra references aside, this adrenaline wonderland has been a staple of steel, screams and soda pop for locals and out-of-state thrill seekers since 1974 (it was privately owned until 1977). Like its many stomach-churning rides, the park has had its ups and downs, including the nadir of a horrific haunted house fire in 1984 that killed 8 teenagers. The park survived that PR disaster and thrives today (the haunted house did not); it is now the largest amusement complex in the US with the merger of its 160 acre theme park and 350 acre wild safari in 2013.
Great Adventure is just one of eighteen Six Flags properties in North America. Not as sugar-coated as its Disney competitors, Six Flags has linked itself in recent years with Warner Brothers for an edgier experience, including soaring superhero-themed rides and a (tamer) Looney Toon town for the kids. Over the years, so many fun rides have come and gone at Great Adventure, it is difficult to keep track, and it is not uncommon to hear people GenX and older reminiscing about Lightnin’ Loops, The Great American Scream Machine, Viper and Shockwave, all of which were dismantled to make room for bigger and better attractions. Purists, however, can still ride the original Log Flume, Runaway Train and the park’s first major coaster, Rolling Thunder (warning: rickety and rough!).
Let’s be clear: Roller coaster fans will not be disappointed at Great Adventure. At least eight intense specimens snake through the landscape, each one with its own exhilarating charm. Of particular mention-worthiness are two non-inverting traditionalists: Nitro, a smooth steel ride that puts riders through many paces from its monstrous 215-foot first drop, unexpected mid-ride screeching halt, and 540 degree helix to its final frenetic return, making it easy to understand why it perennially ranks #3 on best-of lists; and El Toro, a modern wooden monolith that ascends to 176 feet, reaches speeds of 70 mph (highest and fastest of the world’s wooden roller coasters) and offers more air time than the Apollo missions as it camel-backs home. We really had to muster some gumption to get on these two rides, but it was well worth it.
For anyone worth their coaster-riding salt, though, Kingda-Ka is the absolute, non-negotiable, must-go-on fear-inducer. Take it from us and don’t listen to naysayers who complain it is too simplistic. This ride is one of the wildest sucker punches we’ve had in our lives.
Unlike the other coasters that click nerve-wrackingly up huge hills to get their momentum, this journey starts with a simple horizontal glide that belies the experience to come. The small train moves into position and sits idle for what seems like an interminable time length, then the brakes hiss and yet more seconds elapse. Just when you think something has gone wrong, the hydraulic launch (the very same used to send air craft carrier jets on their way) kicks into high gear, hurling you wildly forward from 0-128 mph in 3.5 seconds. Sky, land, wind, steel and fear meld equally as you twist over a single, enormous, 456-foot hump, and are deposited nonchalantly back at the depot only 28 seconds later. Your hair and mind equally blown, you can say you’ve survived the world’s tallest (and second fastest) roller coaster, if your pallor and frizz don’t give it away without you saying a word.
There are more than 50 rides at Great Adventure, there’s a wild safari drive-through (on park trolleys and no longer open to private cars) and Hurricane Harbor next door (separate admission for this huge water park). Every October, the site transforms for Frightfest–the main fountain turns to blood, ghouls walk everywhere, and various terror trails offer up plenty of scares (for an extra fee). In November, after the park closes to regular guests, we attended Grape Adventure, featuring wines of New Jersey vineyards (hint: stick with fruit wines and reds) and a demonstration of some of the more accessible safari wildlife. Truly something to be had for everyone at this New Jersey amusement institution.