By Jada Rufo
I am not a roller coaster fan. I cringe at the idea that a human being could be suspended in the air upside down. I don’t care how safe roller coaster architects and engineers claim their rides to be or what safety features they have installed or how many tests they have performed. To me, hanging upside down even for a split second is not natural. I’d rather ride a plastic Rainbow Brite pony, clutching on to a candy cane pole for safety while gently galloping up and down and revolving around a Victorian cylinder to fair music. What’s wrong with riding a merry-go-round? Or better yet, what’s wrong with a forty-something year old woman riding a merry-go-round?
Perhaps my crazy sixty-something year old Australian friend could answer that question. My friend, Anne, is a roller coaster fanatic. She and her husband have lived or traveled all over the world and one of the things she likes to do when she moves to a new place is to visit the local amusement park and go on their rides. To Anne, the scarier the better. In other words, a merry-go-round ain’t scary enough.
Changzhou is a mid-sized industrial city located south of the Yangtze River. It doesn’t have very many tourist attractions. In fact, most tourists just bypass the city and head to Nanjing in the west or Shanghai in the east where there are more famous places of interest. But if a visitor were to ask a local what is Changzhou’s most famous tourist attraction that local would probably say Dinosaur Park.
China Dinosaur Park or Zhong Hua Kong Long Yuan, is an amusement theme park located in the northeastern part of the city that is known for its glitz and glamour. Most of Changzhou’s international five star hotels like the Sheraton are located here. The park itself features plastic or rubber mechanized dinosaurs roaming all over the place, a dinosaur museum, a bird sanctuary, a pool for seals and their variety shows, and of course, the rides, with the most famous being the Dinoconda.
CNN Travel describes the Dinoconda as “the scariest two minutes of your life.” It is a 1,058 meter (3,470 ft.) long piece of jumbled metal that has been twisted and turned into a series of loops, angles, heights, drops, cuts, and turns that I never knew existed and never knew could be traversed. The highest point in the Dinoconda is 79 meters (259 ft) high while the steepest drop is a near-90 degree angle. To make the ride even scarier the seats do somersaults, spinning riders 720 degrees. On top of that it propels riders backwards at a speed of 126 kph (78 mph). It’s China’s first 4D roller coaster. It is hell on rails.
Anne had never been to China Dinosaur Park before. She was desperate to go but she didn’t want to go alone because, number one, she didn’t know the language, and number two, hanging out at the park would be more fun with more people. So she posted a Dinosaur Park event on the Changzhou Expat Facebook page which I co-administered.
I have no idea what possessed me to accept the invitation. Perhaps my evil twin sister decided to possess my soul and take over my body. I had been to Dinosaur Park before but did not go on any of the rides. Like I said, I am not a roller coaster fan. I did much tamer things on my previous visit like watch the bird show or go to the museum. I would feel strange boarding the rides without a companion. I feared the looks other riders would give me since many of them were with friends or family.
Boy, she’s weird coming here all alone going on the rides. What’s wrong with her? Is she normal?
Unfortunately the day of reckoning arrived. Anne and I, along with four other lady friends, met up at Dinosaur Park to go on as many rides as humanly possible, including the demon of them all, the Dinoconda.
We found ourselves waiting in the Dinoconda line for nearly an hour in the hot May summer sun under a green, corrugated roof. An hour is a lot of time to think about a lot of things like how the hell am I going to get out of this line? and how can I tell Anne that I’m not interested in riding a roller coaster? I stood there thinking of how to break the issue to her while listening to the park’s irritating theme song being drilled into my head.
Da da da da da da da da da da da da da da
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I’m not a roller coaster fan.”
“Oh c’mon!” she said. “You are leaving! This may be the last time you’ll ever be at Dinosaur Park!”
She did have a point. I was leaving Changzhou in a few weeks time for a new job in another Chinese city. This certainly would be the last time I would ride the Dinoconda. Besides, I was stuck in line by groups of young Chinese middle and high school students in their uniforms on a school outing. Our group was also surrounded by several young families with children screaming “Mama! Wo e le!” Mama! I’m hungry! There were also several young, giddy couples taking pictures of each other with their cell phones. The crowd was not very big since it was low season. But there were people standing in front of me, steel barriers on my right and on my left, and a longer line of people behind me. There was no escape. I was stuck.
Then I had a flashback.
When I was about eight years old my family traveled to Hilo to the E.K. Fernandez County Fair at the Ah Fook Chien Civic Auditorium. They had the usual hit-the-balloon-with-a-dart game as well at the knock-down-the-pyramid-of-cans game. Of course they had a ferris wheel and a merry-go-round. But they also had an eight-legged contraption, a ride called the Octopus.
All five of us, mom, dad, my sisters and I waited in line. Unfortunately we could not ride together as a family as each arm could only seat two to three people and seven of the arms already had riders.
My dad and I were the first of our family and the final two riders to board the Octopus. I screamed with delight as our arm moved up and down and rotated around the Octopus’s body while our seats spun around like a top. I somehow managed to wave to my family below while my stomach muscles tightened. For two minutes the Octopus moved its eight arms up and down and spun its riders around. Yet, I somehow managed to keep the contents of my dinner in my stomach.
My mom, however, could not. As we left the Octopus after disembarking, I looked over my shoulder to see mom duck for cover behind a ticket booth and…
I think I’m gonna throw up on this ride I thought to myself as I watched the Dinoconda twist, spin, and drop its riders. I could watch the action while standing in line.
As our group got closer to the platform gate there were signs posted in both Chinese and English asking passengers to take off their glasses, hats, and necklaces. We were also required to empty our pockets and to leave our personal belongings in a cubby hole on the platform. Women with long hair were to tie their locks down. My hair at that time was at least twenty-four inches long. I had it in a ponytail. But the female attendants said my hair had to be tied up in a bun. I wondered why. What difference would it have made? Then I looked at that demon, the Dinoconda, whizzing above my head. The thought of my hair getting tangled in that twisted piece of metal did not appeal to me. So although I have never been able to tie my hair up in a tight, fashionable Tyra Banks style chignon, I did as the attendants instructed me.
We finally reached the front of the line. Another attendant opened the gate and we walked up one flight of stairs on to the platform to face our doom.
The platform looked like a cross between a train station and a cheesy nightclub. It was enclosed in a man-made cave that looked like it could have come off a movie set. There were two openings on both sides of the cave. This allowed for the tracks and carriages to pass through. Above one of the entrances was a flashing pink neon sign that said Dinoconda in both Chinese and English. Next to the sign was what I assumed to be the mechanized head of the Dinoconda. Some insane scientist must have cross-bred a Chinese dragon with a snake because this wild animal had the flares of a dragon and breathed fire like one. But it also had the fangs and the tongue of a poisonous snake.
The face of the monster.
The rest of the platform was festooned in flashing Christmas colors of red, green, blue, and yellow lights. There was also an electronic ticker-tape sign beneath the neon sign reminding the mainly Chinese crowd to take off their glasses and jewelry, to empty out their pockets and to leave their valuables in the cubby hole area. There was no translation of the sign in English but there were signs in both languages saying the same thing in the cubby hole area.
The “body” of this monster is comprised of two twelve seat carriages all painted jet black with the safety harnesses painted gray.
My insane Australian friend, Anne, gleefully stripped off her backpack and shoved it into a cubby hole.
“I want an outside seat so I can be whipped around,” she announced to the rest of us before dashing off to the platform and planting herself into the first available outside seat.
I’ve always wondered what makes Australians tick. Every Aussie I have met seems to have an insatiable drive to do the outrageous, for example, to live in every country other than their own, or to occupy an outside seat on the world’s scariest roller coaster just so they can be whipped around at death defying speeds. Perhaps it’s because they come from the land down under and to us who live in the northern hemisphere our southern friends are standing upside down. Thank God for gravity.
I, however, am just the opposite of Anne. I did not rush out onto the platform. In fact, I was the last of our group to board the second carriage and I get the very last seat in the back. And, yes, instead of sprinting for an outside seat, I opted for the inside one.
Then the attendants buckled us in. First they strapped the seatbelts across riders’ laps. Then they pulled down the hard shell safety harness that looked reminiscent of inflated life jackets. I knew I would be clinging on to this baby for dear life.
As I watched the attendants make the final round of safety checks I noticed that one of them ordered Quinn, my seat mate and a member of our group, to leave her slippers on the platform. I also noticed that another passenger was asked to do the same. Imagine you are on the Dinoconda twisting and turning when all of a sudden you are knocked unconscious by a flying slipper. Not fun.
Then we slowly started pulling out of the station.
Clackety clackety clackety clackety
We slowly ascended to the highest point of the roller coaster and for the first ten seconds of the ride I kept my eyes open. I saw the entire city of Changzhou below me. I saw Tianming Temple, Changzhou’s second most popular tourist destination, just behind Dinosaur Park.
Then I looked down and saw that there were no other riders below me. At the platform I knew that there were riders in front of me. I saw them! Where did they go?
I quickly sealed my eyes shut as the carriage plummeted down that near 90 degree drop section of the roller coaster. I hung on to my harness for dear life as my body was tossed about like a rag doll. My upper body was secured for the time being, but my legs flung to the left and to the right with every twist and turn.
Then I had a problem controlling my body fluids.
I let out a blood-curdling scream as the carriage plummeted to the bottom. Or should I say I let out a spit-curdling scream. I felt my saliva fly out of my mouth as the carriage made a very sharp turn. I prayed that no one got hit by my flying spit.
I could also feel the sweat on the palms of my hands. They began slipping and sliding as I struggled desperately to retain my grip on my harness. I never knew that I could have sweaty palms. I thought that only men could have sweaty palms!
And God only knows what was happening in my pants.
And yes, the thought of my early morning breakfast ending up on someone else’s head did cross my mind.
Thankfully I held it all together with the exception of my flying spit. Nonetheless, I still had another minute and fifty seconds to go. On the remainder of this ride from hell my eyes stayed sealed shut. No one would have been able to pry them open. My adrenaline went into overdrive. My abdominal muscles were so tense that I struggled to breathe. Towards the end of the ride I could not even scream anymore. The only sound I could emit from my lungs was a long moan.
“Uhhh…” I moaned as the carriage made another gravity-defying drop.
And then it was all over. After two minutes of spinning, rotating, turning, whipping, climbing, and dropping on the Dinoconda, it was all over, much to my relief. The carriage pulled into the cave platform and the attendants released all of our harnesses and unbuckled everyone’s seatbelts. Quinn’s slippers were right where she had left them.
We disembarked from our carriage and headed for the cubby hole area where our precious belongings were held. I stumbled onto the platform like a drunk on the street as my legs felt like jello. And yes, I was the last one in our group to retrieve my things in the cubby hole area.
“Did you keep your eyes open?” Anne asked the ladies in our group.
“I kept my eyes shut,” I replied.
“Not I,” boasted Quinn, a bright fifteen year old Chinese student who was preparing to study in Canada. “I had my eyes wide open throughout the entire ride.”
I had a hard time believing that claim at first. After all, what sane person would not shut their eyes at death defying speeds and angles? But then Quinn does wear glasses and since she was required to leave them in a cubby hole she would have been blind as a bat like many Chinese students are.
We finally walked off the station platform and into the Dinoconda gift shop. This was the only way out as there is no other exit. We had definitely walked into a tourist trap.
Upon entering the gift shop the first thing I noticed were four small TV screens to my left. I thought they were security monitors but the screens actually advertised photo stills of passengers screaming their heads off on the Dinoconda. Since it was virtually impossible for a passenger to take a live photo of this hell raising experience, the park installed cameras above the track to take souvenir photos. Yes, it was another money-making gimmick at the expense of a rider looking like an idiot. But it was also a way of proving to disbelieving friends and family members that I actually rode the world’s scariest roller coaster. And I’m still alive. I would be the only person in my circle of friends back in Hawai`i to have this bragging right. It’s also proof that I had conquered my fear of riding roller coasters and that I am now officially a bona fide, insane, forty-something year old woman.
I saw the still of me screaming my head off and clinging on to the safety harness. My eyes were definitely closed but my mouth was wide open.
Then I saw Anne’s still. Just as I expected, she was doing the exact opposite. Her eyes and mouth were wide open, her arms were freely raised above her head, and her legs were far apart.
“I love that feeling of falling out of my seat,” she explained to me.
If you love that feeling, then why were you wearing a safety harness and a seatbelt?
Then I saw the price of how much a copy of my still would cost.
For one 4 x 4 photo of me screaming my head off, it would have cost me a whopping 25 CNY. That is about $4 USD. $4 USD for a souvenir to show my friends back home that I rode the world’s scariest roller coaster. Was it really worth paying that much for one photograph? Perhaps if someone had photo-shopped spit flying out of my mouth in the photo it would have been worth the price.
Da da da da da da da da da da da da.
Jada Tan Rufo Jada is a former English as a Second Language teacher who spent fourteen years teaching in China, mainly in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Guangdong, Hainan, and Shaanxi Provinces. She stays informed about current events in China and is currently working on a children's book. Jada is also the author of Banana Girl: An Asian American Woman’s Life in China and The Zone, a historical novel that takes place in 1937 Nanjing. Jada also is a contributor to Wasabi Magazine and has a blog that chronicles her re-entry life back in the USA as well as a Facebook fan page. For the latest information regarding book events, please visit Jada’s Facebook page and her blog.