World's fastest rollercoaster: Could you stomach it?

By Olivia Lang and Cat Koo
BBC News

image captionAbu Dhabi's Ferrari World will be the largest indoor amusement park in the world

Climb aboard the world's fastest rollercoaster. Be prepared to reach speeds of up to 240 km/h (149mph) and enjoy a feeling similar to a Formula One racing driver.

That is the hype from those behind Abu Dhabi's Ferrari World, the largest indoor theme park in the world, which opens on Wednesday.

The Formula Rossa rollercoaster boasts acceleration from 0 to 60mph (97km/h) in 2 seconds, and takes the title from the Kingda Ka in New Jersey, US, which reaches speeds of 128mph.

But could you stomach such speeds? Why are some people so risk-averse, while others seek to find the highest, most adrenaline-filled activity they can find?

'Thrill gene'

"We are all predisposed in some way to seek thrill," says Brendan Walker, an aeronautical engineer and thrills expert.

"Thrill is the very stuff of life. It's what motivates us to stay alive and it rewards us to evade danger, or to have fantastic sex, and rewards us when we feel extreme hunger and thirst."

The response is a series of chemical reactions in the body, he says, with "thrill" essentially being the release of adrenaline and dopamine.

"The closest man-made substance is cocaine, which is why it is so addictive and why some people get more addicted to thrill," he explains.

Some people, he says, are genetically more predisposed to the effects of dopamine - a link found by scientists in the 1990s who found the D4DR gene.

The difference lies in the number of repeats of the sequence of this D4DR gene: the larger number of repeats, the less receptive a person is to dopamine.

Although the popularity of theme parks has soared in recent years, the concept of such thrill-seeking is nothing new.

The rollercoaster has been around for centuries - it is believed their roots are found in Russian ice slides, amusement devices developed in the 17th Century, consisting of carts which were pushed down wooden slopes.

These are said to have inspired the first rollercoaster in 1884, in Coney Island in the US - a ride which is down in the history books as a great success.

Technological advances brought steel coasters, instead of wooden ones, but some enthusiasts said the unpredictability of wood gave traditional ones an extra edge.


image captionRollercoasters are getting faster and higher

Some, such as Professor Marvin Zuckerman, claim there is a particular personality that goes with the enjoyment of theme park rides.

In a renowned 1971 study, Prof Zuckerman concluded that being a "sensation-seeker", as he calls it, means you are far more likely to take risks for novel experiences.

Such people likely enjoy high-intensity rock music, watch sex and horror films, travel to exotic places, and party, as well as take part in adventurous activities and extreme sport.

But how far can we go? Rollercoasters may create a perception of feeling like you are in danger, but how much faster and extreme can you go without actually being open to injury?

Studies show that extreme gravity can have an impact on the flow of blood to our brains and eyes, but design checks on rollercoasters ensure this is kept within safe limits.

Alberto Minetti, a professor of Physiology in Milan, Italy, says that normal people can sustain a G-force (gravitational force) of 3, although levels above that are safe, depending on duration.

For the Formula Rossa, the G-Force - in other words, its acceleration relative to free-fall - is 1.7Gs.

"Everybody knows that it is a scary experience - but it is a safe experience," Prof Minetti says.

To protect passengers' eyes, Ferrari World says it will require passengers to wear goggles - something which Prof Minetti says is important.

"When you are travelling at 240km/h, even dust that is not normally harmful is. Even dust like when you are sitting at your desk, it's like a bullet in a way," he says.

He says that constant speed will not have the same physiological effect on the body as varied movement.

"Speed isn't exciting by itself, so it's the way you get to that speed that's exciting. If the roller coaster is going from 0-100km/h in 2 seconds, it's that excitement," he says.

'Visual spectacle'

So while the high speeds of Ferrari World and Kingda Ka are headline-grabbing, are the fastest rollercoasters really the best for thrill-seekers?

image captionExperts say creativity is the key to an enjoyable rollercoaster, not just speed

Andy Hine, chairperson of the Roller Coaster Club of Great Britain (RCCGB), says generally "speed is important but not the be-all and end-all" in rollercoaster design.

"What they have to be is start being more clever," he says.

He cites Nemesis, a ride at Alton Towers, where "you're only inches from rocks so you get the impression you're going to get your legs ripped off".

As Mr Walker points out, as human beings, we like variety.

You could stick someone on the end of a rope and swing them round very fast for a long time, but that person might only have fun for the first 3 seconds, he says; it is the creativity in rollercoaster design which is key, not the height or speed.

"A rollercoaster choreographer is more like a musician or conductor and sort of leads the rider through his score, script," he says.

"Ride sensation is only one part. There's also the visual spectacle".

In his opinion, the future is something more theatrical, something that is able to entertain the mind as well as the body.

But for the "sensation-seekers" of the world, will it ever be enough?

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