While standing in line, you have plenty of time to view other people experiencing it ahead of you, so you know what you’re in for long before reaching the point of no return.

Then your time comes and you climb into your seat, strap yourself in and ready yourself (as much as possible) for spending a few moments in another world – one of lightning-fast controlled madness. As adrenaline rushes through your veins, a voice comes over the intercom with the simple warning, “prepare for departure.”

A set of stacked colored lights resembling those at the starting line of drag strip begin lighting in sequence ahead of you and that same voice counts down from five, as if for a rocket launch.

DOUG DAVISON

DOUG DAVISON

Then it happens – and it might as well be a rocket launch. The train of linked cars leaves the loading and unloading platform, and in a scant 2.3 seconds is traveling 82 miles per hour.

Before anyone aboard can finish yelling or screaming over the stunning start (and its resulting 1.63-g jolt), the train climbs 205 feet straight up its track, crests at its “top hat element,” and immediately heads back toward the ground at break-neck pace that again reaches a hair-straightening 82 miles per hour. After navigating a pair of huge banked turns on a figure-eight still high above the ground, the string of cars is slowed quickly and smoothly by a specially designed magnetic braking system and makes its way back to where it started.

Only 22 seconds expire between launch and braking and just over a minute passes between loading and unloading, but heads roll and shake in amazement and joyous gasps, excited exclamations and ear-to-ear smiles abound as people exit their seats. Such is the short-lived but big-time thrill of riding the “Xcelerator” at Knott’s Berry Farm, a theme park in Buena Park, Calif., one of the many cities in Orange County.

Knott’s Berry Farm opened in 1940 as the first true theme park in the United States.

It sits on property where Walter Knott and his family established a berry farm in about 1920 (even in some Missouri grocery stores, you can find Knott’s jams and jellies). With its “old west,” ghost town appearance, the park picked up serious momentum when Knott opened a “summer long county fair” in the 1950s.

In the early days, there were no thrill rides at Knott’s Berry Farm. But it’s a different story these days, and while it maintains its western atmosphere and still offers many original rides, shows and attractions (like the “Calico Mine Train” and the “Calico Saloon”) the place is now also famous for being a mecca of rides that twist, turn and go upside down, boasting 40 total rides and 10 roller coasters.

Last week marked the third time myself and members of my family have visited the park since the Xcelerator opened in 2002. Years ago, I was a big fan of thrill rides that went every which way but loose, but nowadays I don’t enjoy spinning and looping, and I can’t abide rides that almost shake my jaws out of my skull.

So I didn’t partake in the “Boomerang,” “Silver Bullet,” or any of Knott’s other rides that might remind my body how old it is.

I do, however, still like speedy rides as long as they’re smooth, and the Xcelerator is the pinnacle of that description. Looking like 1957 Chevy Bel Air convertibles, its trains of five two-person cars barrel along at speeds well north of the average “thrill ride,” but do so on a tubular track with long-sweeping turns so the vibration and neck-tweaking directional changes associated with traditional wooden roller coasters and many of the more modern units is lacking.

It’s just downright awesome and enjoyable, and has what it takes to bring out the kid in almost any theme park veteran –without the threat of bodily injury or discomfort.

With its powerful and efficient “hydraulic catapult motor,” The Xcelerator laid the groundwork for two much larger versions of the same design – “Kingda Ka” at New Jersey’s Six Flags Great Adventure and “Top Thrill Dragster” at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio – both of which crest at more than 400 feet and reach speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. They’re on my bucket list.

If the opportunity presents itself, I’d recommend spending a minute or two with the Xcelerator to anyone who enjoys theme park rides but wants to avoid being treated like a crash test dummy. You’ll have great stories to tell and you’ll still have all your teeth – and marbles.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email: ddavison@houstonherald.com.

An Xcelerator train full of riders speeds around a corner at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif.

An Xcelerator train full of riders speeds around a corner at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif.

A train of cars crests the "top hat element" 205 feet above the loading station of the Xcelerator July 24 at Knott's Berry Farm in Orange County, Calif.

A train of cars crests the “top hat element” 205 feet above the loading station of the Xcelerator July 24 at Knott’s Berry Farm in Orange County, Calif.

A train of riders approaches the loading and unloading station at the Xcelerator ride at Knott's Berry Farm in Orange County, Calif.

A train of riders approaches the loading and unloading station at the Xcelerator ride at Knott’s Berry Farm in Orange County, Calif.

 

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