By Jessica E. Lapidus © 2002
When I was a little girl, my father and I used to take weekend trips in the summer to Playland in Rye, NY. These Sunday car trips were always exciting and full of heavy anticipation. My dad would pick me up at my mom’s apartment in a shiny rental car (usually a Chevy Lumina) and we’d head up to Westchester. Riding in a car with my father is a special thing. When I was growing up in New York City, neither of my parents ever owned cars, so if we ever wanted to get beyond the five boroughs, we would have to go to Avis or Hertz and rent one. A gooey, glistening, sweet-smelling newish car, with soft cloth seats, clean dashboard, digital radio and automatic windows, and my father in the driver’s seat is one of the most decadent childhood pleasures I can remember. We would drive along the highway, watching the trees breeze by the Jersey barriers, the windows down, Oldies music blaring from the radio. My father would sing along with The Supremes, The Beatles, Jay and The Americans.
You could always tell which cars on the road were also going to Rye Playland: one or two (usually one) parents in the front, a gaggle of kids in the back, lots of action and mouths moving in excitement. Everyone on the road to Playland is equal, having the same expectations of hot sausage vendors, cotton candy, and The then-54-year old Dragon Coaster. If you’ve ever been to Playland, you know The Dragon Coaster, and as a child you’ve looked forward to your first ride on its rickety white tracks, circa 1929.
It was a warm day in mid-August 1983 when I took my last trip to Rye Playland. In years prior, I had gone on many rides: The Himalaya, The Kiddy Coaster, The Thriller, The Whip, and The Spider (I puked on this ride), but I had always stood before the gates of The Dragon Coaster ("You Must Be This Tall To Go On This Ride"), gazed up at the screaming patrons, and would shake my head no when my father would ask if I were ready to ride it.
On this day in August, as we drove up the Hutchinson River Parkway listening to "You Can’t Hurry Love," I turned to my dad and said,
"I’m gonna ride The Dragon Coaster today."
He glanced over at me and raised his eyebrows. "Are you sure, pussycat?"
I nodded, staring at the road. I wasn’t all that sure, but I figured that it was time for me to do it. The Dragon Coaster is one of the oldest roller coasters in New York State, and I was feeling that I was probably the oldest kid who had not yet been on it. The rest of the drive flew by after I uttered those words, and when I saw the sign for Rye Playland, Next Exit, I began to panic. I knew that I had no obligation to ride it, but something told me that this was the day, regardless of my fear.
After parking the Lumina and muddling through crowds of excited kids and their parents, my dad and I got our day passes for all the rides. I visited one of my dearest friends, The Whip. You sit in a two-seater car and ride on an oversized, over-greased bicycle chain to the end of a narrow median where you get whipped around at top speed. This ride is safe and easy; you’re strapped in and on the ground. After that, my father took me on Derby Racer, a 25-mile-an-hour Merry-go-Round with brightly colored horses lurching and thrusting. After a hot dog and a spin on The Himalaya, I sat with my dad on a bench outside the entrance to The Dragon Coaster. He placed his hand the back of my cool, clammy neck and said,
"Look, pussycat, I know you say you want to go on The Dragon Coaster, but don’t do it just to make me happy, just because I want you to."
I stared at my shoes for a minute, very aware of the hot dog I had eaten, nervously bubbling around in my stomach.
"No," I said, "I’m ready. I’m scared, but I’m ready. I mean, I’m eight and three-quarters. There are seven-year olds on that ride. Why not me?"
He smiled and took my hand in his. "All right. Let’s go."
I approached the ticket-taker slowly, my knees wobbling. She glanced at my daily bracelet, loose on my tiny wrist, and waved us through. I sat on the inside of the car behind a fat woman and a boy who was a little older than I.
"Oh mom, this is so cool! Four times on The Dragon Coaster in one day!! Can we go one more time after this? PLEASE???"
"We’ll see, sweetheart," the woman mumbled, sounding as though she had answered that same question three times that day.
When the ride’s operator came by, pulled the bar down over our heads, and secured it, I put both hands on the cool metal, gripping it for dear life. I glanced over my shoulder at the sign by the gate: was I really tall enough for this ride?
"Daddy," I said, my nose burning with the sting of tears, "I don’t know if I can do this."
"Baby," he replied, as the cars started moving slowly down the track, "it’s too late."
As the car started moving up the lift hill, I felt my stomach churning, not with nausea, but with terror and excitement. After a smooth turn, the cars fell down the first drop, 128 feet of gut-wrenching terror. I was screaming so loudly, I couldn’t even hear my father telling me to hold on. The ride turned again and started up the slope to the Dragon’s Mouth. The best part of this ride is a dark tunnel, it’s exterior painted with the head, scales, and tail of a dragon. The car entered the mouth and surrounded by pitch black, I started crying and laughing at the same time, euphoria taking the place of fear. As we barreled out of the Dragon’s tail, my father ran his hand over my hair.
"You O.K., baby?"
"I LOVE IT!!" I howled, tears streaming down my hot cheeks. He laughed and put his hand over mine, still white-knuckling the bar, as the white-paint chipped tracks shook and rattled under us.
After coming out of the dark tunnel, the sun seemed brighter than ever, and I squinted and laughed against its brilliance. A few more small dips and turns brought us back around to the station. The cars came to a screeching halt and I sat for a minute, watching kids leaving the ride, talking about how they were going to get back in line for another go. The ride’s operator came by again and lifted the bar for us to get out of the car. My father extended his hand to me and I stood up, my knees still wobbling, my cheeks crusted with tears, a broad grin etched across my face.
I decided, after a few minutes of serious consideration, that I was not going to ride The Dragon Coaster again. When we left Rye Playland that day, I slept the whole way home while "Oh, What a Night" lulled me down the road.
The Dragon Coaster was the last roller coaster I ever went on. Today, nearly 20 years later, there are many more new and sophisticated rides at Playland, but none of them could ever compare to The Dragon Coaster: terrifying, thrilling, almost pure.
Jessica E. Lapidus is a writer originally from New York City.