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Artist’s Choice: David Sanford Names His Favorite Roller Coasters

The bandleader/composer shares his lifelong appreciation for the hair-raising rides

David Sanford Names his Favorite Roller Coasters
David Sanford by Kennywood Park’s Thunderbolt. (Photo courtesy of the author)

I recently took my kids on our annual roller coaster odyssey—a road trip of roughly three to 10 days visiting theme parks within driving distance—and this year’s edition included a return to Kennywood Park in West Mifflin, Pa. Kennywood was my conception of heaven as a kid, and it occurred to me that this summer marked exactly 50 years since I first rode its then-headlining attraction, the Thunderbolt, which in 1971 had been named the world’s best roller coaster by The New York Times. My father, a lifelong Pittsburgher, initiated a lifelong appreciation of coaster rides (along with jazz and the Steelers), as well as quelling all fears of them. My own kids are now tall enough to ride the Thunderbolt for the first time, so this trip was the closing of a particular circle. 

The more closely you consider the track layouts, the pacing of the rides’ elements, the brute g-forces—both positive and negative—at work, and the sheer pleasure they deliver, the more these rides take on the qualities of works of art. I’ve come to associate certain rides with significant relationships, people, and events in my life. My first post-lockdown ride, after 18 months, was Pandemonium at Six Flags New England, a step up from a kiddie-coaster that spins, and I laughed like a three-year-old.

Many theme-park enthusiasts rank their favorite roller coasters, which change with the advent of new rides or repeated rides on a particular coaster that move it up or down. My own top five—completely my opinion, not objective at all—probably hasn’t changed since 2018 (when #4 was completed).  

5. Phantom’s Revenge   

Kennywood, West Mifflin, PA 

This coaster had its second half completely redesigned in 2000; the original was called the Steel Phantom, and it’s in part my memory of that coaster that keeps it ensconced in my top five (I think most would agree that Revenge’s second half is much better). When originally built in 1991, it featured the longest drop of any coaster in the world (into a ravine overlooking the Monongahela River, which it shares with the older wooden Thunderbolt), and it was the first to break 80 mph. That 200-foot drop was my first over maybe 120 feet. It and the turn that followed, where the train reaches its maximum speed, may still be my single most rapturous experience on any ride. 

4. Steel Vengeance

Cedar Point, Sandusky, OH  

By most current consensus, this is the best coaster in the world, and it’s hard to disagree. In 2011, a company named Rocky Mountain Construction started souping up old wooden coasters’ frames with steel track, adding overbanked turns, inversions, and other elements that would be extremely difficult to create with wood-based tracks. Steel Vengeance, built on top of, around, and through the mammoth wooden structure of a previous coaster—the much-maligned Mean Streak—in 2018, might be their masterpiece. 

3. Intimidator 305 

Kings Dominion, Doswell, VA 

To my knowledge, there are nine roller coasters with a maximum height of 300 feet or taller in the world, and this is one of them. They all break 90 mph, but you feel that speed more acutely on Intimidator 305, which—after its initial 300-foot drop—stays closer to the ground than any of the others, and garners numerous accounts of riders graying out after said first drop and turn. Anyone who says that this ride isn’t the epitome of intensity is protesting too much.  

Intimidator 305
Intimidator 305 (Photo courtesy of David Sanford)

2. El Toro 

Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson Township, NJ

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Probably because I grew up on wooden coasters, I tend to prefer them to steel ones and hybrids. A good steel coaster reminds me of speed metal, while a good wooden one is like great punk rock, often with lateral forces that bring to mind the visceral thrills of a mosh pit. There are more “raw” sensations than El Toro on older wood coasters, but for the perfect combination of speed, airtime, smoothness, and lateral power, this may be my most purely enjoyable ride.

1. The Voyage  

Holiday World, Santa Claus, IN  

Words don’t do this ride justice. More than one enthusiast has proclaimed it “a religious experience,” which might seem hyperbolic until you ride it. Some of the qualities supporting these claims are the record-breaking amounts of airtime it provides, its punishing near-three-minute length, and the fact that at a point in the ride when other coasters are limping back to the station, Voyage is still gaining momentum and flying through turns at nearly 90 degrees. One actually leaves this ride exhausted.

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David Sanford

David Sanford is an award-winning composer, trombonist, bandleader, and educator who has been a member of the music faculty at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., for more than 20 years. His big-band album A Prayer For Lester Bowie was released by Greenleaf Music in September.