Some roller-coasters — Kingda Ka and Escape From Krypton at Six Flags Magic Mountain come to mind, as well as Millennium Force and Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point — can affect us in more direct, emotional ways than ordinary amusement-park rides. They have more imagination, more poetry, more intensity than mundane attractions; they have a philosophy, and they have a vision. They can leave us feeling simultaneously elated and wiped out. Overwhelmed, we may be offended by the onlookers too frightened to face them, the visitors afraid to lose themselves to their transcendent thrill.
The new Yukon Striker at Canada’s Wonderland, the amusement park in Vaughan, just outside of Toronto, has this kind of purity. If you meet people who are unimpressed by rides you love, such as the Thunder Run or the Riptide, chances are you can brush it off and think it’s their loss. But this new coaster is the kind that makes you feel protective. When you leave the park, you’ll probably find you’re not ready to talk about it.
Yukon Striker was manufactured by the firm Bolliger & Mabillard, who also designed 2012’s monumental Leviathan, a “giga-coaster” in the park’s Medieval Faire. Like the Leviathan, Yukon Striker is a master class in coaster innovation: it defies expectations about what can be done with traditional ride design, and expands the limits of what we know about the field. Conceived in late 2017, and constructed quickly and continuously through 2018, the ride was always a risk for the park; this is not an accessible, family-friendly attraction, like their more fashionable Wonder Mountain Guardian, and its sheer scale makes you doubt the ride’s commercial prospects.
From the outset, Yukon Striker conjures an impression, vivid and compelling, of the gold rush. You are greeted, entering the line area, by an authentic wooden water tower and a track of period aqueducts, and the production design team should be praised for their expressive work here. Once you reach the head of the line, you reach the car, which looks unlike other cars at the park; it features “floorless stadium seating,” which means a three-row slab of large, comfortable chairs, similar to the ones at movie theatres. These chairs are built in such a way that you feel separate, unmoored, from the surrounding apparatus — you have a sense of floating above the track, detached and apart from it. As the ride begins, the floor itself recedes, as if it’s fallen away beneath you, in pieces. Ascending the first hill, you feel you’re on your own.
That hill is nearly 250 feet high — way up above the rest of the park, high enough to see the city around you, Lake Ontario on the horizon. At the top, you turn sharply to the right, then reach a sudden, unimaginable drop, like a chasm. The car stops completely at the precipice, and draws you over slightly, so that you seem to hang, doomed, above a terrifying abyss. Official word is that the car pauses here for three seconds, but in the moment it feels like an eternity, as if the car won’t move, and you’ll never move again. Then it plunges.
This is the point at which Yukon Striker transcends mere amusement. The car hurtles down at an angle of 90 degrees. It moves at 130 kilometres an hour, faster than most of us will ever have occasion to move outside of an airplane. Yukon Striker is the tallest coaster of its kind in the world, and the fastest. As you approach the ground, you believe it in your bones.
The Yukon Striker’s 90-degree plummet puts in the tradition of the world’s other masterful drop coasters, such as Oblivion, at Alton Towers in the U.K., which revolutionized coaster design when it was constructed in the late 1990s. Where Yukon Striker differentiates itself is in its depth and variety. Most drop coasters begin and end with that first drop; the later elements feel perfunctory, and are far less memorable. But almost as soon as you reach the end of the Striker’s first drop — down beneath a pond in an underground tunnel — you rise again, reborn, and fly right into an Immelmann loop, the world’s largest. The loop is followed by a zero-gravity roll, a full 360-degree loop, and finally, after a pause that feels like an ending, another, similarly thrilling drop, and a last hill on which you catch exhilarating air. It’s a testament to its brilliance that the Yukon Striker’s back half is as remarkable as its first drop.
Great roller-coasters are rarely perfect roller-coasters. The shoulder restraints on the stadium seats, in contrast to the more free-form construction of Leviathan’s seating, feels somewhat restricting in comparison, reducing the sensation of danger that is essential to the full experience of bodily thrill. Still, the seats are comfortable and well-built, and if seated at the front of the car, there is no shortage of visceral intensity. What the ride itself does with its drops and loops is so powerful that any constraint you feel as a result of the seating is a relief.
In the end, as the ride comes to its terminal halt, you feel changed, as if on a molecular level. The human body was never intended to endure such extreme speeds, from such extreme heights, and at such extreme angles; Yukon Striker furnishes you this experience, almost supernatural in scope, and the impact is difficult to measure. What makes this roller-coaster so eerily affecting? Possibly it’s the sensation, unique to a coaster on the scale of this one, that a feat is being performed that goes somehow beyond the purview of the human body, a feat that is perhaps close to death. Made a party to such a feat, you can’t quite comprehend its implications, and if you could, you feel, it wouldn’t be natural.
I came off the ride, legs like gelatin, head dizzy, and almost expected a sense of closure, of finality, that of course didn’t come. With a roller-coaster like this, there’s no such thing as an ending. You can only get back in line, and hope to experience the extraordinary wonder again.