Holiday World amusement park turns fear into fun, even for reluctant dad

Special to the Herald-LeaderAugust 3, 2013 

SANTA CLAUS, Ind. — The last time my triplet sons visited Holiday World, the tops of their heads didn't quite reach the line that indicated they were tall enough to ride the scariest rides.

That was 2009. On this trip to the award-winning amusement park in southern Indiana, they look down their noses at that line. They grin and cheer when a Holiday World host whose name tag reads Andrew measures each of them and declares, "You're OK to ride anything in the park."

The boys cheer and pump their fists at the thought of taking on Holiday World's trio of roller coasters: the Raven, the Legend and the Voyage.

But Andrew, I wanted to say, what about their mother and me?

Even as a kid, I didn't enjoy roller coasters, partly because I could never equate fear to fun, a loss of control with a kind of freedom. Now, along with my wife, I'm responsible for three humans who have limited and/or highly romanticized notions of danger. As a parent, I feel like I struggle to maintain even a tenuous grip on anything resembling control. And now I'm going to willfully give that up? Going to strap myself into a cramped seat and plummet to what will feel like certain doom for my family and myself?

"Raven! Ray-Ven! Ray-ven!" the boys shout.

Apparently so.

At least, I tell myself, as I'm grabbed by the hands and dragged toward the coaster's entrance, if I'm going to have a series of near-death experiences, I get to have them in a park as clean, efficient and well-run as Holiday World.

As we get closer to the Raven, a 2,800-foot coaster with an 85-foot drop, I'm trying to find some excuse to beg off when my wife says, "I think I'm going to sit this one out." Does she add a reason? Does it matter?

Gabrielle has beaten me to the exit before we've reached the entrance, and I consider arguing but let it go. This woman carried and birthed three babies at once, and even though it's been nine years, I figure even now the least I can do is let her watch the diving exhibition while I ride the Raven.

I survive, but white-knuckling the safety harness around unexpected curves at 50 mph or more so closely resembles my psychological experience as a parent that this doesn't feel like escape. I marveled at the kids and the few adults who raise their hands in a gesture that looks like supplication as gravity began yanking us down.

At the end, I feel relieved, a little battered and make a silent declaration that I will not do that again. The ride was so intense, I'm concerned the children will have that wide-eyed panicky look they used to get when they saw something scary on TV.

"Awesooooome!"

They yell at one another, twirling, hopping foot to foot, talking all at once as we find their mother.

"Can we do the Legend or the Voyage?" they ask, referring to the coasters that are taller, longer and faster than the Raven. "Canwe canwecanwecanwe?"

"What's that?" I say, pointing to a woman in a flaming cloak standing on a tiny platform high above a pool. The boys watch as she plummets into the water below.

Their adrenalized clamor will return, but I'm grateful that the designers of Holiday World seem to understand the experience of adults taking children to an amusement park. The rides aren't too close together, there are trees and green spaces throughout, and live performers entertain from the Hoosier Celebration Theater. All day, I hear rock and country and even gospel, which is interesting, though there's something surreal about taking a high-speed vertical spin on the Revolution while listening to The Old Rugged Cross sung in earnest four-part harmony.

The food is neither cheap nor exorbitant, but its quality is hit-or-miss, although visiting Holiday World for the cuisine is a little like watching a Star Wars movie for the dialogue.

In Mrs. Klaus' Kitchen, we sample fudge, buckeyes and cakeballs, all exquisite and handmade by the cheerful women behind the counter. Our $37 meal from Goblin Burgers, however, is so bland and lukewarm, it prompts flashbacks of my middle school cafeteria.

That said, the free-drink and free-sunscreen stations are strokes of customer- service genius. The admission price is a bite for a family of five ($44.95 each for general admission. $36.95 for anyone who's older than 60 or shorter than 54 inches). Still, I appreciate that once I'm inside the park, I don't feel squeezed at every turn; I don't feel, as I have in other venues, that the whole experience is a kind of financial roller coaster that could be called the Fleece. By and large, Holiday World gets it right.

On this cool summer Thursday, crowds are light and we jog merrily past signs advising us that if the line extends this far, we could expect to wait an hour. Weekends, especially in July and August, tend to be Holiday World's busiest.

My sons' thirst for thrills continues throughout the day, though we work to placate them with Frightful Falls and the HallowSwings and other holiday-themed rides. As our day ends and we head toward the parking lot, the children grab our hands again and urge us toward the big coasters.

I flinch, though I'm not sure why. These rides typically last one to two minutes, going up and returning safely hundreds of times a day. Maybe it's something about the letting go that scares me, that I don't feel ready for.

"Canwecanwecanwecanwe?"

Gabrielle and I look at each other in a kind of wordless parental conference. A straight "no" feels mean and a little cowardly. Plus, if we come to Holiday World in four more years, roller coaster permission won't even be a question, and parental accompaniment will be optional, at best. I can see kids my children's age, some even younger, heading toward the big coasters right now.

"How about this?" I say.

Minutes later, two boys sit in front of me, one at my side as we listen to the ominous clankety-clank of the coaster as we near the top of the Raven's first hill, the one that seconds from now will drop away and convince us we might be about to die.

I'm OK if, for now, we let the Legend remain a legend and agree to take the Voyage another day. But, you know, the Raven's not so bad, really, once you get used to it, once you surrender. This is now our third ride in a row.

My son looks up at me as gravity begins to pull at the passengers in front of us. "It's scary and awesome, right, Dad?" he says, eyes wide, leaning forward.

"Yes."

I turn loose of the safety harness and raise my hands in the air.

Writer Graham Shelby graduated from Bryan Station High School and the University of Kentucky. He may be reached at gshelby3@gmail.com.

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