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Affordable summer fun not found in Florida

We rounded the next bend and that’s when I saw it for the very first time. From left to right my eyes slowly scanned; my lower jaw hanging in disbelief, my eyes unblinking at the sight of them one right after the other. Red, blue, green, yellow, orange…the rocky, white sand coastline was absolutely covered in roller coasters. Even at that distance, a good mile away, it took me two shots with my digital camera to capture the whole stretch.

“There it is, Dad!” I almost screamed.

“That’s why they call this ‘America’s Roller Coast,’” he responded with a smile.

It’s true that my dad and I drove a solid 18 hours from our home in Clearwater, Florida, a more than 1,100-mile trip through seemingly endless cornfields, tired farm towns and broken roads to visit what is arguably the top-rated thrill park on the planet, but I had no idea how fitting the extreme version of our trip just getting there actually fit the thrill power of this attraction….

The park opened at 10 a.m., as it does for the majority of its operating season, which usually is May through November, depending on when winter decides to let up enough for the coasters to run safely. We were up and ready to go by 9 a.m.

The Best Budget Inn, one of many inexpensive hotels (about $40 a night during the summer) on Cleveland Road, the last main strip of lodging and restaurants before the park entrance, offered a simple continental breakfast that we gladly filled our stomachs with before heading out.

As soon as I stepped out of our room, I thanked myself for remembering to bring a jacket. It was a crisp 68 degrees that mid-July morning, but this was an “Ohio summer,” my dad made sure to point out. The high that day, as we made sure to check the weather on the little black box that was our television set in the room, was 75 degrees. This thought brought a huge cracking smile to my face. Back home, the high was surely in the mid-90s, one of those days if spent at a Florida theme park would have had the sweat pouring down the backs of your legs in buckets while standing in crowded lines waiting to see Dumbo. I couldn’t wait to call my friends to brag.

The quiet, empty roads of Sandusky at dusk had changed drastically overnight. Cars with license plates from every nearby state – Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Virginia, North Carolina – drove bumper-to-bumper on the narrow, two-lane stretch of asphalt between us and the park. It was then that I saw the giant sign, covered in Peanuts’ characters and bright colors, welcoming us to Cedar Point.

Only minutes later, the faint sound of hundreds of thrilled screams entered through our open windows and I noticed the coasters were starting run.

A reasonable $43.99 each bought us our admission, almost half of what most Florida theme parks charge for entry, and Cedar Point has double, in many cases triple the amount of roller coasters in comparison. In fact, Cedar Point lays hold to the world record for the theme park with the most roller coasters: a whopping 17 total, currently, according to the park’s Web site.

Not only does Cedar Point have the most roller coasters in the world, but it has the most thrilling collection of coasters. On a coaster thrill scale of 1 to 5, 1 being a “low thrill” and 5 being an “aggressive thrill,” 10 of the 17 coasters are rated 5, six are rated 4 (“high thrill”) and only one is rated 2 (“mild thrill”): the Jr. Gemini, a kiddie coaster.

After breaking through the turnstile at a running start, leaving my dad behind in the dust, the first sight to catch my eye wasn’t the group of giant-sized Peanuts’ characters walking around signing autographs, or the thick aroma of fresh funnel cakes being baked, or even the crashing sound of the nearest ride – Demon Drop – as it made its way down the track, eight screaming people harnessed inside its metal cage. Instead, it was the 420-foot, red and yellow steel coaster that stood a half mile away, an 18-passenger train just cresting the top, about to plummet a solid 400 feet into a 270 degree steely twist all the way down.

Built in 2003, Top Thrill Dragster is the second tallest and fastest roller coaster on Earth, only adding to Cedar Point’s record-setting reputation. The only coaster to top it is very similar in design with the same 180 degree ascent/descent; it’s just eight miles per hour faster and 36 feet taller, located at New Jersey’s Great Adventure theme park.

Not surprisingly, this was the first ride I wanted to experience.

Though the park had opened only 20 or so minutes before, my dad and I waited in line for two hours to ride the Top Thrill Dragster. This is where that 75 degree high came in handy, easing the wait time in line.

Finally, we were strapped into our “top fuel dragster” and staring ahead at the track before us, nervously awaiting the red light to change to green so we could be launched 120 miles per hour in approximately four seconds, or so one of the info signs in line had read.

My heart thudded in my ears and my hands began to sweat. I looked at my dad and cracked a nervous smile.

As soon as the light changed to green, we were shot up the track at a speed I’ve never before experienced in a vehicle so open. I could feel the skin on my cheeks pull back with the tugging force of the wind. My hair tie was ripped right out of my hair….

From green light to red, the ride was, at most, 15 seconds in length, but it was some of the most thrill 15 seconds of my life, well worth the two-hour wait time, especially for a first-timer like myself.

“Holy crap!” was all that came out of my mouth as I unglued myself from the seat and gave my dad a wild, wide-eyed look of pure excitement. I was actually still shaking.

“I told you this was a real thrill park,” he said.

Top Thrill Dragster was only the beginning.

We were able to get in four more coasters before lunch: Raptor, an inverted, dangling coaster; Blue Streak, a wooden scream machine and the park’s oldest coaster; Wicked Twister, the fastest double-twisting, impulse coaster in the world, and Corkscrew, the world’s first triple-looping coaster.

With about 21 rides left on our agenda (did I mention that Cedar Point has a total of 74 rides?), we had selected only the most thrilling of course, we decided to grab a fast bite and went to the Burger Patio for some char-grilled burgers and fries, priced decently at around $8 for a combo that comes with a medium-sized drink.

If we had more time, we could have eaten at any of the park’s nine sit-down restaurants, from a 50s style burger joint like Johnny Rocket’s to the Bay Harbor gourmet seafood restaurant.

Of my entire trip, I would have to say that ride number nine totally made it, and the best part was, I never expected it.

As we approached the queue line, I immediately saw the giant sign that read in a bold yellow and dark purple futuristic style lettering, “Millenium Force.” The name in print looked interesting enough, but the small board next to it with a clock-like symbol and a bright yellow arrow pointing out the “minimum” two-hour wait time, didn’t look so appealing.

“Ugh,” I sighed. “Is this ride even worth that?”

“I think you’ll be surprised, hon,” my dad said with a grin.

From the line, all I could see was a small section of track, which didn’t look very thrilling. No loops, drops or twists. It was just a little curve. I decided that my dad had been right so far about this place, so I shrugged my shoulders and we took our places at the end of the line.

“At least we have some good tunes to listen to while we wait,” my dad reminded me.

It was true. At Cedar Point, every queue line is equipped with several outdoor speakers that blast hits from all the decades, and in the line for Millennium Force, there was even a DJ who took requests. This made the time pass by a lot faster and I noticed many of the guests dancing and singing in line during the wait.

After the approximate two –hour wait, and a long though mildly entertaining adventure back and forth, up and down between the several hundreds of yards of queue line, we were strapped in tight to our ninth coaster of the day. It wasn’t until we began the 310-foot climb to the top that I had any idea what I was in for.

As soon as we crested the hill, or mountain rather, my heart felt like it sank into my stomach. The drop is almost 180 degrees and sends you flying at a max speed of 92 miles per hour on 6,595 feet of track through the middle of the park, which is mostly dense forest. This explained why I could barely see the coaster from the line.

The Millennium Force coaster at Cedar Point is, to this very day, my favorite roller coaster. It’s a combination of the length, the speed and that incredible initial drop that stick it to that place.

By this point, Dad and I still had 12 rides to go with not much daylight left. Truly, Cedar Point is a park that you’ll have to spend, at minimum, two days in to get the full experience. There are simply too many rides, too many shows, too many eateries and just plain too much to do at this mega park to spend a single day.

True theme park enthusiasts with a little extra pocket change to spare (rooms start at $250 and go up to $1,000 per night), would do well staying at the Sandcastle Suites Hotel or the Hotel Breakers, both located on the glittering shores of Lake Eerie and right on ‘America’s Roller Coast.’ Both resorts allows their guests entry to the park one hour before the general public is allowed admittance, the perfect time to jump-start a day at a place where there is so much to do.

Cedar Point also features Camper Village for those RV and trailer-toting guests.

Although Dad and I skipped all the “kiddie rides” that day on our extreme trip, it’s important to note that Cedar Point has a total of 29 rides, split between four different areas of the park (Camp Snoopy, Kiddy Kingdom, Planet Snoopy and Gemini Midway) specifically geared for children. So if you’re not exactly looking to experience the potential stomach-heaving power of Cedar Point’s 17 ultra-coasters and 16 other intense thrill rides, and you simply want to take the kids out for a less intense day of colorful carousel rides, balloon animals and cotton candy, then Cedar Point has you covered there, too.

It was 9:50 p.m. and Dad I were running through the sprawling green and red laser lights of the Snoopy Laser Light Show, a light and fireworks show that Cedar Point puts on every summer night, in order to cram in one last ride. The 17 mega-coasters that we got in that day just weren’t enough. We had to go and spend the extra $20 a pop on yet another extreme ride that only Cedar Point has to offer, called Skyscraper. Guests are allowed to pay and wait in line for this ride up until the park closes at 10 p.m. Rides are given until everyone who has paid and waited has been served.

This extreme thrill ride is like a giant propeller, with two massive, steely arms rotating clockwise or counterclockwise, which spun Dad and I 360 degrees, 16 stories in the air at speeds up to 55 miles per hour for a good two minutes. The rush of blood flooded back and forth from my head to my feet as we were slung back and forth, over and over again, but I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. The only disappointment on this ride was that I lost a dollar or so in quarters on one of the flips. Oh well. It was well worth the rush and a most excellent way to end our extreme day.

Truly, if you’re looking for a place that offers some of the best thrills this planet can muster, well, you’ve come to the right place if it’s Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. Don’t let the miles of cornfields, old dusty back roads or tired towns throw you off. Amidst all of that is a place screaming – literally – to satisfy your every vacation and entertainment need, so much so that Dad and I have been back every summer since.