What is a "Roller Coaster"?

To the uninitiated, a roller coaster is a roller coaster, right? But to the inflicted, it's not so clear cut. You may call us train-spotters, but it's amazing how many arguments arise time and time again over the definition of a roller coaster, and whether a particular ride can be counted in a park's list of coasters. Even the parks themselves are confused - witness the recent 'power struggle' between Cedar Point and Six Flags Magic Mountain. Which park holds the record for having the most coasters in the world? Well, it depends what you mean by "coasters"... You can't even go back to the manufacturer of a particular ride to find out if it sold as a roller coaster. Various product names are Reverse Freefall Coaster, Sea Coaster, Liquid Coaster, Sky Coaster, Water Coaster. None of which are true coasters in my book!

Dictionary Definitions

roller coaster n
a steep, sharply banked, elevated railway with small open passenger cars, operated as a fairground attraction
roller coaster n
an elevated railway (as in an amusement park) constructed with sharp curves and steep inclines on which cars roll
roller coaster n
a type of small railway in an amusement park with carriages that travel very quickly along a narrow track that slopes and bends suddenly
roller coaster n
an amusement railroad in which cars coast by gravity over a long winding track, with steep pitches and ascents

Obtained from various dictionaries....but they're not really much help. The common thread appears to be a "railway", and "steep pitches, ascents, and curves" (well, that rules out The Big One!). But I can't really see how these definitions apply to many of today's machines, and they are probably only the general public's perception of what a roller coaster is.

The Survey
So, I devised a little survey, in order to try to find out what the general consensus is about the definition of a roller coaster. When all is said and done, what does it matter? It's down to personal preference as to whether you list a particular machine in your count of ridden coasters. This survey is just a bit of fun and will hopefully provide an insight into how particular machines are seen by the enthusiasts.

Things to consider...
It has to roll and it has to coast. We all know that. So are water chutes counted as coasters? And ghost trains that have gravity drops? And what about a ride that takes a carriage up to the top of a vertical tower and then drops it with a flat roll-out at the bottom? Freefall Thrill Ride or Shuttle Coaster? If you don't count water chutes, but you count the freefall, what's the difference? If anything, a water chute is more of a coaster since it has a gravity drop and a coasting rise. Take the pool of water out of the equation and you have a ride not dissimilar in layout to Oblivion - why should the pool of water make a difference? If Oblivion dived into a pool of water, would it stop being a coaster?

What about a U-shaped shuttle that gets a power boost each time it travels through the station? Is it actually coasting, or is it effectively just two launched freefalls bolted end-to-end?

The Bobsled and the Steeplechase do not fit into the general public's perception of a roller coaster, but they are coasters aren't they?? And would you add 1 to your coaster count if you've ridden a hybrid flume/coaster? Chop one in half and it definitely would be considered a coaster - so why should adding a bit to it suddenly stop it being a coaster?

Another cause for debate is whether a racing or duelling coaster counts as one coaster or two or more coasters. It's one attraction, but two physical machines! So there are also equally difficult questions on racing/duelling coasters and also on inversions.

The results

Total votes: 101

1. Which of these rides do you regard as a roller coaster?

Intamin Reverse Freefalls. (58) 57%
Intamin 1st Generation Freefalls. (6) 6%
Intamin 2nd Generation Freefalls/Giant Drops. (3) 3%
S&S Space Shots/Turbo Drops. (1) 1%
Water Chutes. (2) 2%
Single-rider hillside bobsleds. (14) 14%
Hybrid flume/coasters. (65) 65%
Virginia Reels. (75) 75%
Mack & Intamin Bobsleds. (90) 89%
Arrow Steeplechase/Soap Box Racer. (77) 76%
B&M Dive Machines. (92) 91%
U-shaped Shuttles. (82) 81%
S&S Thrust Air 2000. (93) 92%
Ghost Trains and other dark rides with gravity sections. (17) 17%
Log Flumes with uphill sections. (3) 3%

2. Which of these would you count as being more than 1 coaster?

Twin track parallel racers. (39) 39%
Twin track mirror-image racers. (45) 45%
Twin track racers, which are sometimes parallel and sometimes mirror-image. (49) 49%
Single track Mobious Loop racers. (14) 14%
Arrow Steeplechase/Soap Box racers. (25) 25%
Twin track racers/duellers with completely different layouts. (82) 82%
Twin track racers/duellers with different, but largely parallel, layouts. (61) 61%
Two or more identical or mirror-image coasters placed side-by-side for capacity. (39) 39%
As above, but what about the hypothetical 4 shuttle loops at Cedar Point? (26) 26%

3. Which of these elements count as an inversion?

An inclined loop. (80) 79%
A cutback. (81) 80%
An overbanked corner, angled at 30°. (5) 5%
An overbanked corner, angled at 50°. (16) 16%
A flying coaster Horseshoe element. (23) 23%
A flying coaster Flip element. (43) 43%

Analysis - Question 1

These are the machines that, generally, we count in our list of coasters:

I think it is nice to have the Bobsled, Steeplechase and Reel confirmed, as they do not 'look' like roller coasters to the general public but at least the enthusiasts recognise them as such. This is one reason why we can't take a dictionary definition.

These are the machines that we don't count:

Again, we fly in the face of public opinion with the Ghost Train/powered ride vote as the general public may well describe these types of rides as roller coasters. I'm still unsure about the Water Chutes - I don't count them as coasters and it's obvious that most of you don't either, but to all intents and purposes they are side-friction full-circuit roller coasters. With the shot and drop towers, it's obvious that even though they work by gravity and run on wheels on a track, they are not roller coasters - which again shows that we can't trust 'traditional' definitions.

Unfortunately, we can't decide on the following machines:

This is quite frustrating as these are the two machines that cause the most arguments - we still haven't been able to reach a conclusion! However, more people voted for them as coasters than against them. It's also quite ironic that there was a definite vote against the 1st Gen Freefall, which is essentially the same ride in terms of track and layout as the Reverse Freefall, except that the Reverse Freefall has a carriage that looks and behaves more like a standard roller coaster car. Is this then what decides a roller coaster as opposed to what the track does??

Analysis - Question 2

The answers to Question 2 weren't as decisive. The only definite vote for multiple coasters was the "Twin track racers/duellers with completely different layouts" category, and a fairly sure opinion that the Arrow Steeplechase and the 4 side-by-side shuttles are not multiple coasters.

The debate raged on in rec.roller-coaster during the couple of days that the survey was open, and we had a number of interesting ideas:

Analysis - Question 3

Well, the obvious Inclined Loop and Cutback scored highly as counting as inversions and we are pretty united in that overbanked corners are not inversions, even though they invert the rider! It's interesting to note that the angle of the banking seems to make a difference. There is no definite opinions about flying coaster elements though, and it demonstrates I think that a flying coaster re-defines what an inversion is.