It just wouldn't be a day at the park – the amusement park that is – without a hearty chorus of screams. With their rickety wooden roller coasters and other thrill machines, parks have long appealed to our innate, cathartic desire to get our pulses racing and our adrenaline pumping. To better help us confront and conquer our fears, they've upped the ante lately with taller, faster, and more devilish contraptions. How devilish? Any one of the 10 most thrilling rides would surely leave you breathless (after you've finished screaming, of course).
10: Summit Plummet at Blizzard Beach in Walt Disney World, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Family-friendly Disney World is better known for its princesses and cutesy "it's a small world" than for its white-knuckle rides. But the 120-foot tall Summit Plummet, one of the tallest and fastest water slides in the world, is so out-of-control crazy, riders actually don't make contact with the precariously steep flume for a few heart-stopping moments. It's wild enough to actually purge the "it's a small world" musical earworm from your brain.
9: Verrückt at Schlitterbahn Kansas City, Kan.
You know how I referred to Summit Plummet as one of the world's tallest water slides? Verrückt is the world's tallest slide. Scheduled to open in summer 2014, the ride will send four-passenger rafts down a 169-foot drop. That's not all, folks. Massive water jets will catapult the rafts up a second hill for another 50-foot drop. That's insane! (No really, the German word, "Verrückt," translates to "insane.")
8: El Toro at Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, N.J.
Ride fans refer to the negative G-force, out-of-your-seat sensation that coasters deliver as "airtime." I have never experienced so much violent (in the nicest possible sense) airtime as I have on the wooden coaster, El Toro. And that's no bull.
7: Griffon at Busch Gardens Williamsburg Va. and SheiKra at Busch Gardens Tampa, Fla.
The essentially similar rides, known as diving coasters, climb 20 stories, hit 70+ mph, and include head-over-heels inversions. But the really nerve-rattling part? It's when the single-car train slowly nudges over the edge of the 90-degree drop, stops for a few knee-knocking moments, and allows riders to contemplate the 200-foot dive that awaits them.
6: Intimidator 305 at Kings Dominion, Doswell, Va.
Themed to Dale "the Intimidator" Earnhardt, the NASCAR legend's nickname is an apt description for this menacing steel coaster. The ride never lets up from the moment passengers hear, "Gentlemen, start your engines!" Climbing an intimidating 305 feet, it races at a NASCAR-worthy 90 mph.
5: Millennium Force at Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio
The first full-circuit coaster to break the 300-foot threshold, the 93-mph, 310-foot Millennium Force is relentless during its 2-minute journey.
4: Superman: Escape from Krypton at Six Flags Magic Mountain, Valencia, Calif.
Most coasters climb a poky lift hill before hitting wild speeds on the first drop, but Six Flags' groundbreaking ride uses electromagnetic motors to blast passengers 100 mph in mere seconds out of the loading station and up a 415-foot tower. Oh, did I mention that riders face backwards for the launch? Or that they experience prolonged weightlessness as they freefall back to earth?
3: Lex Luthor: Drop of Doom at Six Flags Magic Mountain, Valencia, Calif. and Zumanjaro Drop of Doom at Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, N.J.
Both of these drop rides are bolted onto insanely tall coaster towers (Superman: Escape from Krypton at Magic Mountain and Kingda Ka at Great Adventure) and slowly lift passengers over 400 feet in the air, let them stew in open seats for a few what-have-I-gotten-myself-into moments, and release them into gut-wrenching 90-mph freefalls.
2: Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, NJ and Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio
The similar rides, known as rocket coasters, use hydraulic launch systems to sling their trains to dizzying heights and speeds (456 feet – the tallest coaster in the world – and 128 mph for Kingda Ka, 420 feet and 120 mph for Top Thrill Dragster) 90 degrees up and 90 degrees down "top hat" towers. Before passengers have a chance to say, "What just happened?" they are back at the station removing the bugs from their teeth.
1: SkyJump at Stratosphere Tower Las Vegas, Nev.
There are three other thrill rides perched atop the iconic 855-foot tower, none of which would be all that thrilling if they were located on the ground. SkyJump passengers get the ultimate thrill by starting at the top of the tower, jumping off, and ending up on the ground. Yes, you read that correctly. Intrepid riders are harnessed into jump suits and attached to cables for a "controlled freefall" jump 855 feet down to the Vegas Strip. Not controlled: riders' nerves.