Roller Coasters as a Lesson in Physics

There are people who are passionate about roller coasters, who travel the world to ride each and every one they can find, rating them and even breaking world records on them. I am not one of those people. I do, however, enjoy a good roller coaster. My older son may well be on his way to becoming one of the former, passionate coasterphiles, however, and I often get to join him as he tries new rides out. His favorite in all the world, so far, is California Screamin’ at Disney’s California Adventure park at Disneyland in California, and I’ve decided I agree with him.

California Screamin’ is not a radical ride, like many of the newer coasters that dangle people from overhead rails and fling them through corkscrew turns requiring chiropractic exams afterward. It is an homage to the classic wooden roller coasters of the boardwalk theme parks of yesteryear, whose most daring move is a single loop. But it’s a well-balanced, truly enjoyable coaster that encourages repeat riding. We went three times on our last trip.

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As a fun coaster, it also works great as an education in physics. For all the important safety features, when you ride it, you’ll realize that they way it’s designed, if the roll bars weren’t there, you’d still never fall out (well, except maybe for the peaks near the end).  If you watch ahead of you as you ride it, you can see the superelevation of the tracks that means you’re pressed into the seat as you make the fast turns, and as you experience the loop, you can tell how forces actually work to keep you in the car.

So, like any geeky dad might do, I recorded one of our rides on California Screamin’ this year. Take a look, and see what I mean; watch the ride not just to see the fun, but to see the physics, too. And leave a note about your favorite coasters in the comments below!

[This post originally ran in 2013]

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Ken Denmead

Ken is a husband and father from the San Francisco Bay Area, where he works as civil engineer. He became the Publisher of GeekDad in 2007, and the owner in 2010. He also wrote the NYT bestselling GeekDad series of project books for parents and kids to share.

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Tags: Disneyland

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