To me, one of the scariest things on the planet is when you put together two very simple words.
And the kind of scary I’m talking about is not that of a horror film or that extremely overweight lady wearing a Tube Top.
I’m talking about that of a psychological nature. And when there is a psychological aspect that means there are no limits to your thoughts.
The two words I am referring to are ‘What If’.
Sometimes they can be good, but that’s rare. When it is a good thought, we’ll dismiss it rather quickly with the assumption that it would never happen. ‘What If I won the lottery’ is usually succeeded by ‘yeah, like that would ever happen’.
But when ‘What If’ is a matter of life and death, it’s much harder to dismiss. And it’s that feeling that (in your mind) turns a simple, temporary problem in to a dramatic situation.
My family and I took a short trip to The Happiest Place on Earth on Saturday evening. We’re annual passholders so going for a couple of hours is not out of the norm for us.
About five months ago, we were ecstatic that our little girl had finally been tall enough to ride the roller coaster at California Adventure called California Screamin‘.
So naturally, this is the first ride of the day the baby wanted to ride. It was around 6:30 in the evening and the wait time was listed as 45 minutes.
But In actuality it took about 20-25 minutes to get on.This is relevant because if it had taken 45 minutes to get on, this story would not exist.
At the end of the line, the cast member asked us how many were in our group. Our five year old loves to answer this question. She enthusiastically hollers THREE!
We were instructed to go to lane 7 and 8 on the left side. I went to lane 7 and the baby wanted to ride with mommy so they took lane 8, so I would be in the front of our car.
We quickly load in to the car, strap in, and we are off; excited to go on our journey.
Let’s stop right here for a second. It’s amazing how oblivious we are to dangers until it gets dangerous. Every time we step behind the wheel of a car, on an airplane, on a theme park attraction, etc we are basically putting our life in danger. Of course we don’t think about it like that, as we shouldn’t. If we did, we would have a tough time getting through life. But how often we unwittingly escape danger is a truly amazing thought.
Back to the story; We slowly pull out of the station where we stop at a straightaway. We’re outdoors, it’s dusk and there’s a carnival like atmosphere on what they call the Boardwalk in the back of the park. It’s beautiful. We’re smiling. We’re eagerly anticipating launch.
The voice-over says, “Get ready Screamers. Prepare to launch in…..5…..4….3….2….1!”
A millisecond after he says one, we take off. We launch from 0 – 55 in 4 seconds, right up a climb that throws us over the other side.
We’re zigzagging, turning, climbing, dropping, and even going in a loop much to our excitement. I hear them behind me, screaming and laughing. I have a smile on my face, I’m laughing, I’m having a blast. Not a care in the world. Enjoying the ride.
We get to the last part of the ride. After going through what my old friend Dan Barnes used to call “The Whoopdie Doo’s” (meaning the small hills that you go up and down on a roller coaster; he was referring to Colossus at Magic Mountain but there’s a part like that on this ride too), we prepare for the last part, which is a long, fast, sharp left turn that lasts for at least five seconds.
Right before we turn, the train slides over a portion of the track that is designed to slow us down just enough so we don’t head in to that turn with too much speed.
The only problem is instead of it slowing us down, this time it stopped us. Completely!
Then you hear a recording in the speaker saying they are experiencing technical difficulties.
This is where the ‘What If’s’ start taking over. It takes over because we are completely helpless. At the mercy of what you hope to be excellent engineering and the higher being you believe in.
First thought: As we were going through the Whoopdie Doo’s, I took a quick notice of a train in motion on the track above us. ‘What If’ that train can’t stop? ‘What If’ our stop wasn’t on purpose and they can’t stop that train fast enough so it rams us at full speed? I also thought about this story that I had read.
I start to look around. But thanks to the over-the-shoulder Harness, I can’t see anything behind me. Even if I could see, what exactly could I do if we were faced with something horrible?
I remain calm. I don’t say anything. I can hear my ladies talking behind me so I know they are fine.
An apologetic voice comes over the PA system and tells us that the ride has broken down and a Cast Member (what Disney calls their employees) will be there to assist us shortly.
In the meantime, all we can do is sit and wait. This is what I see.
But what I’m thinking; that’s a little tougher.
At this point I’ve safely concluded that the other train that was running is not going to ram us. I take comfort in that portion. But there are more thoughts.
‘What If’ we fall? Is this designed to hold us up if we’re sitting in one spot? Normally we’re rolling through this section. Will the weight of the train hold us here? For how long? The track is made of steel right?
At the time, it seems silly. More dramatic than probably necessary. But think of how vulnerable you are while sitting still well above ground level strapped in a harness that won’t budge.
The front part that I’m sitting in has less leg room than the row behind me. Around this time I’m kicking myself for not sitting in row 8. I’m taller than my ladies and need more leg room. As a result of poor row selection, my legs are falling asleep. I guess I should have known that on that day, at that exact time we were on it that the ride would break down and leave us stranded.
For about the fourth time in a few minute period, the apologetic voice would apologize again and assure us that someone is coming to help us.
Our little girl is starting to get anxious and nervous. I reach in to my backpack and pass her the tablet that she uses to watch videos to help her keep her mind off of what’s going on. Of course the harness makes it difficult to pass anything to my wife. It looked like our arms have shrunk.
What felt like three hours had passed….but it was only about 10 minutes. Two cast members arrive at the top of the steps next to us, as row 7 and 8 are the middle rows of the train.
The first feeling was relief. To be able to see anyone outside of the train was pure relief. ‘Get us out of this thing’ was my first thought. But they then informed us that they couldn’t get us out until the mechanics arrived.
Ok now it starts again. ‘What If’ something happens before they get here? Why are they not already here? How long does it take them to get here? They’re on the premises right?
By now my foot is almost numb. I scoot it about 3 inches to see if the blood will circulate again. It does. But it only buys me minutes. I hope they will arrive soon.
The cast members walk by to get a count for each group to give us front of the line passes to another attraction. They inform us that the passes are good for anything in either park accept the World of Color Show and Star Tours. Well, we’re risking our lives here. We’re in grave danger. And though that’s laughably argumentative, it is a valid argument. Disneyland is telling us that we apologize for your life being put in danger, but we’re not going to let you get in the front of the line of our most popular attraction.
A few minutes later the mechanics came up the stairs which prompted everyone who could see them to cheer.
We noticed they had on Bungee Chords, and that kinda inadvertently validated my ‘what ifs’. My wife made a valid observation. They are on Bungee’s so if this thing goes down they’re ok….but what about us?
But we don’t know what the Bungee Chords were for so it was all speculation out of the moment. Ideally the chords would have to be attached to something still standing and they didn’t appear to be attached to anything and were worn on their backs. It was clearly a precautionary measure, but we’re not thinking regular right now. In our eyes, the world is coming to an end and we’re in the middle of a battle zone without any equipment.
I overheard the mechanics speaking (probably because when you’re in this situation, you are looking directly in their mouths no matter who they are talking to) and one of them said they had to start from the front of the train. I began to be grateful that we weren’t in the last car.
We watched them manually, on the count of three, hit two buttons simultaneously to release the harness over all the shoulders of the riders. We watched people get out the train with a relieved look on their face. The cast members who were still up there (the non-mechanic, front of the line pass passer-outers who won’t let us cut in line for Star Tours) were forming a straight line of all passengers who had already exited the train. Apparently there would be one, and only one, trip downstairs.
The mechanics get to our car and politely gave us specific instructions:
“Ok everyone put your arms down and keep your head back. We’re going to open the harness but please do not exit until we tell you to. We’re going to exit the front row first so (looking at our baby) you’re going to stay in the seat until we say so, ok?”
It’s funny because at this point, you find yourself following instructions to a dramatic tee. I dropped my arms till I was damn near sitting on them. The harness didn’t go down that far but just in case, I didn’t want the presence of my elevated arm to be the cause for the ride to tip over or something. My head was no where near being in the way of the harness being raised, but I had my head pressed all the way back against the seat like I’m an Astronaut on a Rocket.
They raised the harness and directed me to the stairs where the start of the line has moved down a few steps to make room for the rest of us coming out. I couldn’t even help get my ladies out. But I was just a few feet away.
Here’s my baby getting out of the train as her mom (in the bottom left) and I can only look on. And yet after all this they still won’t even let us ride Star Tours.
By this time, my family and I are safely off the ride. But we’re still standing at right next to it. No closer to the safety of the ground than we were minutes before. The only difference is now we’re free to move. Unfortunately we’re also free to think.
‘What if’ an Earthquake strikes right at this moment? Not likely? Well how likely is it that we would be stranded on this ride. Yet here we are. Remember, had the wait time actually been 45 minutes, we would have been in line when the ride broke down. Apparently we won an unlucky lottery once already that day, who’s to say how unlucky it is.
As I watched them unload everyone in the train so we can leave, I couldn’t help but notice the vibrant, carnival background that was very nice when the ride started. Now it’s psychologically even more mesmerizing. After you survive the ‘What if’s you discover how much you took for granted. ‘What if’ that incredible view we saw on take off was the last time we’d ever see it?
Finally everyone was safely unloaded from the train. One cast member (ya know, the one who won’t let us cut in line for Star Tours) gave the signal to the other Cast Member, who was the line leader, that it was ok to descend.
Final problem: Our brave little girl, who had been wonderfully calm throughout this whole ordeal, was quietly scared to walk down the stairs. The reason why was because unfortunately the floor of the stairs were see-through. As she held her mother’s hand on the way down, I was behind them coaching her to not look down. Well, we know what happens when you tell someone up high to not look down. Especially a five year old.
Our brave little girl continues to descend the stairs at the lightning speed of snot. There are people behind us who anxiously want to get downstairs but they patiently wait, seeing her take one careful step at a time. I remember overhearing them joke that what we had just went through was the scariest ride in the park.
I knew it! It wasn’t just me that got to thinking while you’re up there.
Meanwhile our little princess makes it to the bottom and we’re very proud of her for how she handled everything.
As we got to the bottom floor and was heading toward the gate to exit the land of the coaster back in to the park, I had to turn around and get one last memory of a situation that could have gone awfully wrong.
This was our thrill ride for about 15 mins.
I give credit to the cast members (minus the whole Star Tours thing, of course) and the mechanics for their professionalism.
Actually I think at one point I secretly thanked the Engineers who built the track, their supervisors for making sure they did it right, The City of Anaheim for their maintenance codes and, of course, God for watching over us.
Maybe things like this happen to remind us that life is fragile while we still have our lives to understand that lesson.
Or maybe I’m over-thinking it. It’s easy to dismiss this as paranoia, especially since we escaped without incident.
But…..’what if’ it had gone another way?