I’ve got a few fears. Some may argue I’ve got too many fears. But #1 is snakes, and #1A is heights. Being afraid of heights is a bit complicated. Those who don’t share the fear are mystified at understanding it, and those who are cursed with it haven’t got the words to really convey what it feels like. Knees rattle, chests tighten, and throats swell. And flying doesn’t really count. Being enclosed in a massive tube powered by jet engines 20 thousand feet off the ground doesn’t necessarily pack the same fright-induced punch as standing on an observation deck, or dangling from a tree with a climbing harness on. (Did it once. Won’t ever do it again.) And for those who share this fear, you know what I’m saying. Those who don’t, well, you just won’t understand. I’ve spent 25 harrowing minutes inside the London Eye. I’d come dangerously close-no, really, all kidding aside-to passing out on the Stone Mountain cable gondola. And once, battling a fit of insanity, I’d ridden the glass elevator at the Downtown Atlanta Westin.
This past week I found myself alone at Disney World. My wife was working in Orlando, and with the opportunity to dip my toe in the Disney World waters for the first time, I wandered through the Animal Kingdom theme park solo. Once I got past the bizarre and very creepy feeling of being a grown man alone in a theme park with at least 6 million children, I stood at the entrance to the park’s largest roller coaster, Expedition Everest. I hadn’t ridden a roller coaster in easily 20 years, and as I contemplated getting in this rolling metal chamber of death, I realized that at the age of 33, maybe it was time to take this fear on. I had enjoyed roller coasters in the past, primarily because they go to fast and are over to soon to even worry about heights, but this time it was different. Hearing the blood curdling screams of its passengers certainly didn’t help matters. And while the lines for rides at Disney World can stretch just north of 3 miles long, I noticed the line for single riders was claiming a five minute wait. And before I had time to dwell on it, I found myself in line, with just four people between me and the peril that awaited me on the other side. Four people became three, three became two, and then I was up. Gulp.
Climbing into the car, I pulled down the safety bar, and couldn’t help but have a little worry when the 16 year old kid who was working for 7 dollars an hour walked by during his safety check and said “that should be fine.” Right. Thanks, Tommy. Glad your concern for my safety is paramount here. The guy seated next to me said if I was going to get back into roller coasters then this was the one to do it. Thanks bud, but I’m not in the mood to chat. His sage advice meant one thing to me: time to change my pants. And in mid thought, the cars lurched forward, ripped us around a turn, where it began the slow, torturous climb up the first hill. It’s the hill all roller coasters have, just long enough to allow riders like me to contemplate the little things, like what we’ve done with our lives, who will get all our worldly possessions. Creeping up the hill, Disney World’s Animal Kingdom grew smaller and smaller below me, with each hair raising click of the tracks. And as we crested the hill, we were thrust into a lightning fast series of turns, curves, and stomach shredding falls. And as we got through the first half of the ride, something weird happened to me. I was alive, my heart hadn’t stopped, the cars were still attached to the tracks (i figured) and as we were tossed from one side of the ride to the other, I smiled. I’d been thrashed with fear, but with each turn, I couldn’t help but laugh. The safety bar across my lap stayed intact, the tracks hadn’t collapsed, and the bolts holding the ride together hadn’t rattled loose-all things I was sure would happen. I realized this was not in fact the certain death I thought it would be. I’d live. I wouldn’t need to find a home for all my possessions, and I wouldn’t have to change my pants. As the cars came to a screeching halt at the end of the ride, I turned to my partner, and laughed. I’d learned to let go a little bit. 16 year old Tommy, who was responsible for hitting the ride’s start button every two minutes hadn’t let anything happen to me. He cared. I think.
As I climbed out of the car, I got back in line for another go. And then another. And another. And then two more. 7 runs in 40 minutes. And just as I was beginning to accept the change that had come to me, on the 7th run, the cars stopped on that first hill. A complete standstill. Seated, with just a silver bar between me and the park 13 stories below, the panic was coming back. A malfunction? I was sure of it. Waiting for the other riders to finish? Maybe. After all, I hadn’t considered a mid-ride collision with another set of riders. And sitting there, for what seemed like ages, i shut my eyes, and started counting. And just like that, the ride was off again. As long as this thing was moving I was aces, and my stomach was returning to it’s normal state. Expedition Everest certainly didn’t rid me of acrophobia. It’s still there, and in a very big way. But its possible it got me one smaller step towards getting on this thing one day.