What would make a woman who lives in a pastoral setting near the east side of Mille Lacs Lake seek the challenge of traveling throughout the country to test ever more thrilling roller coaster rides? Connie Erickson and her sister, Diane Fischer of Hutchinson, even take their teenage daughters, Jennifer and Sarah, with them. “Jennifer and Sarah are the brave ones. They really get us going,” Connie declared with a proud smile at her daughter Jennifer. The two shared a special closeness and a sparkle in their eyes while telling roller coaster tales.

Maybe Connie keeps the trips happening because she has twice beaten cancer and realizes the value of living life to its fullest each day. Maybe she and her sister love being able to actually take the rides after a childhood in which they could only watch because there wasn’t enough money for tickets. Maybe getting husband Randy and son Christopher to go with them makes for an unusual way to have family fun.

“The first time I went on the Wild Thing at Valley Fair, I prayed for the entire minute it takes to get to the top. That 200-foot steep drop at 70 miles per hour was something. It’s not even a challenge now. Now we are going to get my husband and son to go on it,” she said.

Connie gleefully reported on roller coasters they have mastered, including the Iron Wolf, where you stand up the whole time, and the Shock Wave, which does seven loops (and gave them serious second thoughts when they first drove into the park and saw it).

“I’ve come a long way. I’m proud of myself. Anyone who thinks I’m crazy is just jealous they can’t do it. You don’t know what you’re missing,” Connie laughed.

When asked about the current concern sweeping the nation regarding the safety of amusement park rides and roller coasters, Connie paused for a thoughtful moment. “When I’m on a roller coaster and I go around the curves, I sometimes wonder, ‘What if it just flew off.’ But really, I feel just as safe as I do in the car.”

Connie began her roller coaster experience when her son, after buying a stereo, won free tickets to a Six Flags Amusement Park in another state. Since then, she has ridden all seven roller coasters at Great America in St. Louis, Mo., twice. This year, Connie’s sister treated her and Jennifer to a trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where they looked in awe out of their motel window at the biggest wooden roller coaster in the state. “Did it move ... it went 60 miles per hour, and you were off your seat half the time,” Connie exclaimed.

Other favorites have been the Whizzer, which curves until it is literally on its side. There’s also the Viper, which has so many little dips that riders are raised off their seats most of the time. The American Eagle, with double tracks so two coasters are going at once, hits 55 miles per hour and is 150-feet high. Erickson especially enjoys riding coasters such as the Batman, which has nothing but air beneath one’s feet.

The group, now that they are such experienced riders, agree that getting whipped around in the rear car is the real thrill, instead of the very front, which is actually slower. “We always say this will be our last year, and we won’t do it anymore, especially since our dad keeps asking us when we are going to grow up. But we always end up riding again. Diane and I are usually the oldest ones riding. Now we are working on being able to ride with our hands up in the air,” Connie laughed. She explained that plans for next year include a trip to Cedar Point, Ohio, where there are over a dozen different coasters at the same location. It will be a far cry from a peaceful summer day in small town Minnesota.

Roller coasters

Three million Americans attended amusement parks in 1998, a 20-percent increase over 1990, and millions more enjoyed rides at carnivals and state fairs. The results were 4,500 trips to the hospital emergency room and four fatalities in 1998, with six fatalities on the record so far in 1999.

The U.S. Consumer Protection Safety Commission has proposed legislation to restore the federal regulation of amusement park safety, which was dropped in 1981 as a result from pressure from lobbyists. Presently, safety inspections, certification of amusement park workers and enforcement are left to state and local agencies which vary greatly in resources and ability to regulate the industry.

The commission suspects that the public may be partly to blame for this trend due to its hunger for even more thrilling rides.

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