"The Big Freak-Out" (Issue 16) traces the origins of roller coasters and dives into the minds of the thrill-seekers in search of the ultimate ride. The editors at Maisonneuve sent staff writer Alana Coates and photographer John Morstad to Montreal's La Ronde amusement park for a day. Their assignment: to discover what sorts of thrills La Ronde offers adventure-hunters.
You can never really outgrow amusement parks. You can get older, you can move on to what you think are more sophisticated forms of entertainment, but you're really just fooling yourself. Montreal's La Ronde is an artificial world full of flashing lights and sugared-up kids, designed for the sole purpose of forcing every participant to have fun. You have no choice in the matter.
As a native Montrealer, I've had my share of that synthetic La Ronde delight. There used to be an aquarium with penguins next to the park gates, in the spiral-topped building that is now the Nintendo Megadome. There would be day trips with my cousins at least once a summer, where I'd pride myself on being the fearless one in the family, the only person who wouldn't scream on the roller coasters. As a teenager, I'd take my babysitting charges to the park to ride the merry-go-round and play Pokémon in the arcade, wishing the brats were tall enough to ride the Boomerang instead.
Since then, the only times I've experienced La Ronde have been when driving over the Jacques-Cartier Bridge and watching the sunset behind the Ferris wheel. Not once have I driven by and felt the desire to spend a precious $30 on ephemeral plastic thrills. So going back inside as a worldly and jaded twenty-three-year-old (cough, cough), with instructions to root out the thrills, photographer in tow, I fully expected the childhood magic to be gone. Still, the folks at La Ronde never let up in cramming entertainment down my throat throughout the day, and I found myself swallowing it up whole from the moment I passed through the gates.
The end of May is an unfortunate time for an amusement park that is located on a small island. At this point in the year, all the little larvae that have been calmly lounging in the shallows of the St. Lawrence River suddenly sprout wings and collectively exit their watery nest, smashing by the millions into the windshields of bridge commuters. Shadflies are born, they reproduce and die in a matter of days, only to return at the same point the following year. Before they expire though, they swarm the tops of trees and the pathways of the park, slamming into the spinning rides and into the mouths of unsuspecting revellers. While overpriced hot dogs and cotton candy are amusement-park staples, bug guts are your dessert when visiting La Ronde during in May.
Of course, the first thing you do at La Ronde is make a beeline for the Monster. No matter how many scary-fast, upside-down roller coasters are built, the Monster will always be the badass daddy of the park. Romantic wooden roller coasters are hard to come by these days. The Monster was built in 1985 and resembles nothing more than a giant pile of precariously stacked matchsticks. Despite the abundance of faster, cooler rides at La Ronde, you can always count on the Monster for having the longest queue.
On a day when the park was nearly empty, save for hormonal CEGEP students in minimal clothing, the lineup for the Monster was nearly an hour long. That meant a hour of catty comments about the seventeen-year-olds, some enhancement of the sunburn on my neck, and a lot of shadfly swatting. But oh-so-worth-it! The Monster is so fun it's painful. It won't take you upside down, but it will whip you through the corners nearly fast enough to spin your neck around. It will slowly lift you to the top with that classic roller-coaster cranking noise, then drop down vertically, as though the cars have just driven off a clifftop. You'll fly off your seat and pray that the puny metal bar keeping you inside the car will hold. Yup. The Monster is one doozy of a coaster.
On the opposite end of the park, the Vampire is the sleek, modern Ferrari of roller coasters. There was nearly no lineup for the ride. The seat was suspiciously wet, though, when I sat down and strapped myself in, giving me the icky feeling that I was perhaps sitting in a puddle of drool-or worse. The Vampire uses all the roller-coaster technology available to freak you out. It goes upside down at least three times, it twists, it drops you from very high up, then unexpectedly sprays you with water before chugging back into the station (I now realized, with some relief, the reason for the moist plastic seat). But, unlike the rickety Monster, it feels totally safe. You're strapped in so tightly that you barely move when it shoots upside down. It gave me thrills, a comforting feeling of security, and no whiplash. Modern and unromantic, yes, but smooth and exciting as well. I wiped the dead flies off my face and went back for seconds and thirds.
By late afternoon, I found myself getting hungry, this despite the truckload of bug protein I ingested as I whipped around the tracks. Big mistake. La Ronde is probably the biggest rip-off ever when it comes to food. Want a small ice-cream cone? That'll be $4, please. A plastic cup of beer? $5. I settled down with a tiny plate of fries doused in ketchup to tide me over. But the shady table underneath the umbrella was as delightful as the family of baby groundhogs frolicking in the grass nearby.
I tried a few other rides after the break, like the Boomerang coaster and the flume ride, cutely named the Pitoune (joual for "little log"). By then, the sun was setting, my body was aching, and the moment seemed right for the Ferris wheel, a ride so much higher and vertigo-inducing than its innocent-seeming appearance when viewed from the bridge would suggest. On my way back to the exit, I stumbled upon my favourite childhood ride: the swings, aka the Tour de Ville. I squeezed myself into the toddler-sized seat and let it spin me around, thinking to myself, "La Ronde, you can force me to have fun any day."