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HIGHER, FASTER, LOOPIER -- THE STRIP'S ROLLER-COASTER WARS

The folks in Las Vegas are looking to take you for a ride.
No, not that kind -- well, maybe that kind, too. But we're talking about roller-coaster-style rides.

More than a half-dozen of the amusement rides have popped up on the Strip in the past year alone. According to some, life in the fast lane has never been more thrilling.

Circus Circus was the first Las Vegas Strip casino-hotel to take the plunge when, in August 1993, it built the 55 mph Canyon Blaster, the only indoor, double-loop, double-corkscrew roller coaster in the United States, says Tom Nolan, operation manager at Circus Circus' Grand Slam Canyon theme park.

A year later, Primadonna Resorts Inc. built the world's tallest and fastest roller coaster at Buffalo Bill's, a hotel and casino located at the Nevada-California border a half-hour or so from the Strip.

Desperado is an unforgiving roller coaster that hurls riders 209 feet into the sky before thrusting them into a tiny, dark tunnel some 16 feet underground. Despite its off-Strip location, roller coaster fiends from as far as Italy and Brazil have flocked to Buffalo Bill's to experience two minutes and 43 seconds of sheer terror.

Several months ago, a roller coaster 50 feet taller than Desperado opened in Japan, but the nearly 90 mph Desperado, along with the Steel Phantom at Kennywood, a theme park near Pittsburgh, remain the nation's -- if not the world's -- fastest roller coasters.

Desperado is also still considered the tallest conventional roller coaster in the United States. For now, at least.

The precipitous rise of roller coasters on the Strip itself is a trend that began a little more than 12 months ago.

Since then, three coasters have opened there: Stratosphere's High Roller, New York-New York's Manhattan Express and MGM Grand's Sky Screamer, an unconventional "sky coaster" representing a cross between a bungee jump and a trackless roller coaster ride.

A fourth coaster, the MGM Grand's 4-year-old Lightning Bolt, formerly an indoor roller coaster in the dark, is being retooled to throw in a few more dramatic drops. The new, improved version of Lightning Bolt is scheduled to reopen at MGM Grand's Grand Adventures theme park around Labor Day.

Just how popular are these attractions? "Some people say they come to the hotel just to ride the roller coaster," one New York-New York security guard told us. On the day we visited, an English soccer team told us they had ridden the Manhattan Express six times. Since January, the Coney island-style roller coaster has already transported about 700,000 persons through thrill ride heaven and hell.

About 3 1/2 million riders have traversed the Canyon Blaster's loops and corkscrews since it opened. And almost 3 million riders have survived Desperado, notes Dan Rasmussen, director of rides and attractions for Primadonna Resorts.

"It seems that Desperado is the current favorite among Vegas-area coasters," reports Dave Bowers, host of a weekly Internet "Coaster Chat." "Manhattan Express is also generating a lot of content in the chat rooms because of its newness."

Doesn't Las Vegas already have enough diversions to satisfy the appetites of most adrenaline addicts? Not necessarily. "The more things you have to do, the more people will come," explains MGM Grand spokeswoman Michelle Tell.

If you've been off roller coasters for a while, like us, however, you'd better brush up on your "roller speak." New York-New York's Manhattan Express, for example, touts itself as the world's first roller coaster to feature a heartline twist and dive maneuver. A heartline roll places the center of gravity in the middle of your chest and is similar to the sensation felt by a pilot executing a barrel roll.

In the twist and dive portion of the ride, the 67 mph Manhattan Express rolls 180 degrees -- suspending riders 86 feet above the casino roof before diving directly under itself. OK, if they say so.

Comparing "G-forces" is another way ride connoisseurs separate more mundane thrill rides from the truly wild. "When the space shuttle takes off, astronauts feel a gravitational pull of 3.2 G's," says Aaron Cohen, spokesman for Primadonna Resorts. "Desperado achieves G-forces of close to 4.0."

In layman's language that means that during certain portions of a Desperado ride, you feel as if you weigh four times your actual weight. In the course of a Desperado ride, you also experience near-weightlessness (Zero G) three different times. Elevator stomach is nothing by comparison.

Buffalo Bill's Desperado and New York-New York's Manhattan Express board and exit inside the hotels not far from the casinos. It sure beats standing in long lines in brutal hundred-degree-plus weather just so you can do equally brutal things to your body at $5 a pop (currently the going rate for each of the roller coaster rides mentioned in this article).

Providing you are brave enough to keep your eyes open, each of these rides offers wonderful views -- the former, of mountains and desert; the latter, of Tropicana Avenue and portions of the Las Vegas Strip.

Of course, Stratosphere's outdoor Let It Ride High Roller tops them all (literally) by virtue of its location astride a 1,149-foot tower. There's not a better view of the city around, particularly at night.

The 32 mph High Roller is docile compared to the competition, but its proponents could care less. "The obvious thing is location, location, location," says Brian Fauth, public relations director for a Chicago-based 5,000-member group called American Coaster Enthusiasts.

Free-fall-style rides represent yet another recently arrived mover and shaker.

Four years ago, AJ Hackett Bungy, located on Circus Circus Drive, just off the Strip, was the only free-fall ride in Las Vegas. Not anymore.

Big Shot, located atop the Stratosphere Tower, propels fun-lovers 160 feet in the air at speeds of up to 45 mph before letting them free-fall back to the launching pad.

About three months ago, Buffalo Bill's debuted the negative-two-G's "Turbo Drop," a variation on the free fall theme in which riders strapped into harness-fitted seats surrounding a tall square column are raised 200 feet in the air and shot downward at 45 mph.

"The only way to feel these exact same forces would be if you were flying a jet fighter pointed straight down," boasts Primadonna's Aaron Cohen.

MGM Grand Adventures' newly unveiled Sky-Screamer, located in the outdoor theme park behind the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino, lifts fliers a whopping 220 feet off the ground before dropping them at free-fall speeds of up to 70 mph.

SkyScreamer is part sky dive and part Superman fantasy-come-true.

Fliers dangle horizontally -- by a harness secured by straps attached to their waist and legs -- before being hoisted 25 stories high. The 100-foot free fall then propels participants to swoop down and swing like human pendulums until the momentum stops.

"This might be the best ride I've been on. Ever." gushes Dave Martin, 25, of Aspen, Colo. His fiancee, 26-year-old Jennifer Edison, a self-described roller coaster nut from Fort Myers, Fla., has dragged Martin on and off thrill rides all across the United States.

"I was just glad he could survive this one," she laughs.

Viva Las Vegas.

Travel information

Minimum height requirements range from 42 inches for all MGM Grand Adventure rides (including SkyScreamer) to 52 inches for the Turbo Drop.

Most of the rides mentioned operate from about 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily, until midnight Friday and Saturday. Hours vary depending on the season. Most park officials recommend calling ahead.

The rides mentioned cost $5 each with the exception of SkyScreamer. Unlimited-ride passes are also available. MGM Grand Adventures charges $11 per day for an unlimited-ride pass, for example (Sky-Screamer tickets must be purchased separately), and Circus Circus' Grand Slam Canyon charges $15.95 for persons 48 inches or higher and $11.95 for the under-48-inch set.

SkyScreamer tickets rang from $12.50 (if you are willing to fly alongside two other people) to $22.50 if you prefer to go solo. Advance reservation is strongly recommended, since the ride is expected to be booked up to five days in advance this summer.

Unfortunately, you actually have to go to one of the MGM Grand's four on-premise ticketing outlets to purchase your "flight." Phone credit card reservations are not accepted.

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