In the old days, like maybe a decade or two ago, if you wanted to find out where all the biggest, fastest, awesomest, or newest coasters were, you had very few options.
You could hit the library and find books on coasters, but the information was usually outdated. It wasn’t uncommon for me to read about a coaster, travel to that park a few years later, then discover that it was no longer there.
You could try to catch TV shows about coasters, but those had the same problem.
Your best option was to join American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE). With thousands of members worldwide, there were folks keeping up-to-date information about coasters and it would make it into the ACE News publication sent to your house every month or so. That alone made joining the club worthwhile for anyone planning to do any traveling. For those who didn’t (or couldn’t) travel, the club’s quarterly RollerCoaster! magazine offered them beautifully-written articles with amazing pictures to provide excitement over the latest and greatest stuff in coasters. ACE was also a great place to meet folks who share your passion for coasters, folks who totally get it when you get teary-eyed over never having ridden the Idora Wildcat before its demise or your anger-filled rant when they put those ‘coffin cars’ on the Texas Cyclone.
But now the internet is a thing. Anything you might see in ACE News has already hit your social media feed a thousand times and is likely so familiar that it hardly rates as ‘news.’ The magazine is still beautifully written and full of great pictures, but gone is that sense of wonder from seeing a photo of a coaster for the first time – you’ve likely seen it many times already. Not only that, but there are lots of other clubs out there in addition to ACE. Some of them do meetups in person, most of them are just online hangouts. Either way, they can help fulfill that desire to find like-minded folks who share your passion.
So why would anyone bother to join ACE these days?
The answer to that question has so many answers that I could sit here and type for the next three weeks and still only scratch the surface, so I’ll limit this article to a single topic: Coaster Con.
Coaster Con is a days-long national ACE convention that typically takes place in late June at one or more host parks. It’s not just a meetup… it’s a celebration. The host parks typically roll out the red carpet to the attendees, offering experiences that you simply cannot get at any other event.
There are catered meals, cocktail parties, Q&A sessions with park officials, behind-the-scenes tours, photo tours to areas normally inaccessible to the public, contests, banquets, and Exclusive Ride Time (ERT) when the attendees get a few hours on the coasters when the park is closed to the public.
The main thing, though, is the friendships that you create with these people that are coming from all over the world (literally). You see old friends that you haven’t seen since the last Con, you make new friends that you look forward to seeing again at the next Con. It’s not so much a convention (even though there is a business meeting) as it is a big family reunion with coasters added.... including the crazy uncle, but minus the family squabbles.
But seriously, is this event really all that? Other groups have events. You could go to those. Some groups even do trips.
True that. ACE also does trips and has many, many smaller regional events that one can attend throughout the year, but Coaster Con is simply unmatched by anything else. Let’s look at Coaster Con XXXVIII that happened in June 2015.
When you checked in at the host hotel (which gave us all steep discounts on rooms), you got a swag bag with all kinds of goodies: a custom beach towel and beach ball with Coaster Con XXXVIII logo on it, a pair of sunglasses, $20 in "wild bucks" that could be used to purchase food, a lanyard that got you free parking (saving you $75 over the course of the event), and other stuff. It was also a time to reacquaint yourself with folks you'd not seen in awhile and meet new people. Later that day, things kicked off in a big way and never slowed down.
Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey hosted the first half of the Con and kicked it off with the two things that ACEers love most: food and coasters. A really nice catered meal with introductions to the park hosts got everyone in the mood for the evening's Exclusive Ride Time (ERT) session. ERT is a period of time set aside for attendees to ride the rides before or after normal park hours. In other words: no lines to wait in! Over the course of the convention, ACEers were treated to nearly twenty hours of ERT across 18 different coasters. Let that sink in for a minute.
But it gets better! Six Flags Great Adventure (SFGAd) set up a game for us where they gave everyone a rubber ball and set up a target basket below the skyway. We were to throw the ball out of the cable car and try to hit the basket. This is the kind of thing that would normally get you kicked out of the park, but when you're hanging around outside of the normal park hours, you get to do fun stuff like this.
There were also backstage tours that got you into places the public isn't normally allowed to go. This created some fantastic photo opportunities, like the one I took of Bizarro next to the flame cannons:
More contests, like a photo scavenger hunt, a "Midway Olympics" (teams of people competing at the midway games like Whack-a-Mole and such), a game show, a photo contest, a video contest, and more VIP awesomeness like being able to hit the Safari Off-road Adventure before the public rushed in to fill the queue.
And even more ERT. Morning ERT, nighttime ERT, it seemed that there was an almost unlimited number of rides you could snag, each time with a trainload of your friends to go along with you.
And for the CreHos in the group, there were those opportunities, too. Seriously, there is nothing quite like the giddy silliness of cramming a kiddie coaster full of fully-grown adults. Storybook Land in Egg Harbor NJ was more than happy to play host for an afternoon and give us all a reason to stop in and ride Bubbles the Coaster.
From there, things moved down to the Wildwoods and Morey's Piers really rolled out the red carpet. How about a Jersey Shore clambake with a ton of food, a live band, an open bar, and a biplane welcome banner!
Morey's is home to several coasters across three different piers and we had ERT on each of the piers before things wrapped up. In addition to the coasters, we also got to sample the other rides as well, including a cool Ghost Ship haunted house walkthrough, giant Ferris wheel (with breakfast on it one morning!), two water parks, and more.
Oh, and the unlimited ride wristbands the attendees got included the stuff that is normally extra cost, too. Things like on-ride photos/videos, go-karts, and the extreme rides like the Skycoaster:
This article is already too long and I haven't even covered the banquet, where folks get a chance to show up in nice clothes and have fancy food while listening to folks from the industry talk about stuff. It's a great way to see your coaster friends outside of the usual park setting and it's also fun to push the envelope a bit on your outfit.
But as the sun set on Coaster Con XXXVIII, it wasn't just about the coasters, or the ERT, or the food, or the VIP perks, or the swag and freebies, or even getting to legitimately throw something out of a cable car. It was about an amazing almost-week of hanging out with your extended family, people who get you, and who love you for your crazy, non-comformist self.
Goodbyes are genuinely difficult, some accompanied by tears, but all of them with the assurance that we'll see each other again next year to do it all over again at a new place with even more new friends. There are a lot of clubs out there, and lots of them have events... but at the end of the day, there is nothing like ACE Coaster Con. It's just one of a thousand reasons to join, but it's good enough all by itself.