Shake Rattle and Roll

Nothing to lose but your lunch.

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Las Vegas. A city fueled by human desires: the desire to win big and retire to a tropical isle; the desire to experience faraway places without changing money or forgoing cheeseburgers; the desire to feel as if you’re plummeting to an untimely death.

Wait, what was that last one? You heard correctly. Those who are lured to Vegas by a love of risk are finding satisfaction in a new form: thrill rides. Dropping, rattling, twisting, and flinging riders within an inch of their lives, these mechanical monstrosities deliver the stomach-clenching terror we secretly crave. It’s incredibly senseless. It’s deliciously fun. It’s what Vegas is all about.

Take MGM’s SkyScreamer for instance—an experience that could scar you for a lifetime. First, the victims lie belly-down in a sling and are hoisted up 22 vertiginous stories. Then, in an act akin to signing their own death warrants, they pull the rip cord, which sends them swooping down at speeds of up to 70 mph. Riders shriek and swear; they cry out for mommy. Clearly this is a wonderful thing.

New York-New York’s Manhattan Express roller coaster is another excellent source of anxiety. For maximum scare factor, peer up at the tracks beforehand and ask yourself, Can those ribbon-thin rails actually support a car of buffet-laden bellies? Keep the answer in mind as you approach the 144-foot drop.

Another prime contender in the Best Coaster category, Circus Circus’s Canyon Blaster weighs in with two loops, two corkscrews, and plenty of face-flattening speed. Tipping the scales in its favor: an indoor setting in the Adventure-dome, a crystalline bubble that’s dazzling on a sunny day and indispensable on a rainy one.

Indoor excitement takes on an even more imaginative dimension with motion simulators, a sort of moving movie theater that gives a whole new meaning to the words "armchair travel." Stimulation of the adrenal gland is still the ultimate goal. There’s just more room for wackiness—extreme wackiness in the case of Circus Circus’s Fun House Express, which propels riders through a twisted Claymation clown world terrorized by stomping boots, snapping dentures, and other bizarre villains.

The bad guys are slightly more familiar in Star Trek: The Experience, the much-hyped simulator at the Las Vegas Hilton. With an attention to detail that would make Mr. Spock proud, The Experience is liable to send true Trekkies into paroxysms of rapture. Those whose lives revolve around this planet, however, may find the $15 ticket a bit steep. If you do go, get your money’s worth: Peruse the exhibits, linger over the videos, and loiter around until you spy a wandering Ferengi. Then ask him to show you his teeth. Now that’s scary.

While Star Trek has its Hollywood charms, the indisputable winner in the simulator category is the Race for Atlantis at Caesars. The only motion ride to combine the sweeping visuals of an IMAX theater, the in-your-face fun of 3-D, and the realism of in-helmet stereo, Atlantis is an experience that both steals the breath and delights the eyes.

Unfortunately, not all the motion rides succeed so completely: Although the Luxor’s Search for the Crystal Obelisk initially shows potential, the D-grade actors are as convincing as a team of pro wrestlers. Better to skip next door to Excalibur’s Magic Motion Machine, a no-frills motion ride that features six bone-rattling simulations a day.

But if you’re really looking for terror, you’ve got to go to the top—the top of the Stratosphere tower. No, we don’t mean the Stratosphere’s High Roller, the kiddie-caliber coaster that’s capable of scaring only the truly acrophobic. We’re talking about the Big Shot. There is no way to describe the sheer psychological power of this monolithic monster, this slingshot of humanity. There is only the acrid smell of fear as you take your seat, and the silent scream as that same seat flings you bodily toward the heavens. As everything that smacks of security and structural support falls away into the blackness and you’re left dangling some 1,000 feet above the Strip, one thought goes through your mind: "Thank you, Vegas. Thank you."

This article was first published in March 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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