As the summer theme park season kicks into high gear, roller coaster enthusiast Pete Trabucco says there may be a health benefit to the thrill rides that scare us senseless.
“It helps you mental health-wise in that you can actually overcome your fear,” says Trabucco, author of “America’s Top Roller Coasters and Amusement Parks” (2009, Tate Publishing) in a phone interview from Old Bridge, N.J.
And that positive experience may translate into conquering challenges in other areas of your life, adds the rider of more than 1,000 roller coasters around the world.
“Once you’ve overcome one fear, you’re like, ‘Let’s look for the next one,’ ” Trabucco says, be it speaking in public or jumping out of an airplane.
Being too frightened to get on a roller coaster can transfer into other areas of your life, he adds.
“That fear becomes a fear of all things unknown,” says the New Jersey resident who confesses he hated coasters as a kid. Pretty soon you’re thinking, “From now on, I’m not trying anything I’m unsure of,” he says, and, “That changes a person’s life a lot.”
Besides giving us a psychological boost, Trabucco says amusement park visits can offer other health benefits like stress relief or even some physical exercise.
“It gets you in a positive mood, it gets you to relax a little, even for a couple of hours. In stressful times, that can be a godsend,” says the aviation industry worker who is writing a second edition of his book to be released in April of 2015.
The idea of amusement park outings being good for your health is a new one for Dick Andrew, vice president of marketing at Lagoon in Farmington, who says he’s never seen any studies or research on the subject.
But Andrew says, “Obviously it’s a pleasant experience and a get-away from the norm, and I hope people find it relaxing and refreshing. ... I presume that is the case or people wouldn’t keep coming back.”
Historically, folks have always flocked to parks with lakes, trees and picnic grounds to escape the stresses of everyday life, says Trabucco, who talks about travel and vacation as a regular on the USA Radio weekly program “Daybreak.”
Offering recreational opportunities to employees, for instance, was the reason Milton Hershey started Hersheypark in Pennsylvania, in the town he built for workers at the Hershey chocolate factory.
“They needed a place to unwind and he created the park that was the forerunner of Hersheypark,” Trabucco says. Hershey’s philosophy was “a good worker is going to be a worker who is healthy, emotionally and physically,” he explains.
Today, Trabucco says amusement parks can fill this same need, whether it’s providing positive social connections with family and friends or offering a little exercise.
“The average person who walks in an amusement park is probably going to walk 5 to 10 miles,” Trabucco says. “You’re actually out in the sun walking around getting your exercise without even knowing you’re getting your exercise.”
Also, roller coasters subject their riders to intense g-forces, making the author wonder whether they might even help you get in shape. After all, he says, “you’re taking three, four, five times your amount of weight.”
Michael Olpin, director of Weber State University’s Stress Relief Center, agrees there can be some positive benefits in an amusement park visit but says the simple act of riding rides does not constitute exercise.
There’s no high-intensity interval training or weight lifting involved, he says, or no aerobic activity that elevates the heart rate for 15 to 20 minutes.
“That can’t happen at the amusement park unless you are jogging around the park,” the professor and director of health promotion for the Ogden university says.
However, Olpin says a day spent at Lagoon or on vacation does provide stress relief by letting us recharge and relax from the daily grind.
“Anytime you can vacate yourself from those situations that you find stressful is a good thing,” he says.
Research on mind-body connections, in a field called psychoneuroimmunology, shows that any time we engage in activities we enjoy — say, riding a roller coaster — our immune system gets a boost, Olpin says.
“You’re smiling and you’re laughing and you’re having great experiences, it bumps up your immune system,” he says. “It’s therapy through amusement parks, I guess.”
On the other hand, if you dislike thrill rides or the crowds of people, those sort of stresses dampen the immune system, Olpin says.
“Whatever your attitude is, your body’s listening to your attitude,” he says.
Olpin agrees with Trabucco’s belief that conquering fear can be a benefit of amusement parks. The Weber State professor challenges students in one of his classes to do something they are afraid of and once they do it, they always tell him they are going to tackle something else.
“Small victories result in personal growth and willingness to try other things,” he says.
Andrew, at Lagoon, says folks may indeed get some exercise walking around the park’s 140 acres but exercise isn’t among his list of things he thinks attract crowds to the Farmington park.
“They come for fun; they come to create memories with their families, to share time with their families; to get away from the humdrum or everyday life, to be entertained,” he says.
Sure, visitors have a chance to face their fears on certain rides, he says.
“The illusion of danger is created so it kind of gets the adrenaline running,” Andrew says. But as for there being any real danger, “That’s pure fantasy. ... You’re infinitely safer riding the thrill rides at Lagoon than driving in your car to get here.”
Although Trabucco has now ridden some of the world’s top roller coasters, he says he didn’t become a fan until he had a daughter of his own who needed a riding buddy.
“I actually did it to overcome a fear; it was more therapeutic,” says the author.
He may have traveled the world to scream on roller coaster rides but Trabucco has yet to take a spin on Wicked, Colossus or any of the coasters at Lagoon.
Next time he visits Utah, he says he will have to make a stop in Farmington.