SANDUSKY, Ohio -- With the ground beneath and clear blue sky above, Cedar Point's newest roller coaster excels at giving riders the sense that they're flying.
It also gives a very strong inclination to duck for cover.
Called GateKeeper, the coaster is literally the newest center of attention at the amusement park on the Lake Erie shore. Its blue steel track dips and twists over the park's completely remade entrance, greeting visitors with a screaming flyover.
"I've always wanted to put something at the front gate at Cedar Point," said Rob Decker, Cedar Fair's corporate vice president of planning and design. "It's the world's best amusement park, and you should [see] rides, and roller coasters as soon as you come into the park."
Cedar Point opens to the public today.
A key element of the rebuilt entrance -- and one of the best features of the ride -- is the set of two "keyholes" that the coaster tears through at clearances and speeds that are, shall we say, concerning.
Mr. Decker likens the feeling to the low beam on Gemini, one of Cedar Point's classic wooden coasters.
"You know you're going to clear it because everyone in front of you did, but still you duck your head," he said Thursday at a special preview of the GateKeeper. "It's that innate fear. You get tunnel vision when you're on these things and all of a sudden you're presented with that tower. You slot through one side, rotate over, slot through the other side, and it all works."
Park officials call the sensation a "near miss element." Coaster enthusiasts call them "head choppers."
For the record, Cedar Point has carefully tested the ride to ensure no heads will be chopped. However, the maximum height of a rider on the GateKeeper will be 6-foot-6.
The ride stretches out over 4,164 feet of track at speeds up to 67 mph. At 170 feet tall, GateKeeper isn't as imposing as some of Cedar Point's other coasters, but park officials and riders said the trip is every bit as exhilarating.
"It doesn't need to be tall to be a great coaster," said Jason Hammond, membership director of the Great Ohio Coaster Club. "Maverick proved that. GateKeeper is going to prove that," he said. "It doesn't have to be the fastest, it doesn't have to be the tallest to be a great ride."
Cedar Point invited coaster clubs from across the country to Thursday's preview, and they showed up in force. Officials estimated about 1,200 people were there, some of whom arrived as early as 3:30 a.m.
Mr. Hammond, who said GateKeeper was the 800th different roller coaster he has ridden, came away impressed, praising the sense of flight.
Cedar Point demolished the indoor Disaster Transport coaster and the Space Spiral tower ride to make way for GateKeeper.
The ascent up the first hill in one of GateKeeper's 32-passenger trains is quick, but there's enough time to take a look at the gorgeous shoreline of the 364-acre peninsula.
The train sits two riders on either side of the center track, and park officials say the views and ride experience are significantly different on the two sides.
Compared to the rocketship-like 120 mph of Top Thrill Dragster, GateKeeper's 67 mph top speed sounds a little uninspired. That pace probably won't even get you a ticket on Interstate 75.
But out on the wing, GateKeeper seems plenty fast. And while twists and turns abound, GateKeeper's curves don't seem quite as sharp as some of the other rides in the park. Still, there are a few dips that hatch squadrons of stomach butterflies.
It adds up to give a smooth sensation of flying.
Except when you're headed into the keyholes.
As if having nothing above or below you isn't weird enough, here you are threading the needle through holes in two steel towers stretching up from the front gate.
Matt Ouimet, chief executive officer of Cedar Point parent company Cedar Fair LP, recalled that he said "wow" when he saw them in construction and again when he saw them coming into the park on a truck.
"Then last week, I had my first ride on GateKeeper. I got to the keyholes, and I can't tell you what I said," he said, laughing.
The coaster was designed by Bollinger & Mabillard, a Swiss-based company that also created Cedar Point's Raptor roller coaster. Much of the fabrication was done by Clermont Steel Fabricators LLC in southwestern Ohio, and Oregon-based A.A. Boos & Sons Inc. served as general contractor for the project.
The coaster has the second-longest track in the park, and at 2 minutes 40 seconds, is the second-longest coaster ride in Cedar Point.
Preview days like Thursday are important for amusement parks to get the word out about their new coasters, and the takeaway from the day's hard-core riders seemed overwhelmingly positive.
Dan Adams spent two summers working at the park on Top Thrill Dragster. On Thursday ,he planned to spend more than an hour riding GateKeeper. Riding. Not waiting in line. Riding.
"I've done it 20 times," he said matter-of-factly about 11 a.m.
Mr. Adams, a member of Club Coaster Fusion, came from New Jersey to check out GateKeeper.
"It's fantastic," he said. "This ride is like none other. The setting is fantastic, you can't get any better than being on the beach.
He also gushed over the spectacle of having the coaster race over the entrance gate.
"You can't come into this park and not notice it. People come here for coasters; to enter under a coaster, you can't beat that," he said.
The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Tyrel Linkhorn is a reporter for The Blade. First Published May 11, 2013 4:00 AM