Glenn Garvin TV Reviews

Thrill Factor: Why Scary Amusement Park Rides Don't Kill Us

If you're getting the idea that Thrill Factor is good sanguinary fun, you're absolutely right.



First, let me quiet your misgivings. Thrill Factor is not a show about dining on the digestive tracks of horses. That was Fear Factor, which shuffled off television's mortal coil years ago after scientific marketing studies established that "Rectum Eaters, Ages 18 to 35" was not a sufficiently lucrative demo.

Thrill Factor is about something altogether different: scary amusement park rides and why they don't kill us. (Scientifically, I mean; there's no discussion of the Kantian deontology of roller coasters and whether they regard human consciousness as sufficiently elevated to make murder immoral, at least in the pilot episode. Later, once they've got you hooked, all bets are off.)

This is not a flippant turn of phrase. Among the more blood-curdling material in Thrill Factor is some footage of test runs before the opening of Verruckt , an 18-story water slide at the Schlitterbahn Water Park in Kansas City, where the rubber rafts full of dummies go hurtling off the ramp into the parking lot, strewing wooden limbs of crash-test dummies about like a mannequin genocide.

Verruckt, by the way, is German for "insane," which is pretty much what you would have to be to buy a ticket for it after seeing this, even though, after the tests, park engineers flattened out the slide's arcs and there hasn't been a single reported maiming or mutilation of a test-crash dummy in the 13 months since it opened.

If you're getting the idea that Thrill Factor is good sanguinary fun, you're absolutely right. Hosts Kari Byron and Tory Belleci, formerly of Discovery Channel's slightly cracked popular-science show MythBusters (Belleci was the one who was always falling off a roof or face-planting himself during Evel Knievel-like bicycle stunts) take some of the rides themselves, and prudently stick to describing some others, like a 357-foot bungee jump off the lip of a New Zealand gorge.

They cheerfully share puke jokes (apparently the lingua franca of the thrill-ride industry), competently and comprehensibly explain the physics of the rides, and generally offer amiable company. Once in a while their quippage sounds a mite scripted. But there was something inarguably authentic about the "oh, crap" muttered by Belleci as he looked down from the top of Falcon's Fury, a 335-foot "drop ride" at Tampa's Busch Gardens from which he was about to fall.

The physics discussions about G-force and fluid dynamics are a lot more interesting than you might expect, but not necessarily reassuring about safety; they can sound disconcertingly like a witch doctor's solemn explanation that the enemy arrows can't pierce your heart because he's polished your aura. The cretins, errr, customers who jump off that New Zealand cliff are secured by two ropes, each supposedly strong enough to support a full-grown Asian elephant, so that if one fails, there's another in place. And if the second one fails? Well, think of the scene in Speed when Keanu Reeves, as a cop trying to rescue hostages in a skyscraper's disabled elevator, is asked if there's anything that would stop the elevator if it starts to fall. His laconic reply: "The basement."

I wouldn't mind visiting that bungee-jump site, though, if only to watch the operators, whose senses of humor are way beyond puckish. When one panicked customer is hoisted out over the canyon for her jump, she pleads that she's changed her mind. "We'll pull you back in," nods the operator, and promptly hits the release button. I couldn't decipher her incoherent shriek on the way down, but am fairly certain it was not "Whee!"

Why anybody would even contemplate diving off a 335-foot cliff in the first place remains a mystery. Byron and Belleci speculate that it's an attempt to conquer a primal human fear of falling—so widespread, they say, that three out of four people have nightmares about it. Thanks anyway, but I'll wait until some amusement park opens a naked-in-school ride.

Thrill Factor. Travel Channel. Wednesday, August 12, 8 p.m. EDT.