On a warm Summer night, is there any one of us that can resist the honky-tonk allure of a bustling carnival midway? No, I didn't think so. Here and gone almost magically, like deep-fried, neon-lit Brigadoons, these garish shantytowns of corn-dogs, kewpie dolls and Tilt-A-Whirls make my pulse race with unfettered joy.

Along with the Skee-Ball palaces and funnel cake emporiums, a large part of the midway's appeal is its charmingly low-tech collection of mechanical rides. I'd be a liar if I told you that some of those diesel-powered, hand-assembled whirligigs don't make me a little uneasy, but I'd almost never let that stop me from taking a trip on a carny favorite. Zippers, Himalayas, Tilt-A-Whirls, Round-Ups, Scramblers... I love 'em all.

But in this brave new world of extreme thrill rides, the typical midway attraction can't begin to deliver the kind of wallop that more and more Thrillseekers crave. Sure, the Trabant is a hoot, but would you honestly call it terrifying? Well, neither would the folks at Gravity Works, Inc., and they endeavored to create a portable attraction that would set a new standard for midway thrills, a carnival ride that would indeed qualify as terrifying. They have admirably succeeded.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, step right up and take a spin on the tallest, fastest portable ride ever built... The Skyscraper.

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Gravity Works, Inc. actually started out as a company called Bungee Adventures, Inc. in 1987, being the first commercial bungee-jumping service in the United States. Their expertise became so well known that when General Motors wanted to send a GMC truck on its own bungee adventure over the edge of the New River Gorge Bridge for a TV commercial, they called upon BA to make sure the four-wheeled sky-diver didn't lose any of its resale value.

In 1993, Bungee Adventures introduced the infamous "reverse bungee" attraction, a ride known as the Ejection Seat. Rather than dropping you from a great height, the Ejection Seat works like a giant slingshot, launching you straight up into the sky. The Ejection Seat looks like a pretty intense experience in its own right and has appeared at many fairs and temporary venues including the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

But BA's engineers had ideas for attractions that went beyond the simple mechanics of bungee cords and in early 1996, they began to develop what would become the mind-blowing device you see pictured to the left. The company changed its name to Gravity Works to reflect its expanded product line and on February 6, 1997, the first Skyscraper was unleashed at the Florida State Fair. The carnival midway would never be the same again.

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A pair of stout-hearted riders boards the Ferris Wheel-style seats at either end of a 160-foot-tall rotating arm. That's right, one-hundred sixty feet, sixteen stories. Check out those criss-crossing, over-the-shoulder harnesses... they look pretty serious, don't they? That's because the seats are free to rotate themselves once things get cooking. And you wouldn't want to be inverted, 160 feet off the ground without something holding you in, would you?

Wave to Mom and Dad while you still can. A 75-hp, 3-phase motor powers up and the arm starts to rotate. It might be a slow trip to the top, if the opposing seat needs to load. But once everyone is ready to rock, there will be no more "slow." When I tell you to hang on, I mean it.

That massive arm begins to turn, faster and faster and faster. From a standstill, it will take only half a rotation before your hapless little self is traveling at the Skyscraper's top speed: a godawful 70 miles per hour. 'Round and 'round and 'round she goes, where she stops, nobody knows. Try to imagine hurtling over the top of that 160-tall arch, craning your neck to look up at the ground and preparing for another fall towards terra firma at 70 mph. For you G-force junkies, take note that you'll pull 2 Gs at the top and 4 Gs at the bottom of the revolution.

Finally the arm begins to slow. It may feel like your torment has come to an end, but I'm glad to report that it has not. Yep, this Ferris Wheel-on-crack goes in reverse, too.

No prayer will save you now.

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The true masochists among us will get a kick outta this: each seat also carries a video camera with a live feed down to monitors below. While you're hysterically laughing, sobbing, spewing or performing any combination of the three, the rest of us back on Earth get to watch and enjoy (forget about Seinfeld - this may prove to be the funniest show on television). And if you really want a special keepsake of your day at the fair, you can purchase a cassette copy of your voyage to treasure forever.

The Skyscraper has proven such a success that Gravity Works has designed a permanent park model that possesses its own special charms. Instead of the rigid latticework of steel on the portable variety, the arm of the stationary Skyscraper is a more streamlined, flexible monopole. The flexing action adds another dimension of terror to the experience: when the motor starts pulling the arm around, a whipping effect yanks your seat into action, with suitably unpredictable rotations. These extra-special Skyscrapers can only be found at Planet Bungee in Panama City, Florida and at Fast Tracks in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, but don't fret - many more permanent installations are planned.

This Fall, a Skyscaper is touring America's West Coast fairs, and three traveling units will be hitting the fair circuit in 1998. If there's any bad news, it's that these puppies are "upcharge" attractions, meaning that they require separate fees to ride, anywhere from $15 to $30 a person (like Skycoasters and their ilk). But if you can find a better thrill value for yer dollar, tell me about it.

Keep your eyes peeled for one of these machines and don't forget to smile for the cameras!

Skyscraper photography courtesy of Gravity Works, Inc.





© Robert Coker.
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