Diagnosed with ADHD at a young age, Dan Grantham let an obsession with amusement parks order his life.
ADHD overcame me at a young age, but by the time I was 9, teachers had found various remedies to qualm my frequent, disruptive compulsions. At the start of each school year, my perpetually disorganized desks were set up at the periphery of classrooms and came with rubber seat cushions that allowed me to wiggle without disruption. While these remedies curbed my ability to derail a lesson plan, I soon felt more like the circus’ bearded lady than the kid my tutors described as smart. Since I became a sort of sideshow, perhaps it was only logical that I became obsessed with carnivals, amusement parks, and that most powerful of symbols, the roller coaster.
Providing the level of sensory overload kids with ADHD need to feel throughly stimulated, amusement parks became summer homes for my twin brother and I. We grew up in Northeast Ohio twenty minutes from Geauga Lake, a now-defunct local park that grew too big for the market it shared with the greatest theme park on earth: Cedar Point.
Cedar Point is to the coaster-obsessed what fresh Rocky Mountain powder is to the avid skier — heaven. Located on a Lake Erie peninsula, the greatest amusement park in the world springs like Venus from the beaches between Detroit and Cleveland, drawing visitors from all fifty states and around the world. Lucky for us, Cedar Point was only an hour away. Soon, all time spent away from Cedar Point was spent thinking about roller coasters.
By the time I was 13, my love of roller coasters and theme parks had turned into a card-carrying obsession. I joined ACE, an international coaster enthusiast group, and studied parks for hours on the internet during off-season. When I was not online, I was playing Roller Coaster Tycoon, a PC game combining civil engineering with basic finance and coaster construction. In fact, I played the game so much, I began hearing its soundtrack anytime I focused my attentions elsewhere.
By 14, my brother and I had planned elaborate trips to parks across the country, researching each park’s history and rolling stock down to the make, model, and length of track. We talked about roller coasters incessantly, adopting enthusiast terms like “air time” to describe our favorite rides while keeping a “track record” of all the coasters we rode.
Relieved that any one thing could capture our attentions for more then ten minutes, our parents embraced our obsession, carting us across the Midwest to far-flung parks we read about on blogs or spotted on the Travel Channel. Once licensed to drive, we visited Cedar Point at least once a week and became experts on crowd avoidance and dining on the cheap.
My obsession didn’t wane until I went off to college, where my childhood interests seemed incompatible with those of my more musically and athletically inclined peers. “Had I really been that out of touch?” I thought to myself about high school. Deciding that I was, I became embarrassed of my loyalty to a community of pasty-skinned, 35-year old men who left their parents’ houses only to ride roller coasters. I pledged to avoid the topic entirely. Returning to Cedar Point the first time after freshman year, I found myself bored, tired, and ready to go home.
Still, while my feelings on roller coasters cooled, I occasionally found myself daydreaming about days of season passes, long lines, steel and wood. With my ADHD now well-managed, I was surprised to find my childhood pursuits spilling over into my young-adult ones.
Hours spent playing Roller Coaster Tycoon eventually broadened to a fascination with built human environments and gave way to an interest in urbanism in college. Having taught myself the ins and outs of roller coaster and theme park history, I pursued historical understanding of American culture’s more ubiquitous common spaces like parks and civic venues. And on rarer occasions, I let slip my past obsessions to new friends, who soon accompanied me on road trips to the far-flung parks my parents first introduced me to.
Though not as full-bodied as it once was, my coasting condition remains chronic, and like the hyper-activity that first bore it, I’ve learned to embrace its quirks. I hope I’ll never be completely “cured”.
Photo provided by author