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How an amusement park expert turned his fear of roller coasters into a cross-country tour business

I joined AJ Hummel for a tour of Six Flags Great America, and one thing is for certain—he's definitely not scared of rides anymore

Photo: Amanda Bungartz

If you’ve ever visited an amusement park, you’ll instantly recognize the sound—the mechanical, symmetrical tick, tick, tick of a rollercoaster as it carefully climbs its ascend, with nothing but stomach-dropping speed and body-rocking turns waiting on the other side. And for AJ Hummel—a math tutor from California—this sound never gets old.

“At this point, I think I’ve been to over 90 different amusement parks, across 40 different states,” says Hummel. “I’ll never get sick of them.”

But visiting parks isn’t enough for Hummel—he’s turned his love for roller coasters into a successful side-business.

AJ Hummel on a ride at Six Flags Great America amusement park
AJ Hummel on a ride at Six Flags Great America. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz

Facing your fears

Having grown up in the beachside town of Aliso Viejo, California, Hummel was lucky enough to have “The Happiest Place on Earth” only 40 minutes away.

“The very first park I went to was Disneyland when I was about three years old,” Hummel tells me. “But I didn’t particularly like theme parks as a kid.”

You’d think someone who makes a point to visit at least three parks a year would have always been a fanatic, but Hummel only started to visit both amusement and theme parks (yes, there is a distinction) about ten years ago. And even then, his love of amusement parks (which typically have big roller coasters and are much more thrill-focused) and theme parks (all rides and attractions are centered around a common theme or design) did not emerge from his engineering background and the mechanical intricacies of the parks, or the natural “high” that many people experience on the rides—although both reasons do play a part in the appeal. The real reason was because Hummel didn’t want to be left behind.

Thumbs up at Carowinds in North Carolina amusement park
Thumbs up at Carowinds in North Carolina. | Photo courtesy of AJ Hummel
Hummel on a Theme Park Review park tour amusement park
Hummel on a Theme Park Review park tour. | Photo courtesy of AJ Hummel

“I actually used to be scared of rides,” Hummel admits. “I knew a lot of kids who’d go to these nearby parks, like Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, and, gradually, I just started forcing myself to go on the rides because I didn’t want to be left out.”

But what makes Hummel’s story so unique (other than the 90 parks and 40 states) is that he redefined what it means to face your fears. Not only did he eventually come to love all parks and rides, he’s now sharing that love with others through guided amusement park tours.

It’s better with friends

Hummel first learned about amusement park tours in 2010, when he joined a group called Theme Park Review (TPR). At the time, TPR would bus large groups of people—sometimes 50 or more—to various amusement parks across America. And while Hummel enjoyed the public tours and met a lot of great people, he wanted more control over various parts of the experience, like budget and location.

“I started looking into doing my own trips,” Hummel says. “At first, I was just doing these tours by myself, going around from park to park and writing reviews. But then I realized it would be a lot cheaper, and more fun, if I could get friends to go along.”

So, in the summer of 2018, after gathering a small group of like minded park-goers and charting his route, Hummel launched his very first tour: a two-week amusement park trip from Ohio to Pennsylvania called The Keystone, Timbers, and Vengeance Tour.

Getting ready to take off X Flight Six Flags amusement park
Getting ready to take off. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz
Hummel and his friend Rob Jowaisas X Flight Six Flags amusement park
Hummel and his friend Rob Jowaisas. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz

“Really, these tours are for people who are interested in travel and interested in amusements parks,” Hummel tells me. “And I just decided to combine the two together.”

And while I, personally, would describe myself as more of a travel lover than an amusement park lover, spending a day with Hummel can make anyone believe that the two go hand-in-hand.

Show Me the Coasters

On a humid summer day in late-June, I meet Hummel at Six Flags Great America, about an hour outside of Chicago. This is the first official day of Hummel’s second annual park tour, which he’s calling the Show Me the Coasters Tour. From here, he’ll drive down to Missouri and visit five more big parks in six days.

Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois amusement park
Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz

The group starts small, just Hummel and two others—Rob Jowaisas from Richmond, Virginia and Joanna Galayda from Zion, Illinois. However, two more people are planning to join once the group reaches Missouri, bringing the total to five.

“The groups aren’t super big,” says Hummel. “I usually try to keep it to what would fit inside a minivan. Just makes traveling from place to place much easier.”

Right away, it is evident not only how much the group knows about rides and amusement park history, but how close they are. Hummel met Galayda nine years ago on his very first park tour with TPR. And just a few years later, in 2014, Jowaisas joined the group. The three have seen each other practically every summer since then.

Joanna, Rob, and AJ in front of the Raging Bull ride at Six Flags Great America amusement park
Joanna Galayda, Rob Jowaisas, and AJ Hummel in front of the Raging Bull ride at Six Flags Great America. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz

“I like that this [group] is much smaller,” Jowaisas tells me, explaining why he decided to join Hummel on his tour this year. “I also feel like I have more freedom. Plus, they’re my good friends and I love these parks.”

As challenging as it can feel to simply get a group together for drinks, I am deeply impressed that these three friends—from all corners of the U.S.—find a way to see each other every summer. Even the two others who plan to join the group in Missouri are making a significant effort—one is coming up from Florida and the other from California.

A story behind every ride

Our first ride is Goliath, a gut-wrenching wooden coaster that drops you 180 feet and takes you upside-down more than once. Hummel tells me that, at one point, this was the tallest, fastest, and steepest wooden roller coaster in the world. It is also the first wooden coaster to feature a dive loop—where the track twists upwards and to the side and then dives toward the ground in a half-vertical loop. I’ll come to learn a lot of these terms over the course of the day.

“Really I’m just running out of new places in the U.S.”

From there, we move clockwise around the park, making a point to stop at every ride. Hummel almost always travels clockwise or counter-clockwise through parks, depending on the location of the ride he wants to visit first. And with each ride comes a story, fact, or historical reference: Viper was designed to be an exact replica of the world-famous Coney Island Cyclone in New York; when you cut through an extremely narrow opening on the X Flight ride, that’s called a keyhole; one of the animated features on the Justice League: Battle for Metropolis ride isn’t working (Hummel recalls this exact feature from a previous visit to the park a few years ago).

Even when it starts to rain and I worry the park will close, Hummel reassures me with another relevant story.

“They’ll only close the park if there’s lightning,” he says. “One time I was at Conneaut Lake Park in Pennsylvania and they stopped the ride mid-track because of lightning. I had to walk along the track boards and down a slippery set of stairs to get off.”

Sure enough, the park remains open and the rain eventually stops, leaving us with blue skies and a subtle breeze for the rest of the day. All three members of the group have been to Great America before, but there is still genuine excitement, as each visit is totally different. Hummel points out that the weather today is ideal and the forecasted rain has kept a lot of people out of the park, so lines are shorter than usual. I find myself hoping the weather and conditions stay this perfect for the rest of their tour.

Later on, as we stop to lunch on our overpriced burgers and fries, Hummel gives me a sneak peek for next year’s tour.

Luckily, the rain didn't last long. Kids, feet, rain, marvel shirt amusement park
Luckily, the rain didn’t last long. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz
Burger and fries (with onion rings thrown in) amusement park
Burger and fries (with onion rings thrown in). | Photo: Amanda Bungartz

“The tentative plan for next year is to do a New Jersey [and] Pennsylvania trip,” he shares. “And beyond that, I am looking to do an international trip. But that likely won’t happen until 2022. Really I’m just running out of new places in the U.S.”

Seeing that Hummel has been able to turn his fears into a traveling passion that attracts both park enthusiasts and tagalong writers, I am sure a 2022 international park tour will happen. And I have no doubt that his friends will be there to support him, just like they have every summer before.

If you go

Six Flags Great America is open every day from 10:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Daily tickets cost $48 and season passes cost $84 (includes admission at all Six Flags parks across the country). Parking is an additional $30 and can be bought in advance. Be sure to check the website for special events and group deals.