The Cyclone roller coaster at Astroland in Coney Island, N.Y.

The Cyclone roller coaster at Astroland in Coney Island, N.Y. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

Reporting from Lakemont Park in Altoona, Pa.--

My current  travels across the great American roller-coaster belt will put me aboard five of the oldest operating coasters in the world, including the very oldest at little Lakemont Park here in Altoona.

Photos: View the 21 oldest roller coasters in the world

I found the rough, rickety and rundown Leap-the-Dips at Lakemont Park to be the perfect throwback to the golden age of coasters, when thrills were raw and wild rather than neutered by lawyers and lawmakers. The 109-year-old ride crystalized everything I was searching for in my road trip across the coaster belt: history, tradition, rarity, excitement and fun.

Like a temperamental old codger, Leap-the-Dips runs slower on humid days and a bit faster after a light rain. Ride operators occasionally have to hop in the back seat to ensure that the single car has enough weight to make it back to the station. The track visibly sways like a suspension bridge as the train swoops through the dips.

Beyond its age, what makes Leap-the-Dips unique are the things the train lacks:  seat belts and any mechanism to keep the car attached to the track. That means the train literally leaves the track during the leaps and thuds back down on the dips. Sadly, Leap-the-Dips often sits idle for long stretches with visitors seemingly unimpressed by its historic heritage.

I would have never guessed that compiling a list of the world's oldest roller coasters would be so controversial. It turns out that nearly every one the 20 rides in our list comes with some sort of qualifier that might be considered a disqualifier, according to the Roller Coaster Database.

Some have been closed and left for dead only to be saved from the wrecking ball. In a number of cases, opening dates are in dispute. Others have been altered or updated in ways that stripped them of their classic qualifications. A few have been moved, extended or even destroyed, only to be completely rebuilt.

On the flip side, several of the coasters have been named national historic landmarks, and nearly half have been designated classics by American Coaster Enthusiasts.

Most of the coasters on my list were built in the 1920s during the "Golden Age of Roller Coasters," when nearly 2,000 of the gravity ride attractions debuted. The world's first successful commercial roller coaster, the Gravity Switchback Railway, opened in 1884 at New York's famous Coney Island.

A handful of the classic rides on my list were designed by John A. Miller, an inventor known as the "Thomas Edison of the roller coaster." A similar number were built by Philadelphia Toboggan Co., the world's oldest roller coaster company. Almost all the coasters on the list are wooden, one is world famous, some are the last of their kind and a few are so far off the beaten path that you need a compass to find them.

Many of the world's oldest coasters share a kinship and bear similar names. There are two Jack Rabbits, two Railways, two with Thunder in the name and three simply called Roller Coaster. There are also two Giant Dippers, a Big Dipper and a Leap- the-Dips. A number of the coasters have been renamed multiple times, with a few restored to their original monikers.

Although many of the details remain open for debate, one thing is certain: All these roller coasters are survivors.

Leap-the-Dips - Built in 1902 at Lakemont Park in Altoona, Pa., the figure-eight wooden coaster was closed in 1986 and saved from demolition before reopening in 1999. American Coaster Enthusiasts has designated Leap-the-Dips a "Coaster Classic," meaning the ride features single-position lap bars, no seat dividers, no headrests and allows riders to choose any seat. Leap-the-Dips features a side- friction design that lacks an extra set of wheels under the track to prevent the individual cars from becoming airborne.

Scenic Railway - Built in 1912 at Luna Park in Melbourne, Australia, the American Coaster Enthusiasts classic is the oldest continually operating coaster in the world. The wooden coaster features a brakeman who stands in the middle of the train.

Rutschebanen - Built in 1914 for the Baltic Fair, the wooden coaster was moved to Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen in 1915. Designated a classic by American Coaster Enthusiasts, Rutschebanen features a side-friction design and employs an onboard brakeman. Rutschebanen is Dansk for "roller coaster."

Wild One - Built in 1917 as the Giant Coaster at Paragon Park in Hull, Mass., the out-and-back wooden coaster was partially destroyed by fire twice. A pair of bunny hops and a 450-degree spiral helix finale were left out when the coaster was rebuilt after the second fire. The coaster was moved to Six Flags America in Upper Marlboro, Md., in 1986 and restored to its original condition.

Jack Rabbit - Built in 1920 at Seabreeze Park in Rochester, N.Y., the wooden out-and-back terrain coaster, designed by John A. Miller with a distinctive tunnel element, was rebuilt after a 1923 fire destroyed much of the ride.

Jack Rabbit - Built in 1920 at Kennywood in West Mifflin, Pa., the $50,000 wooden terrain coaster, designed by John A. Miller with a distinctive double-dip element and unconventional midcourse lift hill, has been designated an American Coaster Enthusiasts classic.