So You Want My Job?

All the Cool Kids Build Roller Coasters

March 6, 2015

Behind every theme park attraction is a team of elite engineers.

No matter how old we are, most people can’t help but feel a sense of childlike wonder as they wander through a theme park. The attractions evoke a sense of awe and excitement in even the most jaded of us – just as they’re designed to do.

But if you have the heart and soul of an engineer, only half your mind is focused on Optimus Prime, Harry Potter, or the dinosaurs. The other half is asking, who built this? How does that work? How much stress do those cars have to put up with? What would it be like to create something this awesome?

Behind every one of those rides – and every other part of the park – is an incredible team of engineers, working in one of the most specialized fields in the industry. Building a theme park is an engineering challenge like no other. It pushes entertainment technology to its limits, and requires a unique blend of creative, technical and commercial knowledge.

So how do you become one of this elite group of engineers?

The Science of Attraction(s)

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Credit: Flying the Nest

Modern theme parks are a world away from the fairground roller coasters of the mid 20th century. They’re massively complex endeavors, involving a wide range of technical and manufacturing skills. They’re also big-budget projects. Attraction owners are notoriously close-lipped about exactly how much rides cost, but even a cheap ride will cost millions. At the top end, Disney’s Expedition Everest at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida held the crown for most expensive ride for about six years, coming in at over $100m.

In recent years, however, the stakes have been upped massively. Skyscraper, also in Orlando, opening in 2016, will be the world’s largest rollercoaster, and is expected to cost over $200m. At 163m high, Skyscraper won’t just be the world’s tallest coaster, it’ll be the tallest structure in Central Florida.

And when you take into account the costs of the rest of the infrastructure and buildings that go around the rides, the budgets really begin to soar. Diagonalley, the Harry Potter expansion in Universal Studios, which opened in July 2014, also in Orlando (are you noticing a pattern here?), cost somewhere between $250m and $400m, and took around three years to build.

Theme parks are big business. Around 30% of Disney’s $45bn revenue comes from theme parks – over double what they make from movies or merchandising. In 2014, nearly 150m people worldwide visited a Disney park. To put that in perspective, that’s nearly half the population of the United States, each paying around $100 just to get in. In terms of overall economic impact, Walt Disney World generates over $18bn for the local economy and accounts for over 2% of the jobs in the entire state of Florida, as well as 2.5% of the state’s GDP. Getting those attractions right isn’t just a matter of building a fun vacation spot for hundreds of millions of people a year. It’s critical to the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of theme park workers, surrounding businesses, and suppliers. It’s a big responsibility.

To be successful, a top theme park attraction needs to break new ground. It has to be the biggest, tallest, fastest, or wildest. It has to do something that no ride has done before. It has to offer a unique thrill, an unforgettable moment, an adrenaline buzz that’s so intense people will travel across the world for a few minutes of excitement. As an Orlando resident, it’s easy to get blasé about the parks, but for most visitors, it is literally the trip of a lifetime.

Achieving that level of excitement means that almost every project is a one-off. There’s no template you can simply follow. Even when you rebuild an existing ride in a new park, it has to be redesigned to fit the space, and usually it’s an opportunity to incorporate new technologies and improve on the previous version.  The Mummy ride in Singapore wasn’t just a direct copy of the one in Orlando: Universal demanded new elements, more excitement, and, perhaps more importantly from the engineering point of view, greater reliability.

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Credit: Ferrari World

You have to push the envelope of what people can handle: the Formula Rossa ride at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, built by Switzerland’s Intamin, reaches 149mph and riders experience over 1.7G in the sharpest turns. Delivering that kind of physical experience in a structure that’s operating day in, day out, over and over again, means that you have to be extremely safety-conscious at all times. Even though you’re always working to the limits, you have to follow ever-changing international and local standards and guidelines on what humans can endure. “The technology far exceeds what humans can survive,” says Jerry Pierson, VP of Project Management at ITEC Entertainment Corporation in Orlando. “We design well within the structural limits of the actual ride, but we usually have to back off on the specs so that people don’t get sick. We have to think about old people, kids, and the disabled. There are ASTM and S24 standards that cover everything from G-forces to the allowable temperatures when we use fire. We have to give people a sense of danger, but at the same time they have to feel safe, and of course the owner has to be 100% confident that the ride is totally safe.”

The toughest part of the challenge, though, is that your task isn’t just to build a ride that delivers a physical experience. Solving the engineering problems is only one part of the design. You need to be able to interpret an artistic and creative vision, and create an experience that affects all the senses. The tools at your disposal are almost limitless: in addition to the actual mechanical track, you get to work with fire, water, 3D projection, holograms, animation, sound, smoke, and visual effects. Ride designers are always experimenting with new materials and new techniques to create new “gags”. A typical ride lasts just five minutes, but they have to be five incredible minutes. The ride has to be structured to deliver intense emotions in rapid succession: danger, relief, humor, surprise, shock, and awe. Not only that, but the ride has to be so packed with details that people want to go around again, and again, and again, noticing new things every time.

“The technology already exists, just not together,” says Pierson, who worked on the Harry Potter rides at Universal Studios. “Harry Potter is a great story. Our job is to bring together all these elements of the story and the technology with an artistic interpretation of the movies to create something that has never been done before.”

Building the Foundations

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Credit: Andrew Marden

Of course, like every engineering project, the bit you see is just one small part of the overall job. Supporting those rides – literally – is a huge engineering endeavor. The parks require walkways, bridges, buildings, and signage. The approaches to every ride are creative projects in themselves: tens of thousands of people wait in line every day, sometimes for an hour or more. The crowds need to be managed, and they need sights to keep them entertained as they gradually progress towards their goal.

And beneath your feet, there’s more. Water, drainage, power, and access tunnels. Not only does the infrastructure have to be fully functional and capable of supporting a population the size of a small city, but it all has to be designed to blend in with the theme. David Taylor, a project manager specializing in theme parks at Harris Civil Engineers, another Orlando company, recalls designing the drainage for the Penguin Encounter at SeaWorld. “The inlets are tucked in among faux rocks and ice, so you can’t see them. You have to work within their creative constraints. You know that your inlets need to handle a certain flow capacity, but the ones you’d normally use would be too large and visually unappealing, so you have to come up with something that meets their needs, looks better, and can still cope with the flow. It’s the same challenge technically as working within a subdivision or mall, but sometimes you need a whole new approach to get the results.”

Orlando presents a particular challenge, because of the geology. The swampy ground means that architectural construction demands extra support, for even the simplest of buildings. In other locations, there are different issues. “Can you get steady power?” asks Pierson. “Can you cope with brownouts? That’s always a problem in China.”

But somehow, the engineers behind it manage to pull it off, time after time. It’s a highly competitive industry. “Our job is to give people the best day of their lives,” says Pierson. “Our designers know what can be done: the latest attraction sets the bar for everyone else. That’s Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley at Universal right now. It’s now Disney’s turn to try and beat that, and come up with something bigger, brighter, louder, faster, and better.”

Cast and Crew

Creating a theme park involves a wide range of engineering skills. While the most obvious demand is for mechanical engineers, a project team has to include electrical, electronic, structural, civil, hydraulic, audio, video software, and architectural engineers. “One of my project leads is a former nuclear engineer,” grins Pierson. “If you want someone who really knows safety and precision design, you can’t do better than that.”

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Credit: Universal Studios

As a result, most projects involve a network of companies and sub-contractors. They’re not just built by the behemoths like Disney or Universal. “When we worked on Harry Potter, there must have been at least ten main companies involved, as well as hosts of specialist sub-consultants,” says Taylor. ITEC, for example, specializes in ride control systems. Others specialize in pyro effects, animatronics, track design, networking, or creating retail spaces or food courts.

And supporting those are the super-specialists, brought in to advise on very specific aspects. “Whenever we build a fire effect, there’s one guy who has to come in and certify it,” explains Pierson. “He’s the guy who tells us whether it’s safe and signs off on it. He’s the expert that everyone goes to. Without his approval, the ride doesn’t happen.” Other consultants specialize in issues like fuel storage and supply, emergency evacuation procedures, or developing mobile apps to assist with maintenance and control.

Working alongside the engineers are the designers and creative teams: illustrators, storytellers, animators, artists, and modelers. The engineers’ job is to get them up to speed on what can be achieved, in terms of both practical construction and budget. “Our teams all include an artistic director, a technical director and a lead engineer,” says Pierson. “They come in with their own ideas, and we have to work with them to find the compromise that fits their vision and is also achievable within the cost and the timeframe.”

Unsurprisingly, there are two main hubs for such companies: Orlando and Los Angeles. Although there are a few outliers, such as S&S Worldwide in Utah or Gravity Group in CIncinnati, the majority are naturally centered around the biggest theme parks. “It’s a small industry, and we all know each other,” says Steve Alkhoja, ITEC’s VP of Entertainment Technologies. “Every year, we get together at the IAAPA convention in Orlando. And of course, even though this is a competitive business, we’ve all worked together on many different projects.”

The work, however, takes them all over the world. The global theme park business is booming, not just in the US, but in China, Malaysia, Singapore, the Middle East and South America. Even Disneyland Paris, which was seen as a commercial failure for years, made $86m in profit last year after nearly two loss-making decades.

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Credit: Universal Studios

From Concept to Reality

A typical project starts with an idea or a brand: Harry Potter, Transformers, King Kong, or simply to be the biggest or fastest. The client usually has an idea of their production budget and timeline. The first stage is to assemble the concept team who come up with preliminary ideas. “You usually start with the story and the script,” says Alkhoja. “What happens? What are people watching? And how are they immersed into it? What are the moments that make people’s jaws drop? What’s the thing they can’t wait to tell their friends about?”

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Credit: Universal Studios Orlando

Pierson walks through the initial design process. “We look at what’s been already done in other rides, and figure out what we can use, and what we can improve on. Basically, we try to interpret the dreams of the creative teams and the brand owners. There’s a lot of previsualization involved. Larger companies like Disney or Universal etc spend a lot of money making functional mockups and 3D models of the rides before we ever start building them or put them into the facility. It’s not just the actual ride, it’s everything. We can check out sight lines, so we can experience the whole from a guest’s perspective. What can they see from outside? What can they hear? Will that entice them to go on the ride? We can decide where they will spend money, define how close the vehicles will be, and every little detail. Diagon Alley spent over two years in design before we even started the two-year build process.”

The toughest part of the design process is bridging the gap between art and engineering. “Our engineers have to be creative and artistically sensitive,” notes Pierson. “When they say this needs to be faster, what does that translate to in terms of numbers? Exactly how much faster? How much energy will it take to achieve that? Will we need to slow the ride down again for the next bit, and if so, how? If they want this effect louder, how much louder? Will that affect what the riders in the next car experience? If so, how do we increase the acoustic baffling to contain that sound?”

“We also need a great sense of what’s commercially viable,” he adds. “Everything is based on a constant compromise between scope, schedule and budget, even on the top attractions,” says Pierson. “You never get to do everything you wanted, but you’re always trying to raise the bar. In foreign markets, the budgets aren’t so high. That’s a challenge because they want Harry Potter on a fourth of the budget, so we have to look at different ways of executing gags that are cheaper. And timelines are always tight, especially when you’re working on things you’ve never done before. Every tiny detail of the project matters: who gets electrical power to the ride, what about backup?”

It’s not just the project cost that matters. Maintenance and running costs are significant too. “If you’ve got a cool flame effect, that’s burning a lot of fuel every few minutes,” explains Alkhoja. “So we have to look and see, what if we turned down the amount of fuel in each burn by 20% or 30%? Would it still look as good? And how much would we save over a year? And then there’s wear and tear. Owners demand 99.98% uptime, but these are high-stress environments, which means these rides have to be super rugged. So what does it take to keep a ride running? What servicing has to be done, and what will need replacing?”

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Credit: Trever Capito

And of course, everything has to go through certification and approval. Emergency services, legal departments, brand owners, and financial departments all need to sign off on the project before building can even commence. Every specialist, from the architect to the electrical engineer, needs to agree that it’s feasible. “We do all the math and the calculations and the specification, but all that has to be independently reviewed for safety and reliability by people who not only know the standards we have to meet, but also understands what’s involved in creating the right experience for the guests,” says Pierson.

This inevitably leads to tough decisions. Cherished features have to be cut or altered, because they’re too expensive, too time-consuming, or too risky from a technical standpoint. The industry is notoriously tight-lipped about such changes: they want their visitors to be amazed at what is there, not thinking about how much better it could have been.

But finally, construction can go ahead. “So many different elements are involved, that it’s effectively several major projects happening simultaneously,” Pierson explains. “We’re not a ride systems manufacturer, so we hire in contractors as required. Scope delineation is essential when you’re dealing with contractors. It’s a dance, a lively organism that changes and morphs on an hour by hour basis. We have to keep changing the schedule daily, as you deal with problems and critical paths. Everyone has to be prepared to work as a team, to be ready to solve problems and come together to make things work.”

Some locations are easier to work in than others, as Pierson points out. Working in China, you often can’t get easily the parts you need. In the US, you can get stuff sent overnight via Fedex, or just go to Home Depot, but in China, it can take days for even the simplest item to arrive.

Testing continues throughout construction. “We do a lot of testing with dummies,” says Pierson. “We’re not just testing G-forces, which is what most people think of. We have temperature sensors on the dummies, so we can measure the effect of the flame effects and tune them to provide just the right amount of heat. Plus, when you’re working in somewhere like Florida, you have to think about cooling all the time.”

And meanwhile, there’s endless documentation to be written. The operator’s manual for Revenge of the Mummy fills about 20 large volumes, and covers everything from maintenance and inspection procedures to fine tuning specific aspects of the ride and training procedures.

Building Your Dreams

As you might expect, there’s no shortage of people who are attracted by the idea of building theme parks. “You’ve got to really stand out,” says Alkhoja. “I’m not talking about skills. There are plenty of people with the right skills. It’s about personality. You need to be a theme park junkie and really have a passion for this. You’ve got to want this badly. Work for free if you have to. Keep applying. Go to IAAPA. Talk to people. If I’m impressed with you but don’t have a spot for you right now, I probably know someone who could use you.”

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Credit: EnginSoft

Taylor concurs. “You need to work for the job. Be a good student, not necessarily straight-A, but good. Grades aren’t as important as how you come across when you interview. Does this kid understand? Does he get the field? Is he ready to learn? Start by finding a specialized company. There are lots round Orlando. Find out who the architects are – read the Orlando Business Journal and call them. Plenty of people in this business will help you if they can see you’re serious: we all know each other.”

Pierson emphasizes the diversity of skills that are needed in the industry. “Everyone started a different way, from different career paths. There are no schools to do this. There is some training, but everything is unique. Obviously, you need to go to school and get your education. Whatever line you like, go study it. If you need more education, then get a Master’s in Business, not engineering. Understand why people are spending money. You’ll be more well-rounded and climb quicker than a pure engineer. However, to find a way in, you need to surround yourself with the people doing this. It’s best if you do your internships around the people you want to work for, so go to Los Angeles or Orlando: they’re the only places to be. That’s where the talent is. If you get to know someone, that’s your introduction. Work for free if you have to. If someone’s that hungry, I’ll hire them, as long as I have someone to manage them.”

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Credit: Sea World

All three agree on the four qualities they’re looking for, regardless of the role or the engineering discipline. “You absolutely need the right temperament,” says Taylor.

First, you need to work well with artistic and creative people. You have to be able to respect their vision, speak their language, and communicate complex engineering concepts in terms they understand. When the project is complete, your work will be judged not on its engineering excellence, but on the emotional reactions of the public.

Second, you need a positive, can-do attitude, as Taylor stresses. “In the theme park world you have to be willing and able to come up with solutions that you weren’t taught when doing subdivision design or other typical engineering projects. There’s a lot of engineers – I used to be one – who when you tell them a new idea or new way of thinking, their reaction is you can’t do this because…  You have to think in terms of what can we do creatively. What they teach us in college doesn’t necessarily lend itself to that way of thinking. You need a deep understanding of principles, not just answers. Know why things work, not just how to do them, then you can manipulate the parameters of what you need to do. And of course, you have to stay up to date with technologies, with materials, and with what’s going on.”

Third, you need to be versatile. Projects come and go, and if you’ve got a variety of skills in your toolbox, you’ll be more useful than someone who doesn’t have a role between projects. Pierson is forthright about this. “If I can get an audio engineer who knows control systems, that’s great. Maybe they can do documentation or manuals. When things get slow there are other things they can do instead of us letting them go.”

And lastly, you have to be a perfectionist. There are no half-measures in theme parks. Everything has to be as good as you can get it, both technically and creatively.

For the lucky few who can make it into the industry, the rewards are – well, let’s just say you shouldn’t go into it for the money. Salaries are average at best through most of the industry. You can expect long hours, possibly a lot of time away from home, and high pressure.

But that’s not why you do it. You do it for the fun. “The payoff for all of us is when you see people afraid or happy or sad, and you know you’ve created some emotion and some experience. They go through this, and they don’t know how it’s done, and that’s the magic. That’s why we do this. To make that magic happen, you’re always running an uphill race. It’s like a marathon, you have to keep going, so you push yourself to the limits, you work way too many hours, you give up way too many weekends, until you finish. And then your family comes and sees what you did, and when that’s all said and done, there’s this unmeasurable joy that comes of having produced something unique in the world. Then we rest, re-energize, and do it again.”

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Credit: Intamin Worldwide

Alkhoja nods. “In the first six months, four million people rode the Hogwarts Express in Diagon Alley. Imagine all those people standing in a giant parking lot, and you know you did something that made every one of them happy. Some days, you just sit and watch the faces of people coming off one of your rides, and that, right there, is the buzz that keeps you going.”

Pierson shakes my hand with a big grin as he leads me past giant statues of the Mummy through a hallway filled with concept art for some of the world’s most famous rides. “If anyone gets bored of this, then I don’t know what the alternative could be. I’ve been here since 1988 and I look back on what I’ve done, Harry Potter was our 47th project with Universal. I’ve worked on things that aren’t there any more. I worked on Jaws, Ghostbusters,T-2, Men In Black, and much more. Every day, Steve and I ask each other, what are we going to do when we grow up?”

Now if that isn’t the definition of a dream job, what is?