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By Craig Causer,
IEEE Potentials, Oct. 2012

This is how we roll
To better realize one’s dream of becoming a theme park engineer, a person needs to broaden his/her interests and include other types of themed entertainment, Alcorn advises. With all the talk about the challenges of getting into the theme park industry, one group at The Ohio State University has taken the initiative to provide relevant real-world experiences to those who long for an engineering career in theme parks. The goal of the university’s Theme Park Engineering Group (TPEG) is to enhance the technical knowledge gained by members in the classroom through applications in the theme park and entertainment industries. Efforts include team design projects as well as various educational opportunities. The group is comprised of mostly mechanical engineering majors but also contains computer science and engineering as well as electrical and computer engineering students.

“Our group has three different committees that are Design and Engineering, Outreach, and Creative Design,” explains Joshua Pritchard, preseident of TPEG. “Members are able to be involved in as many committees as they can fit into their schedule, as each one has a separate meeting time. Specifically, Design and Engineering comes up with ideas for design projects, creative develops different themes for the projects, and when completed, outreach takes the project out and shares it with the community. Outreach and Creative also perform their own projects, as Creative will look at park designs and small-scale projects. Outreach also visits schools and helps with different events around campus.”

TPEG is currently focused on two different projects. The first is a solo rider motion simulator where the goal is to use linear actuators attached to a pivoting frame to simulate roll and pitch. The rider will experience the motion while viewing a first-person view of a roller coaster ride. The second project is an animatronic bird. A group member within TPEG’s creative committee built a prototype, and now the group is working on refining the original.

The most memorable project was a pneumatic launch tower, Pritchard recalls, as it was the group’s first major design project. “It was great to see all the hard work pay off with a project that worked. We learned a lot from that project and still find ourselves refining the design over and over again. Overall, all of us have benefitted from the experience.”

Each week, TPEG holds different meetings ranging from executive meetings to the various committee meetings. The group also held an event where Bill Watkins, a retired Disney imagineer, gave a presentation on how roller coasters are designed. Any student at the university was able to apply to be part of the weeklong lecture series. Another popular event is an annual retreat, either on or off campus. Past retreats have included guest speakers from companies such as Kalahari and Jack Rouse Associates.

Field of dreams
Getting out of the classroom to witness some of these mechanical marvels first hand in the field has obviously proven to be a popular experience. Among the parks TPEG has visited are Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, Kennywood in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, and Busch Gardens Tampa, Florida, to name a few. Some of these visits have been for enjoyment, while others included meeting with engineers or maintenance personnel to learn about the park. The ability to meet with different members in the industry has allowed the group to learn how rides work, maintenance requirements, the fundamentals of ride design, and safety, among others.

TPEG has experienced some success with obtaining internships and jobs in the industry. According to Pritchard, TPEG has had seven of its members serve as interns and four group alumni who hold positions at theme parks. It also has attracted Honda as a main sponsor. With the funding received from the Honda Partnership that exists between Ohio State and the automobile manufacturer, the group has been able to attend professional conferences, help start other groups at various universities, and expand its design project concepts. TPEG is thankful for Honda’s support and is looking for future sponsors for our simulator project.

“The group has found success by networking any chance we get and helping each other pursue the different careers we each desire,” Pritchard says. “This has been the biggest piece of advice from those individuals we have spoken to whom currently work in the industry. They have told us to be persistent and if our dreams do not come true right out of college to continue to try, as experience is also essential to getting a job within the theme park industry.”


Jon Wocher Summer Experience with The Gravity Group January 13, 2011

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Jonathan Wocher is a fifth-year Mechanical Engineering student from Loveland, OH. In addition to activities with TPEG, he also plays baritone in The Ohio State University Marching Band and is a member of the music fraternity Phi Mu Alpha. He was selected to be a drafting intern for The Gravity Group during summer 2010.

TPEG: How and when did you get interested in roller coasters and the theme park industry?

JW: I’ve been interested in coasters as long as I can remember. Perhaps it was easy to spark interest in a child that lives 10 min away from Kings Island, but I remember loving them even before I could ride them. As a kid I would string Hotwheels track all around the house, attempting to build the longest and most exciting coaster that gravity would allow. I not only rode my sled down the stairs, but also constructed a giant, metal, banked turn that would allow for my ride to continue on into the basement. I played coaster-design computer games long before Roller Coaster Tycoon was conceived. I drew a different roller coaster on the back of perhaps every assignment I ever submitted in elementary school. I even filmed and created a motion-simulator ride, which I insisted upon all of my neighbors experiencing. Yes – I was excruciatingly nerdy.
Now that I am older and my talents and interests have led me into the study of Mechanical Engineering, I am attracted to the amusement industry for a different reason. I’ve always enjoyed “creating”, whether it’s a song, a gadget, a structure or a drawing; if it can be made, I probably enjoy making it. Engineers make a lot of cool, useful stuff, but how many utilitarian tools and structures generate as much excitement as a roller coaster? The idea of using my talent, passion and education to create things that bring people joy has always been appealing to me, but as I get closer to the amusement industry through TPEG, I find myself becoming enthralled with the idea.

TPEG: Do you have a favorite coaster or attraction?

JW: There are still many coasters on my “to-ride” list, but out of everything that I have ridden so far, my favorite is hands-down The Voyage at Holiday World. A triple-down hidden in a tunnel?! Brilliant. I’m also a fan of the Disney and Universal theme parks in general.

TPEG: If you can, talk to us about a “normal” day at TGG

JW: Basically, the only thing that is the same from day to day is that I drink about a pot of coffee. My main job is using CAD software to draft, adjust and detail bents in accordance with Gravity Group’s standards and track layout. A roller coaster bent is, in effect, all of the structure that you see below the track. Typically, I come into work and get a list of bents that need some sort of drafting attention (small or large) and I am given certain vital data about how they should be constructed; then I get to work. Although this is my primary job, as I said before, there is no such thing as a typical day at The Gravity Group. My job duties frequently expand to include dimensioning, part creation and, occasionally, snow-cone eating. I am excited for the future because it sounds like there will be even greater variety to my daily routine and possibly some involvement with Gravity Group’s sister corporation, Gravitykraft.

TPEG: What has been your best experience so far? Any stories?

JW: Well, I can’t think of any outrageous stories so far but I feel like it’s only a matter of time. Honestly, the best experience has been the entire experience in general. I mean, how many people can say: “before I even graduated college, I was one of a handful of people who helped design multi-million dollar structures that were built all across the globe and brought joy to millions of lives”? Seriously, I am giddy to go to work every day.

TPEG: What would you say is the most challenging aspect of designing a roller coaster?

JW: Well, that’s hard for me to say since anything that I would consider “design” was done well before I began work at TGG However, when I’m doing my basic drafting work, there are three considerations that play a big role and shape how I approach creating anything. First, it has to work conceptually. The design has to achieve the rider experience that the group desires – this includes the basic layout and all the defining elements. Second, the design has to work mechanically: the train has to make it from station to station – no pit-stops or shortcuts; not only that, but the structure has to support the forces that are incurred at every inch of track. This is the manifestation of all the nitty-gritty engineering and analysis. Finally, it must work physically: the pieces have to fit together. Things that are possible on paper don’t always translate well when you are working with real, manufacturable parts. Two pieces can’t occupy the same space and with a structure the scale of a roller coaster, there must be some consistency when it comes to lumber sizes and other parts. The tricky part is that if you change something to satisfy one condition, it likely spoils another condition, and it takes constant iteration to reach a point where all three of these requirements are met. This is the most challenging aspect of my job – not making sure any one thing works, but making sure that everything works at the same time, in the same design. I have to imagine that if this is the hardest part of working on a small scale, it is definitely the hardest part of working on the grand scale.

TPEG: As we can assume there is a lot of work that goes “behind-the-scenes” at your job, what is something you will probably think about the next time you ride a coaster that you might not have before?

JW: Even more so than I did already, I will really appreciate that every single piece, cut, hole and nail was drafted and constructed by someone. It’s easy to look at a wooden coaster and be impressed with the size of the structure and the number of parts. It’s much harder to comprehend that someone had to put each and every one of those there, both conceptually and physically. Another thing that I won’t be able to help thinking about is places where the coaster changed. To the average rider, there is just one coaster – the one that you are riding, but for me, it will always be a living, evolving thing full of tracks that used to be and could have been. Like a dream that you get confused with reality, I could definitely see myself getting nervous when the train takes a turn towards, say, an area that used to be engine housing or crosses through a bent that once had a clearance conflict.

TPEG: Is Korey as tall as he looks in pictures?!?

JW: Indeed Korey is a mammoth of a man. Outside of pictures, I’ve never actually seen Korey’s face, only the bottom of his chin. If you’ve ever ridden the Steel Phantom / Phantom’s Revenge at Kennywood, you likely appreciate the fact that coaster-crossovers are designed with a clearance envelope in mind – that way, whether your arms are up/down/in/out, they aren’t hitting anything. To be extra-safe, the Gravity Group chose Korey to be a human model for developing a clearance envelope that would accommodate riders who accidentally step on NBA players in crowded areas.

Thanks Jon!

January 2011 Update:
Jonathan is now a full time employee of the Gravitykraft Corporation, where he works as an assistant to the company president, Michael Graham. His current job duties include assisting in the management of the Timberliner train project, producing and analyzing test data and preparing relevant calculations.

The New Age of Design August 5, 2010

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As I nice follow-up to what Bill wrote regarding computers and design, I’d like to share a little about my design project, which uses a computer to do everything.  Right now I am using MatLab to create layouts (what Bill used to by hand) and AutoCAD to draw structure.  Eventually I will have everything done solely by these two programs, including force analysis on both riders and structure.  The only thing left to do will be train design, which I am considering as the next big design project for the group this year.  Look forward to hearing all about it and our other design projects as we get ready for the school year to start again.  We have some cool things lined up, so get excited!

– Eamon

To see a more in-depth description of my project, follow my blog here.

How Computers Influenced Roller Coaster Design June 29, 2010

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How Computers Influenced Roller Coaster Design
By: William M. Watkins, Former Disney Chief Mechanical Engineer

When I was a child, probably seven or eight years old, I went on my first roller coaster ride at Camden Park in Huntington, West Virginia where we were visiting relatives. I remember being very frightened before my father and I got on it, but being very exhilarated after we got off. After we returned home to Indiana I built my first coaster with a ladder, a board, and my little red wagon. This resulted in the first of three broken arms that I suffered before I was twelve. Little did I know that nearly thirty years later I would get involved in designing coasters and other theme park rides for a living after joining WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering) in 1966 and later at my own company, Ride & Show Engineering, Inc. I have designed just three roller coasters (not counting that first one): Space Mountain-Walt Disney World, Space Mountain-Disneyland (CA), and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad-Disneyland (CA), but Space Mountain-Disneyland, has been duplicated at Tokyo Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland Park. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad also exists at Walt Disney World, Paris Disneyland, and Tokyo Disneyland, each with somewhat different names and configurations to adapt to the local terrain. There are many coasters throughout the world, over 600 in the US alone, and so there are many designers. Some of the old coasters were designed by people who had not had technical training and yet they served their purpose well, providing entertainment with safety. However, times have changed and so has coaster design.

I will attempt to describe the approach that I developed for the design of gravity rides, an approach that would not have been possible without the advent of the digital computer because of the enormous number of calculations required. I recall a story by Ernest Gann, an engineer and novelist who wrote Fate is the Hunter. Many years ago he was in charge of a dirigible project and they were designing a large circular truss. They started by estimating the conditions at one point on the circle and a team of engineers spent an entire year calculating the stress in each member until they arrived back at the starting point where they found, as expected, that their original estimate was significantly off. So they re-estimated and started around again. Today, the whole analysis could be done in minutes if not seconds. The same thing applies to the designs of coasters today. That is not to say that a coaster can be designed in seconds. There are many programs to write, hundreds of decisions to make, testing to obtain data to plug into the computer, meetings with art directors, show designers, operations personnel, and shop managers. The whole design process took more than a year back in the 70’s, but the resultant design would have taken decades if it were not for the computer. Of course it would have opened on the same schedule, but would have been built to a lesser standard.

At the time that I began studying coaster design in 1968, computer use was just becoming more common. Disney was using computers for animation control and business applications but these computers were very slow and involved punch cards. For engineering applications, we tied into a main frame computer in Omaha via a dial-up modem with an electric typewriter. Though cumbersome by today’s standards, it was light-years ahead of what had gone on before.

My approach to coaster design was influenced by my experience as a race driver and a pilot. This may come as a surprise to those who are not familiar with racing, but the most important factor in driving a race car rapidly through a curve is the ability to minimize the lateral loads on the car by taking the proper path, maximizing the radius through the curve and to do it smoothly. Piloting technique is much the same. A good pilot banks the airplane smoothly and will coordinate his turns by applying the proper amount of rudder. Otherwise he puts undue stresses on the equipment and causes discomfort to his passengers.

It was my belief, especially in regard to Space Mountain, because the ride is in the dark, that the ride should be smooth and since there would be a lack of visual cues, the g forces should be limited. A brief explanation: g loading is expressed as a ratio of the force developed in changing speed or direction relative to the force felt due to the earth’s gravity. The smaller the curve radius and the higher the speed, the higher the g force. Thus, a 2g force on a 100 pound body causes it to to weigh 200 pounds. Race drivers in the Indianapolis 500 are subjected to more than 3g’s in the corners and there are loop coasters that subject passengers to as much as 5g’s. I decided that there should be a maximum of 2.5g’s for our coaster designs. I tested this premise by exposing myself to 3g’s in high banked (70.5 degrees) turns in an airplane. I felt that if 3g’s was OK for me, who’d had a disc removed from my back a couple of years earlier, then 2.5g’s should be safe for the vast majority of riders. So you might say; yes, but what about someone who is weaker than you? Two things: if all rides were geared to the weakest among the population, there would be no rides. The second point is that the operations personnel are charged with, through signage, informing people of the nature of the ride and denying boarding to people that they feel are not capable of withstanding the forces.

Not all g forces increase the weight of the passenger. As a vehicle goes over the top of a hill the load on the passenger becomes less than earth’s gravity and, in the extreme, could throw an unrestrained passenger out of the car. Some coasters do subject passengers to slightly negative g’s which cause them to raise off their seats and become “weightless” for a short period. And this is often touted as a desirable feature. However, in a dark ride such as Space Mountain, we felt that it would be best not to raise passengers off their seats because of the possibly of injury when they sit back down, especially when the g’s rapidly become positive. So the top of hills (negative vertical curves as we call them) are designed to lower the passenger’s weight by just 75%, leaving 25% of their weight still resting on the seat. Thus passenger loading varies from 0.25g’s to 2.5g’s as they travel through Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

The next issue is the direction of the g forces. There have been rides like the Wild Mouse which is a series of flat circular curves connected by straight sections. The g forces are all lateral, suddenly pressing the passengers against the side of the vehicle or against each other. These are rides that are usually found at carnivals and are relatively inexpensive and easy to set up. More sophisticated rides have banked turns. If the turns have 100% banking, then the g forces are directly into the seat with no lateral component. This could be considered ideal but is impossible to achieve for every vehicle because it is dependent on the speed of the vehicle and that varies due to several factors that will be explained later. Overbanking is to be avoided because that would cause the passenger to tend to fall toward the center of the curve. Underbanking is better because it causes the passenger to press against the outside of the car, but with much less force than with the unbanked turn. And people are used to experiencing forces toward the outside of turns when riding in automobiles on curvy roads. So curves were designed for 80% banking for the slowest vehicles to avoid the possibility of overbanking.

The next issue is how to gracefully transition from a “wings level” (as we say in flying) condition to a banked condition. Formulas for putting mechanical components, such as valves in an engine, into motion without inducing sudden impacts are well known in engineering and these same formulas can be applied to the change in bank angle when entering and departing a curve. The amount of banking increases inversely with curve radius, so during the transition phase where bank angles are smaller, the radii must be larger than the final curve, so this defines the shape of the total curve, i.e. turning gradually at first and tighter as the bank angle increases.

The next issue in curve design is establishing the line about which banking takes place. Visualize what happens when a high-wing fixed gear airplane banks. In a right turn you will see the wings moving to the right while the wheels move to the left. That means that somewhere in between is a point that does not move relative to your body. If those wheels were on a fixed track, the track would have to be moving up, swinging around that point. The best track design is one in which a point on the centerline, a few inches above the seat , will follow a smooth line into and out of a banked curve. By defining this line and swinging the track around it, the disturbance of the passenger is minimized. Contrast this with the usual practice in the old wooden coasters in which banking is achieved by raising the outer rail thus tossing the passengers toward the center of the curve.

To design a ride such as Space Mountain to fit in a confined space, be smooth and have the capacity to accommodate a large number of passengers each day, it is necessary to accurately calculate speeds and timing. In order to avoid the possibility of collisions between vehicles, the track is divided into zones which are on shorter time intervals than that in which the cars are dispatched and each zone is protected by brakes. The speeds, and thus the timing of vehicles, is a function of changes in elevation, and the various drag factors that tend to slow the vehicle down. There is the rolling resistance of the wheels, friction in the bearings and seals, viscous drag of the wheel lubricants, scrubbing of the wheel treads due to minor misalignment, and the aerodynamic drag. Some of these factors are influenced by the weight of passengers carried, some are not. That is why heavy vehicles are faster than light ones. Although some of these factors may seem small, they are significant over the entire length of the track. As a matter of fact, it is the designers job to manage the drag so that most of the energy of raising the vehicle to the top of the lift is consumed by the drag while the vehicle is coasting down, converting that energy to heat.

So, as I said, It takes thousands of calculations and a lot of trial and error to arrive at a final design and, without a computer to do those computations, it would have taken much longer than Ernest Gann’s circular truss to design Space Mountain.

Bill Watkins Roller Coaster Technology Lecture June 27, 2010

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Bill Watkins, former Chief Mechanical Engineering at WED Enterprises and Executive YP, Engineering at Ride & Show Engineering, Inc. wrote this lecture which will be presented at The Ohio State University at the start of the fall quarter.

Rotating seat motors in the TPEG lab May 3, 2010

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What could this be???  The launch tower will be having brains and muscle to move the riders forwards and backwards throughout the ride….keep a close eye here for more to come soon.


Coaster101 Feature March 30, 2010

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Nick over at Coaster101 wrote a nice feature on myself and TPEG, check it out here.


Farewell Dan/Tower Project Synopsis March 22, 2010

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Now that Dan has graduated and is working full-time at Coaster Dynamix, I (Eamon) will be taking over the blog.  I would now like to take this opportunity to plug my site:  http://rollercoasterdesign.webs.com/  The reason for the plug, however, is because of my write-up on our tower project.  In the project experience tab, you can find what I wrote.

Now, I would like to formally thank Dan for everything he has done for this group.  His involvement with the group was tantamount to its success.  If you’ve ever wondered where we got the idea for the tower, I can tell you that it was Dan’s, and not ours.  In a sense, he let TPEG take his idea to a new level.  Not only did he provide us with a solid, innovative idea, he personally saw it through most of its growth, and I am sure he’ll check in with us as we finish it up.

Dan was also an excellent leader, and I aspire to fill the shoes he has left me.  His work with Coaster Dynamix landed him a job, and the reason was because he is good at what he does.  Dan is personally responsible for building up the engineering side of this group, and helping establish our group as a professional entity, not just some group of kids who like to play roller coaster tycoon (a very fun game, I must admit).  His legacy has left a foundation on which the group will continue to build; one that has put the group on the radar of the industry as a source for talent and dedication.  We will continue his legacy of drive and passion, and will do so by continuing industry interaction and through the education of those younger than us: the future of a group shaped by the hands of Dan himself.  Farewell, Dan.  Thank you for all you’ve done for the group.  I personally thank you for motivating me, and will continue your work by helping Brad continue the growth of our group to what I hope will be the national level.  Good luck, and have fun.

Great Coasters Trip Pt.2 February 8, 2010

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Finally, the 2nd installment of our trip to Great Coasters. This half continues our journey through Knoebles Grove, ventures into the ghost town of Centrallia, and documents our 6hr drive back to Columbus (Keep an eye out for a Miley Cyrus Dance Party)

Great Coasters Intern!!! January 6, 2010

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I’m pleased to announce that one of our very best members, Mr. Eamon Kelly, is now an intern at Great Coasters out in Sunbury. To keep up to date with the cool stuff he is doing out there, check out their Intern website at:


Best of luck to Eamon and Great Coasters!