In an average 9-to-5 job, the most dramatic twist you may witness is a flirtatious exchange over the office water cooler. But for an elite crew of engineers, the twists and turns of job life are heart-stoppingly real. And that’s to say nothing of the corkscrew loops. Designing roller coasters might just be the ultimate thrill-seeker’s vocation.
It takes something of a split personality to make it as a successful roller coaster designer. Chad Miller, co-owner of Gravity Group, told “The New York Times” that a coaster designer’s top two job goals are rather at odds. Rider safety ranks first, followed closely by a concerted effort to elicit screams. In this way, designers work to come up with new ways to push the limits -- safely -- for those who dare to ride. Whether it’s steep drops or smooth barrel rolls, coaster designers study how these twists and turns affect the ride experience and what levels of force they place on riders. A designer aims to maximize the sense of excitement while minimizing any impact on the body. Designers must also be intimately familiar with coaster construction materials to understand how the elements influence a ride. For example, wood responds differently than steel and is more finicky under temperature changes, which directly impacts rider safety and the overall experience.
Not every amusement park can be the happiest place on Earth, but if you have to pick one as your office, there’s no doubt you’d be pretty stoked. Theme parks hire in-house ride designers to help shape the thrills visitors come to anticipate at every turn. Designers also work at -- or own -- independent design firms that earn contracts to build new coasters at amusement parks and tourist attractions. A 2012 “New York Times” report noted that there are only about a dozen firms that exclusively design roller coasters. Still, according to Jim Seay, owner of Maryland-based Premier Rides, there’s no better performance review than spotting riders having a blast while riding a coaster he designed.
It takes a village to raise a roller coaster. During the conception and construction of a new roller coaster, structural engineers work closely with designers to make sure the coaster operates -- safely -- under the laws of physics. In an interview with Science Careers, a division of the journal “Science,” Robbin Finnerty, vice president of engineering at Great Coasters International, describes the collaboration between coaster designers and engineers. Where designers indicate how high a coaster should ascend to, it’s the job of the engineer to make sure it stands up, Finnerty notes. Geotechnical engineers are also brought in to ensure the coaster is firmly embedded in its concrete foundation and the surrounding land.
Minuscule Job Market
While fascinating, jobs in roller coaster design aren’t just hard to find -- they are extremely rare, according to McGraw-Hill’s College and Career Readiness program. In a 2004 interview, Finnerty, who specializes in wooden coaster design, told “Science” there are only a handful of designers in the entire nation, and the job market was not expected to grow. Gaining significant experience in engineering, coupled with computer modeling abilities and a strong grounding in math and science, is a must for wannabe coaster creators. And this career is definitely not for the faint of heart, since passion for roller coasters -- and the people who love to ride them -- is also essential, according to Jeff Pike, vice president for sales and design with Great Coasters International. Fraidycats need not apply.
- The New York Times: Wood Takes a Thrilling Turn
- Wired: Equation: Roller Coaster Designers Put Curves in Right Places
- Popular Mechanics: Building America's Most Extreme New Roller Coaster
- Men’s Journal: Engineer of Fear
- The Washington Post: The Expert: Roller Coaster Designer
- Science Careers: The Ride of Your Life
Based in Los Angeles, Monica Stevens has been a professional writer since 2005. She covers topics such as health, education, arts and culture, for a variety of local magazines and newspapers. Stevens holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism, with a concentration in film studies, from Pepperdine University.