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Inside the Stomach-Churning World of Roller Coaster Design

BY: Andrew Goodwin | Jul 25, 2016

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There’s a moment at the top of a roller coaster—just as the train goes over the crest of the hill—when the weight of the world slips away. Your body lifts against the safety bars, and for a moment, you literally fly. This feeling of weightlessness is known as negative g-force, and it's one of the many elements roller coaster design engineer Adam House incorporates into each of his amusement park rides.

“My job is to make people forget their jobs,” he says.  

We caught up with Adam during one of his breaks at Knott's Berry Farm in California, where he’s currently working on restoring their classic wooden coaster, GhostRider. We asked him to explain the science behind these rides, how they’re designed, and how he became the Senior Design Engineer for Great Coasters International, Inc, which designs and manufacturers wooden coasters all around the world.

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How Roller Coasters Work

“What inherently makes a roller coaster fun is the element of surprise,” Adam says. To create this surprise, a coaster plays with the physics of everyday life. For perspective, 1g is the normal effect of gravity, and what we feel most of the time while sitting in the office or getting hit in the head by falling apples. “We want to change that and change it as quickly and as safely as possible,” he says. All those hills and hairpin turns create the negative and positive gs responsible for weightlessness and the flipping feeling in your stomach that either leaves you feeling nauseated or giddy.

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How to Design Theme Park Rides

Creating these thrills isn’t easy. “It’s an iterative process,” Adam says. First, an amusement park reaches out to Great Coasters International and Adam and his team come up with an initial design. “The fun part is having the freedom to put curves here, put drops there, etc.” The two groups bandy the idea back and forth until everyone agrees on the final field drawings.

How to Actually Build a Coaster

“The crews actually go out and live 14–18 months in California, China, wherever the site is,” Adam says. And even once every chain lift and train car is in place, the ride still isn’t finished. Adam and his team still make periodic trips to test the ride, and don’t stop making adjustments until they’ve created the best coaster possible.

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How to Find a Roller Coaster Design Job

Clearly, a lot of hard work goes into every ride—but it takes even longer to make roller coasters your career. “It’s not like a normal profession where people get into it because they need a job,” Adam says.

“What most people don't realize is that almost everybody on staff has wanted to do this forever.”

That means countless hours learning advanced equations in AP physics and Calculus during high-school, and years of studying engineering in college. And even that’s not always enough.

When Adam began the search for internships at roller coaster design companies, he heard a lot of nos—mainly because those internships just didn’t exist. “But I refused to take that,” Adam says. He reached out to Great Coasters, even though they didn’t run an internship program at the time, and told them to keep him in mind if anything ever opened up.

That perseverance paid off. Great Coasters “basically just created an intern program” after talking to Adam, and offered him a spot during his Junior and Senior years. Now, when he’s not traveling the world, he’s in the engineering office coordinating a team of engineers and interns.

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How to Live Your Childhood Dream

Even though it’s his job, Adam still really really loves roller coasters, and while he doesn’t have a specific favorite (other than the one he’s currently designing), he will tell you that you just can’t beat wooden roller coasters.

“They are truly the classics,” he says. “You can feel [them] move, and breath, and live. And the experience changes with the weather... It’s completely different on a rainy day than it is on a hot day or on a cold day.”

It’s that kind of passion that gets a roller coaster designer through nearly 10 years of education and career’s worth of hard work, all so the rest of us can get the kids outside and forget our cares for about 45 seconds. When you think about it, it’s downright saintly.

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