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Design Your Next Favorite Roller Coaster

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Laughing with your neighbor, you step into a stationary cart seated on a track, pull a large strap down over your shoulders and wait. Anticipation builds. Thirty seconds later (enough to make you want to exit the ride before it's even begun), and ZOOM! You're off — racing along the track towards a massive incline. Your hair's a mess, your surroundings blurry. Higher and higher your tiny cart climbs until you're teetering on the edge of a Mount Everest-sized peak. And then — gulp — you and your cart plummet. Five feet. Ten feet. Thirty feet. Four hundred and eighteen feet you drop. Think that's bad? Try it at a ninety-degree angle.

The Kingda Ka is "the fastest, tallest roller coaster on the planet [open] to the public," says the With a 418-foot drop at a ninety-degree angle, and zooming at 128 mph, this roller coaster defines a thrill seeker's gold.

But roller coasters have existed since long before Six Flags, Knott's Berry Farm, and Busch Gardens. True, the coasters of the past have nothing on the speed demons of today; however, without them, Six Flags may have only been known as a short game of golf, and nothing more.

As far back as the 17th century, in an area known today as St. Petersburg, Russia, roller coaster creation began. "The structures were built out of lumber with a sheet of ice several inches thick covering the surface. Riders climbed the stairs attached to the back of the slide, sped down the 50-degree drop and ascended the stairs of the slide that lay parallel (and opposite) to the first one."

Created by the French in 1817, Les Montagues Russes a Belleville ("Russian Mountains of Belleville") and Promenades Aeriennes ("The Aerial Walk") were two coasters that allowed the cars to lock into a track.

However, the true forefather of roller coasters was definitely American. Built in the mountains of Pennsylvania, the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway, which was "more like a runaway train than a modern coaster," once transported coal up the 2,322-foot track. But in 1873, the coaster began carrying people instead.

Today, roller coasters not only race up steep inclines and plummet at deathly angles, but they also invert riders multiple times and allow passengers to stand instead of sit.

Popular coasters include:
  • Wild Mouse (at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in England): "They look small; these rides can pack a brutal punch using hairpin turns that throw riders into the side of the car."

  • Batman The Ride (at Six Flags): "The first inverted roller coaster design from Bolliger and Mabillard."

  • Montu (at Busch Gardens Tampa): "[Montu is] one of the largest inverted roller coasters and features seven inversions."

  • Twisted Sisters (at Six Flags Kentucky). "[This coaster] was the world's first dueling wooden coaster."
But what does it take to design a roller coaster?

Both engineering and design are required to develop a "thrill ride," says an article on Roller coaster designers should also have good grades, a solid math and physics background, and an interest in design. And while there aren't roller coaster design schools, students can major in structural, mechanical, or electrical engineering to help them break into the industry.

All "roller coasters are usually custom made."

"A park orders a new ride for the coming year, describing the desired features and the budget. [The designer and design director] then develop a proposal for the park covering cost, design features, and environment."

"Designers can be creative about all sorts of aspects of the job," the article continues. "A ride can be basic, suspended, looping, or straight; it can be a water log ride; it can be death-defyingly tall or just medium tall. The surrounding landscape and the available plot strongly influence the design decisions. There may be a great view, or no view, or hills to work with. The ride could be long or short. The capacity of the ride is another concern: the park views it as how many passengers the ride can handle at a time, while the designer sees it as how many cars to build, and how much weight to account for."

Once the firm says yes to a project, the engineering designers begin to work, building the track, structure, stations, and controls. "The designs then get sent to the fabrications, or manufacturing department, which builds the machine. They then ship it off to the park."

But there's more to designing a roller coaster than style or surroundings. Physics plays an immensely important role as well.

So if you're a thrill-seeking, speed-mongering, physics-craving engineer, jump on board the design ride. Who knows, the next roller coaster you step into could be yours.
On the net:Amusement Park Physics

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