Coaster Designers Wish List

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Roller coasters are the star of many theme parks, and as experience designers we love looking at the newest trends and technologies in coaster design and wondering how we could apply them to projects in innovative ways. Each IAAPA trade show offers a plethora of twists on the classic coaster experience, and many of these new products often find their way into our creative discussions for new ride technology we could incorporate into the guest experience… often times in ways that the original designers never even expected!
While the unveiling of a new attraction design on the IAAPA show floor is always a bit like opening a surprise package on Christmas morning for us, having a wishlist to hand out before might make everyone happier. Usually engineers don’t have the opportunity to sit in a creative charrette and listen to the types of products that get the storytellers excited and imagining the possibilities.
With that being said, here are five ideas for roller coaster designs that we’d love to see debuted at an IAAPA trade show in the near future:

  1. Non-linear brakes, lifts, and launches

Designers used to have this ability. Classic wooden coasters that used under-skid brake pads could build their final brakes and stations along curved track that would wrap around or underneath other parts of the structure. Even as recently as the 1970s spiral lift hills and curved or arched midcourse brakes were frequently used. While I’m not advocating going back to any of these specific technologies, I would like to look back at what they provided that we’ve lost in current designs.
It might not be easy, but researching ways to build brakes, lifts, or launches in a way that can be more organically incorporated into the layout’s twisted choreography, or folded over to make better use of a limited footprint, would open up a whole new world of storytelling possibilities on roller coasters, especially those that must be designed to a small or unconventional space.

  1. Efficiency and sustainability

Coasters are big, expensive pieces of equipment. Already we’ve seen coaster designers debuting new models that are smaller and lighter in response to demand from smaller parks, but it would be nice to see an even bigger push toward adopting the language and practices of sustainable design in the realm of major attractions like roller coasters.
New hybrid wooden coaster technology, for example, strategically uses steel only where it’s necessary for a smooth, quality riding experience. The rest of the massive structure is all renewable farm-harvested timber, which makes them not only more environmentally friendly, but more friendly to the bottom line. Given the advances in green, sustainable building techniques over the past decade, it’s not hard to wonder if more of those lessons could be applied to the world of white-knuckle thrills as well.

  1. Dynamic capacity

Demand for an attraction is rarely flat throughout an entire operating day. It peaks at certain times, resulting in long lines, and valleys at others, resulting in empty seats being dispatched. Most coasters can add or remove trains from the circuit, but the process to do so often requires shutting the entire ride down for several minutes while maintenance personnel are called in to oversee operation of the transfer track.
With modern advances in sensors and computer monitoring, as well as more mobile and time-sensitive audiences who increasingly expect their entertainment on demand, being able make rapid, on-the-fly capacity adjustments should become the rule for all attractions, not the exception. Being able to easily transfer trains on and off the main circuit could also allow for separate loading platforms, such as for disabled guests or for a separate loading VR experience, which some designers have already experimented with.

  1. Structural aesthetics

A well-designed roller coaster is like a work of art. They have such a large and distinctive visual presence, they often become a central icon for the park at which they’re located. This, of course, can have dual consequences: they also tend to dominate their surroundings, and if our goal is to create a carefully balanced themed environment, we often think twice before including a massive steel or wood structure at the center of it.
It would be helpful to have greater control over the visual appearance of these massive structures—without always having to clad it with an expensive themed edifice. Looking at the great diversity of design and engineering approaches for skyscrapers or bridges that blend aesthetics with functionality, it’s easy to wonder if a similar diversity isn’t possible for coaster structures. A few isolated examples are already found on a few coasters, including incredible archways on lift hills or cantilevered structures on elevated curves.

  1. On-board audio (that doesn’t suck)

Seemingly overnight, VR on roller coasters went from an offbeat research project to a major new disruptor. Time will tell if this technology is a passing novelty or a lasting evolution in roller coaster design, but now that we’ve accepted the idea of making multimedia and “wearables” part of the thrill ride experience, can we try to figure out a better way to listen to music on a roller coaster and have it still be audible when moving faster than a residential street speed limit?
This would require finding a way to cut out the auditory interference between the rider and source, possibly by wearable headphones, parametric speakers that can focus sound like a laser, or maybe even some sort of bone conduction solution. When on-board audio works in favor of the guest experience, it really works! The movement of the coaster becomes choreographed to the music, and the emotional intensity of moments along the ride experience becomes amplified by an order of magnitude. The creative possibilities for thinking of roller coasters as both an auditory and a kinetic journey would be nearly endless!

If you have any questions or inquiries, feel free to contact Jeremy Thompson at [email protected].