Online Theme Park Engineering Class Peeks Behind the Scenes

ORLANDO, FL -- Have you ever gone to a theme park and wondered, “How did they do that?” Now you can find out, in Theme Park Engineering. This fun new online class surveys everything about the design of theme park attractions.

The course is taught by Steve Alcorn, president of Alcorn McBride Inc., a company that engineers equipment for theme parks all over the world. “For over twenty years I’ve been having great fun bringing hundreds - perhaps thousands - of attractions to life all over the world,” says Mr. Alcorn. “Now it’s my students’ turn to do the designing.”

The class is offered through 1400 colleges and universities worldwide, via online learning provider Education To Go. It’s a “survey” class, so no special knowledge of math, chemistry or computer programming is needed. It’s a class about engineering – not an engineering class.

As armchair theme park engineers, students learn about architecture, ride control, show control, audio, video, acoustics, lighting, mechanics, hydraulics, figure animation, art direction, set design and more. They use that knowledge to design their own park and its attractions, and to determine what it would take to build that park.

The resources that accompany each lesson point them towards companies that do Theme Park Engineering, industry trade organizations, plus interesting sites about roller coasters, haunted houses and other attractions.

Every step of the way students post their ideas in lesson discussion areas, where their fellow classmates and Mr. Alcorn comment on them and make suggestions. The classroom is always open, day or night. In fact, it’s a lot like real theme park engineering - with enough Twinkies and coffee they can work 24 hours a day.

“Fortunately it doesn’t take anything like that to get the most out of this course,” says Mr. Alcorn. “But they may find it’s so much fun they’ll want to stock up on Twinkies anyway.”

This except from Lesson 3 looks at the early stages of design, from Blue Sky through initial story creation, then the process of fitting the story to our intended audience.

Blue Sky

The design of every theme park attraction begins with a blue-sky phase. This is where the Creative Team sits around a large table and brainstorms new ideas for the attraction. It usually goes something like this:

"Wait, wait, I know! We can have these lily pads floating above the surface of the lake – there'll be a railing around the edge of them of course. People will stand on the lily pads and aim lasers, trying to knock each other into the water."

"Won't that be dangerous?"

"No, the engineers will figure out a way to make the lasers safe.”

“How will the lily pads float?"

"Oh, the engineers will come up with something."

You get the idea. Most attractions start out with a completely impossible idea, either because it can't be done or can't be done at a reasonable cost. So the design of attractions ends up being a negotiation process between the Creative Team, the Engineers, and the Estimators who are caught in the middle.

Eventually they will all agree on a design that is achievable at a price within the budget. At least, they think they have agreed. Then the engineers go off and design something that is nothing like the Creative Teams imagined. At the same time the Creative Team starts trying to slip back in all the impossible stuff that they previously agreed to take out. And the estimators keep telling both groups not to spend any more money.

It’s an iterative process.

Eventually time, money, patience or all three runs out and the attraction opens to the public. Then the Creative Team studies the public’s reaction to their creation and come up with a whole bunch of new ideas for improvements. The engineers now change to the graveyard shift, and try to figure out how to shoehorn in all this new stuff, without exceeding the original budget and without impacting the next day’s operation of the attraction.

As you can see, the blue-sky process never really stops.

Walt Disney once said that as long as there was imagination in the hearts of men, Disneyland would never be finished. I’m not sure whether the irony was intended.

Creating the Story

What was wrong with the attraction I invented in the last Lesson?

It had no story. If story is king, then even at the beginning of Blue Sky there must be story.

Let's take an example. A roller coaster careens through a darkened room over a faintly illuminated cityscape. Enthralling? Not really, there’s no story.

Take two. A rock band is late for a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. They invite you to hop in their limo and go careening through the Hollywood Hills and all around the L.A. freeway system to make it on time. That's the story behind Disney MGM's Rock ’n Roller coaster, and it works.

Here are two more real ones, one that doesn’t work, one that does:

A boat glides through a dark tunnel. It passes a volcano, people at a bazaar trying to sell things, Mayan ruins, dancing dolls with colorful costumes, and fiber-optic fireworks.

A boat glides through a dark tunnel. It passes a ship full of pirates and a fort. A battle is underway. Cannon balls whiz overhead, and explosions dot the water. Farther along the pirates have seized the village and are auctioning off the women, stealing treasures, and setting fire to the buildings. As we barely escape from the burning timbers we see prisoners still trapped in the jail, trying to lure a dog into bringing them the keys to their cell.

Which ride has a story, the Mexico pavilion at Epcot or Pirates of the Caribbean?

It's not that hard from the outset to make sure that a ride has a story, which makes it surprising that so many rides don't have one. But a lot of them don't. I'm not talking about rides in amusement parks. I'm talking about rides in theme parks. In amusement parks when we see an iron roller coaster we expect to be tossed around a little; we don’t expect a story. That's why it’s called an amusement park, not a theme park. But at a theme park our expectations are higher. Do the Batman or Superman roller coasters at Six Flags theme parks tell a story, or are there simply themed façades accompanying an unthemed ride?

Sometimes there might be a story there, but it isn't intelligibly conveyed to the riders. At the Journey to Atlantis flume ride at SeaWorld Orlando, preshow monitors show news broadcasts and interviews related to the reappearance of the lost continent of Atlantis. A Greek fishermen is involved, and a statue of the sea horse. The audio is usually intelligible, but the set up doesn't ever give us a mission. Once on the ride the audio becomes unintelligible, and animated figures and props – presumably there to convey a story – pass by so quickly that they can't be perceived. There’s some kind of woman or witch in a very bad mood, and a reappearance of the sea horse. Then we go down a really nice drop, get soaking wet, creep back an upramp, and get one final surprise before unloading. It's not a bad ride, but it's incomprehensible.

Sometimes the story is just too complicated for the ride. The Lord of the Rings makes a great book and movie trilogy, but would it make a good ride? Of course not. Rides with more complicated storylines are often best implemented using simulators. Here it is customary to have a narrator – often the driver – who can summarize the adventure as it proceeds. And since simulator rides can be as long as ten minutes, there's more opportunity to convey the story.

Conversely, short rides need simple plots. You step into a basket, are hauled to the top of a tower, and dropped. Or... you go to a creepy old hotel where guests mysteriously vanished in an elevator years before... as you enter the darkened elevator shaft you suddenly feel yourself falling. Knott's Berry Farm’s Parachute Drop or Disney MGM's Tower of Terror: which is the better ride? Tower of Terror. Of course, it cost 50 times more.

The year after Tower of Terror opened, it was updated and re-advertised as Tower of Terror 2. The new version dropped guests twice.

The next year they added even more drops, and then more. So now that Tower of Terror drops you four or five times for no particular reason, is it a better ride? That's a tough call. It’s more exciting, however the story suffers. But it does allow the marketing folks to advertise the new ride profile each year.

A particularly effective mechanism for storytelling is the old-fashioned dark ride. Here a simple vehicle moves along a track – sometimes level sometimes with elevation changes – traveling from scene to scene and telling a linear story. The dark interior allows ultraviolet lighting to focus your guests’ attention on the elements most important to the story. Still, one needs to be careful not to try to tell too complex a story. We all know the story of Alice in Wonderland. Without that background the ride at Disneyland would be nearly incomprehensible. But because of that shared background, the audience can relive the book or Disney movie without confusion. This foreknowledge of your guests’ background is essential to a successful ride.

Fitting Story to Audience

My grandmother never rode a roller coaster. And punk rockers don't hang out in butterfly conservatories.

It's essential to know your audience when designing an attraction. This process of evaluating the audience begins almost from the first moment of blue-sky and doesn't end until the concept moves from Art Direction to Engineering. Even then the mechanical or ergonomic design of the attraction may be influenced by its anticipated guests. For example, in Europe it's okay to make guests climb stairs or jump off of slowly moving vehicles. In America it's not. Let's look at how the designers of some other attractions targeted their audiences in order to see how we should proceed.

When the Las Vegas Hilton decided to install the Star Trek Experience, they made a calculated decision to recreate the Starship Enterprise from the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. They didn't use starships from the classic series of the late '60s or from more recent sequels, such as Star Trek Voyager. Why did they make this calculated decision?

It's because they knew their audience. The majority of people likely to visit the Star Trek Experience (and then spend time at the slot machines in the adjacent casino) are from an age group that would've watched Next Generation on television, but perhaps not the classic television show (except maybe in reruns).

When Legoland built their theme park in Carlsbad California they wanted an attraction where kids would be able to drive cars. There are lots of motorized go-cart racing places around the country, but they appeal more to teenagers than to Lego’s target audience of preteens. Also, Lego didn't want anything so environmentally unfriendly and noisy. They wanted something more in keeping with the theme of their park: the Lego brand. So they decided to use electric cars.

The problem with electric cars is that they don't accelerate very quickly or go very fast. In a world where every third television show ends with a car chase, electric cars are about as exciting as watching fingerpaint dry. Lego had to figure out how to make electric cars interesting to kids. The solution is in the story. Lego created a kid-size grid of streets, laid out like the intersections in a real city, complete with stop signs and traffic lights. The idea was for kids to drive around the miniature city, following the same traffic laws that their parents have to follow. Clearly this was something that would appeal to the imagination of an 8-year-old if – and it’s a big if – you can get him to do it.

To accomplish this they had to figure out a way to complete the story. The solution was to start the experience off with an instructional video that would teach kids how to observe the rules of the road: obey the signs and lights, use hand signals when turning, and be courteous to other drivers.

Another problem was getting kids to leave the vehicles once their time was up. They found the perfect solution in the completion of the story. At the exit of the attraction the kids are awarded Lego driving licenses.

The result: a simple ride becomes a complete experience though the use of story. A story designed specifically to appeal to the target audience: preteens.

Lets try using this awareness of our audience. In this week’s assignment we’re each going to put on our creative hat (the one with the bells and the moose antlers on it) and begin the design of our own themed attraction. It's a great way to really understand the blue sky-process.

Since an example is always worth a thousand words, I’ll go first.

The best attractions reflect their creator’s passion. I love history, so my attraction will be about history. There are so many regions and periods to choose from, it’s hard to decide which to pick. I’m going to choose the Middle Ages – sometimes called the Dark Ages – because I think they have a lot of potential for entertainment and many people don’t know much about them. The Middle Ages offer castles, knights, pageantry, eating with your fingers, the Black Plague and a total lack of sanitation. Some of these might not be the best ingredients for a themed attraction, but we can work around them.

My attraction needs a story. But where to start? The logical places to try to explain to my guests why they're in the Middle Ages. Better yet, perhaps we can make their getting to the Middle Ages a part of the attractions experience. Time travel. I like it. It mixes high-tech sci-fi with the history. There's potential here.

What if we created a way to convince guests that they were being transported into the past, and we made it so convincing that they couldn't figure out how we did it? Then, once we get them to the past, we give them an environment to play and: food, drink, entertainment, and something more. Let's make part of our story their quest to find a way back to the present.

Now let’s consider our audience:

Families? Definitely.

Retired couples? Possibly.

International vacationers? If we put it someplace they visit.

Businessmen? Nope. Even if we’re in a major convention city they’re probably going to find something more… um, stimulating to do with their time.

Teens on a date? Not likely.

OK, so we’ve got a tame crowd that may have trouble with physically demanding tasks or terrain, and that isn’t in a hurry. So I’m picturing a medieval village with shops selling wooden toys, silk pennants, kites, lutes and fake swords. There are tents on a lawn where you can buy a turkey leg or a meat pie. We’ll serve ale and soft drinks in pewter tankards. Street performers including jugglers or jesters will accost the guests, and generally try to liven things up.

You enter this land by some magical means that will transport you there instantly, and you’ll have to discover the way back yourself.

That's enough to get started. The engineers will figure out the rest later. Let’s do lunch.

In this week’s discussion area you’ll begin the design of your own attraction. Keep in mind the topics we’ve discussed so far, and we’ll build upon them as we proceed further into the world of Theme Park Engineering.

A new session of Steve Alcorn’s Online Theme Park Engineering Class begins every month.

For more information and to enroll, visit


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