Slowly the car inches up the improbable incline, defying gravity, and propelled by unseen forces. As the roller coaster car gets to the crest of the hill and peers over the top at the twisted tracks and loop-the-loops that lie just ahead, you try to convince yourself that the person who designed this cruel contraption knows what he is doing.
Relax. He does.
Kent Seko originally wanted to be an architect. He rode roller coasters as a kid, but never thought about designing them until years later, when a friend who worked at Arrow Dynamics, Inc., a roller coaster design firm, talked him into applying for a job. Soon Seko joined Arrow Dynamics at the entry level, in the drafting department.
Seko has worked his way from drafter to conceptual designer over the 12 years he has been with Arrow Dynamics. The primary designer has been a good mentor, working with Seko on his first few design jobs. The two now make up the conceptual design team.
With Seko's help, in 1989 Arrow designed and built the world's first 200-foot tall roller coaster the Magnum XL-200 at Cedar Point. The Magnum was the worlds first "hyper-coaster". In 1994, Arrow designed and produced two more hyper-coasters-the Pepsi Max Big One at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, and the 80+ mph Desperado at Buffalo Bill's Resort and Casino. Also with Seko's help, in 1998 Arrow entered the Mouse ride market with its debut of the Mad Mouse at Myrtle Beach Pavilion and Amusement Park. He also worked on the Viper at Six Flags Magic Mountain, the tallest looping coaster in the world reaching a lofty 188 feet into the Californian sky.
It takes both design and engineering to develop a thrill ride. Arrow Dynamics, a company of less than 30 people, employs electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, drafting engineers, and structural designers.
There aren't many roller coaster designers (there are about 100 roller coaster design companies in the U.S.), and there is no special school. But Seko said, "It's a great business to be in. It really gets in your blood."
Great Parks are Everywhere
Seko was surprised to find how many amusement parks there are in the United States that he'd never even heard of. One example is Cedar Point in Ohio, always on the top ten list for most inventive, tallest, and biggest roller coasters but unknown to Seko before he started designing.
After a spurt in roller coaster building in the early 1900s, the U.S. had over 1,500 coasters. This number subsequently declined to less than 200 in the 1960s. There are over 115 parks in the United States today, and competition is driving a continued production of many new coasters every year.
Designing for the Landscape
Roller coasters are usually custom made. A park orders a new ride for the coming year, describing the desired features and the budget. Seko and the 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. 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.
Seko has been asked from time to time to design rides that can snake through the park's existing, surrounding rides.
If the park says yes to the proposal, the engineering designers set to work on the ride, 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.
Arrow Dynamics usually likes to have a year to build a ride, but on occasion has completed projects in just eight months. The more complicated the designs, the longer the ride takes to build.
One of the company's most recent innovations is the ArrowBatic, which Seko describes as an "inverted Mouse Ride," meaning an alteration of Arrow Dynamics' Mad Mouse, pictured at www.arrowdynamics.com. The ArrowBatic has loops and corkscrews, as well as a heart-stopping vertical drop. The ride uses a single vehicle, instead of a train, which allows it to maneuver in small areas.
Future ideas are top-secret, but Seko is excited and hopeful about upcoming plans. "Everybody's going higher and taller," he said. "The 310-foot height barrier was recently broken, so there's a little height war going on right now." Arrow Dynamics was responsible for the 200-foot record at Cedar Point with The Magnum in 1988. The Magnum is still rated seventh on rollercoaster.com's top-ten coaster list.
The Job That Takes You for a Ride
Seko said there are a few Arrow Dynamics employees who won't ride the rides they develop, but Seko hops into a roller coaster car whenever possible. As designer, he gets to enjoy a special perk. After finishing a job, Seko sometimes gets invited to meet the people he's worked with from the amusement park. He then gets the honor of "bucking the line" to take his ride for free.
Learn More About Roller Coaster Design
To learn more about how roller coasters are designed and built, visit the Arrow Dynamics website.