A small group of Ryerson students are designing rollercoasters with hopes of breaking into a surprisingly competitive industry. But it isn’t all fun and games, as Joseph Ho discovers
Rob Kipping always loved amusement parks.
Whenever he was about to visit a place like Walt Disney World or Universal Studios, he loved how the anticipation never disappointed him.
“The theme park experience is always that wonderful sort of feeling,” he says. “You get there, you’re blown away … everything’s perfect, everything’s clean, you don’t care that you’re waiting for an hour for a ride.”
The rides also fascinated him, instilling a need to understand how they worked.
“You get off and you wonder, how the heck did they do that? It was that sort of feeling that got me so interested in theme park rides because here you have technology that’s brought together from so many different industries, to create something that you’ll only experience in three minutes but those memories are going to last a lifetime.”
Last summer, Kipping was looking for a final project to work on as part of his computer engineering program. When the fourth-year student discovered there was a research lab at Ryerson that did work related to theme parks, he didn’t believe it.
That was the THRILL (Tools for Holistic Ride Inspection Learning and Leadership) lab, led by Kathryn Woodcock, a professional engineer and associate professor at Ryerson. Its research areas includes applying ergonomics to amusement rides when it comes to operator controls, safety and inspections.
The lab also studies the design of the technology behind the attractions, how it works and how to improve it.
Kipping attended a THRILL meeting about designing a ride model.
He became a research assistant there and ended up doing a behindthe scenes tour of the CNE during its setup as part of a field trip. After that, he says Woodcock suggested creating a student group based on attractions and rides.
That group became known as the Ryerson Entertainment Design (RED) club, which specializes in theme park design and safety.
Kipping cofounded the club last fall along with Danny Porthiyas and Imtiaz Miah, two electrical engineering students.
He also serves as president.
Porthiyas says the group was founded after attending a conference with Kipping, Miah and Woodcock, where he realized there was a big industry that universities were not tapping into.
“There’s a wide industry available for jobs and for talent that people are looking for down south,” he says. “And there are actually companies within Ontario and Canada that we didn’t know about until we got to that conference.”
No other Canadian university does work in the amusement park industry, Porthiyas says. He adds that by having a student group that can build the rides, it allows labs to focus on research.
“We want to have an organization where multi-disciplines can work together to create rides and entertainment devices and maybe some devices for some other research labs,” Porthiyas says.
In an email, Woodcock writes, ”I think a student club is a good idea because students need opportunities to practice and prove leadership skills so they can graduate with evidence of [being] able to do independent work.”
The RED club is just returning from a trip to the U.S. that should bolster members’ chances in the job market after graduation. On Feb. 13, the club left for New Orleans to attend a conference hosted by ASTM (American Society for Testing and Measurement). Kipping describes the conferences ASTM holds as the meeting of industry leaders who set standards for everything from PVC pipes to vehicles.
When governments establish laws to ensure public safety, they consider adopting ASTM’s standards, he adds.
For three days, the group attended meetings held by the amusement rides and devices division of ASTM. RED members suggested new wordings for standards.
There were also sessions discussing G-force calculations and what’s safe for riders; fire and smoke effects;
go-kart and bumper boat safety and how to get new people into the industry.
It was there that Kipping did “some of the greatest networking I’ve ever done in my life” and four of RED’s members in attendance received job offers and requests for resumes.
Woodcock writes that students interested in the amusement park industry benefit from conferences like these by building relationships with potential colleagues in attendance, including executives, senior engineering and operations staff and ride manufacturers. Some executives Kipping met came from major amusement destinations such as Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Universal Studios, Dollywood, Cedar Fair and Knott’s Berry Farms.
Kipping says he also met people from ride manufacturers, including the great-granddaughter of the ferris wheel’s designer.
It’s a chance that “not only provides introductions that can lead to site visits, but also gives the students outstanding exposure and opportunity to impress significant employers,” Woodcock writes.
After three days, RED club flew to Orlando over the weekend. They visited a number of theme parks, including Disney World, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom. They also went to the Kennedy Space Center where they saw presentations, old rockets and the Atlantis space shuttle.
The group was then taken on a behind-the-scenes tour of Universal Studios with an operations engineer, learning how each ride worked.
Kipping came away impressed by the complexity of the rides.
“The amount of electronics and machinery and work that goes into these rides is absolutely astounding,” he says. “Say you were to go on a rollercoaster like the Hulk. The Hulk is a very large rollercoaster that propels you about five storeys up in a matter of three seconds in a ride vehicle … the amount of controls and motor connectors and electronics that drives that ride would probably be the size of the entire room here.
“The students who came with me were just blown away by the amount of effort that goes into these rides,” he added.
With the exception of the Kennedy Space Center excursion, Kipping says that RED club’s trip was fully funded by student tuition.
While he says some students have expressed a tinge of incredulity, he maintains they did not simply go for play.
“Just because we happen to be in a very fun industry, doesn’t mean that we are unprofessional about it,” he says. “We took our trip very seriously. We were very respectful of the attractions and we were very interested in what the employees of the parks had to say to us about how parks are operated and designed.” There was one item left unchecked on RED club’s to-do list: the Walt Disney ImagiNations Design competition, hosted by Walt Disney Imagineering, the development wing of the company.
The term, “imagineering,” is a combination of the words imagination and engineering. Winners of the ImagiNations competition have received cash prizes and internships as part of Disney’s talent recruiting program.
Kipping says the original goal behind RED was for the club to compete in theme park engineering contests, where they would design rides and attractions. However, only American universities are allowed to participate in ImagiNations.
“And the reason behind that is, the University of Waterloo entered about five years in a row and won every year,” Kipping explains. “They were so much more adept at doing this sort of thing that Disney said, ’Okay look, we can’t let Canadians be in this competition anymore. We have to have some Americans win.’”
While disappointed, Woodcock writes that it’s up to Walt Disney Imagineering to set the terms of their competition. She adds that Ryerson will just have to find another way.
But hopefully for RED club, that might not be necessary. Kipping says that when talking to a VP from Disney Imagine e r ing, he mentioned his disappointment in not being at Imagi Nations. The executive said they should follow up on the possibility of allowing Canadians once again.
RED club is currently working on two projects. One is in animatronics, a decades-old craft which involves building robotic characters.
The second is a model roller-coaster.
The group is accepting applications by email, looking for additions to its five-members. But because of high interest, Kipping says they will need to develop a screening process.
He emphasizes that the club is not just for engineers and says that skills from various disciplines can be used in the theme park industry.
“We actually like to bring in students from other faculties at school.
It just so happens that we’re at a great school that happens to have – you have interior designers, you have architects, you have theatre students, you have creative journalism students,” he says. “You have all these great programs that can come together and actually design great things for this multi-billion dollar industry that is extremely hard to get into if you don’t know the right people.”
While he is graduating this year, Kipping says he wants to try to stay involved with the group. Porthiyas will succeed him as president next year. He has high hopes to take RED where no Canadian university has gone before with the industry.
“I feel like we can create a lot of cool things and we’ll be doing it unlike most other universities in Canada. So I’m pretty excited about that – that we’re going to be the first sort of thing.”
He also hints that if Disney ImagiNations does not open its doors internationally again, RED might just start its own competition.
“Hopefully in the future they’ll allow their teams to come in as well. That’d be great. And if they do, we would definitely participate. Otherwise, we would have to come up with our own way – like our own competition perhaps,” he says.
Kipping is also excited for RED’s future and expects to see the club take off.
“We are establishing a really good foundation and you’re going to be blown away by what you see in September.”