Students use IT to design roller coasters

Students use IT to design roller coasters

Group prepares students for careers in amusement park industry

Image Credit: Ryan McGuire
roller coaster ascending into a loop

Manny Esteves is a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie. Always in pursuit of a thrill, Esteves, a Penn State senior, enjoys skydiving and is currently planning his next big adventures: bungee jumping and shark diving. As for his on-land feats, he’s a roller coaster connoisseur who has ridden about 200 coasters.

But Esteves is not only experiencing these rides, he’s also helping to design and build their twists, drops and loops.

Headshot of Manny Esteves.
Credit: Penn State
This summer, Esteves, a mechanical engineering student, is interning at Walt Disney Imagineering.

As a mechanical engineering student in the College of Engineering, Esteves has interned at companies responsible for creating such rides as the Lightning Racer at Hersheypark, Justice League: Battle for Metropolis at Six Flags, and Spiderman and Transformers attractions at Universal Studios. This summer, he’s interning at Walt Disney Imagineering.

“My first internship was at a wooden roller coaster company in Pennsylvania where my job was to assemble a roller coaster by hand, from scratch. The project is opening this summer at a theme park in China, and I’m really proud of it — I can tell you what every bolt does and the function of every wheel,” Esteves said. “After I graduate, I would love to work behind the scenes to bring attractions to life and tell stories through roller coasters and entertainment rides.”

When Esteves isn’t working on rides, he’s busy leading Penn State’s Theme Park Engineering Group, a student organization that provides professional development experiences to students who want to work in the amusement park industry or who just love rides and attractions.

A digital roller coaster design.
Credit: Ian Kopack
Kopack helped design this coaster for a school competition.

“We’re a hybrid group of enthusiasts and soon-to-be professionals. Some of us want to work in design, while others are pursuing careers in theme park management and operations,” Esteves said. “We love roller coasters, theme parks and entertainment, and we’re passionate about learning how these things work.”

Throughout the year, club members have the opportunity to visit theme parks and Broadway shows, meet with industry professionals (such as Disney Imagineers), work on special effects for campus events like the Forensic Science Club’s annual haunted house, and participate in national competitions.

In 2015, they won first place at the Cornell Theme Park Entrepreneurship Competition for a plan to revive an out-of-business amusement park in Ohio, and this spring, another team of club members competed by designing a fictional park called “Adventure Outpost.”

“The outdoor park we researched and developed incorporated a roller coaster, hang-gliding flying ride, overhead ropes course and other attractions,” said Ian Kopack, club member and mechanical engineering student at Penn State. “Our vision was to create an area in which every single experience could be personalized by the guest themselves — from being able to control the up-down motion of their hang glider’s seat, to traversing the ropes course at their own pace.”

Ian Kopack behind the scenes at a theme park
Credit: Ian Kopack

Kopack is a club member and mechanical engineering student at Penn State. 

The team relied on the technical skills they learned in the College of Engineering, such as how to use SolidWorks, MATLAB, AutoCAD and other software, to create virtual models that integrate with roller coaster simulation software NoLimits.

“By using NoLimits, we’re able to design almost any roller coaster we can imagine and put them into really interesting theme park layouts complete with landscaping, walkways and buildings,” Esteves said. “It’s essentially ‘RollerCoaster Tycoon’ on steroids. It’s a lot more technical and there’s a lot more physics integrated into it, but there’s also a lot more freedom.”

Kopack, who is interning at Universal Studios Hollywood this summer, says the process of designing a roller coaster with NoLimits — whether it’s for a class project or a theme park in California — starts with brainstorming a ride’s theme, speed, shape, budget, land area and capacity. After these conversations, designers can either use mathematical formulas to determine a coaster’s layout or digitally build every section of a coaster’s track by specifying its direction, curvature and physical location.

“The software allows us to tinker and try out different ideas to create the experience we want our passengers to have,” Esteves said. “The cool thing about it is that you can look at your model in 3-D and then also experience it from a firsthand point of view by ‘riding’ what you build, kind of like a video game.”

A digital representation of a roller coaster.
Credit: Ian Kopack

Kopack designed this fictional coaster using NoLimits.

But it’s also about more than just fun, since the software also helps students focus on such safety features as g-force, clearance envelopes and emergency stops.

“Although we may not think about it while riding, the most important part of a roller coaster's design is driven by safety,” Kopack said. “For example, roller coaster track layouts have to conform to g-force limits, which prevent riders from experiencing forces exerted on their body high enough to cause discomfort, or, in extreme cases, to ‘gray’ or ‘black’ out. Designing within these limits ensures that riders within the target age range can safely enjoy a coaster's twists, turns and hills.”

Kopack says that while NoLimits has been an important technical skill to master, being part of the club has had the biggest impact on his career development.

Credit: Manny Esteves

The Theme Park Engineering Group rides Verbolten at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

“Penn State has one of the only university theme park engineering groups in the entire country,” Kopack said. “For students, getting into this industry takes a bit of direction and guidance. You need to know where to look to find the resources that will help you get your foot in the door, and that’s the greatest thing about this group: There’s an entire family of students and alumni all working toward the same goal of sharing their knowledge, talent and excitement for the industry.”

As Esteves nears his graduation later this summer, he says he’s excited to take a break, visit a couple amusement parks and enjoy that pit-in-your-stomach feeling he gets on his all-time favorite roller coaster.

“I can’t go skydiving every week, but I can ride a roller coaster or drop tower and get that instantaneous rush,” Esteves said. “There’s just something about pushing your body’s fear to its limits. For me, there’s a very fine line between panic and euphoria, and I kind of like walking that line.” 


Lauren Ingram