The Science Behind Orlando's Roller Coasters

Take a ride behind the scenes with us for a look at the engineering and physics of Orlando's most-popular coasters.

Your lap bar is lowered. Your car begins its ascent up the tilt lift, slowly, steadily, up, up. You’re as high as a 16-floor building when you reach the top, and in that second you remember the school-age science lesson: what goes up must come dooooooown!

As you drop down that first hill, you experience zero-gravity. You float up out of your seat as though you’ll take off and fly through the air. Then, in an instant, you’re pulled back to Earth again and you soar down the hill and up the next. You’re accelerating more than two, three, four times the force of gravity, glued to the back of your seat. You race through corkscrew turns, upside-down inversions and another big drop with constant changes in speed, motion and force that your body has never experienced before, a series of ups and downs that’s, well, a roller-coaster ride.

The Science

Roller coasters take only about two minutes to ride, and in those minutes, your mind is numb to everything but the next turn. Yet roller coasters take years to develop and are created by some of the world’s sharpest science minds. Walt Disney has famously said of his Imagineers, “This isn’t Santa’s workshop. It doesn’t happen overnight.” Disney’s Imagineers combine imagination and engineering in 140 different areas, from model building to classic engineering and animation. More than 2,000 Disney employees, or cast members as they’re called, work in STEM fields, using science, technology, engineering and math to create attractions and film.

Every single element of a roller coaster, every blissful moment of airtime and stomach-turning inversions, has been precisely planned by a team of expert engineers. Without physics, a roller coaster would simply be a train stuck on its track.

SeaWorld’s Senior Director of Creative Development Brian Morrow is a civil engineer by trade and has been designing roller coasters since childhood, making models with his toys. “For kids, it’s magical and amazing that these coasters run around without any motors inside of them. It’s not a car. It’s all gravity. You have to drag it up to the top of the hill, and then we let go of it, and it has to make it all the way around on its own energy.”

The energy it expends to go up the hill is called potential energy, and once gravity takes over, it’s kinetic energy. Then there’s acceleration and velocity. Our bodies actually cannot feel velocity, only acceleration. Riding on an airplane going 500 mph feels no faster to us than riding a bike around the neighborhood. It’s the change in velocity and the different forces it creates that we actually feel, something Morrow and his team study closely.

SeaWorld and Busch Gardens employ around 18 engineers onsite at their parks around the country. While a third-party, roller-coaster manufacturer is ultimately responsible for the complex math and engineering, Morrow and his team tweak the formula until it is perfect for the SeaWorld audience. For the coaster Manta, that was a 24-month process.

Manta's wing dip at SeaWorld

Manta, along with Kraken, at SeaWorld Orlando has consistently made top 10 lists among roller-coaster fanatics and in prominent media like the Travel Channel, which has featured both attractions in its series “Insane Coaster Wars.”

“We have a very special formula that we use—that I’m not going to tell you because it’s a secret—that gives us the pacing and the script for our coasters,” Morrow said. “We write our script to give the best possible emotional and physical experience, and the pacing is how fast those elements happen. We want our rides to be very repeatable and very enjoyable. We actually stretch our elements out a bit, giving our riders the chance to experience each element, take a breath and go on to the next one.”

That’s not to say Kraken and Manta are for the faint of heart. Kraken was one of the first floorless coasters and goes through an intense seven inversions. In Manta, riders face the ground as if they are a flying Manta Ray, going 56 mph and then diving straight down 98 feet.

The Story

Orlando’s theme parks are competitive, and their engineers grasp tightly to their secretive formulas. But it’s not all math and science. In fact, one thing SeaWorld, Disney and Universal agree on is that the story is the key to each ride.

“There are numerous complex equations that go into making the perfect roller coaster,” said one of Universal’s engineers who wished to remain unnamed. “The one I like best is a top-secret algorithm that results in the perfect balance of desire, challenge, anticipation, velocity, geometry, exhilaration, acceleration, laughter, accomplishment, family, friendship and memory.”

Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure offer guests serious roller coasters with inversions, high speeds and heavy g-forces. Before developing a new attraction, Universal forms a team of employees from different educational backgrounds and specialties. But at the core of their work is a great story.

The Mummy takes riders through a tomb deep underground with water and fire elements. Passengers select one of two intertwined coasters at Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s Dragon Challenge, where an aggressive Chinese Fireball and a Hungarian Horntail dragon chase each other through the sky. The Hulk roller coaster is fierce, angry and twisted (and might just turn you green), as it explodes from zero to 40 mph in just two seconds. It’s all the emotion, the excitement and the characters of your favorite movies packed into a thrill ride.

The Hulk at Universal Islands of Adventure

At SeaWorld, Morrow says one of the reasons Kraken and Manta remain so popular is the element of story. In Kraken, an angry sea monster emerges from the ocean to protect her eggs, and in Manta, guests are transformed into a Manta Ray as they fly through the air and take a wing dip into the water below. An exhibit of real manta rays and lush landscaping in the ride’s queue enhance the experience. “It’s pure SeaWorld,” Morrow said.

One of the most popular roller coasters in town right now—with lines that frequently exceed 60 minutes—is not one that is super thrill-seeking but rather one with a classic, childhood story.

The development of Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at the Magic Kingdom took all the core engineering disciplines working together including mechanical, electrical, materials science, structural and computer science, but the ride is so successful because it totally immerses guests into the world of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as they load a swinging ore car and set off on a mining expedition.

“For Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, we specifically wanted to target our youngest coaster fans,” said Jerold Kaplan, P.E., director of design and engineering at Disney.  “There was a lot of complex analysis to follow to make sure the physics of the swing motion and vehicle speeds were appropriate. Ultimately it was that same swinging ore car, so critical to the story we wanted to tell, that gave us the additional flexibility to make that happen. This is due to the fact the swinging provides an extra range of motion you don’t typically get on a roller coaster. We didn't have to sacrifice some of the faster speeds, bigger drops and tighter turns we might have otherwise had to if this were a more traditional coaster. It turned out to be a really good mix that makes it fun for kids and adults alike.”

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
 

The Lesson

Families can ride the roller coasters together at the parks, but they can also learn basic scientific concepts by designing their own roller coasters at locations inside Epcot and DisneyQuest.

“We’re here to show you how engineers use math and science to create some really incredible things,” said the virtual host of the Sum of All Thrills inside Epcot’s Innoventions exhibit. Sponsored by technology-leader and rocket developer Raytheon, Sum of All Thrills allows participants to manipulate the height of the track and the speed of the car until you find just the right amount of energy and force to keep the train on the track for the entire duration of the ride. When all the elements are balanced, you step inside a capsule where you can actually test your ride virtually.

Brianna, a 15 year old from Tempe, Ariz., who’s studying algebra and a foundation course in chemistry and physics, created an Arctic Torpedo bob sled coaster. She thought a hands-on exercise like that would be beneficial in the classroom. “I personally thought it was awesome,” she said. “This would be a really cool way to learn. It would stick in the kids’ minds a lot longer.”

Sum of All Thrills at Epcot

A similar exercise is offered at DisneyQuest, an indoor virtual-reality center at Downtown Disney. In CyberSpace Mountain, a play off Magic Kingdom’s Space Mountain, participants design their own roller coaster with the help of Bill Nye the Science Guy. You can choose various elements from a camel back to a more thrilling barrel roll or corkscrew that sends you upside down. When the design is complete, you name your finished product, then enter a capsule where you test the maneuvers. An emergency stop button gives kids the power to manage their fears if the ride they design is too intense.

Etta, an 8 year old from Pennsylvania was anxious to test her “Trouble Rocket,” while her mom embraced the opportunity to start a conversation about math and science basics. Colin, a 9 year old from Alaska, was experimenting multiple times with various roller coaster designs and couldn’t wait to tell his friends at school about it. “This is actually quite fun,” he said. “It’s different than the other roller coasters in the park because you get flipped over.”

While Etta and Colin were getting a basic lesson in gravity and acceleration at DisneyQuest, Brianna at Epcot was learning more complex concepts like potential and kinetic energy and the relationship between mass, velocity and force.

The History

Roller coasters are a fun and educational way to talk to kids about math and science, and they also come with a history lesson as well.

The origin of roller coasters dates back to 16th-century Russia where sledders built steep wood-framed ice slides on the slope of a mountain. The French took that idea and added rolling carts to waxed slides to use in the warmer months. They began experimenting with multiple cars linked together on complicated tracks. In the 1800s in Pennsylvania, switch-back railways, built to transport coal, were converted into scenic thrill rides as passengers descended quickly down the mountain. The first real roller coaster as we know them today was built at Coney Island in 1884. Named Switchback Railway after the Pennsylvania design, it traveled 6 mph and cost a nickel to ride. Other amusement parks opened across the country and replicated the wooden design, and by the 20s, there were 2,000 roller coasters in the U.S. Economic and social turmoil over the next several decades caused a decline in amusement parks as many were abandoned.

Then in the 70s and early 80s, steel roller coasters were introduced. (In 1975, Space Mountain was built and remains the oldest roller coaster in Florida today). Steel opened up many more possibilities for roller coasters and what they could do. Rather than simple hills and turns, steel could be bent, allowing corkscrews and more thrilling turns.

Atlantic City roller coaster 1901
 

The Future

“The 90s really represented the big boom in engineering and most importantly the fabrication of the steel,” said SeaWorld’s Morrow. “All that steel the coaster is riding on is bent, but it comes straight in big pieces. Back in the 80s [bending] was being done by hand. Now it’s done by computers, so everything is much more precise. That’s why coasters have gotten really smooth and really comfortable. The engineering has evolved and gotten more precise. Now we’re able to do more things and new things, and guests are demanding that. Guests are willing to try newer, scarier and more unusual elements. We’ve gone from simple maneuvers to a huge library of named maneuvers coasters can do, and we keep inventing new ones as well.”

In fact, Morrow is currently developing the longest, fastest and tallest roller coaster in Orlando. Set to open in the summer of 2016, the roller coaster Mako is inspired by one of the fastest sharks in the ocean. The coaster will be 200 feet high and go up to 73 mph. That sounds like a real scream. {C}

Mako to open in the summer of 2016