College Club Helps its Members Break Into the Amusement Park Industry

Purdue University students turn their passion for thrills into a learning experience

9 October 2015

Most people who visit a theme park come away with memories of heart-pumping adrenaline rushes and dazzling entertainment. A few come away with a burning desire to work for the parks. That’s true for members of the Theme Park and Engineering Design Club at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind. Launched in January, TPED at Purdue, as it’s called, is focused on helping students break into the amusement industry, a field that also includes water parks, theaters, casinos, and even restaurants.

“We formed the club because even though the amusement industry is enjoyed by millions of people every year, it’s still a niche market that’s very hard to get into,” says Zach Jordan, the club’s public relations director and a sophomore studying civil engineering. No theme park engineering programs are being offered by any universities, he points out.

“We’re trying to educate our members about theme park design as well as help them network with people in the industry, because the right connections are hard to make,” he adds. “It’s not what you can do, it’s truly who you know.”


The 70 current members are a mix of mechanical, civil, and industrial engineering students and a few studying management and interior design. All majors are welcome, Jordan says, because “theme park design is a multifaceted process.”

Dues are US $20 a semester. Trips to parks—so far they’ve been ones in Indiana—are extra, but admission is usually discounted and sometimes free. And to help members network, the club has lined up several speakers from industry this semester.

Jordan, like the other club members, fell in love with amusement parks and roller coasters as a youngster. The members all have what Jordan jokingly calls a “type T” personality, where the T stands for thrill.

“We actively seek out all sorts of high-speed, high-intensity, adrenaline-pumping activities like driving fast cars, mountain biking, or skiing, to say nothing of riding roller coasters,” he says.


In the spring semester, the club made trips to several Indiana theme parks. On 11 April, at the Indiana Beach Amusement Resort, in Monticello, they learned about the business of running a park and enjoyed a behind-the-scenes tour of several attractions. Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, in Santa Claus, invited the club to a media day in April for the unveiling of its Thunderbird roller coaster. Members rode the so-called “wing coaster,” which can launch riders from 0 to 96 kilometers per hour in 3.5 seconds. The students learned about the engineering that went into this newer type of steel coaster, in which pairs of riders sit on either side of a roller coaster track with nothing above and only the rail below.

See what it’s like to ride the Thunderbird wing roller coaster.

Plans for the parks to be visited this semester are not yet final, but one visit is already scheduled for 16 October. At Six Flags Great America, in Gurnee, Ill., near Chicago, members will get a technical tour of the rides and learn how the park prepares for its annual Fright Fest, which marks Halloween with haunted attractions. Of course, the students will also ride several roller coasters.


Several industry speakers are lined up for October and November. An informal question-and-answer session on 1 October featured two engineers who work for Walt Disney Imagineering speaking about how they got into the industry, their careers, and projects they’ve worked on. Purdue alumnus Kathy Kilmer, director of worldwide sales planning and development for Disney Destinations and an industrial engineer, will speak about her work on 8 October. In November , Sean Cope, vice president of marketing for Scene75 Entertainment Center in Cincinnati, will discuss the business side of running an indoor amusement facility.

In November, the club’s officers will attend the IAAPA Attractions Expo, being held from 17 to 20 November in Orlando, Fla., a conference and trade show sponsored by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, the world’s largest amusement industry trade association.

“We are going to get our names out there and build the industry connections we’re looking for,” Jordan says. “It’s going to be a very exciting semester.”

Get a behind-the-scenes look from IEEE Member Glenn Birket at the control systems that run the attractions at Disney and other theme parks.

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

Learn More