The Engineering Inside Theme Parks

An insider’s view of the control systems that run attractions at Disneyland and other parks

9 October 2015

Sixty years after Walt Disney opened Disneyland in California, his first theme park, attendance is stronger than ever. It is the third-most-popular theme park worldwide, with more than 16 million visitors in 2014, an increase of 3.5 percent over 2013. (Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., is regarded as number one.)

Attractions like runaway mining cars speeding through twisting desert canyons, a submarine voyage that explores the sea, and interactive stage shows with pyrotechnic special effects keep visitors coming back. Most guests don’t realize the engineering that goes into making these adventures not only thrilling but also safe.

To mark the 60th anniversary of Disneyland, The Institute caught up with IEEE Member Glenn Birket, of Birket Engineering, for a behind-the-scenes look. He and his staff have helped design the control systems for attractions at nearly every one of the five Disney and four Universal Studios theme parks. I spoke to Birket, who was in Shanghai working on Disney’s newest park, scheduled to open in 2016.

CONTROLLING THE FUN

Control systems are at the core of all theme park attractions. They manage, direct, command, or coordinate every piece of equipment involving the lighting, sound, special effects, projectors, and anything that moves or interacts within the attraction. On a ride, for example, the control system may do something as simple as open a door when a car approaches. It must also constantly monitor where all the cars are and prevent collisions that could be caused by a mechanical failure if, say, a bad bearing slows the ride down.

Or consider an attraction that involves effects from gas flames. This could call for the release of a lot of natural gas, propane, or a mixture of the two. The control system must ensure the gas is released and burned exactly when and where it’s supposed to burn. It can’t be allowed to drift off where a stray spark could cause an explosion. And when a stage show uses explosives, a control system must prevent extraneous sources of energy from igniting an explosion at the wrong time.

INSIDE VIEW

Birket Engineering, in Orlando, Fla., is a leading designer and manufacturer of these entertainment control systems. Disney, Universal Studios, and other theme park owners develop the artistic concept of a show or ride, and Birket Engineering is hired to develop the control systems that make the whole thing work.

Birket’s history with Disney goes back to 1974. He first worked as an attraction operator and trainer at Disney World when he was an electrical engineering student at the nearby University of Central Florida. After graduating, he was hired by Walt Disney Imagineering as the control systems project engineer for Disney World’s US $60 million American Adventure pavilion at its Epcot theme park, which debuted in 1982. An audio and animatronics stage show about American history, the pavilion relies on film, music, and most of all, animatronic devices to emulate characters such as Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain. Ten stage sets appear and disappear seamlessly on a movable, computer-controlled, under-the-stage platform. Dubbed the “war wagon,” it carries the set pieces and weighs 175 tons. Birket helped design the controls for the stage machinery and animatronics, which rely on hydraulics, pneumatics, and electric motor drives.

Birket left Disney to launch his own company in 1984, where he has done it all. He has built control systems for gas fires and pyrotechnics, flume rides, stunt shows, and roller coasters not only for Disney but for other theme parks as well and for casinos, world’s fairs, and assorted other entertainment venues.

The challenge for any theme park, he says, is to introduce ever more thrilling rides to keep visitors coming back year after year. Roller coasters, always a crowd-pleaser, are now sometimes propelled by linear induction motors to avoid the rattling hill-and-chain pull-up at the start. Birket’s company built the control system for the first linear induction motor–launched roller coaster, which opened in 1996 at Kings Island, in Mason, Ohio; it has designed several others since. One of the fastest linear induction motors ever designed drives Disney’s California Screamin’ roller coaster. The motor shoots passengers up and over the ride’s first and tallest hump, accelerating the cars to 88 kilometers per hour in 4 seconds.

“Controlling linear induction motors for precise speed and position can be challenging,” Birket says. On a ride, vehicles dispatched every few seconds must reach their top speed quickly and then maintain a safe following distance.

“It’s like driving on a highway almost bumper-to-bumper at very high speeds and with just enough space between vehicles to make sure that if the driver of the one ahead were ever to tap the brakes, the drivers following could tap their brakes without rear-ending anybody,” he explains.

The one thing that all control systems have in common is built-in safety features for the attractions, says Birket.

SAFETY FIRST

While most visitors don’t think twice about the risks involved with riding a roller coaster, watching fireworks, or attending a stage show, Birket and those who design the control systems do.

“As entertainment control system engineers, our duty to public safety is especially high, higher than for the transportation systems that bring guests to the theme park,” he explains. “Control systems must fail safely or, as we in the industry say, be ‘fail-safe.’ If any one thing or multiple things go wrong, the system must react in a way that is safe: No one gets hurt, and the equipment is not destroyed.”

Since 1955, Disney has been at the forefront of developing standards for making roller coasters, show equipment, and basically any machinery that interacts with people in its parks safe, notes Birket. Universal Studios and other theme parks have made an equally strong commitment to safety. Now, the industry has come together to create national and international standards for the entire theme park industry. “We are pleased to be part of that process,” says Birket.

“Our aggressive commitment to guest safety relies on these standards, our internal peer reviews, and further reviews by our clients and third parties,” he says. “We must provide safety at any cost. An accident is just unthinkable.”

Read about the new Theme Park and Engineering Design club at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind. The club focuses on theme park and roller coaster design to help budding engineers and others break into the amusement industry.

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