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Beep! Beep! Beep!

Lecture 1: Don’t Panic... Yet

Something big—really big—and yellow was backing towards me, churning up sand and flinging it in all directions as it sought purchase on the giant mound of dirt. I was pretty sure the driver couldn’t see me through the wire mesh of his rear window, and I was certain he wouldn’t have stopped anyway. He had a mountain to move, and it was my job to not get killed when he went Beep! Beep! Beep!

My feet slid deep into the loose dirt as I scaled the side of the mound, trying to get out of his way. Sand filled my steel-toed construction shoes and I cursed. Struggling higher, I finally crested the pile and stood surveying the Martian-like landscape from thirty feet above.

There was mud everywhere. Except where there were mountains of sand. On each mountain earth movers crawled, shepherding them like giant yellow dung beetles.

Looming over me was the immense, silver geodesic sphere of Spaceship Earth—the big ball, the construction workers called it. Now that I was underneath, it looked impossibly large.

For months I’d watched Spaceship Earth take shape from across the park. It had started as an ugly mass of steel. Then tiny silver triangles were attached to the dark metal framework, slowly turning into a cap, then a Pac-man, and finally the world’s largest golf ball. Now, beneath it, I discovered those “tiny” silver triangles were each the size of my car.

Speaking of my car, a half an hour earlier, at the edge of the construction site, I had started on the seemingly short walk from where I parked it. In future years this same walk—on immaculate, rosy pavement—would take me two minutes. But on the construction site, time and distance and size bent in strange ways that seemed to violate some fundamental law.

Beep! Beep! Beep! My attention turned back to my pursuer. The thing was hungrily gobbling up half of my mountain so I hurried down the slipping sand and splattered through a truck-sized mud-hole to the stairway.

I was here to find the rep from the electric motor company. We needed him over at American Adventure, where our carriage wouldn’t move, its motor silenced by a balky control cabinet. But he was here at Spaceship Earth where his troubles loomed even larger.

Puffing at the top of the second—or was it the third?—flight of stairs, I struggled to make out recognizable objects in the tangled jumble of black steel. It wasn’t easy. Ride track corkscrewed crazily up and out of sight, chased by a lunatic’s stairway and surrounded by random steel cross bracing. Everything was painted flat black.

The track was studded with motors and drive wheels, more being added every day in an attempt to convince the endless chain of vehicles to climb that crazy hill to its crest, then descend to the bottom and do it all over again. It was an incredibly heavy pearl necklace being dragged around a Dali-inspired escalator.

The set designers were supervising the carpenter who was installing 1950s furniture as I puffed my way up the downramp. Backward in time I climbed. There’s the library at Alexandria. There’s Pompeii. There’s the Greek Theater. I’d seen these set pieces being fabricated in a warehouse in Tujunga months before, and two years earlier I’d walked through a miniature, eye-level mockup of the whole thing. Now it was like a double dose of deja vu.

Farther up—pant, pant—construction workers were jockeying a $30,000 control cabinet around a corner, trying to figure out how to get it through an equipment room doorway that had ended up blocked by a stair railing which wasn’t on the plans. I grimaced as I watched them handle it with the same care usually reserved for bags of fertilizer or airport luggage.

There were only worklights installed so far, but the lighting designers were dodging welding sparks, directing someone high overhead to install the steel pipes that would hold the theatrical fixtures.

The only engineers I passed were audio people. They were sitting in a vehicle watching a guy with a screwdriver and chisels remove the on-board sound equipment for the second or third time. The new motors had interfered with the audio underpinnings during the brief moment the vehicles had moved; the audio system looked like a crumpled tin can.

All around me was activity: the bustle of construction workers, the stench of the welding torches, the cacophony of hammer against steel. It was heaven.

I found the electric motor rep working under the track and we eventually made it back to mud-hole level. Outside the Project Manager was looking for his car. He’d parked it right over there. I knew the spot well. I’d already climbed over that mound of dirt on my way in.

Opening day was barely two months away. Would we be done?

***

Welcome to my world. It’s a world balanced precariously between surreal creativity and gritty reality. A world where brainstorms turn into contraptions. A world where fun is a business, and—if we’re lucky—business is fun.

I’m Steve Alcorn, CEO of Alcorn McBride Inc., a company that engineers equipment for theme parks all over the world. For nearly thirty years I’ve been designing audio, video, show and lighting control equipment for themed attractions. It’s been great fun bringing hundreds—perhaps thousands—of attractions to life all over the world. Now I’d like to share some of that experience with you. During the course of this book we’ll even design an attraction, or perhaps a whole theme park.

Don’t worry, you don’t need to know calculus, Boyle’s law or what cement is made from in order to enjoy this journey. We won’t be using math, chemistry or computer programming.

So who is this book for?

Two sets of people, really. It’s aimed at those who are considering a career in any area having to do with themed entertainment. And it’s aimed at anyone who has ever gone to a theme park and wondered, “How did they do that?”

This book describes the different types of attractions found in theme parks, and how they work. It also surveys the many diverse engineering fields involved in designing theme park attractions, and explains what technical curriculum you should pursue to qualify for those jobs.

As theme park designers, we’ll concentrate on what it takes to accomplish our technical goals in every area— architecture, ride control, show control, audio, video, electrical, lighting, mechanical, acoustics, hydraulics, even ergonomics. And just like in the real world, we’ll be sticking our nose into other peoples’ business! We’ll evaluate art direction, attendance, concessions, food service, marketing, throughput, and return on investment, at least as they relate to Theme Park Design.

You can use the knowledge you gain here to conceptualize a park and its attractions, and to determine what it would take to create that park—and you won’t need a stock of Twinkies and coffee to help you work 24 hours a day. (But you may want to stock up on Twinkies anyway.)

This book covers three broad areas: people, attractions, and disciplines. You’ll learn about the people who create and operate theme parks, the different types of attractions and how they work, and about different engineering fields and related disciplines involved in theme park design.

By the time you’ve finished this book you will understand theme parks better as a guest. For those interested in a career in theme park engineering, you’ll have an idea of the different disciplines that you may chose from, and the types of knowledge you’ll need to qualify for those positions.

The Accidental Engineer

I ended up a theme park engineer by accident. It all started when my wife was in the third grade. Really.

You see, that’s when she decided that when she grew up she was going to design rides for Disneyland. She started with a piece of plywood she covered with little trees and cardboard buildings, making a scale model of the whole park. It even had a tiny little Skyway, with droplets of clay dangling from a copper wire.

I came along later. Much later.

As a college student and inveterate electronic tinkerer, I started a company that made microcomputers before IBM invented something called the PC. Newly married to this woman determined to design rides for Disneyland, the pull of theme parks was strong. Upon graduating she interviewed with exactly one company: Walt Disney Imagineering (then called WED Enterprises). She was hired to help design EPCOT Center, and within two years she was the Electronic Project Engineer on a half dozen attractions. Talk about a trial by fire.

Surrounded by theme park engineers, I was inevitably drawn in. Called in as an outside consultant (a “guru from afar”) to help with the particularly complex American Adventure attraction, I set out on a two-week business trip to Florida. Two years later, I came home.

But once you’ve had a nibble, you’re hooked.
And that’s how I ended up a theme park engineer by accident.

***

Of course, not everyone who helps create theme parks is a theme park engineer. Theme park engineers work with many other disciplines to accomplish their jobs. I’ll be mentioning them as we interact with them.

We’ll start by looking at people. People are a theme park’s most important asset.

It takes people to create a theme park; that’s what this book is about. But it also takes people to operate a theme park: to run the rides, keep them working, keep it clean, and keep it stocked with interesting merchandise and palatable food. As theme park engineers, we need to design our park with these people in mind. In a sense, they are our customers. If they can’t run their park efficiently, we haven’t done our jobs right.

Of course, there’s an even more important group of people: our guests. Everything we put into our theme park needs to be designed with them in mind. Our theme park must lure them in, and keep them coming back, or there will be no one to pay the bills!

The next few chapters look at these groups of people. By understanding each of them we’ll be able to design a better park.

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