Home » How an Idea Becomes a Ride: Roller Coasters

    How an Idea Becomes a Ride: Roller Coasters

    Millennium Force at Cedar Point

    Amusement parks have been known for their constant innovation and expansion. Park executives are always looking for the next big thing to draw in a crowd—relying on annual pass holders and nostalgia isn’t always enough. Roller coasters are a great way to do just that, and while the general public gets to glimpse parts of the production process—such as the building and promoting of new rides—a plethora of decisions and plans are made behind the scenes.

    Iron Gwazi at Busch Gardens Tampa
    Image: Busch Gardens

    In order to explore the work that happens between the thought of a new roller coaster and opening day, we’ll have to put on our Roller Coaster Tycoon hats, asking ourselves the big questions—and the equally important small ones—that go into park planning. After this, you may even be able to guess what’s coming next at your favorite park.

    Where’s the Gap? 

    Map of Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
    Image: Six Flags

    If you hang around coaster enthusiasts long enough, you’ll start hearing them mentioning gaps in park lineups. What exactly are gaps?

    Well, amusement parks are responsible for providing a high level of satisfaction for a wide selection of guests: thrill seekers, families with small children, roller coaster enthusiasts, annual pass holders, tourists, foodies, photographers, to name a few. This is harder than it may seem. Amusement parks, even in their roller coaster lineups, must have variety, from kiddie coasters to record breakers. Sure, some of us would love to go to a park chock-full of intense, heart-stopping, stomach-dropping roller coasters, but would that really be equitable for a major park, only marketing to a specific—mostly adult—crowd? No. Parks must pull in all demographics to survive the competitive landscape.

    A park of all intense “grown-up” coasters would have a major gap, the gap in question being family and kiddie coasters. The next time you go to your favorite park, try to pick out the gaps.

    As an example, let’s start with Busch Gardens Tampa, a constantly-evolving park that’s just as focused on its animal exhibits and beautiful scenery as it is its roller coasters. With arguably the most expansive lineup in Florida, Busch Gardens Tampa will boast ten roller coasters in total this year, including a kiddie coaster in Air Grover, a shuttle launch coaster in its newest addition, Tigris, a classic sit-down looper, an inverted coaster (aka, where your feet dangle below the track), and plenty more. With Iron Gwazi opening later this year, this will fill in the park’s gap for a hybrid coaster (a relatively newer park need with the emergence of Rocky Mountain Construction’s hybrid models). To decide what comes next for this park, executives must examine their lineup and find any areas or demographics they may be missing out on.

    So with these ten coasters, where’s the gap?

    Tigris at Busch Gardens Tampa
    Image: Busch Gardens

    You could say the park’s missing an intense Gigacoaster (or, a coaster that exceeds 300 feet) like Fury 325 at Carowinds, or maybe a classic wooden coaster like defunct dueling coaster Gwazi. Busch Gardens Tampa doesn’t currently have any indoor coasters, so perhaps that would be an area to consider.

    The park already has a world-renowned sit-down looper in Kumba, so it’s safe to say they won’t be building one any time soon. The same goes for launch coasters (Cheetah Hunt and Tigris) and spinning coasters (Cobra’s Curse, which also acts as a great family addition for younger audiences).

    A Broader Scope

    Examining gaps doesn’t stop within the park boundaries. One must also look at the surrounding parks, such as parks in the same state or surrounding area, for gaps. To keep with the Busch Gardens example, Busch Gardens Tampa would probably benefit from a Hypercoaster, or a coaster that exceeds 200 feet. However, with Mako at Sea World Orlando just over an hour away, it would be somewhat pointless to build a similar coaster so close by. The same goes for a flying coaster, with Manta easily filling that role. If you think about your state or your area, you will probably find that there’s not a great amount of overlap between your closest parks’ roller coaster lineups. You’ll rarely find two of the same type of ride in your state.

    Why is this? Once again, it comes down to profit and marketing. In order for, say, Busch Gardens Williamsburg to pull a crowd from King’s Dominion, both parks in Virginia, they must offer something different, something you can’t just get at the park down the street. Variety and individuality is key for a standout amusement park.

    In examining the gaps, things are already narrowed down for those who make decisions at major parks. So what comes next?


    Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit at Universal Orlando
    Image: Universal

    Limitations are most commonly found in three categories: space, money, and permits.

    Space pertains to how much actual space is in the park to build upon. Parks like Cedar Point struggle with this, as it is built on a landlocked peninsula. In order to expand, either something must be removed, or you have to get creative. Getting creative can mean anything from purchasing a roller coaster that can be set on a small plot of land, to weaving a coaster structure in and out of existing rides and buildings. Busch Gardens Tampa recently made good use of space in their newest coaster, Tigris. This is a Sky Rocket II model from Premier Rides, a cloned model (or a model with exact copies found in multiple locations) made to provide a high level of thrills in a small plot of land. On top of being a short track length, the roller coaster is incredibly narrow and therefore able to squeeze into even the smallest of footprints. 

    Money is, well, money. When parks are deciding on a new roller coaster, they must examine the loss versus the gain. As with any business venture, the new product must be profitable, or make back its money and then some. A relatively slower season (see: 2020) may cause a slimmer wallet for parks, and send them to either cheaper manufacturers or smaller additions. But even if parks are doing poorly, certain parks take a big swing with the plans of a high reward in return, building massive additions with the hopes that the people will come.

    Permits are perhaps the most boring and tedious part of the coaster-planning process. Though not every park is restricted by permits and local residents, it’s a bigger problem than you’d think. Restrictions such as noise ordinances or height barriers constantly have to be dealt with in this industry. If a park is too close to an airport, for example, they may not be able to exceed the 200-foot height mark.

    Taron at Phantasialand gliding through its trenches
    Image: Phantasialand

    This isn’t always a bad thing, though. Take a look at Phantasialand in Germany, a park heavily barred by height restrictions that came up with the creative solution to build lower instead of higher. By starting lower, using the landscape and trenches to build, new crowd-pleasing roller coasters can thrive.

    The Fun Part 

    Montu at Busch Gardens Tampa
    Image: Busch Gardens

    I’ll always remember something my mom said to me after a trip to Busch Gardens Tampa: they make the smoothest coasters. Was she right? Well, yes and no. While it is true that Busch Gardens Tampa’s lineup is quite smooth, it’s not really that simple.

    The most common belief for casual park goers is that parks build their rides. It would make sense, right? Of course amusement parks should be the ones making their rides, the same way that clothing stores make their clothes, or restaurants prepare their own food. While this can be the case, such as Lagoon’s in-house creation Cannibal, a good 95% of coasters are designed by third-party manufacturers. That means once a park can objectively agree on its gaps and limitations, it’s time to start shopping.

    Cannibal at Lagoon
    Image: Lagoon

    Why does Busch Gardens have the smoothest coasters, then? Because for a while, most of their coasters were manufactured by Bolliger and Mabillard, a Swiss manufacturer known for their reliability, capacity, and…smoothness. Think Diamondback at King’s Island, Griffon at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, or Hulk at Universal Studios.

    If a park wants a more innovative and thrilling experience, however, they may swing for a manufacturer like Intamin Amusement, known for their launch coasters and refusal to stick to the status quo. Granted, they’re also known for their downtime, so it’s a give and take. Intamin attractions include first-of-its-kind Gigacoaster Millennium Force and, another first-of-its-kind, Stratacoaster Top Thrill Dragster (a Stratacoaster is a roller coaster which exceeds 400 feet).

    Decisions, Decisions… 

    Gerstlauer train on New Texas Giant
    Image: Gerstlauer

    There are plenty of other steel manufacturers to choose from: the aforementioned Premier Rides, an American company that specializes in their launch coasters, S&S – Sansei, the manufacturer that absorbed trailblazer Arrow Development which is now known for its air-compressed launch coasters and adaptability, or Vekoma, a manufacturer with a rocky past but a bright future, working closely with Disney on rides such as Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster or Tron. Rocky Mountain Construction is the newest shiny toy in the amusement industry, their hybrid coasters like Steel Vengeance making quite a splash on the landscape of roller coasters.

    As far as wooden coasters go, parks can hire Intamin or Rocky Mountain Construction, two manufacturers with a good bit of range in their offerings, or go for more classical offerings like Great Coasters International, Custom Coasters International, or the Gravity Group. There are plenty of other both up-and-coming and long-standing manufacturers to work with, all with their own set of pros and cons for parks to examine. Certain park chains may have better relationships with certain manufacturers, creating a relationship that makes it easy to go back for products again and again. As stated prior, Disney loves working with Vekoma on newer projects due to their flexibility and cost efficiency. On the other side of the coin, you may find some burned bridges, like how Six Flags has never worked with German manufacturer Gerstlauer again since the tragic accident that happened on New Texas Giant at Six Flags Over Texas, which Gerstlauer provided the trains for. 

    Regardless of relationships, though, decisions have to be made. Which manufacturer is best for the park? Which is best for the specific ride in need? Which is the best bang for your buck? This is where you could go back to gaps and limitations, the two in tandem acting as a goal post for scoring the perfect coaster.

    The Little Details 

    Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure still
    Image: Universal

    After agreeing upon a coaster model and manufacturer, parks can get down to the nitty gritty of what they want the ride experience to look like. This means working with the manufacturer to create one cohesive product. Six Flags parks and even the majority of Cedar Fair attractions are known for their lack of theming, their focus set on thrills over frills. Parks based in intellectual properties, however, are far more interested in the story, from the ride entrance, to the queue, to the pre-show, to the ride experience. Perhaps the best example of a themed roller coaster is Universal Orlando’s latest, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. With an even focus on ride experience and theming, this attraction is a trailblazer in the territory of themed roller coasters.

    Theming elements, unlike the coasters themselves, are more often than not dreamt up and devised in-house by park creative teams.

    The actual building of coasters is usually contracted out by the manufacturers and can take anywhere from a few weeks to multiple years, depending upon how extensive the theming and track work of the project is. Bear in mind that this step doesn’t even happen until months of planning has already taken place.

    Can You Guess the Next Coaster? 

    Manta at Sea World San Diego
    Image: Sea World

    Park goers and coaster enthusiasts enjoy taking their guesses as to what their favorite park has up their sleeve next, as park plans are often shrouded in secrecy. Plenty of work, planning, and thought goes into the production of new roller coasters at parks. And though it’s far from a simple process for park executives, it is relatively easy to narrow down what may be coming next at your park by following these guiding questions:

    1. Where’s the gap?
    2. What are the limitations? Space? Money? Permits?
    3. Who’s the best manufacturer for this?

    The next time you catch an announcement for a new roller coaster at a park, try to recognize the careful work and selection that has gone into the creation of the ride. Every choice has a consequence and a purpose. That purpose? To create a park that you and I go to…over and over again.