Confessions of a Theme Park Designer

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
June 6, 2018
DaVinci's Garden, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, guests
Busch Gardens® Williamsburg
A look at the extremely imaginative and careful planning that goes into taking theme park visitors out of this world.

Whether you love them, hate them, or love to hate them, theme park thrill rides are a fixture of the great American vacation. For everyone who’s ever asked themselves, “Is this thing safe?” as they make their ascent into the unknown, we chatted with Jonathan Smith, director of rides and engineering at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Virginia, for an insider’s view of the attractions that entertain, thrill, and transport theme park visitors.

Q: How did you discover you were destined for this line of work?

A: I knew I wanted to be a theme park engineer when I was a freshman in high school. I rode my first “big kid” coaster and was very impressed by the sheer magnitude of engineering ingenuity and planning it must have taken.

Q: How did you make your dream career happen?  

A: I focused my high school studies on math and physics and pursued a college degree in mechanical engineering with a goal to design theme park attractions. I also spent a lot of my free time reading and learning about the technical systems of rides and theme parks and what makes them exciting. I also made sure to ride a lot of roller coasters!  Visiting theme parks such as Busch Gardens Williamsburg stoked my curiosity.  

Q: What do you love about your job?

A: I’m very passionate about my work. One of my favorite parts of my job is the opportunity to work with the smart, dedicated, and talented people at our theme parks. Providing families and friends the opportunity to spend time together, have fun, and laugh is a great feeling.

Q: What is the most challenging thing about it?

A: Every new project or attraction is unique. How can we embrace new technologies and stay ahead of the creative curve to deliver exciting experiences for our guests?  

Q: What’s a cool new attraction at Busch Gardens Williamsburg?

A: I'm excited about our new immersive virtual-reality experience at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Battle for Eire. This indoor attraction is the first virtual-reality ride at this park and will utilize 360-degree virtual-reality headsets combined with a motion-based theater simulator platform that will create an innovative ride experience unlike any other. Our guests will be completely immersed within the story and will also be able to see, hear and feel actions happening around them, both through the virtual-reality headsets and within the motions of the simulator base. We are looking forward to sharing it with our guests when it opens this spring.

Q: What are the biggest surprises you’ve experienced?

A: Technology is moving so fast and my position requires me to be up-to-date and even ahead of the technology evolution. What do guests want and expect from a theme park attraction now, but also what will they want five years from now? Being grounded in today while thinking about the future of the industry is a balancing act.

Q: What is the weirdest project or situation you’ve been a part of?

A: When opening up a new attraction, part of my job responsibility is to be one of the first individuals to test the ride and verify that the experience meets the high industry standards, as well as our own extensive safety requirements. The first time I participated in a test ride for a new attraction, I recall it feeling very strange but exhilarating.

Q: Do you get a chance to observe theme park patrons on the rides you’ve designed?

A: One of the best aspects of being a theme park engineer is the opportunity to interact with our guests, especially on an opening day for one of our new attractions.  When we open a new ride or guest experience, I prefer to position myself near the exit or the queue in order to listen to guests describe their experience and to see their facial expressions, which show how much they enjoyed their ride. It really recharges your soul and gives you the drive to further create new experiences that matter for our guests.

Q: Do you ever speak with park guests?

A: Yes, I have the opportunity to speak directly to our guests and dedicated fans. Most are very interested in understanding how long our design team has been planning the new ride and some desire to go into detail of their favorite elements of the ride and want to know how or why we decided to place particular features into the ride. In spring of 2017, we released an exciting hybrid wood-steel coaster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg called InvadR, and our guests were very impressed with how the ride interacts with the beautiful wooded terrain and with other adjacent attractions such as the Le Scoot log flume and the Busch Gardens Railway. They tend to be very impressed with the amount of planning that is involved to getting everything to fit in properly.  

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Disney World: 5 Delicious Ways to Save Money

"Affordable" probably isn't the first word you'd use to describe dining at Disney World, but there are deals on dining to be had that don't fall into the "mega-splurge" category. Use our insider tips below for navigating the park's food scene without emptying your wallet, including how to choose the right restaurants, dine at the right times, and scoop up special offers that few park-goers know about. Make Your Character Meal a Morning Experience Every visitor, no matter the age, loves dining with their favorite Disney characters. Book your character experience for breakfast for an easy way to save. In fact, breakfast is the cheapest time of day to eat at Disney World Orlando. At destinations like Winnie the Pooh and Friends at Crystal Palace (Magic Kingdom) and Donald Duck's Safari Breakfast (Animal Kingdom), you can have the same memory-making experience while saving 35 percent per person. Plus, the food at both of these buffets is considered top notch, so fill up! Bonus savings: You can eat light at lunchtime. Bring Your Own Snacks and Water The tasty Disney treats are going to tempt you (those Mickey-shaped ice cream bars in particular), but park munchies can add up quickly. Pack a few snacks like granola bars, fruit gummies, and crackers to keep you and the kids satisfied. Go ahead and splurge on a few Disney-themed snacks, such as the unique pineapple-flavored soft serve Dole Whip dessert (served only at Disney and the Dole processing plant in Hawaii), but buying multiple bites throughout your day gets pricey. Same goes for paying $3 per bottle of water. Bring a refillable water bottle instead. Collapsible bottles are easy to pack, saving you money and space. Reserve a Full-Service Restaurant for Lunch Full-service, sit-down restaurants are some of the best Disney World dining experiences, but they're not cheap. Instead of doing a Disney dinner, reserve your meal for lunch. Not only will you be able to save about 20 percent compared with the evening, the restaurant will be less crowded, too. Plus, it's easier to get a reservation for lunch, which allows for greater flexibility for your day at the park. Full-service favorites like Be Our Guest Restaurant, Storybook Character Dining at Askerhaus Royal Banquet Hall, and Cinderella's Royal Table are excellent lunch options. World Showcase restaurants at Epcot such as San Angel Inn Restaurante and Tutto Italia Ristorante also offer better deals at lunch. Eat at Downtown Disney Deal alert! Downtown Disney will grant you the biggest savings on food. Hop in your car or take one of the Disney World buses, and you'll arrive in less than 15 minutes. Earl of Sandwich and Wolfgang Puck Express are two top picks for delicious food at a reasonable prices. Relatively new to the scene are Downtown Disney food trucks, so keep them in mind too. Order Smart It's a little-known secret: Adults can order from the kids' menu at quick-service restaurants. Many times, the meals are virtually the same as regular options, so don't think you'll be stuck with chicken fingers and grilled cheese. Another favorite money-saving option is ordering a large platter to share. Tangierine Café (Epcot) and Flame Tree Barbecue (Animal Kingdom) are two cafés with shareable-sized meals. Most counter-service meals have side items included in the price. But if you don't want (or don't need) the extra cost and calories of those French fries, simply ask for the entrée-only price. At most places, they'll be able to accommodate your request.

FamilyTheme Parks

Best-Kept Secrets of Disney

If you weren't a believer in the magic of Walt Disney before, these obscure Disney World attractions and deals might change your mind. First: Yes, there is free stuff to be had at Disney World, and we'll tell you where to get it. Second: Adults, there is a particularly dirty joke to behold...provided you seek it out. We spoke with longtime theme park journalist and Disney fanatic Susan Veness, whose book The Hidden Magic of Disney World was just updated with the newest secrets about the park. It's full of intriguing trivia—for example, what might look like a tree stump or a rock in Animal Kingdom really holds food or air conditioning to encourage the animals to come out of hiding so guests can see them—but more importantly for Budget Travelers, if there's anyone who can tell you what's worth your time and money, it's Veness. Read on for hush-hush must-do's, must-sees, and insider tips on how to save cash while maximizing fun. 1. The number-one little-known way to save money at Disney is through "cards": the Annual Pass and two other under-the-radar memberships. Repeat Disney visitors in particular will love this hint: To reap the benefits of the Annual Pass ($697), only one person in your family needs to actually have one. It's good for a year of unlimited, same-day access to the four Disney World parks and free parking, and in turn, it unlocks a domino effect of resort discounts and shopping and dining deals. "It's all about the cards," Veness says. "Annual Passholders also qualify for the Tables in Wonderland card [$100], which offers great savings on dining, including alcohol. The Landry's Select Club card [one-time membership fee of $25, offset by a $25 Welcome Rewards credit] is perfect for all guests dining at Landry's restaurants, including Yak & Yeti, Rainforest Cafe, T-Rex Cafe, and several offsite locations within the chain. You can even use it at Landry's restaurants back home."  2. Freebie alert! For a giant, wallet-friendly lunch, plus a free dessert, head to Downtown Disney.  Our favorite ways to save on food at Disney are strategies that Veness likes too: "Guests can save significantly at any dining location by paying attention to portion sizes," she says. "Most locations, especially full-service restaurants, have portions large enough that even two adults can share. Counter service locations won’t card you if you order a kids' meal." But the real way to cash in is at the Earl of Sandwich in Downtown Disney/Disney Springs. They have "enormous sandwiches at modest prices [from $6]," she says. "Then pop into Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop for a free sample of chocolate for dessert." 3. Three cool Disney "secrets" in particular appeal to three different age groups, sardonic teenagers included. Little kids, especially, dig the interactive movie tie-ins, Veness says: "Youngsters love to find the key under the mat at Muppet*Vision 3-D and have the dog sniff their hand when they stick it up his nose in the Honey, I Shrunk The Kids Movie Set Adventure." Older children and teens' minds are blown when they stand at the exact center of the Temple of Heaven in Epcot's China pavilion and speak. "The temple is acoustically perfect, and it's eerie to hear their own voice coming directly back into their ears so that they hear their voice as others hear it," she says.  Twists on history and nostalgia tend to be big hits with adults. "When they realize what looks like a swastika in the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular is really a Balkan Cross with a Nazi flag background, they really appreciate the Imagineers' ability to 'trick the eye' with something more politically correct than the authentic item would be," she says. 4. Beauty and the Beast's Belle has a tawdry literary secret. Venture into Belle's village in New Fantasyland for a spicy surprise. "Belle has left a book—The Dream of a Woman, by Remy de Gourmont—on the table in Maurice's cottage," Veness says. "De Gourmont's works are not exactly known for being G-rated." Indeed. We at BT—or, rather, I, the writer of this feature, was so intrigued about the subject matter that I dug up a 1927 critique of the book in the Saturday Review: "[T]he sensual content, which is high in 'The Dream of a Woman,' often saves [de Gourmont's] non-critical books from dullness. There is a fashionable suggestion of perversion in the friendship of his two heroines, which is carried beyond the stage of suggestion in the affair of Claude and the model. It is possible that Remy de Gourmont's book, unimportant as it is, may enjoy some slight vogue because of its purely fleshly element." Worth noting: Belle reads the book in the animated movie too. Scandal! However, it's a 1917 paper I found about de Gourmont, "Ideals in Modern French Literature," by Katherine Lee, published in the journal Library, that might make the most sense about why Disney animators and Disney World Imagineers put "The Dream of a Woman" on brainy, independent Belle's reading list: "Remy de Gourmont thought that each man should have his own personal vision of the world. His point of view in regard to human happiness is perhaps best brought out in his novels, which, it must be confessed, are more of the head than the heart. 'Le songe d'une femme,' a series of letters between various sorts of lovers, has an intellectual rather than a sentimental interest." 5. Keep your eyes peeled at Animal Kingdom to see something truly weird in the shrubbery. If you go out of your way to see one thing at Disney, Veness says, head to Animal Kingdom. "Strange and obscure" is how Veness describes DiVine, a stilt-walker covered in greenery: "Look carefully—or watch for a crowd with a perplexed look on their faces. She blends into the foliage, but when she moves, she's an incredible sight." Another Animal Kingdom favorite: Gi-Tar Dan. "His ability to add guests' names to popular Disney songs makes him a big favorite with people lucky enough to come across him." 6. While you're planning and saving for Disney, remember these two mantras: Villas are your friend, and it's OK to chop your itinerary in half. Vacation villas, like those on Airbnb and HomeAway, are ideal for families of five or more, or if you're traveling with friends or extended family, Veness says. "Very often these are less expensive per night, with the major benefits of multiple bedrooms, your own pool, a full kitchen that saves on dining out, several bathrooms, and the ability to get out of the hustle-bustle of the main tourist area and decompress for a while."  Time crunches are a buzzkill, so list what you'd like to do at Disney, then edit, edit, edit: "Be realistic about the tickets you need and the experiences you'll add to your vacation, especially if you plan to do more than just the Disney parks," Veness says. "Many paid-for experiences, such as the Frozen Summer Fun premium package, can be pieced together for next to nothing, and the overall experience is just as good, even without the roped-off viewing area. It's easy to get carried away with all the extras and try to cram everything in, but remember: You'll be back!"

FamilyTheme Parks

Hogwarts Comes to Hollywood

The words "press conference" don't exactly send a chill of anticipation up our spines most of the time, but today's announcement by Universal Studios Hollywood is the exception: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is a 3D-HD experience that will be the centerpiece of the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter opening in California next spring. The new Wizarding World, essentially a theme-park "land" of its own, is of course modeled after the popular attractions at Universal Orlando Resort and Universal Studios Japan, but the president of Universal Studios Hollywood, Larry Kurzweil, promises a "new, compelling experience" that will be the "next chapter" for the franchise. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey will take visitors soaring over Hogwarts, a Quidditch match, a dragon's attack, and a Whomping Willow. The ride will blend robotics, filmed action sequences, and special effects. Guests will don Quidditch-inspired 3D goggles before being swept along an elevated track. The new Wizarding World will also boast a family coaster, "Flight of the Hippogriff," and an array of Potter-themed refreshments at Three Broomsticks, Hog's Head pub, and Magic Neep and Butterbeer carts. WE WANT TO KNOW: Have you visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando? Are you looking forward to checking out its Los Angeles cousin next year?

FamilyTheme Parks

Meet The Fastest Roller Coasters in the U.S.

This article was written by Nicole Rupersburg and originally appeared on Fox News Travel. There’s nothing more American than a ride on a roller coaster, and the U.S. has some of the best in the world. American engineers are constantly designing more interactive and hair-raising experiences: The Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey offers the world’s highest and biggest drop, and Full Throttle at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California has the world’s biggest loop. But it's no secret that Americans have a need for speed, and that's as evident in our roller coasters as it is anywhere else. Strap yourself in and secure all loose items: These are the 10 fastest roller coasters in the U.S.  10. Xcelerator, 82 mph Knott's Berry Farm, Buena Park, Calif. With a 1950s Grease and greaser theme, Xcelerator looks way more innocent than it is. Using a hydraulic launch to rocket you from zero to 82 mph in 2.3 seconds, this rockin' coaster shoots you straight into the air and back down again at a 90-degree angle for one minute and two whole seconds of pure adrenaline. 9. Goliath, 85 mph Six Flags Magic Mountain, Valencia, Calif. This hypercoaster features a 255-foot drop into an underground tunnel, which you will take at 85 mph, followed by another drop of 185 feet. During this 3-minute ride through ancient ruins, you'll experience weightlessness as well as a g-force of 4.5 g. The ride is closed while awaiting a new lift chain, but you can keep yourself occupied until it reopens with the new Twisted Colossus wood-steel hybrid coaster opening this spring. 8. Phantom's Revenge, 85 mph Kennywood, West Mifflin, Pa. This modest amusement park in Pittsburgh's burbs has a wicked surprise in store for you: Phantom's Revenge, a 1-minute and 45-second ride that features a 232-foot drop and a top speed of 85 mph. It might be "America's Favorite Traditional Amusement Park" since 1898, but Kennywood is definitely keeping up with the times. 7. Titan, 85 mph Six Flags Over Texas, Arlington, TexasNot just a hypercoaster, but a hyper twisted coaster, Titan drops you 255 feet, then twists you through not one but two mind-warping 540-degree spirals, then continues through banked turns at 85 mph on the 5,312-foot track, for a grand total of 3 minutes and 20 seconds. 6. Intimidator 305, 90 mph Kings Dominion, Doswell, Va.We have now crossed the 90 mph threshold with Intimidator 305. This one-ups the ante not by a little, but by a lot: Not only does it reach a top speed of 90 mph, but it also has a 300-foot drop at an 85-degree angle. 5. Millennium Force, 93 mph Cedar Point, Sandusky, OhioThis coaster is so huge, it created a whole new coaster category: the giga-coaster. This 300-foot, 93 mph monster gets you up its first hill quickly with an elevator cable lift system, then drops you down at an 80-degree angle. And that's just the beginning of this 2-minute thrill ride. 4. Fury 325, 95 mph Carowinds, Charlotte, N.C.The brand-new Fury 325 is the world's tallest and fastest giga-coaster. Taller than the Statue of Liberty, this "hornet's nest of rebellion" is 325 feet tall, goes 95 miles per hour and has a staggering length of 6,602 feet. That adds up to a ride time of 3 minutes and 25 seconds. 3. Superman: Escape from Krypton, 100 mph Six Flags Magic Mountain, Valencia, Calif.Maybe not quite faster than a speeding bullet but still pretty damn fast, Superman: Escape from Krypton shoots you from 0 to 100 mph in seven seconds flat, straight up 415 feet in the air at a perfect 90-degree angle—backwards. After experiencing weightlessness for 6.5 seconds, you plummet down at 92 mph. You don't have to be the Man of Steel, but you'll certainly want a stomach of steel for this one. 2. Top Thrill Dragster, 120 mph Cedar Point, Sandusky, OhioGet ready to have your face peeled off and don't forget to re-collect your innards on your way out. Top Thrill Dragster, one of only two strata coasters in the world, features a hydraulic launch that shoots you through the time-space continuum from a dead stop to 120 mph in four seconds, straight up into the sky 420 feet and twisting straight back down again. It will be the worst/best 17 seconds of your life. 1. Kingda Ka, 128 mph Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, N.J.Better bring a change of underwear for this one. Kingda Ka, the other stratacoaster, is the tallest, fastest, most insane roller coaster in North America, as well as the world's tallest and second-fastest. (The 149 mph Formula Rossa in the United Arab Emirates is the world’s champ.) The King, also using a hydraulic launch, shoots riders out at 128 mph in 3.5 seconds to a height of 456 feet at a 90-degree angle, and back down in a 270-degree spiral, followed by a 129-foot camel hump hill, presumably to allow your brain time to register what just happened before you return to the platform. Honorable mention: Goliath, 72 mph Six Flags Great American, Gurnee, Ill.At a top speed of 72 mph, Goliath at Six Flags Great American is no match for the top 10, but it does have the distinction of being the world's tallest, fastest and steepest wooden roller coaster. And that definitely deserves mention. More from Fox News Travel: Children now dictate where they want to go travel All-you-can-fly Surf Air: Is private jet travel finally worth it? Harmful bacteria may be lurking in your single-serve coffee machine Marijuana-infused coffee pods hit store shelves