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.