riding a roller coaster

Theme park clubs give students behind-the-scenes access to the amusement industry

Image credit: Pixabay

For young engineers interested in working in such a unique sector, theme park engineering clubs across North America are providing invaluable access to the industry’s technical experts and most advanced rides.

Penn State’s Theme Park Engineering Group (TPEG) is one of over 25 student groups that have popped up across North America in recent years with the goal of helping its members learn more about engineering and technology in theme parks.

The second of its kind to be created, Penn State’s TPEG was founded back in 2009 by three students who were looking to help further their professional and personal interests in the industry of themed entertainment. Today the group has roughly 40 members, ranging from students and graduates of traditional engineering subjects such as mechanical, electrical, industrial and civil, to chemical, nuclear and architectural engineering. Open to anyone with an interest in the sector, members also come from backgrounds as varied as hospitality and tourism management through to meteorology and medical physicals.

The group gives its members a wide variety of opportunities to get their foot in the door of the industry. Students get to connect with engineering professionals, attend networking events and technical visits, work on design projects and take part in workshops and conferences across the US.

Special events take place throughout the year for TPEG members. Recent trips including behind the scenes tours of some of the US’s biggest parks, such as Cedar Point, Coney Island and Knoebels, but members also have the opportunity to look into the wider entertainment industry, such as backstage visits to Broadway theatres.

“We plan behind the scenes tours with theme park ride manufacturers and the parks themselves, and invite representatives from companies like Disney and Universal Studios to come and give us presentations on the industry,” says current TPEG vice president Manny Esteves. “In addition, our club sends students to conferences where they can learn from professional engineers in the industry and keep up to date on the latest technological advancements.”

Students have had some amazing opportunities to undertake projects both on campus and in industry. University and design projects have included static load analysis of roller coasters’ ‘chain dogs’, force-vector roller coaster design, 3D visualisation and roller coaster simulation, which allow them to develop their skills via access to online tools provided to the group. Plus many students are given the opportunity to gain real-world experience with internationally known firms.

“TPEG meets once a week to conduct projects such as creating experiences like haunted houses and escape rooms,” says Esteves. “These are geared towards helping students use their classroom knowledge and apply it to themed entertainment. For example, our members provide technical and design support to the university forensics club’s annual haunted house.

He adds: “We’re currently designing escape rooms for students to enjoy on campus, plus we’ve also had some of our members work for entertainment companies around the world designing and building roller coasters, dark rides and stage technology.”

Indeed, past projects that members have been able to get involved with include redesigning the headlights on one of Kennywood theme park’s most popular roller coasters; the Thunderbolt, and working closely with Conneaut Lake Park.

Here students helped create a new haunted walkthrough attraction for a Halloween event, updated the park’s Devils Den attraction, repainted its entrance and re-assembled the train of the Blue Streak wooden rollercoaster after it had been reupholstered.

“During my freshman year we took a tour of Cedar Point when they were constructing the steel wing coaster, Gatekeeper. Ten below freezing and with six inches of snow on the ground, the park was so eerily quiet that you expected a pack of zombies to come running toward you any minute,” Esteves laughs. “I watched as the steel track was being assembled and thought ‘wow, I want to be part of this.

“Another personal highlight was when, during a tour of Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, they allowed all 32 of us to ride Alpongeist, one of their steel coasters together. Aaron, one of our newest members started screaming out our famous chant. ‘WE ARE!’ he yelled. The entire train erupted: ‘PENN STATE.’ This went back and forth all the way up the lift hill before they were replaced with screams of the first drop,” he recalls.

Alongside the adventurous tours, Esteves also managed to secure internships with two amusement ride manufacturers and Walt Disney Imagineering.

“I helped create seven major theme park attractions around the world and I owe a huge part of my success to the club,” he enthuses.

Such extensive industry access is amazingly beneficial to the young engineers. As well as undertaking regular industry internships, over a dozen of TPEG’s members have gone on to work full-time in the entertainment industry.

“We’ve had members go on to work for Walt Disney Imagineering, Universal Students and Walt Disney World as well as major ride manufacturers who work with parks such as Disney, 6 Flags, Seaworld and Busch Gardens,” Esteves says. “Other members have gone on to design entertainment structures and elements for concert tours, live theatre shows and museum exhibits.

Once they ‘make it’ in the sector, these alumni are keen to give back and continue to be actively involved in the group, helping to bring students and experts together, helping to arrange visits and talks and providing moral and technical support on the students’ projects.

“Alumni are constantly offering guidance by calling in, helping us set up tours or giving presentations and there’s this familial bond we have with many of them. Ive met some of my greatest friends in this club. Ive shared priceless memories with so many people that long after I leave Penn State I know that the members, past and present, will be there for each other. And that makes me so proud to have been part of such a wonderful group.”

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