Technology and the Amusement Industry

I mentioned before in my first blog post that one of my motivations for starting this program is the desire to change careers. I currently work in the amusement ride industry as a ride mechanic. I have been doing this for over a decade and had an interest long ago with how technology can enhance the ride experience, whether it be from making the ride safer, speed up operations and throughput, or being the central focus of the experience. Every year technology is being used more and more in the industry to push the envelope and to enhance guest experience.

I have experience and have seen firsthand how technology increases safety and the capacity of a ride. The classic rides, such as the Tilt-a-Whirl and Scrambler are about as basic as you can get in terms of electrical components and technology. The model of Tilt-a-Whirl that I took care of was wire-rope driven that was engaged by an operator. The only electrical component on the ride is the three-phase motor to drive the cable and the lights for nighttime operation. The individual cars spin by the angle of the track and weight of the passengers only. The modern version now dubbed the “Electric 7” (https://larsonintl.com/the-tilt-a-whirl/) has electric motors for each car!

Classic Tilt-a-Whirl Ride – Daryl Mitchell from Saskatoon, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tilt-A-Whirl_in_Saskatchewan.jpg

The Scrambler is another classic ride that gives thrills today while not being technologically advanced. The ride is driven by a three-phase motor that spins a gearshift and gears that rotate the whole ride and 3 arms of 4 cars. Again, there aren’t any sensors or PLCs (Programmable Logic Controller) for the programming of the ride, just an operator to turn it on and to operate the brake at the end of the cycle.

Scrambler ride – Golden Wattle, CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ChaChaBBayBellsFair.jpg

Newer rides can offer more thrills and safety with the adoption of PLCs and sensors throughout the ride. For example, I have two roller coasters that I inspect, one only utilizes electricity for the main lift hill motor and the other has an air-conditioned room dedicated to the PLC and other electrical components required to operate the ride. The rides were built over 65 years apart and offer vastly differing experiences. The older wooden roller coaster utilizes hand operated brakes to stop the train in the station for the passengers to load and unload. The new steel coaster has sensors throughout the entire ride that tracks where the cars are at every moment to avoid any collisions. Each sensor is doubled-up for safety, each sensor must flag and unflag at the same time when cars roll past. This acts as a fail safe, if one in the pair of sensor starts to fault the ride will detect that and shut down. The brake run and station are fully automated when cars move from section to section when the operator pushes a button on the touchscreen control panel for guests to load and unload. As mentioned before the PLC is the brains of the operation with relays and variable frequency drives working in conjunction to provide a safe and efficient ride. PLCs utilize ladder logic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ladder_logic) to control components and read sensors. All modern rides since the 1990s utilize some sort of PLC to at least control the safety systems. The PLC can be hooked up to the internet for the manufacturer to look in and help diagnose problems. It is industry standard to not have rides directly connected to the internet at all times because of the potential security risks. Even though controllers and relays have the fail safe built in, it is best to not put the ride and ultimately rider safety at risk.

I have been able to see behind the scenes of rides where technology is at the forefront of the experience. I was lucky enough to visit Skull Island: Reign of Kong, a 3D dark ride at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure in Florida (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skull_Island:_Reign_of_Kong), which opened in 2016, and take part in a back-stage tour. Large buses move through the indoor building and stop at different scenes for guests to enjoy. The technology on that ride is incredibly complex. Each vehicle is self-driven throughout the indoor course by way of a wireless mesh network and measuring latency between access points mounted in the building and beacons on the car itself. Each scene not only has an immense audio-visual experience but the vehicles also have hydraulic pistons on them to simulate the vehicle rolling left and right, or tipping forwards and backward, or to simulate driving over rough terrain.

Continuing working in the industry but in a different role; designing these experiences is a goal of mine. It would be great fun to be part of a team that creates these experiences for guests to enjoy. I enjoy working with physical devices and exploring how they can be best utilized to enhance our lives either through safety or fun. The rides that manufacturers produce will continue to get more and more complex as technology advances and at the same time safer.

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