Smooth riding roller coasters set for Disney, Universal, SeaWorld

Bone-rattling roller coasters are taking a back seat at Central Florida’s theme parks. The latest thrill rides are smooth — if sometimes unnerving — experiences, thanks to advances in engineering, the evolving taste of the public and a goal of re-rideability, experts say.

Five Florida attractions have opened new coasters in the past year, including Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, which debuts officially at Epcot on Friday. Among its features are ride vehicles that spin 360 degrees while moving forward along the rail and through the darkness of Disney-created outer space.

“As we developed this technology, we needed a full understanding of dynamics and accelerations of a rotating ride vehicle on a fast-moving coaster train going through the banks, twists and turns of the track,” Liz Diaz, senior ride development engineer with Walt Disney Imagineering, said via email.

“The effect of the combined rotating ride vehicle on the coaster train adds a more dynamic, fluid motion,” she said. “The ability to rotate the ride vehicle while moving along the coaster track creates a sense of unexpected thrill for guests as they ride for their first few times, and we hope that motivates them to continue coming back.”

Expectations are shifting for coasters, said Shelby Honea, senior show producer with Universal Creative and part of the team that introduced Jurassic World VelociCoaster at Islands of Adventure theme park last summer.

“There was a sensibility for a while where coasters were all about power and about the intensity,” she said. “We’re now kind of going in a different direction of like ‘What is intensity?’ and in the case of VelociCoaster, truly, airtime is that thing that we’re trying to deliver.”

Precision matters, Honea said.

“For us, every single piece of our track has to connect within half a millimeter of the other piece of track next to it. So think about how precise that has to be, how smooth that has to be,” she said. “The tools have gotten really fantastic. … We’re able to build things with a level of precision that was not possible 20, 30 years ago.”

Designers use 3-D software early in the process. Honea said. Universal had a simulation for VelociCoaster about six weeks after planners had approval for the project. That’s used for the ride as well as its theming said Greg Hall, creative director at Universal Creative.

“Once we have the foundation built of our 3-D model, we can generate a lot of content to help the team visualize what needs to happen next, and make very clear decisions on the route to move forward,” he said.

“It even goes towards when we have the raptors [statues] in the attractions and making sure that they’re placed correctly,” Hall said. “We have to be confident that they’re the right scale and everything.”

The modeling makes some of the choices less risky than they would have seemed years ago, Honea said.

“Guests expect us to take risks, to show them something that they’ve never seen before and push the envelope. So it’s amazing to have more confidence of how it translates into real life,” Hall said.

Advances seen in the airline and automobile industries are being translated into the theme park industry, said Jonathan Smith, corporate vice president of rides and engineering for Orlando-based SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. This year, his company debuted Ice Breaker at SeaWorld Orlando and Iron Gwazi at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

“Today’s technology, coupled with the 3-D design software that is available to us — and then I would also say innovative track fabrication techniques — allows us and the right manufacturers really ample opportunity and flexibility to generate incredibly smooth layouts, with the added benefit of introducing new and exciting elements,” he said.

“When we’re designing a new roller coaster — let’s just talk similar to Ice Breaker, which has very smooth track — it is very important to us from the very beginning to create a ride centerline in the design side that is very smooth, very re-rideable, and features nice seamless transitions, as the ride vehicle maneuvers from element to element.”

Repeatability is highly important because coasters’ popularity fade, said Brian Morrow, owner of Orlando-based B Morrow Productions, which designs and produces attractions.

“The demand goes way down for them unless they’re just those coasters you can write again and again and again. And those exist. Disney has a park full of them. That’s why they’re very successful. Universal is building those coasters,” Morrow said.

Another development with coasters with ride pacing, Morrow said. There’s more time between maneuvers, he said.

“There are sections of longer non-dynamic track between major elements giving the guests the chance to sort of get their body center of gravity reset, and then their focus and they see what’s coming next and they can prepare for it,” he said.

He pointed to Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventures, which opened at Islands of Adventure in 2019, as a ride with excellent pacing.

“The image you see of Hagrid’s is that long, straight launch up to the castle right to the top of that hill … and then it just turns. It’s a gorgeous piece of pacing,” he said. “You see what’s coming. You know what’s happening. It feels good.”

Other improvements help keep riders comfortable. Chris Kraftchick, regional director of American Coaster Enthusiasts fan club, pointed to the safety restraints on Epcot’s Cosmic Rewind. He rode during recent annual passholder previews.

“You get in and you pull the little lap bar down. I was never uncomfortable,” Kraftchick said. “It made the ride less rough because they figured out a way to safely keep me in the train without some cumbersome restraint system.”

“You know, those wizards at Disney said, ‘You know, how heavy can the train be to do all these maneuvers and have onboard audio but run smoothly on the truck?” he said.

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Universal’s Honea said proper tires are essential.

“The four tires on a race car are really important. We have, gosh, dozens and dozens of wheels,” she said. “That honing and finding the exact right composite of both wheels also is another major factor that keeps us smooth.”

Universal also used human beings during testing of coasters, Hall said.

“We also have people with a lot of experience, they can ride the actual roller coaster, and know exactly what the change, once they get off, to make it the guest best experience possible,” he said.

All the comfort elements should add up to rider happiness, Smith said.

“We want our guests to be able to experience an amazing attraction like Ice Breaker or Iron Gwazi and come off of it and say ‘That was really great. … Let’s get back on,’” he said.

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