One of my favorite aspects of being an engineer is that often times finding a solution to a problem is in the art of seeing what’s already out there and instead of reinventing the wheel, simply putting it in a different orientation. How can we take advantage of what’s already been designed to more efficiently and effectively reach a solution?
This is exactly why – as a mechanical engineer for Disney Imagineering – a couple of us would embark on a Roller Coaster Research Trip every summer. And it was exactly what you’d imagine. Ten grueling days of standing in long lines in crowded amusement parks in hot and humid weather. Oh, and of course riding roller coasters. Was it espionage? Of course not. We were simply collecting data and ideas to fuel our own creative brainstorming process. And to be honest, at the end of the day it’s not about the idea, it’s about the execution and presentation of the idea. And there’s no higher quality amusement park company than Disney. Do they have the hairiest, craziest, most mind-blowing rides? Not at all. But they provide for the most fulfilling experience that pulls you into a make-believe world that inspires millions of kids and adults alike around the world.
So what was a Roller Coaster Research Trip like? A little black book of notes, an accelerometer, a laptop, a camera, and an itinerary that would tire the most energetic and experienced world traveler. We started on an Alpine Coaster in Colorado, spent hours debating whether technically it could be considered a coaster (“What really defines a roller coaster?”). Day 2 we headed further East for a whirlwind tour through Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia stopping at a handful of parks including Hershey, Six Flags, King’s Dominion, and Busch Gardens. And then to round out the trip we dropped south to Hot Springs, Arkansas for an upside down experience at Magic Springs. Sounds amazing, right? Well, only if you like roller coasters, and unfortunately I happen to be one of those that doesn’t really dig the thrill of the ride, but prefers the storybook experience.
But, aside from the intensity inherent to such a trip, the idea behind learning from others’ designs or ideas is something that is important in any problem-solving process, and I encourage the engineer in all of us to take time to look around – perhaps jump on a roller coaster or two – and discover what you can learn!