Watch people soar, spin and swing on carnival rides at the California Mid-State Fair
As you soar through the air on the Wave Swinger or plummet toward the ground on the Super Shot, have you ever wondered who is responsible for those thrilling rides?
Credit the physicists and engineers who use science to make us squirm, scream, and laugh — all while keeping us safe.
Taking carnival rides from idea to reality
David Collins, a self-described “fast learner, and dreamer,” was once an aerospace engineer. He transitioned into the amusement ride industry 36 years ago, and spent a stint as a Disney Imagineer.
Currently, he guides companies through the design and development of new amusement park rides, also serving as a safety inspector and expert witness.
Via phone, Collins discussed the role of engineering in designing rides.
Engineering skills come into play with designing the “pneumatics, electronics, and mechanics” of each ride, Collins said.
“There are hundreds of pieces and bits that you have to understand when you run the controls and make sure everything works properly,” he said.
Ride developers are also guided by 19 published safety standards developed by the American Society of Testing and Materials.
The first part of the actual design process involves a meeting that includes people involved with designing, inspecting, and buying the ride to see if anything needs to be tweaked “before any metal is bent, steel is cut, or wires connected,” Collins said.
That’s understandable, he added, since the next step of creating a ride prototype — the first version ever produced by the factory — can cost between $200,000 and $400,000.
Collins recalled a recent trip to Italy to audit a “naked version of a ride.” “All brakes, sensors, computers, controls, and the ride vehicles were on the track,” he said, but the steel hadn’t yet been painted.
Collins worked with the manufacturer to make sure the ride operated without incident — running it continuously over the course of two weeks — part of an in-depth auditing process that also includes making sure a ride is properly maintained, operated, and documented.
Rides without immediate buyers can also be showcased at trade shows such as the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions’ yearly expo in Orlando, where everything from attractions to inflatables and plush toys are on display, according to Collins.
There, rides may end up in the hands of amusement parks and firms that specialize in supplying attractions for temporary events such as county and state fairs. Collins said these firms also handle all aspects of running and maintaining their rides.
While there are many classic rides — such as roller coasters, carousels and Ferris wheels — that Collins said “have been around for 25, 30, 40 years,” there’s still plenty of innovation in the ride industry.
This is because of what Collins called a ride’s “novelty life”: the three to five years where riders are excited enough to buy tickets to experience a ride after its introduction.
Helm & Sons Amusements, for instance, brought a number of new rides to the 2019 California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles, including Insomniac, a high-speed spinning ride, and Crazy Dumbos, which features flying elephants.
The science that makes rides fun
Ride developers owe the excitement of amusement park rides, with all their moving parts to physics, a branch of science that focuses on the study of matter and energy, and the interaction between them.
You can divide carnival rides into three types, according to Kevin Coulombe, an instructional support technician in Cal Poly’s Physics Department — the ones that whoosh you along, the ones that drop you, and the ones that spin you.
Coulombe, who has taught at the San Luis Obispo university since spring of 2018, explained that thrills are created when resting energy and moving energy “play a ballet on a roller coaster.”
The mechanisms that tote cars to a coaster’s peak are imbuing the car with stored potential energy.
When the cars go over that first hill, that energy is quickly transformed into moving, kinetic energy and then back to potential energy when climbing up the next one.
Coulombe said this process can repeat itself again and again unless a subsequent peak is higher than the first the cars were launched from. In that case, riders will need an extra bit of mechanical lift to keep on going.
Rides that drop you are capitalizing on free falling and the effect of gravity.
When you’re cranked up to the top of one of these rides, you start out at rest. Gravity is what does the job of getting you to the bottom.
Regardless of weight, riders will all increase their speed at a the same rate — a cool 9.8 meters per second squared. Coulombe said this process of going faster, similar to having your foot on the pedal of a car, is part of a concept called “gravitational acceleration.”
If people are dropped from a greater height, they have more time to gain speed during their fall. If nothing else like air resistance interferes, then riders only under the influence of gravity are in free fall.
It’s this transition between being completely at rest, then in free fall, that creates the “whoop-de-doo feeling in your stomach” Coulombe explained.
Last are the spinning-style rides, ranging from those that plaster you to the side of the drum to the more demure teacups.
Newton’s first law of motion, Coulombe said, is sometimes referred to as the “law of lazy bodies.” This refers to the fact that “all bodies with mass, like a person, will tend to resist changing what they are currently doing,” even if that means traveling in a straight line.
Coulombe explained that ride designers use centripetal force to prevent riders from flying off rides that use circular motion.
This is similar to the idea of someone swinging a ball on a string round and round. The tension of the string is what provides the centripetal force that keeps the balls movement reined in towards the center of the circle instead of it flying away on a straight path.
Faster movement on a circular ride or a decrease in how far riders are from the center can increase centripetal forces acting on the rider that keeps them in circular motion.
At the same time, Coulombe said, the sensation riders feel as “lazy bodies” that simultaneously want to resist those forces also increases — a feeling some carnivalgoers live for.