The members of Drexel’s Theme Park Engineering and Design group don’t ride amusement park rides like normal people do.
They analyze the ride’s propulsion system, the queue, the ride cycle, the building around it, the type of track it utilizes, what goes wrong, what goes right, the management of foot traffic … every detail down to the distance between trash cans. They can’t help themselves. They revel in it.
Theme parks like Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, Six Flags Great Adventure, and even Morey’s Piers in New Jersey are packed to the gills these days with engineers rising out of university clubs like TPED. For example, the two founders of TPED both hold engineering positions today at Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, California. Like so many students, they started at Drexel and beat a path straight to the world’s most iconic theme park.
Which is exactly what TPED members are hoping for.
“This is what the club is about, right? You see alumni, you see upperclassmen in the industry, and you think that could be me, too,” says junior Kevin Carbone, TPED’s president, a fourth-year electrical engineering major who will start an internship with the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando next month.
“Our industry is a manufacturing industry, but we manufacture fun,” Carbone adds. “So if you think of it like that, you need almost every type of person from engineering to design to business involved— we’re just manufacturing something a little bit different. Anything from conceptual ideas of rides to hard-core engineering of structure to analysis to through-put, it’s no different than building a rocket or building a car.”
TPED, which is partly sponsored by the College of Engineering, also has the distinction of steering at least one club member away from a more conventional career.
“When I joined the club I was going down the path of being a lawyer. Literally within a week, I realized I could do this as a career,” says Quincy Cuthbertson, the club’s vice president and a third-year student majoring in business and engineering. “I brag about TPED to all of my friends. If you’re not in it, usually you don’t get it. But I think I have the coolest career path of anybody. Anyway, my friends will come crawling to me one day when they want tickets.”
Fun, But Seriously
Now in its eighth year, TPED is largely a mix of CoE engineers and Westphal design students, although it is open to anyone. There are eight officers and 211 members. They regularly tour local and national theme parks, analyzing park layout and systems. Universal’s holiday parade route, for example, recently came under particular scrutiny.
“I’m always thinking about what I could improve from the moment I enter through the gate, from attraction placement to safety issues,” says Carbone.
TPED holds general body meetings every Thursday at the ExCITe Center. It’s not a frivolous get-together. The students work hard, taking turns reporting on industry developments, presenting research, and highlighting theme projects. At a recent meeting, for example, members deconstructed Disney’s Mission: SPACE ride, a centrifugal motion simulator attraction that is one of Epcot’s most popular. At still another meeting, they broke into teams to create figurative attractions based on a design prompt. Entertainment, it turns out, is serious work.
TPED falls under the umbrella of the Themed Entertainment Association’s NextGen Initiative, which oversees some 30 university groups across the country and provides enrichment and direction. Club members also participate in competitions that focus the attention of industry professionals. Walt Disney Imagineering’s Imaginations Design Competition is a big one. The Ryerson University Invitational Thrill Design Competition is another.
Last month, five TPED members flew down to Orlando for Ryerson. Drexel has sent a team every year since its inception; they won the contest in 2014. Participants sign a non-disclosure agreement with Universal, so details about Ryerson are scarce. But in general, teams were given several challenges to choose from. Drexel went with designing a “dark ride”—i.e. one that takes place in an entirely closed building—including concept art, safety issues, and all the technology needed to bring it to life, along with some other options.
Drexel’s team placed second in the experience and containment design challenge and second in the interactive experience challenge. In addition, Panote Nuchprayoon, a Game Design & Production major at Westphal, won the Concept Art individual challenge at this year’s competition.
For these students, an interest in theme parks has been percolating for a long time. Most TPED members have been theme park devotees since they were little. And most recall their first family trip to Disney as transformative.
“When I went for the first time, all the little girls at Disney World were saying, oh, look at that princess,” says Cuthbertson. “I was just tugging on my parents, curious about the inner workings of the rides: how were they doing this? What’s going on behind the scenes? We’re just wired a certain way. We feel like we’re built to do this.”
Gary Benjamin, secretary of TPED and a second-year electrical engineering student, arrived at Drexel with that interest intact, too. He was one of several engineering students to build an animatronic Mario the Dragon for his first-year design project. Always fascinated with animatronics, Benjamin wanted to see what he and his team could do on their own. The project was a success.
“As you got closer, it lifted its head up, its eyes opened, its jaw opened, it growled at you, it could clamp down on your hand, and we built a cave behind it and mist came out,” says Benjamin.
“It had multiple engineers working on it to do all the different designs. We had to write code, draft the electrical system, 3D print a jaw, and use photoresistors and ultrasonic sensors in order to generate a signal for our dragon head to operate." Benjamin presented the animatronic during design week last spring, and was approached by several industry professionals about its mechanisms.
The club works closely with its Drexel alumni, who often attend meetings and present lectures. Members also seek out contact with industry professionals, who provide guidance on landing the theme park jobs students covet most. Last year, TPED arranged presentations with a sustainment engineer at Universal and a former Walt Disney engineer who worked on the Disney Cruise Line.
Simran Batra, a ’19 graduate with an BS in mechanical engineering, is currently a Tier II Audit Manager and an intern with the Quality Engineering Department at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. She says that TPED—and Drexel—were essential to her career.
“My team audited over 60 attractions during our audit season, which amounts to about three per week,” says Batra. “Having 10-week terms at Drexel really teaches you how to act under pressure, and how to keep and reach deadlines. That is really essential to my work.”
But it’s not only about Disney and Universal. Nick Rooney, ’17, a BS/MS in mechanical engineering, works as a systems engineer with Oceaneering Entertainment Systems. He first became interested in the company during a TPED trip to headquarters. He worked his third co-op there, and was later offered a full-time position.
“One of the key skills I learned through the BS/MS program was a balance of time and prioritization,” says Rooney via email. “Because we’re a small company, I wear numerous hats and it sometimes reminds me of balancing different classes and topics taught across my classwork.
“In theme park ride design, we use a large number of equations from mechanics of materials and machine design to develop different structures and dynamic mechanical components. I can’t tell you the countless number of times I have used material from those classes, and I continue to pull out my books from Drexel to do a calculation or reference an equation.”
Asked what in particular TPED members hope will happen with the theme parks of the future, Cuthbertson answers in what appears to be a trademark deadpan.
“We want to run the show,” she says. “We’re all just going to be best friends, running the show.”