Coaster Engineer Ambitions

Thursday, January 9, 2020 11:38 AM

Hello friends!

As you probably got from the title, my dream profession is to become a design engineer for a company like Intamin or RMC designing roller coasters.

Some brief background about me. Since I was tiny, I've been obsessed with building things out of legos, knex, lincoln logs, etc. More recently, I competed for several years in high school robotics, learned some coding and CAD skills, totally had the time of my life, and decided to study as mechanical engineer. I really enjoy working in teams and math and physics have always been my strongest subjects, so it really is a perfect fit, at least thus far. Right now, I'm a freshman mechanical engineering student at a reasonably well-respected university and (at least after one semester) my grades are good. My friend also convinced me to join the school's hyper loop team when my winter break ends. And of course, I love roller coasters :)

There are hundreds of jobs that don't involve roller coaster design I'd be thrilled to have. I want to become a mechanical engineer, and whether I'm creating industrial machines, robots, roller coasters, or anything else, I'm excited to get an engineering job and create something cool. However, if I *could* get a job designing roller coasters, I think it would be especially awesome. I hope I've made it clear that I'm not pursuing a near-impossible dream with no backup plan, but I am definitely willing to get some extra internships with Disney or Six Flags, do pertinent extracurricular, etc. to better my odds. It seems like a lot of coaster engineers start their careers as a different kind of engineer and then apply for roller coaster design after several years of industry experience, and I'm also totally happy to do that. If I end up not getting the job and spending my career as a different kind of engineer, I will be more than satisfied. TL;DR I know getting a job as a roller coaster designer is unlikely, and I'm both willing to put in a lot of extra work to better my odds, and to work as a mechanical engineer in a field that has nothing to do with roller coasters.

The one thing I'm not flexible on is I need a job in Southern California. My family and friends live here, I love the area, and I'm not willing to sacrifice that to get the job I want. However, it seems like most roller coaster design companies (B&M, Intamin, Gerstlauer) are based in Europe, and the local theme parks near LA outsource to such companies to create their rides instead of developing them in house.

So I have a few questions. First of all, is anyone aware of roller coaster design companies based in Southern California? Is there a particular place (maybe a website or catalog) here I should be looking for such companies? If not, is there any real engineering that happens "on site," and is it worth trying to get an internship at Magic Mountain or something similar? And finally, if anyone does work or has worked as a roller coaster designer, what should I be doing right now to give myself the best chance to get the job?

Thanks for your time everybody!

Last edited by Ben69420, Thursday, January 9, 2020 11:41 AM
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Thursday, January 9, 2020 11:58 AM

You don't wanna work for Intamin. 😉

I'm not sure how old you are, but if location is really important, I suspect you're younger. That may change. The reality is that, unless the company has a solid remote work culture, you're going to have to move to where they are. There aren't many companies that design rides.

And that leads to the next problem. The scarcity of employers makes it very difficult to do the work. There aren't many places you can go. You're going to have to study your ass off in the relevant engineering disciplines (I understand civil engineering is a core competency), and then get lucky because there are plenty of people thinking exactly like you. The competition is horrible.

Follow your dreams, but have a backup plan. I thought I was going to be a radio mogul when I was in college. Turned out to be a horrible industry to work in, and then something else came up (the "Internet"). The hardest reality to accept is that things rarely turn out as you plan, and often it's because things can turn out better.

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Thursday, January 9, 2020 12:19 PM

Not familiar with any companies you would be looking for in SoCal… So likely, you would need to relocate if that is indeed your dream. As Jeff has said, not many places out there and competition is likely pretty intense.

As a mechanical engineer myself, my recommendation would be simply to get as much experience you can possible get while in school. Do as many internships and co-ops at various companies as you can to gain experience, regardless of the type of company. By the time I graduated, I had 2.5 years of work experience in heavy manufacturing, combustion, aerospace, medical and consulting companies. I learned way more on the job than in school, no question.

Today, I am at an aerospace company doing work on the NASA SLS and some power propulsion units for thruster engines and such. Absolutely love it. Wasn’t exactly where I expected I’d be back when I started my schooling, but I wouldn’t change my path at all.

The more well-rounded you are with experience, the better your chances to get where you want to go. So if one day you do decide to relocate and apply at say, Gravity Group, S&S, RMC, GCI, Universal, Disney ‘Imagineering”, etc… Having a solid work history at multiple companies will be FAR more impressive to the hiring manager than having no experience and having a line on your resume saying you are a coaster enthusiast with 15 years of RCT, No Limits and Planet Coaster experience.

That’s my .02, at least.

Last edited by SteveWoA, Thursday, January 9, 2020 12:28 PM
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Thursday, January 9, 2020 12:22 PM

SteveWoA, that is a way cool job to have. At least is sounds like that to me.

Good luck to you in whatever path opens up to you, Ben69420.

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Thursday, January 9, 2020 1:32 PM

It might help to find some contact inside the different companies and just pick their brain. Find out what's wanted for these companies when looking for a new employee.

When I thought I'd spend my life as a paramedic, my dream was to become a flight medic. I soon found that for every opening, there are thousands of applications - every medic wants to be a flight medic, apparently. What separates one from the other is their experience and education related to the job.

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Thursday, January 9, 2020 6:41 PM

I would also encourage looking toward the park companies that keep in-house engineers for internship-like positions. Most of the big players do to some degree. Whether it is in-house design or facility type management. It may not be designing the physics of rides systems, but roles requiring project management, designing the ride integration (theming!) or supporting the existing infrastructure on a daily basis (After it's turned over to the park ownership). Maybe slightly more ascertainable and on a domestic level.

Imagineering (which is a tough nut to crack into given its reputation and competitive desirability on an international level) has their main operations for worldwide creative dev. in Glendale. They have college internships that crop up on the Disney careers site. Look toward maintenance like-positions at seasonal parks while you’re in college. I mean like legitimate internships or roles within the maintenance departments, not front of line ride operations or college program roles. (A few parks provide dorming for interns CP, Disney, Universal, some random Six Flags). I imagine the ones building Epic Universe are going to have to staff up and that will create some cool opportunities. Once you get a foot in somewhere, like a temporary role: Outreach through the organization and network like hell. It's still a small industry.

You sound pretty grounded. Best of luck to you.

When I graduated with an Architecture degree, I landed my dream job in the industry. It was a lot of being at the right place and making the right impression at the right time. I ultimately left the company and industry at 27 (because unlike the popular opinion on this board… I didn’t love living in Orlando, where the majority of this industry is based.). So it’s possible, but it is very very challenging. And you'll probably wind up in Orlando.

Last edited by Kstr 737, Thursday, January 9, 2020 7:01 PM
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Thursday, January 9, 2020 9:38 PM

And if you plan on staying in the community and making a name for yourself online, perhaps a different set of numbers is in order.

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Friday, January 10, 2020 2:59 AM

Hey everyone, thanks for the awesome responses!

It seems like from here, given what everyone has recommended, my best bet is to talk to the one Six Flags connection I'm lucky enough to have, get some non-coaster engineering experience through summer internships, and keep my back up plans on speed dial. After a bit of research, @Kstr 737 (does that actually tag him? I'm new here- sorry!) is right that many park chains, especially Disney, do some level of in house engineering beyond just maintenance and theming, so that's definitely something I'll put more though into as well. I really really appreciate that this many total strangers put as much thought as y'all did into helping me out. This seems like a pretty special corner of the internet.

And @Tommytheduck, with all due respect, you are a duck.

Last edited by Ben69420, Friday, January 10, 2020 3:00 AM
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Friday, January 10, 2020 6:36 AM

I'm a Land Surveyor and Civil Engineer.

Years ago Ron Toomer was the guest speaker at a Coastermania.

Someone asked him pretty much the same question you did.

He told him to "get your Master's in Mechanical Engineering,then your P.E.,then call me".

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Friday, January 10, 2020 8:50 AM

rpbobcat said:

I'm a Land Surveyor and Civil Engineer.

Years ago Ron Toomer was the guest speaker at a Coastermania.

Someone asked him pretty much the same question you did.

He told him to "get your Master's in Mechanical Engineering,then your P.E.,then call me".

I think I have only met I think two or three MCE’s with PE’s. It’s so rare. When I was at an engineering consulting firm, almost every single civil engineer had their PE, as it was basically a requirement for that line of work. I don’t even think they would hire a CVE without a PE, and most had their masters of course.

But otherwise outside of consulting, hardly ever see it. Masters are becoming more common because of “4+1” type programs, where one additional year tacked onto your undergrad gets you that graduate degree. If you get into research (say, at NASA or similar), then yes masters/phd’s are the way to go and often required. I just can’t see modern day coaster companies requiring that (let’s be honest, Ron Toomer is a bit old fashioned and masters were not as common as they are today).

I believe RMC even did a QA on facebook not long ago and was asked about working at RMC… If I recall correctly, they had said they can care less about what school you been to or the level of education, instead, they focus heavily on your character and the experience you bring to the table. Not all places are like that, though, but is more representative of places I have been than not. Experience in machine design (including FEA), heavy manufacturing and fabrication/machining will likely be the stuff that attracts attention at these places more than anything else.

Last edited by SteveWoA, Friday, January 10, 2020 8:50 AM
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Friday, January 10, 2020 9:22 AM

Welcome to the board, Ben!

I worked for Great Coasters from May 2015 to August 2016, and I wrote about my experience of landing that job and what I did to get there on this forum, so I would recommend giving that a read. As you can tell, despite my initial enthusiasm, I didn't stay there for very long, and now I'm back at the job I had before that, working in the commercial automotive industry. Because of my experience, I can tell you how I got the job but also what went wrong and why I eventually left.

First off, mechanical engineering is the right path. That's what my degree is in, and while civil engineering is certainly required for designing the foundation and supporting structure, that is not, at least in my opinion, the fun part. Civil deals more with things that don't move; mechanical deals with things in motion. It's where the action is, and amusement rides and roller coasters are all about action. For what it's worth, Clair Hain, president of Great Coasters, wants people with a mechanical engineering background.

Now, in addition to math and physics and blah blah blah, one way you can set yourself apart is if you can develop a specific skill that is useful in the industry. For example, at Great Coasters much of the design work was done in AutoCAD, and the engineers had written quite a few programs in AutoLISP that automated many of the tedious drafting steps. I had never heard of AutoLISP before I worked there, but I quickly saw how powerful it was and how valuable someone who was proficient in that coding language could be. If you're not already, get good at Excel and VBA, CAD and 3D modeling (Creo, Solidworks, AutoCAD, whatever) and coding.

Robotics is good too, because there you'll learn about both programming and the math behind moving through 3D space -- vectors, different types of spline curves, curve transition continuity, etc. That's really what roller coaster layouts are all about: designing 3D curves to produce a specific g-force profile.

Another way you can set yourself apart is with hands-on experience. It's one thing to stare at a computer all day, but if you can say that you spent one or two summers turning wrenches on roller coaster trains, that would look great on a resume. Since SoCal has a lot to offer in terms of theme parks, see if you can get an internship with the maintenance department of Magic Mountain, Knott's, or wherever. Hell, offer to work for free if you have to (and if California will let you). The experience may prove to be invaluable down the road.

As far as networking, see if you can make it to the IAAPA expo that is held every November in Orlando. It's a great way to meet people and it will give you a taste of what all is out there.

Now, for the hard part. The main reason it didn't work out for me with Great Coasters was the pay. If I had gotten the job straight out of college or earlier in my career, I probably could've made it work. Instead, I already had a well-established career going and had a wife and two kids, so the drop in salary I had to accept proved to be too much. And that's the rub: because this is a highly competitive industry, not only are you competing against many other qualified individuals for just a few positions, the companies know they don't have to compete with each other for your services. Thus, the compensation--salary, benefits, PTO, retirement--is not going to be a good as it is in other industries. The other thing I'll say is that with the term "dream job," everybody focuses on the "dream" part and sometimes forgets about the second word. It's still a job, and it can be hard and stressful.

I could go on and on but I think I've gone on too long already. Go back and read my post from 2015, and if you have more questions I'd be happy to answer. Good luck!

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Friday, January 10, 2020 10:55 AM

^^Steve, I’d tend to agree with Mr. Toomer there as general good career advice. Don’t undersell professional licensure (which is not the same thing as grad. degree study) If you want to rise to the top and succeed in your field, licensure track is absolutely the path to pursue. Organizations that deemphasize it, I find tend to do so because they're somewhat lacking in the credentials (or don’t want to pay for them).

Last edited by Kstr 737, Friday, January 10, 2020 11:47 AM
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