Before the Doors Open

Designing attractions for theme parks presents a fun and interesting set of challenges

By Peter McDonnell, P.E., Principal and Senior Mechanical Engineer, Tilden Lobnitz Cooper, Orlando, Fla. July 1, 2001

Really just children at heart, most everyone looks forward to visiting a theme or amusement park. Those who are blessed with several parks in their own hometown may not go every weekend, but they still enjoy the thrills and excitement of a day in fantasyland.

While these types of places appear to be radically different from more conventional commercial and industrial projects, those who have the opportunity to help design the facilities for these world-class attractions discover that in many respects, the design issues are often very similar. Clients know what they want (increased profits), know what the engineers should do (draw faster) and want to make “small” adjustments during construction to “improve” the project.

Does this make entertainment projects any different from schools, hotels, hospitals, airports or wastewater-treatment plants? Not as different as one might think. Well, maybe wastewater-treatment plants—they don’t seem to draw many visitors. No business like show business

Facility-design engineers provide the support services to ensure a smooth-running show, and must begin by considering several factors, including first costs, operating costs, guest comfort, space constraints and show requirements.

Show requirements, in particular, require close attention to the design of the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC), plumbing, fire-protection, structural and electrical systems. The show requirements are, basically, any elements used to create the magic of illusion. For instance:

  • High pressure steam and liquid nitrogen to create dramatic explosions and smoke effects.

  • Hydraulic fluid or compressed air at various pressures to operate doors at high speed and to animate figures and props.

  • Domestic water suitable for spraying guests.

  • Smoke exhaust/purge or dedicated exhaust to remove the previous effect so the next guests have no clue what is about to happen to them.

  • Natural gas for fire effects.

  • Miscellaneous drains to keep floors dry.

  • Up to 4,160 volts of electricity to power it all.

The above list may sound like a lot of different systems, but all of these components were actually integral parts of a single project. In designing such complex projects, it is imperative that the project engineer have a firm grasp of all of the system types—both how they work individually and how they interact with one another. For example, steam systems have specific design considerations that are dependent on the operating pressure; and liquid nitrogen has design properties unique to cryogenic fluids and is not normally found in assembly, or public, spaces.

Integrating the show requirements into a building is another important task for the facility-design engineer. This can be as simple as connecting an exhaust duct and fan system to a large-format projector—typically required for cooling the projector’s lamp. It can also be as complex as interfacing the building-automation system with the show-control system in such a way that a smoke-filled theater is completely cleared during the unloading of one show and before the next audience enters—often a time span of mere seconds.

As with any project, understanding the fundamentals is the key to a successful design. Engineers are trained to look at complex problems, break them down into scientific principles and then solve them using mathematics. However, understanding an entertainment project is usually a bit more complex. In order to solve the engineering problems, one must first break down the fundamentals of the project, then break down the fundamentals of the entertainment. While the first step sounds easy, the second step can be downright intimidating.

Taking the time to read the script and discuss the concepts with the show designer is often the best way for the design engineer to anticipate a show’s needs. Frequently, the biggest challenge is that the show design lags behind the facility design; hence, a building may be in construction before the show is even 50-percent designed. While the ideal would be to have a complete checklist of every project’s design requirements, the world of entertainment is highly creative and every project is a blank page just waiting to be filled. This is not necessarily the normal world of the design engineer—despite what many architects may believe. Where fantasy and reality overlap

In her book, “The Fantastical Engineer: A Thrillseeker’s Guide to Careers in Theme Park Engineering,” author Celeste Baine describes how storytellers—the show creators—use all five senses to blur the lines between illusion and reality to transport the guest right into the story. Such intricate storytelling requires that the facility-design engineer and the show designers work together to complete the delicate merging of art and science—one that can present several challenges.

For example, one project a couple years ago involved the design of a 2-psig natural-gas piping system within a 700-seat theater. During the course of this project, a meeting was set up with the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) to explain some of the unique project requirements. The AHJ had never seen a facility requiring more than 14 to 16 inches of natural gas pressure within an assembly occupancy, so imagine his surprise when he found out that the show entailed using six robot warriors firing ignited natural gas at a target dangling a mere 20 feet over the audience. Once it was established that this was indeed a sane explanation, the project required intense collaboration to ensure the protection of the audience, crew, equipment and facility. This was accomplished by adding extra controls and safety-monitoring equipment to the facility design.

This same project required other meetings with the AHJ to ensure that aspects of the design were code-compliant: one such aspect was the over-current protection for the low-voltage motors located under the seats. These motors are responsible for moving the theater’s seats at the most unexpected of times—an effect capable of startling even a jaded electrical engineer who has experienced the show several dozen times.

And sometimes it isn’t the codes that create the design challenge, but the show designers’ requests: like the need for 100-kVA, 460-volt, single-phase electrical loads for a single ride. Such requests invariably spur the facility-design engineer to reply, “Yes, we can do that, but can you afford to have it built?”

Another good clue to an impending design challenge is when the show design team asks, “Will it be hard to accelerate the vehicle to 100 kilometers per hour in the first three or four seconds of the ride?” Watch out for 380-volt, 50-hz motors, too! Meeting code

Because of the unique, difficult and sometimes strange requirements of some of these shows, the facility-design engineer must bring to the project team a comprehensive knowledge of building codes, because show designers are not going to be familiar with the codes enforced at specific project sites.

It is the facility-design engineer who understands all of the industry and governmental standards, whether they are the National Electrical Code, the National Fire Protection Association codes or the Americans With Disabilities Act requirements.

The facility-design engineer must also determine how to interface show control into the fire-alarm, emergency-lighting and life-safety systems to meet the requirements of the AHJ. It takes a lot of creativity on the part of the engineer to be able to understand the story as well as the code intents—and to negotiate a design that meets both. The challenge is that most codes are not written with the theme park or entertainment industry in mind. The only exception to this rule is the Epcot Code enacted by the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the municipal district encompassing Walt Disney World. Professional, personal enjoyment

Designing entertainment projects is a challenge and a thrill, but the best part comes afterward, when the theme-park attraction opens. This is when one can stop being a facility-design engineer and simply be a parent, experiencing through the eyes of children the wonder, excitement and joy of the fantasy world they’ve helped create.

Getting Into the Business

Interested engineers can learn more about designing for the theme park or entertainment industries through two organizations that promote this professional market: the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) and the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA).

The TEA, which can be found at

Stimulate cooperation and communications with clientele.

Address industry issues.

Establish professional industry standards.

Facilitate networking between member companies.

The IAAPA, found at

The IAAPA convention, held in mid-November, is the trade show to attend to see the entertainment industry in full flower. The next few years, this convention will be held in Orlando.

A Short History Lesson

Entertainment-industry veterans will often explain that “storytelling” is paramount to theme-park design. A brief history lesson may help to clarify.

The world’s first modern day theme park opened in Anaheim, Calif., in 1955, and was the brainchild of entertainment visionary Walt Disney. Disneyland was a great departure from Coney Island and other popular amusement parks of that era in that each Disneyland venue told a series of stories, all connected by an underlying theme. The success of Disneyland helped to fuel Walt Disney’s creative processes and eventually financed an even larger park—Walt Disney World in Orlando—along with other parks and resorts scattered throughout North America, South America, Europe and Asia.

By locating Walt Disney World in the middle of thousands of acres of Central Florida wetlands, tropical foliage and orange groves, Disney had ample space to create ever larger, more complex and sophisticated stories. And each of the four Disney World theme parks—Magic Kingdom, Disney-MGM Studios, Epcot and Animal Kingdom—tells a story that ultimately immerses visitors in a particular theme. For instance, Magic Kingdom has Tomorrowland, Frontierland, Toontown, and Main Street U.S.A., among others.

Consequently, all of these lands are supported by a central chilled-water system that also serves three resort hotels. Complete domestic-water, fire-water and primary electrical-power distribution systems service this “City of Dreams,” allowing the efficiency of scale needed to provide redundancy, invisible utilities and central maintenance.