Roller Coaster Sequencing Theory

Written by Jeremy K. Thompson

“You don’t need a degree in engineering to build roller coasters, you need a degree in psychology–

plus courage. A roller coaster is as theatrically designed as a Broadway play.”

–John C. Allen, Philadelphia Toboggan Co.

Premise: The basic subjective structure of a rider on board a roller coaster consists of a series of emotionally stimulating events (i.e. individual tracked elements) contained within a finite duration of time.  This subjective structure bears a resemblance to music and dramatic arts, wherein a sequence of perceptions with contrasting emotional qualities occur between a clearly defined beginning and end.  I therefore believe that roller coaster experiences can be described as a form of narrative, in particular using analogies taken from song structure and music theory.

Application: Sequencing theory aims to make roller coasters more emotionally compelling for riders without increasing material expenditures; in some cases it may help identify redundant elements from a roller coaster design that contribute nothing or even negatively to the rider’s overall satisfaction.  The theory accomplishes this by analyzing the relationship between elements to identify which sequences result in the strongest emotional response.  The human mind is trained to look for patterns, and by both creating patterns and then strategically changing those patterns will result different responses.  Good element sequencing can make track elements work together to make each other more emotionally stimulating, resulting in a ride that is equal to more than the sum of its individual parts.

Method: A series of horizontal parallel lines are drawn in a way that it resembles a music staff. The number of lines can vary, but there’s always at least one and more than five usually isn’t necessary. Each line represents the level of perceived thrill/intensity/excitement by the rider.  Each ‘type’ of experience found in the coaster is then assigned a letter or number. They can represent types of individual elements (A=loop, B=hill, etc.), series of repeated elements (bunny hops, triple helices, etc.), or any other feature on a ride that would be significant from the rider’s perspective.  Below is an example of a complete sequence chart for the Kennywood Thunderbolt.  It is regarded as one of the greatest classic coasters and formerly ranked as the #1 roller coaster worldwide by NAPHA for many years, thanks to a strong sequence.

A = Steep valley set in ravine  –  a = single drop (half valley)

B = Lateral curve  –   B* = Lateral curve w/ undulated camelback hill

C = Elevated turnaround (low lateral forces, always separates two “A” elements)

= a pause signifying the change between the main A and B themes (physically a chain lift and a safety brake)

Other: Empty/full dots = soft/hard transitions.  Arrows = attention/anticipation directed to upcoming element.

Strategies: Sequencing is an art more than a science.  Like any other art, there are many different strategies with room for experimentation.  However, in general there should be repetition but also variation, preferably some sort of emotional transformation from beginning to end (and possibly back again), and most importantly it should feel complete and resolved at the finish, so that the final impression (psychologically one of the most important along with the first impression) isn’t of the disappointment of anticlimax.  Below are examples of specific strategies.

Progressive: Continually introduces new elements and experiences, usually ending on some form of climax (creating a “/” “V”, “N” or “W” shape on the sequencing chart). Good for high thrill attractions intended to rank highly on coaster polls. The Kennywood Thunderbolt (see reverse) is an example of a progressive sequence.

Circular: Ends on an emotional level similar to the beginning, usually taking the form of a triangular pattern (or series of triangular patterns) on the sequencing chart.  The return to a familiar primary theme can often resemble the Rondo form of classical symphonic music (ABA, ABACA, ABACADA, etc).  Good for family coasters or themed attractions with a typical conflict-resolution story arc told alongside the ride experience.

A-B:  Starts with one major theme (A) in the first half, then suddenly switches to a very different theme (B) in the second half.  A-B sequences can be more effective with a lull, hard transition, or other signifying device between the two patterns.  Several top ranked roller coasters use this strategy, including Holiday World’s Raven and Six Flags’ El Toro.

Minimalist: Uses repetition with strategic variation.  Minimalist sequences establish a simple dominant pattern in the track elements, which then heightens the contrast with an alternate minor pattern that can be introduced either gradually or suddenly.  The top ranked Shivering Timbers is an example of a minimalist strategy used to powerful effect.

Maximalist: Each element in the layout tries to individually maximize the thrill while repeating the same basic patterns.  This is a commonly used strategy but it often has a negative effect.  Because roller coasters must lose energy to friction, each element is perceived at a lower “emotional volume” than the one that preceded it.  Similar to noise or temperature levels, the rider is more sensitive to relative change in intensity than to the absolute level.  Maximalist roller coasters often feel anticlimactic as a result, and could possibly have the last few elements eliminated with little emotional effect.

Random: Another commonly used but unsuccessful sequence strategy. The high degree of entropy in randomly organized layouts means that each element is perceived in isolation from the others, and most of the layout could be randomly reordered, if not eliminated, with little psychological effect to the riders. Considering that each element requires a considerable amount of physical resources to construct, the marginal expense for increasing the track length relative to the overall emotional satisfaction of riders in random sequences is far from ideal.

Dramatic: Heavily themed coasters (notably “mine train” style rides) are more effectively served by a sequence that matches the traditional arc of theatre narrative: Rising Action, Turning Point, Climax, Falling Action and Resolution.  Examples include both the new, heavily themed Big Grizzly Mine Train at Hong Kong Disneyland, as well as the classic, non-themed Revolution at Six Flags Magic Mountain.

For more information please contact the author

7 comments to Roller Coaster Sequencing Theory

  • I really like this post and I hope that this guide and the sequencing itself is referred to in your updates. The duality of El Toro that you mentioned in particular is usually never referred to when people talk about how great that ride is, but I for one thing that all that airtime loses context when not paired up with the ride’s second half.

    The main reason why I like Storm Runner (which I would sort as a mix between your Random and Dramatic categories, with a touch of progressiveness on an individual element basis) over Skyrush (I call it Maximalist) is because of the sequencing and this aligns very well with your categories’ descriptions. I also thought your analysis of Storm Runner was very similar to my own so I’m wondering if you would agree with me on the above statement.

    The ‘storylines’ of a coaster should be as dynamic as their physics.

  • For a bit of history: the idea of sequencing goes all the way back to the very first reviews posted on this site, and even before that, although the concept has obviously evolved since then. To me it’s always been very obvious way to think about a coaster experience even since I was young; the whole point of having a layout is to do something different with it across the sequence of time from beginning to end. I started this site mostly to flesh out those ideas as applied to real world attractions, as at the time I was hearing a lot of talk about how tall a coaster was or how much airtime it had, which to me always seemed overly reductive of the complex beauty of coasters which was becoming more and more a lost art. The idea of a strong helix finale has been around for decades. The Raven has been appreciated since 1995 for the way it completely transforms itself halfway through the layout. My NoLimits project “Quiver” was completed in 2006 and that one has a lot of ‘story’ to it, so much so that it kind of ran away with the rest of the layout. The “coaster as story” concept has always seemed evident to me at least, although while it’s an easy platitude to say that a good coaster should have a beginning, middle, and end, few if any people seem willing to take the idea much further than that. The first time I actually tried to sequence every element on a coaster was for the Fahrenheit review back in 2008/09, even though on that coaster it wasn’t as effective as I thought it should have been. I think at the time I was still calling it “progression”, but I’ve switched over to use the term “sequencing” for the general application, as “progression” seems to imply a narrower category of dramatic layouts that’s defined by the start and finish, whereas “sequence” can be applied to any design or part of a design with two or more elements that follow each other and could potentially repeat ad infinitum. But this history is long enough already.

    I agree on El Toro, I actually prefer the second half over the first, but each relies on the context of the other to make it what it is. I think your assessment of Storm Runner and Skyrush also sounds about right. I really like how each subsequent element on Storm Runner gets just a little bit crazier, even though there’s not much method to the madness. Skyrush is definitely maximimalist, although it has a bit of an A-B progression too. Those two strategies mixed together can work quite well, however the B side (when in introduces the s-curves with the shorter timing between transitions) doesn’t quite finish with its potential and the last three hills just seem to be in the wrong place to me. The critique of maximimalism was mostly intended to apply to B&M looping coasters, where the entire layout is a sequence of different inversion types that are all built as big as they can be, which of course is always diminishing due to the speed loss.

    By the way, I really like your site and the coaster projects you’ve worked on. I appreciate how much you were able to accomplish with such a short layout on “David”. An economical ‘short story’ is just as important as the big epics.

  • Hey, there. I’ve been using google reader to keep updated with you but Google is retiring Reader. I can’t find your facebook page. How will I keep updated to your lated analysis? I can’t be expected to check your website periodically of my own accord can I? I have have been skipping your posts since you started with the Disney B.S. :). I don’ t know how you justify that. They barely build roller coasters. Well, I’ll stop being a snot now. Hope you catch this message. Twitter feed at least? Thanks keep the reviews coming!

  • Hey Steve, I’ve not created a public Facebook or Twitter account to keep people informed of updates yet because so far no one has requested any of these services. Now that I know that I’ll have at least one follower I guess I should look into getting a Twitter account in the near future.

  • Steve

    Awesome. Twitter would be just fine. I just returned from opening day of Outlaw Run and it has surpassed my longtime favorite Millennium Force… claiming #1 of personal count of 164 different coasters. I would love to read your review of that one as it pertains to your sequencing theory posted here. I don’t understand it but Outlaw Run really satisfies. The most outstanding impression is the senses are never “cocooned” (I don’t hear that term used as coaster speak anymore, anyhow) Despite it’s speed and onslaught of overloaded elements you just never suffer any loss of perception. It’s wonderful. Well, enough of that. Don’t forget Wildfire when your there! Take it easy.

  • Unfortunately I don’t really see a situation in which I can get to Silver Dollar City in the near future, even though if I ever have the freedom to plan my own coaster road trip Missouri and Texas would be at the top of my list. I’ve looked over a lot of the photos and videos published in the last couple of weeks and I think I might have a fairly good handle on what to expect from it even though I haven’t been on it.

    There’s a lot that could be said, but as far as sequencing I think the strongest feature is probably the double barrel roll. It teases at the beginning with the half barrel roll, so the rest of the ride is set against this background where it’s building anticipation to eventually go (literally) full-circle.

    The dynamics of the double barrel roll itself appear to work really well as a finale. For one thing it sustains the same dynamic motion (the steady counterclockwise twist) for several extended beats, which I think bears analogy to music. The last note of a sequence usually is extended to give the progression a sense of natural resolution; think of the instantly iconic “da-da-da-dummmmm…” from Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Same thing with Outlaw Run, it sets a fairly steady tempo of dynamic changes, and then stretches this very last pace out for the big resolving climax… one that had been set-up and hinted at from the very first maneuver.

    I’ve noticed in the videos how the train finally loses its momentum and hangs for a moment in the second barrel roll before leveling out into the brakes, which seems like a very cathartic sensation especially after a ride that has been so relentless, and an absolutely perfect way of bringing the ride to a close naturally. Might even be the best final element since the Beast’s descent into the double helix, obviously I’ll have to ride to see for myself.

    One last thought: I got to talk to Alan Schilke at the IAAPA Expo (where I also got to show him this sequencing explanation, which he really seemed to like and mentioned that the music analogy inspired some new ideas), and one of the things he mentioned was he actually wasn’t sure how fast Outlaw Run would go and was worried it might be way over-speed. Unlike NTG and Iron Rattler which use polyurethane wheels, Outlaw Run uses flat steel wheels, and steel on steel, combined with the solid rails that greatly reduce vibration compared to normal wooden track, can run like greased lightning. Now if only they could use that sustained speed on a layout that lasts longer than 40 seconds.

  • Oh, but you have to ride it. The first barrel roll type element the “outside banked turn” doesn’t feel like a tease to me at all. It’s just tossing around in zero g and it would be a bummer if they added even a second to it’s layout. It’s just right. Also, the barrel roll is inclined and it adds a bit of weightlessness somehow perhaps because you are not alternating up and down completely vertically if it were on flat land.

    I was going to wait so I could get on Iron Rattler and then the new GCI in California also on a coaster tour… plus I’ve never been to Knott’s or Magic Mountain. I might still this year, if I do I will be hitting Outlaw Run again I’m sure.

    Send me an email if you remember when if you get a twitter account so I can follow when Reader retires. I don’t care for any of the other readers I’ve seen. Otherwise I’ll keep checking your site periodically. Take care!

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>