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