Feeling nauseous in Legoland? Not quite, but pretty close. It’s hard to shake the queasy feeling you get in your stomach after a ride on the Dragon roller coaster. But riding the Dragon seems to have no discernible effect on Andreas Wild, even after three rides in a row. Even then, he seems about as enthusiastic as an office employee switching on his computer in the morning.
“It isn’t as if I absolutely needed this. But it doesn’t bother me, either,” says Mr. Wild. As he exits the ride, he reveals a tried and tested trick to help fight nausea. At the highest point, you have to fight your fear, throw your arms in the air and scream loudly as the roller coaster descends. “You can’t fight it,” he says, “or you’ll tense up!”
The Dragon at Legoland amusement park near Ulm in southern Germany is a relatively harmless family roller coaster, the type you might choose for a child’s birthday outing. It isn’t one of those complicated contraptions of steel and wood, with three, four or even five loops. Of course, Mr. Wild has also been on those rides. It’s part of his job, as a designer of roller coasters, to devise ways to scare people as much as possible.
This isn’t immediately apparent to someone sitting next to Mr. Wild in the gondola. In his mid-50s and wearing pleated slacks and an ordinary shirt, he seems relatively inconspicuous. He looks like your typical engineer working for a small company, which is exactly what he is.
Mr. Wild runs Stengel Engineering in Munich, the global market leader in roller coaster design. The firm has developed almost 650 roller coasters. They include sedate rides like the Dragon, but also formidable monsters like the Kingda Ka roller coaster at the Six Flags amusement park in New Jersey. It starts by accelerating to 206 kilometers per hour (128 mph) in 3.5 seconds, followed by a vertical drop from 139 meters (456 feet).
Germany, as it happens, is a country of engineers and machine builders, and who says all they can do is design cars?
“German-designed roller coasters just happen to be the best.”
Stengel has a stellar reputation in the global roller coaster industry.
The firm was founded in 1965 by Werner Stengel, who had a very special knack for using mathematics to maximize fear while minimizing danger. Mr. Stengel withdrew from the business in 2001, handing the reins to Mr. Wild, his son-in-law.
A Munich native, Mr. Wild studied structural engineering there.
“My most important experience when it comes to roller coasters was my wife,” he says jokingly, referring to the moment he fell in love with Mr. Stengel’s daughter. “I wasn’t actually all that enthusiastic about roller coasters,” he recalls.
But after an internship in his future father-in-law’s company, he liked it so much that he joined the firm. He rose through the ranks, becoming chief executive and the public face of the company since 2001.
Its offices are in an ordinary-looking house in Munich’s Solln neighborhood, where 11 engineers spend their time refining roller coaster designs so people won’t break their necks during the ride.
Mr. Wild goes over to a computer and pulls up a simulation program, so he can show us the Helix, which opened in Liseberg, Sweden in April and has a top speed of 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph), takes riders through a natural landscape, over real hills and under real trees. Custom-made roller coasters like this are the firm’s specialty.
Mr. Wild doesn’t sell off-the-rack roller coaster terror.
German-designed roller coasters “just happen to be the best,” says Kurt Mack-Even of the German Association of Amusement Machinery & Accessory Manufacturers. Strict quality control ensures extreme safety – so much so that many other countries have implemented German guidelines in roller coaster construction. Two dozen firms serve the global market.
While traditional fairs tend to be losing their appeal, amusement and theme parks are becoming more and more popular. In 2013, about 31 million people attended these parks in Germany, generating sales of about €1 billion ($1.32 billion).
“In uncertain times, many people choose not to go on vacation and treat themselves to a weekend at a theme park instead,” says Ulrich Müller-Oltay of the Association of German Theme Parks and Leisure Companies.
To keep their customers happy, parks have to unveil new attractions on a regular basis.
This year, seven new roller coasters and fun machines were opened in Germany. In many cases, they are based on themes or narratives from the world of movies. For instance, the latest roller coaster at Europa Park Rust, the market leader in Germany, travels at high speeds through a fantasy world dubbed “Arthur – In the Kingdom of the Minimoys.”
Two inventions established Stengel Engineering’s reputation. In 1975, Mr. Stengel developed a loop that wasn’t circular but based on the geometric shape of a clothoid, a special type of curve. The concept prevents an unpleasant jolt from occurring when the cars enter the loop, which, in the worst case, can cause fractures of the collarbone or neck vertebrae.
Mr. Stengel also invented a track that rotates at the level of the rider’s heart instead of around its own center. This reduced dangerous lateral acceleration forces and allows for ever-faster roller coasters.
“Roller coasters offer fear without danger, or what I’d call safe danger.”
Since Mr. Stengel seems to have already invented everything the laws of physics will allow, what further improvements are possible? Isn’t every new contortion added to the ride possibly one too many?
Mr. Wild gives an engineer’s response to the question, using numbers and lots of math. But the bottom line is that engineers work with two key factors: their clients’ budgets and the limits of human resilience.
“As far as that’s concerned, we’re still a long way from the end,” says Mr. Wild.
The breaking point for roller coaster rides is 6 g, or six times a person’s own body weight, he explains. The Formula Rossa at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, currently the world’s fastest roller coaster, accelerates its passengers to 240 kilometers per hour, briefly generating forces of up to 4.8 g. A pilot on the Space Shuttle only had to endure 3.5 g, but over a longer period of time.
Consequently, Mr. Wild does not want to recognize any limits on what is technically feasible.
What drives people to ride on roller coasters, again and again? Many people, according Mr. Wild, apparently thrive on the sensation of fear.
“Roller coasters offer fear without danger, or what I’d call safe danger,” he says. And that’s exactly what he can provide, he explains.
But, he adds, you can’t close your eyes. In fact, you should scream and yell at the top of your voice, because that’s when it’s really fun.
This article first appeared in Die Zeit.
Translated by Christopher Sultan