14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Broadway Understudies

Lauren Spinelli
Lauren Spinelli

On Broadway, “the show must go on” isn’t just something people say; it’s a way of life. Even if a star is out because of vacation or illness, the show can't just close its doors. Instead, the star’s talented understudy steps in to make sure that audiences aren't disappointed—and that the production doesn't lose money. Mental Floss spoke with Broadway musical understudies past and present to bring you behind-the-scenes secrets of the job, which is harder than you might think.

1. THERE’S MORE THAN ONE TYPE OF UNDERSTUDY.

Actor Josh Breckenridge is a standby in Broadway's 'Come From Away.'
Josh Breckenridge is a standby in Come From Away.

The public tends to use understudy as a blanket term, but it has a more narrow meaning on Broadway. If you peruse a Playbill, you might see words like standby, alternate, and swing in addition to understudy; each fills in for an onstage performer, but in a specific way. “Standbys are off-stage, and cover only principal roles,” says Josh Breckenridge, a standby in Broadway’s Come From Away. “They literally stand by. They’re required to be at the theater, and in some cases, within a certain radius of the theater, to be on call if a principal role is unable to perform. Understudies are on-stage, every night, in a specific [ensemble] role, and they cover principal roles. Swings are off-stage and cover ensemble.”

There’s a certain chain of events that allows these actors to make it on stage: If a performer is out, her standby will go on; if the standby is also out, the understudy will step in, and a swing performer will “swing in” to cover the understudy’s typical "track," or role. Alternates, meanwhile, cover specific performances to give the principal actors a break. “They’re scheduled to go on every week, whereas a standby just goes on if there’s an emergency, if someone can’t do the show,” Breckinridge explains. Not every show will have all of these layers of redundancy, but according to the Actors' Equity Association Rulebook [PDF], all Broadway shows are obligated to have understudies.

2. ACTORS AUDITION SPECIFICALLY TO BE UNDERSTUDIES.

Usually, actors know they’re auditioning to be an understudy, standby, or swing. Occasionally, though, they’ll be auditioning for a principal part and be cast as the understudy instead. According to Asa Somers, who understudies for Larry Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen, “They audition you for the role and then they go, ‘You were great, but we’re going with someone else—but you’re good enough that we would like for you to understudy. Would you be willing to do that?’ So it does happen.”

3. THEY REHEARSE REGULARLY—BUT NOT USUALLY WITH THE MAIN CAST MEMBERS.

The understudies of 'Dear Evan Hansen.'
Dear Evan Hansen understudies Garrett Long, Colton Ryan, Olivia Puckett, and Michael Lee Brown. (Not pictured: Asa Somers.)
Jenny Anderson

Actors filling in for main characters have the opportunity to rehearse twice a week. Typically, they’ll rehearse with each other, with stage managers reading off-book to cover other parts, as an assistant director watches. There are very few of the bells and whistles that accompany a full show, which provides some challenges for the actors. For example, because there are only six standbys for the 12 cast members in Come From Away, Breckenridge says they have to rely on the crew to make up the difference during rehearsals: “There are moments where we have to pause for the crew to shift everything—there’s a little bit of hodge-podging and faking our way through.”

“I think one of the hardest things is how dark it is in rehearsal,” says Garrett Long, who understudies Heidi Hansen and Cynthia Murphy in Evan Hansen. “We just [use] work lights.” Somers says, “I feel like the stage is way bigger when just the work lights are on because you can see everything—the audience, the wings. It’s disconcerting.”

Colton Ryan and Michael Lee Brown both cover Evan Hansen’s three high school-aged male leads—Evan, Connor, and Jared—which means they sometimes play two of the parts they cover in the same scene during rehearsal. “The first scene is one of only two scenes where Connor and Jared are in the same space,” Ryan says. “Because Jared enters first and has more lines, Michael will play Jared or I’ll play Jared. We’ll get to the point where [Jared] goes, ‘Oh, you’re such a freak,’ and leaves. And instead of leaving, [whoever is playing Jared] mimes walking out and will just come back in as Connor. You just have to switch on a dime.”

4. THEY OFTEN COVER MULTIPLE TRACKS, AND HAVE VARIOUS METHODS FOR KEEPING THE CHARACTERS SEPARATE.

“I made a run sheet for each character,” Brown says. “I wrote down exactly, in every scene, their movements—which wing they exit, enter, and every move they make. Props you need to remember, costume changes backstage. When you go on, you keep a copy on each side of the stage, and it’s super helpful.”

Jay Douglas, who covered six characters in The Drowsy Chaperone in 2006, had a similar strategy. “I sat out in the audience with a pair of binoculars in one hand and a tape recorder in the other hand, and I would follow each of my people around one person at a time,” he told Playbill. “I would speak every move that that character made into a microphone, and then I would go back and actually type it out in a Word document.” He reviewed his notes and corrected them until he had an accurate description of what every track did, then kept a printed copy in his bag so he could pull it out to reference it at a moment’s notice.

For Ryan, keeping the characters from bleeding into one another comes down to physicality. “They’re all seniors in high school, but they all lead from a very different place in the body: Their gut, their heart—where they keep their instinct,” he says. “I found that tapping into a specific physicality is what can trigger my brain to say, ‘OK, you’re on that track now.’ And then they don’t bleed at all.”

Come From Away includes 12 actors—six men and six women—playing 60 different characters; as a standby, Breckenridge covers five of those actors and their subroles. “You’re one character one moment, you put on a hat and you’re automatically another character, or you slip off a jacket and you become an additional character,” he says. “It’s a subtle change, and it’s typically done with a physicality, with an acting beat, with a register of where you use your voice, and also with accents. As crazy as learning multiple accents can be, it’s actually very helpful with character shifts because that, in itself, can help you change into a completely different character. Dialogue helps, too: I’m speaking Arabic at one point as Ali, but then I’m talking about kissing a cod as the local Newfoundlander. I think that helps you zero in and not jump from one dialect to the next inappropriately.”

5. THEY’RE NEVER FAR FROM THE THEATER DURING A PERFORMANCE.

Jared Bradshaw understudies Willy Wonka in Broadway's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Jared Bradshaw understudies Willy Wonka in Broadway's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Standbys and swings have to be in, or near, the theater when a show is happening. But when they’re not on, they have a lot of downtime, and they can decide how they spend it. “I shared a dressing room with Megan Hilty, who was the Glinda standby at the time,” says Shoshana Bean, who was the standby for Elphaba in Wicked from 2004 to 2005 (after which she took on the role herself). “We would rehearse sometimes, we would watch TV. I would go to the gym, write music. We were allowed to be within a five-block radius of the building and reachable on our cell phones, so I grabbed food with friends or ran errands.”

Breckenridge says he and the other standbys will often watch the show: “We’re either out in the house, up above in the lighting rig—there’s a seating area for us—or we’re watching backstage,” he says. If they’re not watching, “We go in our dressing room, close the door, turn up the monitor, and kind of do the show there. We can sing full out, say the lines, in the dialect, and not have to mute ourselves as we would in the audience or backstage.”

Depending on the day, the cast of Dear Evan Hansen will also rehearse together or watch the show (they also enjoy playing Bananagrams). One thing is for sure: No standby or swing is lazy. “There’s a misconception that we’re not working,” Breckenridge says. “But we’re working our butts off behind the scenes.”

Understudies, who have their own tracks in the show, obviously can't fully watch what the actor they’re covering is doing—but sometimes, the stage manager will arrange for them to watch the show from the audience, as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s did for Jared Bradshaw. Bradshaw plays a reporter and an Oompa Loompa in the show and understudies for Willy Wonka (as well as the other male leads), who is played by Christian Borle. “He had a swing go on for my role as Jerry Jubilee, the reporter, and he let me watch the show from 10th row center,” Bradshaw says. “It wasn’t for fun—it was to let me watch Christian and see from the front of house where he’s actually standing and what the lighting cues look like.”

6. EVERY TIME THEY GO ON IS BASICALLY LIKE THE FIRST TIME.

“The problem for us is every time we go on, it’s the first time, more or less, because so much time has passed,” Somers says.

And it can be hard to master a role when you don’t go on much. “It was hard to have a job as a performer but not technically get to perform that often,” Bean says. “Most standbys go on very infrequently and it can feel like being shot out of a cannon. Takes a second to get your groove and find your sea legs.”

Long agrees. “I did two and a half years at South Pacific, and I was still working on it at the end,” she says. “[A principal actor] is sometimes gone for a week and by the end of that week you’re like, ‘OK!’ But then you don’t touch it [for a while].”

7. THEY COULD GO ON AT LITERALLY ANY MOMENT …

Sometimes, understudies will know far in advance when they’re going on for a principal actor—like if that actor is going on vacation. But illnesses or other unforeseen emergencies might mean much less notice. Ryan got the first clue that he might have to take the stage for a Sunday matinee of Dear Evan Hansen when he found out, after the Saturday evening performance, that star Ben Platt was going to the doctor. “I had a feeling that the next morning I might get a call,” he says. “It was around 11 a.m. on Sunday when I finally got the text that said ‘Hey, this is it.’” Ryan, who made his Broadway debut that day, says he felt very zen about it all. “The timing was unbelievable,” he says. His classmates and teachers happened to be in town for a showcase—Ryan is in his senior year at Baldwin-Wallace University and is receiving internship credit for his time in Evan Hansen—and “they freaked out, and all got tickets somehow. I couldn’t believe the support I was lucky enough to have out there.”

Sometimes, the call comes even closer to the wire. “I got an hour and a half notice last time I went on, and then before that I almost went on in the first 10 minutes of the show because someone was, like, throwing up,” says Olivia Puckett, who covers the roles of Alana Beck and Zoe Murphy in Evan Hansen.

And in some situations, an understudy or standby will be called in during a show. Bean (who these days is focusing on her music; she released a new single, “One Way to Go,” in March) had to go on close to the end of a matinee of Wicked when star Idina Menzel fell and fractured her rib. “They got me ready in 7 minutes,” Bean recalls. “I was in shock that we were actually going through with it. I was worried about her because no one know what had actually happened when they took her to the hospital. I was determined to keep it together ... I didn't feel I had the right to indulge in my feelings at the time—I felt I needed to be focused and steady, for her, for the show, and to just do my job.”

8. … EVEN IF THEY HAVEN’T REHEARSED THE WHOLE SHOW.

A Charlie and the Chocolate Factory program with an understudy slip.
Chris Messina

Standbys and understudies for principal roles will sometimes get the chance to do what’s called a “put-in,” where they perform the entire show, in their costume, with the cast (in street clothes), the orchestra, and things like lighting cues and props. But it doesn’t always happen.

Ryan, for example, never had a put-in. The day of his first performance, he only ran a few essential scenes on the stage before he had to go deal with the things he doesn't normally have to do: warm up and run songs in the music department; get into costume and miked up; and put on makeup. When he had time, “Cast members would come up to my room and we would run lines,” he says. “We’d never done this at all together, so we were getting a feel of the pace in a 10-minute frame. We spent maybe half an hour on the stage just doing the dancing bits ... Other than that, it was like, ‘Alright, let’s see how you do.’”

Similarly, Bradshaw covered for Christian Borle without having fully rehearsed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Luckily, he got a text from Borle the morning of a regular four-hour understudy rehearsal session, so the stage manager gave him the opportunity to run through some of the things he'd never done before—like riding in the glass elevator and in a boat that sailed 20 feet above the stage (which Bradshaw says was “a little terrifying”). “There was only one thing we forgot to do—there’s a pushcart train that Willy rides out on stage, and we had not done that,” Bradshaw says. “I’m pushing the pushcart and singing this line that I’d never sung before with a Willy Wonka hat on and Augustus Gloop is going up the pipe, and I’m like, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ Those are the moments you pinch yourself. You’re like, ‘I’m not killing anybody and I’m not dead, so this is good.’”

He also got a little help from his costars: “After the number, Augustus goes up the pipe. I was supposed to be leading off Mrs. Gloop, who is played by Kathy Fitzgerald, but she was essentially leading me.” Their mics were off, and the music was very loud; under her breath, Fitzgerald was directing Bradshaw where to go. In another moment, the actor found himself in the way of Emma Pfaeffle, who plays Veruca Salt. “I was really in her way. In character, she took her hands and pushed me in the chest,” he recalls. “It was one of those perfect moments where she knew that I knew it was OK for her to push me, and her character totally would have pushed me. In a moment like that, when an understudy goes on for the first time, you shove with love.”

If worse comes to worse, an understudy will go on, script in hand—which is what happened during a 2016 performance of Falsettos, when star Stephanie Block and her understudy were both out sick. Stephanie Umoh—who covered the roles belonging to two other actors—went on for Block after doing just a 2.5-hour staging rehearsal. According to Playbill, “Umoh used the script for most of the show, but the audience cheered throughout.”

9. THEY GET PAID FOR EVERY TRACK THEY COVER …

According to Breckenridge, “Swings get paid more than understudies because swings have to, typically, cover multiple roles. As a standby, you can cover, I believe, three roles, and the second that you cover more than that, you have to be paid an additional amount, per week, for each role that you cover.”

Sometimes, moving from swing to understudy means taking a pay cut. Bradshaw, who swung into 10 roles during his eight years in Jersey Boys, had his pay decrease when he took an ensemble role in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory even though he's on stage every night. “I was covering six different roles and getting paid for all those. I got paid for dance captain and fight captain,” he says. “Every six months you can get a little increase for pay for signing on for another six months. I was getting paid a lot more doing Jersey Boys. You’d think moving to a new show you’d get paid more, but when you’re in the ensemble every night and covering three roles you aren’t getting paid as much as being a swing and covering three lead roles and three ensemble roles.”

10. … AND A BONUS IF THEY COVER FOR A PRINCIPAL ACTOR.

Broadway performers get paid for eight shows a week—and if you cover for a principal actor and go on in their stead, you get a little pay bump. “Say you’re getting paid $300 a show. When you go on for a principal role, you get an extra $300 because that principal actor is not getting paid that night,” Bradshaw explains. “You get one-eighth of your salary extra.”

But as Douglas explained to Playbill, you only get that bump if you go on for a principal role. “If I go on for my ensemble track," he said, "that does not pay me any extra ... [but] even if I am not on once during the course of a week, I still make my full paycheck, [and] any principal performances that I have is additional money on top.”

Understudies can also expect to get paid more for things like extraordinary risk, “which is when you do something like riding in [Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's] glass elevator,” Bradshaw explains. “There was a trap door in Jersey Boys. They let you know that it’s a pneumatic lift and if you stick your arm out your bones are going to snap in half. You have to say you know how it works, but you also get $20 a week to risk your life and ride it. There are all these little bumps you can get as an understudy, and it’s a wonderful thing.”

11. THEY HAVE OTHER ROLES, TOO.

One standby or swing will serve as a show’s dance captain; in Come From Away, Breckenridge fills that role. “It’s my job to maintain the cleanliness of the show, so to speak,” he says. “While a typical dance captain’s job is maintaining just the choreography, with this show, there’s also chairography and blocking and chair traffic. All that stuff that I have to maintain. So on a typical day I’ll watch the show and take notes. If I see something—a traffic issue, or dance moves that have gotten muddy, or blocking that's a little off—I’ll notate it. If it’s something that becomes consistent, I’ll give the actor a note before the half hour [call] the next day, just to make sure they can apply that note in the show.”

12. THEY HAVE A LOT TO THINK ABOUT WHILE STAYING IN CHARACTER ...

“We’re focusing on things that [principal actors] don’t have to focus on at all anymore,” Puckett says. “You walk on stage and you’re looking for your spike mark [a piece of tape that shows actors where to stand], and then you’re looking for where the light is hitting you, and then you’re figuring out if you’re in the right shirt, and then you’re on top of that remembering your lines, and then on top of that you’re in your character.” According to Bradshaw, that type of compartmentalization has a name: “swing brain.”

13. ... AND NEED TO BE CONSISTENT WITH WHAT A PRINCIPAL ACTOR HAS DONE IN THE ROLE.

It’s key that understudies and standbys are consistent with what a principal performer has done in the past, both so they don’t throw off the other actors’ rhythms or wander into a perilous situation. “As the standby, my only intention was to fit in like a cog in a wheel,” Bean says. “A show runs like a well-oiled machine, and it can be dangerous to you or to the other company members if you don't hit your marks and follow the track as it's laid out.”

That said, there is room for a little fun. In his debut as Willy Wonka, Bradshaw said a line in Spanish and threw in a Southern accent on one line. “Willy Wonka is supposed to be unpredictable and you don’t know if he’s telling the truth or lying or strike that, reverse it,” he says. “Any comedian is funnier if they’re doing their own stuff as opposed to doing a filtered version of someone else’s accent. Still, you have to be standing in the right place at the right time. There are holes that open up in the floor and entire ceiling comes down—it’s dangerous.”

14. THEY WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT THEY’RE NOT LESSER THAN THE PRINCIPAL PERFORMERS.

The performers Mental Floss spoke to all mentioned the disappointment audiences express when a principal actor is out and a standby or understudy is on. While that’s understandable, they want audience members to know that they’re just as talented and working just as hard as the principal performers.

“The term understudy has a connotation that you’re not as good,” Bradshaw says. “It’s tough understudying a star now instead of just an actor. I would want to see Christian Borle as Willy Wonka. I wouldn’t want to see Jared Bradshaw—I would be disappointed! But you get to exceed their expectations. It takes a special person to understudy and to hop in and play a lead in one of these Broadway shows.”

Breckenridge concurs. “The producers, directors, choreographers, they’re trusting us to do, technically, a harder job than what the onstage actors are doing,” he says. Swings and standbys need to be able to maintain and perform multiple roles, sometimes at the drop of a hat. “I think there’s a misconception that we are second best, when in fact, we’re hired because we have the talent to do a myriad of things, like different roles and voice types,” he says. “We’re just as talented and we are an equal piece of this family, of this cast.”

11 Secrets of Storm Chasers

Drew Angerer, Getty Images
Drew Angerer, Getty Images

Every year, people around the world board up windows, stock up on essential supplies, and flee their own homes in anticipation of severe weather events. But for storm chasers, tumultuous weather is an invitation to move toward the danger. Some endure precarious conditions during hurricanes, tornadoes, and other storms in order to take readings that might later prove useful to meteorologists. Others are simply attracted to the beauty of the storms, capturing nature’s violent expressions in what could be considered an extreme form of landscape photography.

There's no shortage of opportunities for storm chasers. The U.S. each year sees an average of 1253 tornadoes—a massive column of spinning air borne out of thunderstorms and creating winds up to 250 miles per hour. Hurricanes are fueled by heat from oceans and threaten coastal regions with heavy rain and wind. Though it doesn’t have quite the same reputation, even a simple, raging thunderstorm can produce enough hail and high winds to cause chaos. Each is dangerous, devastating—and, in the eyes of storm chasers, beautiful.

To better understand what motivates these individuals to seek out cataclysmic events, Mental Floss spoke to three extreme weather specialists. Here’s what they had to say about airborne houses, armored trucks, and why you won’t usually see any of them wearing a helmet.

1. For storm chasers, a hurricane can feel like an acid trip.

A satellite image of Hurricane Irene in the Caribbean Sea in August 2011 is pictured
Hurricane Irene is shown over the Caribbean Sea in a satellite image from August 2011.
NOAA via Getty Images

With just 13 hurricanes hitting the continental U.S. since 2010, chasing hurricanes requires a passport and a willingness to spend days making connecting flights to international destinations. As a result, hurricane hunters are a small subgroup of the storm chaser demographic. Why do they do it? For Josh Morgerman, a hurricane chaser based in Southern California and star of the Science Channel’s upcoming Hurricane Man, being exposed to hurricanes on Long Island in his youth created an association between a severe storm and excitement. “My whole life is hunting that feeling again and again,” he tells Mental Floss. While he still pursues that rush, Morgerman's chief objective is to measure air pressure and log observational data that can assist meteorologists in analyzing storms. (Chasers can also measure factors like humidity, wind speed, and temperature.)

Unlike tornadoes, which have a very clear visual identity as they spin in a cone shape over land, hurricanes just look like a fierce concentration of weather. That combination of heavy rain, wind, and flying debris can be hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it firsthand. As fierce weather rages in the area known as the eyewall, the eye, or center, inside is peaceful. Morgerman says that jarring contrast is a little like an acid trip. “In a severe hurricane [the eyewall] is quite incredible,” he says. “Some sound like a train or like wolves howling. Hurricane Michael, the building I was in was shaking. The windows were breaking. With storms like that, you can’t see anything. Everything just turns white. You just see flying wreckage. It’s an unbelievable spectacle to behold." In the eye, though, "It gets calm. The sky is blue ... There’s something very acid-trippy about that.”

2. The movie Twister influenced a lot of storm chasers.

A publicity photo from the 1996 film 'Twister' depicts actor Bill Paxton looking at a tornado
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1996’s Twister, Bill Paxton plays a tornado chaser who braves a series of severe weather events. For many chasers, the movie was a milestone, prompting a lot of people to get into the field themselves. “It’s the reason I got into it,” says tornado chaser Greg Johnson, who now collects footage to sell to news outlets. “There was this romantic notion of storm chasing. There are a lot of things the movie got right."

There was one exception. "One thing it didn’t get right is the human toll. The damage associated with these storms. The movie underplayed the destruction and death. In real life scenarios, it’s far worse than anything they show in the movie.” A chaser’s first priority, he says, is to stop and help anyone who might need assistance.

3. Storm chasers don’t spend much time actually inside the storms.

Support scientist Tim Marshall stands outside of a vehicle to observe a supercell thunderstorm in Lamb County, Texas in May 2017
Drew Angerer, Getty Images

The life of any storm chaser is supposed to be thrilling, and it is—for a few minutes or hours at a time. Most chasers spent the majority of their careers traveling toward a storm, either by driving toward it or, in Morgerman’s case, flying. He might be in a hurricane for hours; a tornado might touch down for just a few minutes. Johnson also says he spends much of his time traveling. “When you see videos on YouTube of incredible tornado events, recognize what you’re seeing is the 1 percent of the time,” Johnson tells Mental Floss. “You’re not seeing countless hours at truck stops sleeping on the hood of a truck doing nothing.”

4. The real danger for storm chasers isn’t the weather. It’s the traffic.

Traffic is redirected during a tornado in Linwood, Kansas in May 2019
Kyle Rivas, Getty Images

Severe weather can cause high winds and flooding, but it’s not always nature that winds up being physically threatening, especially because chasers spend so much of their time traveling. (In fact, there’s been only one fatal incident as a direct result of a tornado, when chaser Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and colleague Carl Young were trapped in their vehicle and picked up by 200 mile-per-hour winds during the El Reno tornado in 2013. All three died.)

According to Montana-based storm chaser and National Weather Service meteorologist Cory Mottice, experienced chasers know to fear traffic more than the weather. “In a more highly populated area, you have to worry about traffic congestion,” he says. “A storm might be coming down through Oklahoma and you might be out of danger initially. But as the storm is getting closer, people are worrying and start panicking. They’ll pull under overpasses and get stuck on the road with a tornado coming at them.”

Johnson agrees, adding that injury from storms can often take a back seat to traffic accidents. “The thing that keeps me up at night is the driving, not the tornado,” he says. “The tornado will generally go from point A to point B along a defined path. It’s very well-behaved. The quickest way is a straight line. It’s very visual. You can see where it is and you can avoid it. Driving is a completely different story. Put enough miles on and you’re bound to see a bad accident.”

5. Storm chasers drive armored vehicles.

A reinforced vehicle is pictured near a tornado
Courtesy of Greg Johnson // @tornadogreg, TornadoHunter.com

Driving in pursuit of a tornado requires a little more than simple guts and a willingness to get close to a massively powerful weather event. Chasers need their version of a Batmobile. According to Johnson, professionals usually opt for an armored truck to help insulate them from the destructive power of the storm. “We’re not just driving around in a pick-up truck,” he says. “I have a roll cage to prevent it from being crushed. It’s designed to go off-road. It’s heavier than a normal truck. The steel roll cage adds weight. There’s exterior coating to prevent punctures in the vehicle.”

While the roll cage is heavy, the goal isn’t to make the vehicle heavier so it's harder for a tornado to pick up. “At the end of the day, if you’re caught in a tornado capable of throwing the vehicle, a weight difference of 500 or 800 pounds won’t matter. Tornados can pick up combiners. Those things do happen. I’d rather the truck be lighter and easier on gas.”

6. Storm chasers have seen flying houses.

A weathervane is mounted on the roof of a house
Lobro78/iStock via Getty Images

Storm chasers don’t want to drive directly into a tornado or other severe weather event. They just want to get close enough to obtain readings or to take photographs. Johnson tries to get within 200 or 300 yards to snap photos, which is still close enough to see how intense wind speeds can be. “I’ve seen a house flying through the air,” he says. “I saw a truck flying across the road 50 yards in front of me.”

7. Storm chaser equipment can take a beating.

Jan Dutton of WeatherBug.com tracks Hurricane Isabel in Ocean City, Maryland in September 2003
Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Most chasers hit the road with doppler radar, laptops, cameras, and other equipment to help them analyze data and capture images. If you’ve wondered how they can do that without putting themselves at risk, the answer is simple. For still photography, Mottice puts the camera on a tripod outside while he remains in the truck. That keeps him out of danger—but his equipment is another story. "I have my camera and gear on a tripod. I’m in the vehicle taking remote pictures. The hail can hit the camera. Wind is an issue.” Some chasers bring back-up equipment in case their gear gets pummeled.

8. Storm chasers know they should wear helmets. (But they usually don’t.)

A storm warning sign is pictured
arcady_31/iStock via Getty Images

With flying wreckage cutting through the air, it would stand to reason storm chasers should equip themselves with helmets. Few do, however. “I’m embarrassed to say I don’t wear a helmet,” Morgerman says. “Fans have been pushing me to wear one for years … the whole [television] crew is wearing helmets. I don’t want anything to encumber the experience.”

9. Storm chasers can suffer physical effects.

Hurricane Ike is seen over Cuba in a photo taken by the International Space Station in September 2008
Hurricane Ike is seen over Cuba in a satellite image taken by the International Space Station in September 2008.
NASA via Getty Images

An experienced chaser knows how to plan routes that keep them safely away from tornadoes. For hurricanes, they scope out buildings able to withstand the force of the storm. All that planning, however, doesn’t mean they always walk away unscathed. Morgerman says the violent winds of a hurricane’s eyewall can leave enduring effects. “The intense gustiness can cause rapid pressure changes that can really hurt your ears,” he says.

10. Storm chasers know that thunderstorms can be incredibly destructive.

A storm chaser drives a car with a smashed windshield
Courtesy of Greg Johnson // @tornadogreg, TornadoHunter.com

Most people assume hurricanes and tornadoes represent the pinnacle of danger when it comes to storm-chasing. But according to Mottice, a severe thunderstorm can match or exceed them in destructive power. “Some people think a severe thunderstorm warning with 80 mile-per-hour winds is no big deal, that the tornado is the big deal,” he says. “But winds produce more damage than some tornadoes. In Montana, a storm produced 120 mile-per-hour winds. They can do a lot of damage.”

Mottice also tends to be wary of hail during storms. Once, he says, “I didn’t know a storm was blowing up behind the one we were chasing. We got caught in the core of that one. It threw golf ball-sized hail on us. The vehicles on the roads had broken windows.”

11. Storm chasers worry they might be setting a bad example for amateurs.

Hunter Anderson, a meteorology student at St. Cloud University, films a storm near Limon, Colorado in May 2017
Drew Angerer, Getty Images

In the storm-chasing community, there’s much debate over what separates a professional from an amateur. Generally speaking, professional storm chasers get paid for their work, whether that be compensation for footage or photography. But there's no licensing necessary to chase a storm, and anyone can pursue extreme weather. Morgerman, who has likely been in more hurricanes than anyone alive—he says the Science Channel verified the claim for his television series—believes amateurs who follow chasers on social media might get the wrong idea. “I remember being a 15-year-old weather nerd wanting to have these experiences. I worry I’m setting a bad example. I worry some kids will watch what I do and try to do it but without the experience and knowledge that I have.”

12 Secrets of Roller Coaster Designers

People ride a spinning roller coaster in the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Park
People ride a spinning roller coaster in the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Park
hanusst/iStock via Getty Images

Back in the early 20th century, engineers attempting to push the limits of roller coaster thrills subjected riders to risky upside-down turns and bloody noses. A century later, coaster designers rely on computer software, physics, and psychology to push the limits of the roughly 5000 rides in operation worldwide. To get a sense of what their job entails, Mental Floss spoke with several roller coaster specialists about everything from testing rides with water-filled dummies to how something as simple as paint can influence a coaster experience. Here’s what we learned.

1. Getting strapped in might be the most exciting part of the roller coaster ride.

Known as a “thrill engineer,” UK-based Brendan Walker consults with coaster manufacturers and parks on the psychology of riding the rails. In his experience, riders getting secured into their seats are at the peak of their excitement—even more so than during the ride itself. “The moment the lap bar is being locked down and you have that feeling of things being inescapable, that you have to suffer the effects of the ride, is the highest moment of arousal,” Walker says. “The actual ride might only achieve 80 percent of that excitement.”

2. Designers test roller coasters with water-filled dummies.

Bill Kitchen, founder of U.S. Thrill Rides, says it can take anywhere from two to five years for a coaster to go from idea to execution. Part of that process is devoted to the logistics of securing patents and permits for local site construction—the rest is extensive safety testing. “We’re subject to ASTM [American Society for Testing Materials] standards,” Kitchen says. “It covers every aspect of coasters. The rides are tested with what we call water dummies, or sometimes sandbags.”

The inanimate patrons allow designers to figure out how a coaster will react to the constant use and rider weight of a highly trafficked ride. The water dummies—which look a bit like crash test dummies, but filled with water—can be emptied or filled to simulate different weight capacities. Designers also sometimes use the kind of crash-test dummies found in the auto industry to observe any potential issues prior to actual humans climbing aboard.

3. Every foot of roller coaster track costs a lot of money.

Thrill seekers go upside-down while riding on the Mind Eraser roller coaster in Agawam, Massachusetts
Thrill seekers go upside-down while riding on the Mind Eraser roller coaster in Agawam, Massachusetts
Kirkikis/iStock via Getty Images

There is absolutely nothing random about the length of a coaster’s track. In addition to designing a ride based on the topography of a park site, designers take into account exactly how much space they’ll need to terrorize you and not an inch more. When England’s Alton Towers park was preparing to build a ride named TH13TEEN for a 2010 opening, they asked Walker exactly how much of a drop was needed to scare someone in the dark. “It was a practical question,” Walker says. “For every extra foot of steelwork, it would have cost them £30,000 [roughly $40,000].”

4. Rollercoaster Tycoon brought a lot of people into the business.

The popular PC game, first released in 1999, allowed users to methodically construct their own amusement parks, including the rides. As a proving ground for aspiring engineers and designers, it worked pretty well. Jeff Pike, President of Skyline Attractions, says he’s seen several people grow passionate about the industry as a direct result of the game. “I remember when the game first got popular, I would go to trade shows and there would be kids looking to get into it using screen shots of rides they designed. The game definitely brought a lot of people into the fold.”

5. Paint makes a big difference in coaster speed.

A group of tin metal cans with colorful paint
scanrail/iStock via Getty Images

For all of their high-tech design—the software, fabrication, and precise measures of energy—a good coaster ride can often come down to whether it’s got too much paint on it. “The one thing that will slow down a steel coaster is a build-up of paint on the track rails,” Pike says. “It softens where the wheel is rolling and hitting the track, which increases the drag.” A good, worn-in track will have gray or silver streaks where the wheel has worn down the paint, making it move more quickly.

6. A roller coaster’s skyline is key.

Brian Morrow, former Corporate Vice President for Theme Park Experience at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, says that the looming curvature of coasters spotted as guests drive toward and enter the park is very purposeful. “It’s like a movie trailer in that we want you to see some iconic coaster elements, but not the whole thing,” he says. “You approach it with anticipation.”

7. Some coasters arrive as giant model kits.

Whether a coaster’s theme or design comes first is largely left up to the end user—the amusement park. But for some rides, manufacturers are able to offer pre-fabricated constructions that designers can treat like the world’s biggest Erector Set. “Sometimes I work on rides that have already been built,” Walker says. “They’re produced by a company and presented almost like a kit with parts, like a model train set. There’s a curve here, a straight bit here, and you can pick your own layout depending on the lay of the land.”

8. Wooden roller coasters are weather-sensitive.

If you’ve ever been on a wooden coaster that seems a little shaky from one trip to the next, check the forecast: It might be because of the weather. Pike says that humidity and other factors can shrink the wood, affecting how bolts fit and leading to a slightly shakier experience. “The structure itself can flex back and forth,” he says. It’s still perfectly safe—it just takes more maintenance to make sure the wood and fasteners are in proper operating condition. A well-cared-for wooden coaster, Pike says, can usually outlast a steel model.

9. The time of day can affect the coaster experience.

“A coaster running in the morning could run slower when cooler,” Morrow says. “The wheels are not as warm, the bearings are warming up. That could be different by 2 p.m., with a slicked-up wheel chassis.” Coasters experiencing their first-ever test runs can also be slightly unpredictable, according to Pike. "Those first trial runs [during the testing phase] can be slow because everything is just so tight," he says. "A lot of coasters don't even make it around the track. It's not a failure. It's just super-slow."

10. Roller coaster designs can come from unusual places—like Jay Leno’s chin.

The twisting, undulating tracks of coasters can often be the result of necessity: Pike says that trees, underground piping, and available real estate all inform designers when it comes to placing a ride in a specific park. But when they have more freedom, coasters can sometimes take on the distinctive shape of whatever happens to be around the designers at the time of conception. “We had a giant piece of land in Holland that just had no constraints, and we were sitting around talking," Pike says. “And we started talking about Jay Leno’s chin.” The ride was a “loose” representation of the comedian's jaw, but “it is there.”

11. Roller coaster riders double as performers.

A woman taking a ride on a rollercoaster at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany
A woman taking a ride on a rollercoaster at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany
exithamster/iStock via Getty Images

For Walker, the best advertising for a coaster is having spectators watch riders de-board after an exhilarating experience. “It’s all about that emotion,” he says. “A spectator basically asks, ‘What’s making them so aroused? What’s giving them such pleasure?’ The line for the ride is the audience. Imagining yourself on the structure becomes a very powerful thing."

12. The future of coasters is vertical.

Biggest, fastest, longest—coasters are running out of superlatives. Because rides can only be designed with so many drips, rolls, or G forces, some companies are looking to the sky for their next big idea. Kitchen has been overseeing design of the Polercoaster for years: It’s a sprawling, skyscraper-esque ride that uses electromagnetic propulsion to carry riders upwards instead of across horizontal tracks. “We want to put it in places where land is very expensive, like the Vegas strip,” he says. “You can only do that if it takes up a lot less space.” The project is set to exceed the 456 feet of the current tallest ride, Kingda Ka at Six Flags in New Jersey. “It’ll be the world’s tallest—and hopefully the most fun.”

This list first ran in 2017.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER