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12 Secrets of Roller Coaster Designers

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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 4400 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 RIDE.

Roller coaster passengers prepare for a drop
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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. THEY TEST 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 TRACK COSTS A LOT OF MONEY.

A roller coaster track is ready for passengers
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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 SPEED.

Cans of paint are arranged on the floor
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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 grey or silver streaks where the wheel has worn down the paint, making it move more quickly.

6. A COASTER’S SKYLINE IS KEY.

Brian Morrow, 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.

The loop of a roller coaster track
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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 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 RIDE EXPERIENCE.

A roller coaster track at dusk
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“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. 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. RIDERS ARE REALLY PERFORMERS.

Roller coaster riders enjoy the end of the ride
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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 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.” Kitchen believes it’ll be another two years before ground is broken on the project, which is set to exceed the 456 feet of the current tallest ride, Kinga Ka at Six Flags in New Jersey. “It’ll be the world’s tallest—and hopefully the most fun.”

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14 Tasty Secrets of Trader Joe’s Employees
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With over 450 stores in the U.S., Trader Joe’s has become the preeminent destination for affordable groceries, quirky food flavors, and friendly customer service. But the grocery chain, based in Monrovia, California, is notoriously tight-lipped. Owned by a reclusive German family, Trader Joe’s has a strict no-media rule, and employees are warned against publicly sharing details of their job. Despite this hurdle, we've gathered some details on what it’s like to work there, from what really goes on in the break room to how much employees earn. So pour a glass of Two Buck Chuck, grab a few Triple Ginger Snap Cookies, and enjoy these tasty secrets.

1. THEY FEEL LIKE THEY WORK ON A SHIP.

If you’ve ever been inside a Trader Joe’s, you’ve probably noticed the store’s nautical theme. In the ‘60s, entrepreneur Joe Coulombe established the first Trader Joe’s in Pasadena, California, and the store continues its original tiki vibe today. Besides wearing Hawaiian shirts and leis, employees have maritime job titles such as Crew Member (they work the cash registers, stock shelves, unload deliveries, and clean the store), Merchant, Mate, and Captain. And instead of using intercoms to communicate with one another, employees ring nautical bells. “One ring means we need more cashiers up front, two rings means a crew member on a register needs assistance with something (i.e. carry out, clean up, etc.), three bells mean a manager is needed,” a Trader Joe’s Crew Member reveals in a Reddit AMA.

2. THE DAIRY SECTION IS THEIR NEMESIS.

A diary case at Trader Joe's
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According to Natalie Royal, a Nashville-based songwriter and artist who worked as a Crew Member from May 2013 to May 2014, the dairy section’s frosty temperature can be difficult to deal with. “My least favorite shifts were the ones that required me to spend time stocking the milk, butter, and cream,” she says. But customers can easily cheer up employees who are stuck "working in the box," Trader Joe’s lingo for the refrigerated dairy section. “The next time you see an employee peering out behind the rows of yogurt cups, give them a thumbs up. Maybe it will warm their soul enough to help them forget they are stuck in a frigid box,” Royal says.

3. THEY HIDE STUFFED ANIMALS AROUND THE STORE.

To entertain kids and add a splash of whimsy to the shopping experience, employees at Trader Joe’s stores often hide a stuffed animal or plastic toy somewhere in the aisles. “It’s really just for kids to run around and find the missing animal, and they get a treat,” a Mate who works at a Washington Trader Joe’s writes in a Reddit AMA. “Kids seem to love it and parents go along with it too.” So next time you’re shopping, look out for a stuffed animal (lobsters, bears, and dogs are common), and you might earn yourself a free lollipop.

4. THEIR SALARIES AND BENEFITS ARE SURPRISINGLY GOOD.

A clerk bags groceries at Trader Joe's
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Most grocery store workers don't earn much. But Trader Joe’s employees enjoy high salaries, impressive benefits, and frequent opportunities for promotion. While most Crew Members make $10 to $24 per hour, Captains (store managers) earn more than $100,000 per year. After three months of work, employees receive health insurance (medical, dental, and vision) and a retirement plan in which Trader Joe’s contributes 10% of an employee’s annual salary. Every six months, employees who excel in customer service, teamwork, and productivity receive raises, and the company fills all open Merchant and Captain jobs by promoting current Crew Members and Mates, respectively.

5. THEY’RE PROBABLY RIPPED.

Most grocery store jobs involve some degree of physical work, such as lifting boxes and unloading shipments. But unlike employees at many other grocery stores, Trader Joe’s Crew Members perform a wide variety of physical tasks rather than specializing in one area. “I was probably in the best shape of my life when I worked at Trader Joe’s,” Royal says. “I was shocked to find how sore I was for about the first two plus weeks of working there. After slinging watermelons and stacking cans day after day, I ended up with guns of steel.”

6. THEY GET 10% OFF THEIR OWN GROCERIES.

Cases of Trader Joe's beer
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Although they’re surrounded by food all day, Trader Joe’s employees still need to shop for their own groceries. Fortunately, their 10% employee discount saves them some money on their grocery bill. “Albeit pretty small, I was able to shave off a good chunk of my grocery bill every week,” Royal says. Since state alcohol laws vary, depending on where they live and work, alcohol may or may not be included in the discount.

7. THEY’RE HAPPY TO OFFER YOU TASTE TESTS (BUT DON’T BE GREEDY).

“I love when customers ask to try products!,” the anonymous Trader Joe’s Mate says. “We’re not gonna grill up a steak for you, but something that you can open up and taste, yeah go for it.” Employees get to eat whatever food is left over from the package or box, and any extra food is donated or thrown out. While most customers don’t abuse the store’s generous sampling policy, a few people do take advantage of it. “I’ve only experienced two or three occasions where a customer tried to take advantage of this and wanted us to open literally 10+ products,” the Trader Joe’s Crew Member says. “Management had to step in and kindly inform them that one or two products is fine but we have to draw the line somewhere.”

8. THEY MEET CUSTOMERS WHO TRAVEL FAR AND WIDE.

People waiting in line outside a Trader Joe's in Miami
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Living in a town or city that doesn’t have a Trader Joe’s can be tough. To express their desire for the grocery chain to open a new location near them, some zealous customers create Facebook pages and sign petitions. (There's also a request form on the Trader Joe's website.) According to the anonymous Mate, Trader Joe’s is expanding rapidly, but not every city will get to enjoy a nearby store. “People drive 2 hours or so to come to my store to shop and spend upwards of $500,” he says. “There is nothing I can do on my end sadly. If you go to the website and complain/beg/ask politely, you may some day get that store you want.”

9. THEY REALLY ARE GENUINELY OUTGOING AND POSITIVE.

Trader Joe’s employees have a reputation for being super-friendly, and it isn’t usually an act. Whether a Crew Member personally escorts you to a hard-to-find product or strikes up a conversation about your favorite foods in the checkout line, employees are simply nice. “Everyone’s friendly. They’re genuine people too,” an anonymous employee tells Thrillest. “It’s not people who’ve been told they have to act nice. It’s people who genuinely care about how the customer’s feeling.” Caring employees create a supportive, communal environment that’s different than typical grocery stores. “My fellow Crew Members truly were the best,” Royal says. “I’ve always considered myself to be a pretty optimistic gal, but for the most part, I was just a dime dozen at Trader Joe’s."

10. THE BREAK ROOM KEEPS THEM WELL-FED.

An assortment of Trader Joe's snacks
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Trader Joe’s customers enjoy visiting the store’s sample station for food and coffee, and employees enjoy their own grub in the break room. “We are always cooking things up,” a Trader Joe’s employee tells Forbes. “When we get new foods in, we try them out. We eat and drink throughout the day here.” Because employees are constantly tasting new products and familiarizing themselves with older ones, they can recommend certain products to customers and speak genuinely about the flavors, textures, and overall tastiness of the food. And just like customers, Crew Members also definitely hit up the sample station. “I can’t even begin to tell you how many teeny tiny cups of coffee I chugged or samples I inhaled in a given shift,” Royal says.

11. THEY BLAST MUSIC WHEN THE STORE IS CLOSED.

Shift times vary, so some employees work during the day and others work at night. Royal, who typically worked with the night crew, started work at 2 p.m. and wrapped up around 10:30 p.m. “After closing the store to the public, we would blast music over the loudspeakers and ‘face’ the store,” Royal says, referring to the process of pulling the products to the front of the shelves and making the store look full and inviting. “With all of the late night heavy lifting, I found it extremely difficult to sleep. I think I figured out pretty quickly that my biological clock functions the best on a nine to five schedule, and that is a very rare, very coveted shift at Trader Joe’s.”

12. THE HOLIDAYS ARE PARTICULARLY TOUGH ON THEIR WAISTLINES.

Although most people indulge in sweets in the months between Halloween and Christmas, the winter holidays are particularly challenging for Trader Joe’s employees who are watching their waistlines. Each winter, the grocery chain sells a plethora of sugary seasonal items such as candy cane cookies, peppermint bark, and gingerbread men. And employees are around the treats all day, fielding questions from customers about the pumpkin ice cream and offering samples of eggnog. “The entire cookies and candy aisle turns into a holy relic of wonderment and me trying to not get fat,” the Mate says.

13. THEY LOVE BRIGHTENING A CUSTOMER’S DAY.

A chocolate bar
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“If a customer was having an ‘off’ day or if I just felt like going above and beyond for an awesome (usually polite) person, I was given the complete freedom to dazzle them how I saw fit,” Royal says. “Depending on the situation, I’d usually give them a bar of chocolate on the house or toss in a cute greeting card at the last second, and this resulted in some extremely rewarding experiences.” Once Royal gave a pint of ice cream (plastic spoon included) to a girl who had just been broken up with, and another time she threw in an extra frozen chicken tikka masala to a man preparing for an important job interview. “And on another occasion, I gifted a bouquet of sunflowers to a teary-eyed woman who I later found out had just lost her husband,” Royal says.

14. THEY TRAVEL THE WORLD TO FIND THE BEST FOOD.

Trader Joe’s employs a few buyers to travel the world looking for the best spanakopita, pork gyoza, and calzones, among other ethnic items. These product developers fly around the globe, visiting restaurants and food producers, all in the name of culinary research. Because Trader Joe’s typically stocks one or two types of a product rather than a dozen or more options, the chain ensures that the products it does stock are of the highest quality. After product developers find a supplier, such as an authentic Italian pizzeria, Trader Joe’s arranges for the supplier to make the pizza, freeze it, and package it with the Trader Joe’s label. Customers can then purchase the frozen pizza, heat it, and enjoy. Bon appetit!

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10 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Flight Attendants
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by Heather Poole

Heather Poole has worked for a major carrier for over 15 years and is the author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet. We begged her to spill some workplace secrets.

1. IF THE PLANE DOOR IS OPEN, WE’RE NOT GETTING PAID.

You know all that preflight time where we’re cramming bags into overhead bins? None of that shows up in our paychecks. Flight attendants get paid for “flight hours only.” Translation: The clock doesn’t start until the craft pushes away from the gate. Flight delays, cancellations, and layovers affect us just as much as they do passengers—maybe even more.

Airlines aren’t completely heartless, though. From the time we sign in at the airport until the plane slides back into the gate at our home base, we get an expense allowance of $1.50 an hour. It’s not much, but it helps pay the rent.

2. LANDING THIS GIG IS TOUGH.

Competition is fierce: When Delta announced 1,000 openings in 2010, it received over 100,000 applications. Even Harvard’s acceptance rate isn’t that low! All that competition means that most applicants who score interviews have college degrees—I know doctors and lawyers who’ve made the career switch.

But you don’t need a law degree to get your foot in the jetway door. Being able to speak a second language greatly improves your chances. So does having customer service experience (especially in fine dining) or having worked for another airline, a sign that you can handle the lifestyle.

The 4 percent who do get a callback interview really need to weigh the pros and cons of the job. As we like to say, flight attendants must be willing to cut their hair and go anywhere. And if you can’t survive on $18,000 a year, most new hires’ salary, don’t even think about applying.

3. WE CAN BE TOO TALL OR TOO SHORT TO FLY.

During Pan Am’s heyday in the 1960s, there were strict requirements for stewardesses: They had to be at least 5-foot-2, weigh no more than 130 pounds, and retire by age 32. They couldn’t be married or have children, either. As a result, most women averaged just 18 months on the job.

In the 1970s, the organization Stewardesses for Women’s Rights forced airlines to change their ways. The mandatory retirement age was the first thing to go. By the 1980s, the marriage restriction was gone as well. These days, as long as flight attendants can do the job and pass a yearly training program, we can keep flying.

As for weight restrictions, most of those disappeared in the 1990s. Today, the rules are about safety: Flight attendants who can’t sit in the jump seat without an extended seat belt or can’t fit through the emergency exit window cannot fly. The same goes for height requirements: We have to be tall enough to grab equipment from the overhead bins, but not so tall that we’re hitting our heads on the ceiling. Today, that typically means between 5-foot-3 and 6-foot-1, depending on the aircraft.

4. WE CAN BE FIRED FOR BIZARRE REASONS.

Newly hired flight attendants are placed on strict probation for their first six months. I know one new hire who lost her job for wearing her uniform sweater tied around her waist. Another newbie got canned for pretending to be a full-fledged attendant so she could fly home for free. (Travel benefits don’t kick in until we’re off probation.) But the most surprising violation is flying while ill: If we call in sick, we aren’t allowed to fly, even as a passenger on another airline. It’s grounds for immediate dismissal.

5. DIET COKE IS OUR NEMESIS!

Of all the drinks we serve, Diet Coke takes the most time to pour—the fizz takes forever to settle at 35,000 feet. In the time it takes me to pour a single cup of Diet Coke, I can serve three passengers a different beverage. So even though giving cans to first-class passengers is a big no-no, you’ll occasionally spy 12 ounces of silver trimmed in red sitting up there.

6. IF YOU TRY TO SNEAK A DEAD BODY ONTO A PLANE, WE WILL NOTICE.

You may have heard the story of a Miami passenger who tried to board a flight with his dead mother inside a garment bag. Why would someone do such a thing? Because it’s expensive to transport human bodies! Prices vary by destination, but delivering a body on a flight can cost up to $5,000. Commercial carriers transport bodies across the country every day, and because the funeral directors who arrange these flights are offered air miles for their loyalty, they’re not always concerned about finding the lowest fare.

Thankfully, I’ve never had someone sneak a deceased passenger on board, but my roommate did. She knew the man was dead the moment she saw him looking gray and slumped over in a wheelchair, even though his wife and daughter assured her he was just battling the flu. Midway through the flight, the plane had to make an unscheduled landing when it became apparent that no amount of Nyquil was going to revive him.

No one officially dies in-flight unless there’s a doctor on board to make the pronouncement. On these very rare occasions, the crew will do everything possible to manage the situation with sensitivity and respect. Unfortunately, most flights are full, so it’s not always possible to move an “incapacitated” passenger to an empty row of seats. Singapore Airlines is the most prepared. Its planes feature a “corpse cupboard,” a compartment for storing a dead body if the situation arises.

7. WE’LL ALSO NOTICE IF YOU TRY TO JOIN THE MILE HIGH CLUB.

It’s usually the long line of people waiting to use the bathroom that gives you away, and nine times out of 10, it’s a passenger who asks the flight attendants to intervene. Strictly speaking, it’s not against the law to join the Mile High Club. But it is against the law to disobey crew member commands. If we ask you to stop doing whatever it is you’re doing, by all means, stop! Otherwise, you’re going to have a very awkward conversation when you meet your cell mate.

8. WE’RE THE FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE AGAINST HUMAN TRAFFICKING.

When I started flying, I never dreamed I’d be working with the police, but it’s become an important part of the job. This new role started with Sandra Fiorini, an American Airlines flight attendant who testified to Congress about an 18-year-old male passenger carrying a newborn with its umbilical cord still attached. No mother in sight, just one bottle of milk and two diapers stuck in his pocket for the six-hour flight. When Fiorini reported her suspicions to the authorities, she got no response.

In 2007, Fiorini met Deborah Sigmund, founder of the organization Innocents at Risk, and they began working together to train airline employees on what to spot and who to call. In 2011, this translated into hundreds of flight attendants from different airlines volunteering to help police at the Super Bowl, a hotbed for trafficking prostitutes.

9. SENIORITY MEANS SHORTER SKIRTS.

Our tenure on the job doesn’t just determine which routes we fly and which days we get to take off; it also affects the hierarchy in our crashpad, an apartment shared by as many as 20 flight attendants. Seniority is the difference between top or lower bunk, what floor your bed is on, and just how far away your room is from noisy areas such as doors or stairwells.

Seniority even determines the length of our skirts—we can’t hem them above a certain length until we’re off probation. Afterward, it’s OK to shorten the hem and show a little leg. Some of the friskier pilots take advantage of the long hems; they know that new hires tend to be more flattered by their advances than senior flight attendants. (One senior flight attendant I know intentionally left her skirt long just to keep these guys interested!)

10. YOU’VE NEVER EXPERIENCED EXTREME TURBULENCE.

More than 2 million people fly in the United States each day, and yet since 1980, only three people have died as a direct result of turbulence. Of those fatalities, two passengers weren’t wearing their safety belts. During that same time period, the Federal Aviation Administration recorded just over 300 serious injuries from turbulence, and more than two-thirds of the victims were flight attendants. What do these numbers mean? As long as your seat belt is on, you’re more likely to be injured by falling luggage than by choppy air.

Interestingly, on some airlines, a flight attendant’s injuries in flight can’t be officially classified as an on-duty injury unless it happens during what’s known as “extreme turbulence”—where the captain loses control of the plane or the craft sustains structural damage. In both of those cases, the aircraft must be grounded and inspected. Because no one wants to ground a plane, captains are very hesitant to hand out the “extreme turbulence” label. A friend of mine who works closely with airline management said he’s never seen a pilot label rough air as “extreme turbulence.” So the next time you’re nervous about some mid-flight bumps, just take a deep breath and remind yourself, “This isn’t extreme!”

This article originally appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

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