12 Secrets of Roller Coaster Designers

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iStock

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.”

9 Secrets of Uber Drivers

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iStock/South_agency

Where would we be without Uber drivers? Probably still stuck at the pub or in some taxi line, wishing we were home in our pajamas instead. But while many of us take Uber rides all the time, we often don't know much about the experience of driving for the company. Mental Floss looked into what it takes to become an Uber driver, why they dread four-star reviews, and and why they just might profit if you vomit.

1. It’s pretty easy to become an Uber driver ...

There are only a few basic requirements to become an Uber driver. Applicants must have an eligible four-door vehicle, a valid U.S. driver’s license, and at least a year of licensed driving experience in the U.S., or three years if the driver is under 23 years old. Of course, they must also be of legal driving age. Applicants’ driving records and criminal history are checked via an online screening process. (Some critics of Uber have called for stricter security screening, arguing that drivers should be fingerprinted to better identify bad actors. In response, Uber has said that fingerprinting would pose “an unnecessary burden and cost.”) The process is usually relatively fast. Nichole Visnesky, a student who used to drive for Uber part-time in Greenville, North Carolina, said her application was approved within 24 hours, and she was driving shortly thereafter. “The car that I was driving wasn’t even in my name at the time, but it was still OK,” she tells Mental Floss.

2. ... But driving for Uber isn’t for everyone.

While it’s easy to get up and running as a driver, the job isn’t suited to everyone’s personality and skill set. For one, it requires good customer service skills, according to Catherine, a former Uber driver in Pittsburgh. Like any job in retail or food service, that sometimes means biting your tongue when dealing with difficult customers. “A friend tried to [drive for Uber] but got into an argument. Obviously it’s not for her,” Catherine tells Mental Floss. And because driving requires some physical rigidity and mental focus, it can be draining, too. “You get very tired because you’re constantly driving, sitting in the car, and you do have to pay attention,” Catherine says. “I would not have been able to do it full-time.”

3. Uber Drivers disagree about whether or not the pay is worth it.

If you peruse the “r/uberdrivers” forum on Reddit, you’re bound to see some differing opinions on the pay scale, which varies depending on “when, where, and how often you drive,” according to Uber. “Driving for Uber is a waste of time. Only do it if you’re homeless/jobless,” one Reddit user wrote last year. Shortly before the company's May 2019 IPO, many Uber drivers even went on strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions. (According to a 2018 study by the Economic Policy Institute, Uber driver compensation averages about $11.77 per hour, after deducting for Uber's fees and driver expenses.)

Yet both Visnesky and Catherine say they have had positive experiences. Catherine said she drove in the evenings and on weekends and earned anywhere between $200 and $800 per week, depending on how many hours she put in. She said the pay was enough to help her get through a tough time financially. “I love driving, so it was a perfect way to make money on my own terms and make more money than I would make in a store,” Catherine said. Visnesky said she mostly drove on Fridays and Saturdays and earned between $80 and $470 per weekend.

4. A four-star review can get an Uber Driver fired.

The Uber app
Melies The Bunny, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Maybe your Uber driver missed a couple of turns, so you decide to rate them four stars (out of a possible five) at the end of your trip. You may think this is still a pretty good review, but your driver probably feels differently. “Uber doesn’t educate its passengers as to what the rating system means, and how they should be applying it,” an Uber driver named Bob, who wished to be identified only by his first name, told PBS. “And I understand it’s perfectly reasonable in a five-star rating system to reserve your fifth star for the best situations, you know? Michelin stars for example. A four-star review in any normal situation would seem great! And, unfortunately, a four-star review on Uber’s system is a vote to have the driver fired.” That’s because drivers’ accounts can be deactivated if their ratings dip below a certain threshold; this varies by location, but is roughly around 4.6 stars. According to Uber, “There is a minimum average rating in each city. This is because there are cultural differences in the way people in different cities rate each other.”

5. Some Uber drivers put party lights in their car to make passengers happy (and get better ratings and tips).

Many of Visnesky’s passengers were drunk college students, so she decided to make their ride a little more memorable. “I eventually got lights to go under my floorboards, and they would get in my car and be like, ‘Whoa it’s the party Uber!’ They would be so stoked for it,” she says. Not only did it serve as a good icebreaker for conversation, but it also helped her ratings. Kahseem Panchoo, who at one point drove for Uber in New York City, also tricked out his 2013 Chevy Suburban by installing a light strip and disco ball. "Since people love to party, it matches their mood," Panchoo told the New York Daily News in 2016. "If they're going to a party or if they're coming from a party, they get excited." (It paid off, too. On one particular night, he received a $100 tip.) Bottles of water, snacks, and phone chargers are also surefire ways to impress passengers. Visnesky said she invested in two kinds of chargers for her car—one for Android and one for iPhone users.

6. Uber drivers might turn a profit if you barf in their car.

Three girls get out of a car
iStock.com/Rawpixel

A typical Friday night for Visnesky usually involved shepherding drunk students around town, so she always kept plastic bags, disinfectant wipes, and other cleaning supplies on hand. During the year and a half that she drove for Uber, two people threw up in her car on two different occasions. One person was too drunk to know what had happened, and the other laughed and said, “I feel so much better now.” Though she let the first person slide, she filed a claim for damages in the latter case. She took a picture of the mess and sent it to Uber, and the customer was charged accordingly. “I was given like $80 for damages but I probably didn’t spend more than a few dollars to clean it,” Visnesky said, explaining that she just went to a car wash and wiped down her seats. “I only charged them because they were such jerks about it and laughed afterwards.”

7. Returning lost items can be a major inconvenience for Uber drivers.

According to Uber, the average driver returns 11 lost items per year. Phones, cameras, and wallets are the most commonly forgotten items, but there have also been reports of a mannequin, deer antlers, and fish tank (with fish and water inside) turning up in the backseat of a car, according to Uber’s Lost & Found Index for 2019. Naturally, the larger the object, the more difficult it is to return—and prior to 2017, Uber drivers weren’t compensated for returning objects. “It can be inconvenient,” Catherine says. She has gone out of her way to return both a phone and a wallet to separate passengers. However, Uber eventually started charging riders $15 for each lost item that was returned, and riders were also given the option of tipping their driver. Still, drivers have to fill out a form in the app when they return an item, then wait three to five days to receive the $15.

8. If they’ve gone out of their way to be friendly or helpful, Uber drivers think you should tip them.

The option to tip drivers wasn’t built into the Uber app until 2017; by then, the precedent may have already been set. Both Visnesky and Catherine said younger, college-aged passengers typically never tip. While neither of the women said tipping should be viewed as mandatory, they both agreed that tips are welcomed in exchange for good customer service. “I do think if I’ve gone out of my way or you’ve kind of made it a hassle, maybe you should consider that when you’re paying me,” Visnesky said.

9. Some Uber drivers want passengers to be more courteous when discussing new movies and TV shows.

Two women talk in a car
iStock.com/RyanJLane

Let’s suppose that you and a friend just watched Avengers: Endgame and you’re dying to discuss it during the Uber ride home. Just be mindful that your driver might also be dying to see it, and probably doesn’t want to have the ending spoiled for them. “I would be really upset if someone ruined Game of Thrones for me,” Visnesky said. When in doubt, ask your driver if it’s okay to talk about a certain show or movie. You might even get a five-star passenger rating for taking this extra step.

13 Secrets of Substitute Teachers

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iStock.com/shironosov

Whether they’re recent college graduates or retirees, substitute teachers are a diverse bunch with a range of academic specialties and skills. No matter their background, they often arrive at work unsure of exactly who and what they’ll be teaching—but they usually have some tricks up their sleeves to get oriented quickly. Mental Floss spoke to a few subs to get the inside scoop on everything from why they love pregnant teachers to how they spot troublemaker pupils.

1. Morning people get more substitute teaching jobs than night owls.

Substitute teachers must be willing to have a (very) flexible schedule, and it helps if they’re morning people. As early as 5:00 a.m., subs get a phone call—automated or from someone who works in the school’s office—offering them a job for that day. If they accept, they have an hour or two to get out of bed, get ready, and report to work. Some schools now use an email notification system, but early morning phone calls are more effective given the time-sensitive, often unexpected nature of substitute teaching.

2. First impressions are important when it comes to substitute teaching.

A young female teacher in front of a white board talking to a group of students
iStock.com/SolStock

According to Kevin, a substitute teacher who works at schools in Southern California, dealing with new groups of students can be challenging. “It’s very hard to establish authority in the classroom. As a newcomer, you’re the foreigner,” he explains.

To immediately establish their authority, some substitute teachers practice speaking with a powerful voice, exhibit confident body language, and shut down any disruptions swiftly and decisively. But no matter how confident a sub is, some students will take advantage of the teacher’s unfamiliarity with the class. “It’s hard to write up a student who you can’t name. In a high school setting, you usually get 30 to 38 students a period for five or six periods. That’s a lot of students who may or may not want to test their bounds that day,” Kevin says.

3. Subs are an eclectic bunch.

Substitute teachers range in age from recent college grads working toward their teaching certification to elderly retired people. But what unites them is a love of teaching. Beverly, a substitute teacher who has taught for over 56 years, says that subbing keeps her sharp and active. “I do it for mental stimulation and because it’s a terrific service. You have to stay stimulated and involved with people,” she says. “I find youngsters to be so forthright and honest. The kids light up my life.”

Besides being a variety of ages, substitute teachers also come from a variety of professions. “You can’t believe how many teachers used to be lawyers but couldn’t stand it,” Beverly says. Everyone from former nurses and flight attendants to chemical engineers have earned their teaching certificates and become subs, bringing their real-world experience into the classroom.

4. There's a reason a substitute teacher's face might look familiar.

In schools in Los Angeles and New York, many struggling actors work as substitute teachers because they can balance teaching gigs with auditions and short-term film shoots. Like actors, subs must be able to speak in front of groups of people, improvise when they don’t have good instructions, and be quick on their feet when something goes wrong.

5. Substitute teachers aren't a fan of school holidays.

Because substitute teachers don’t have a set salary and work one day at a time, many of them face financial uncertainty, especially when holidays roll around. “Holidays can be devastating financially,” Kevin explains. When a school has the whole week of Thanksgiving off, subs don’t see that as a chance to relax. “In reality, a quarter of your paycheck for that month is gone,” Kevin says. “When you have student loans, insurance, etc. to pay, that extra little bit taken off your paycheck may mean you’re just scraping by.”

6. Substitute teachers have tricks to learn names quickly.

A primary school teacher helping a young boy in the classroom
iStock.com/JohnnyGreig

Facing a classroom of unfamiliar faces can be daunting, but subs have a few tricks up their sleeves to memorize student names in a flash. While some subs make seating charts as they take attendance, others use mnemonic devices to remember troublemakers’ monikers. Beverly admits that she doesn’t use anything fancy, but because she substitute-teaches math and science classes at the same school, she sees the same kids year after year. “I see the same youngsters out of junior high and into high school, but I do have a seating chart as well. They’re always amazed when I know their names,” she explains.

7. They love pregnant teachers.

Subs seeking job stability hit the jackpot when full-time teachers get pregnant. “At the school I currently work at, there’s a woman who is subbing for the whole semester for a second grade teacher who is out on maternity leave,” says Kyle, a science teacher who worked as a sub before getting a full-time teaching gig. Besides pregnancies, long-term health challenges and injuries can present an opportunity for subs to get a steady gig. Beverly says she once took over for an entire semester because of another teacher’s broken hip.

8. Some substitute teachers are quite familiar with busywork.

Novelist Nicholson Baker, who wrote about his experience going undercover as a substitute teacher at six schools, describes the astonishingly large amount of busywork that subs must assign students. “I passed [work sheets] out by the thousands,” he noted in The New York Times.

While Baker laments the “fluff knowledge” and vocabulary lists that subs are expected to force students to memorize and regurgitate, some subs do teach lesson plans. Kyle, who has a math and science background, explains that some teachers felt comfortable with him teaching the lesson plan so the students wouldn’t fall behind. “I’d teach it and assign homework accordingly for what we covered in class,” he says. But he admits that for middle school or non-science classes, he would sometimes simply be given a video to show the kids, or a work sheet or quiz to pass out.

9. The reputation of a substitute teacher can precede them.

High school professor asking students to answer question
iStock.com/Steve Debenport

Once a sub has taught at the same school a few times, they can develop a reputation—good or bad—among students. “When I first started subbing, I was 23 or 24, so I wasn’t much older than these kids—especially the seniors—and I think they saw me more as a peer than an authority figure,” Kyle explains. “I thought if I kept a light and fun atmosphere, kids would show their appreciation with respect. But that’s not how kids’ minds work. If you give a little, they’ll want more. So I became stricter and sterner as I went on,” he adds.

10. Substitute teachers can often spot troublemakers fast.

Although it might seem obvious which students are talking out of turn or giving the sub a hard time, substitute teachers have another way to quickly identify any mischievous students. “Usually, if a teacher has a really outrageous student, they’ll leave a note of warning for the sub. Sometimes the teacher will also leave a list of who the helpful students are,” Beverly says.

11. Substitute teachers may deal with inappropriate student behavior.

Kyle says that due to his young age and easygoing nature, some students tried to push the boundaries and act inappropriately with him: “[Students] would talk about or say things in front of me that I know they would never say in front of a teacher. I was once asked to party with some of the kids. Girls would try and flirt with me.” While male students typically tried to talk to him about basketball, female students frequently asked him if he had a girlfriend. “I would lose control of classrooms sometimes. Kids would get very wild, and sometimes would say inappropriate or abusive things to other students without fear of discipline,” he admits.

12. Substitute teachers are honored on a special day in November.

The National Education Association established the annual Substitute Educators Day on the third Friday in November to honor subs around the country. Besides bringing awareness to the work that substitute teachers do, Substitute Educators Day supports subs in trying to get health benefits, professional development, and fair wages.

13. Substitute teachers can make lasting impressions on their students.

Although most subs don’t see the same kids day after day, they can have a meaningful impact upon their students’ lives. “As an outsider, especially a younger teacher, students will often listen to you as someone who recently was in their shoes. Sometimes you talk to them one-on-one and give them a new perspective on why they should care about their schoolwork,” Kevin says.

And some students listen to their sub’s advice on studying and planning for the future. According to Kevin, students have approached him as he walked down the halls to thank him for encouraging them to get better grades.

“These experiences are few and far between, but it’s crazy to think that even these small talks with students can actually have a lasting impression,” he says.

This story was republished in 2019.

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