14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists

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iStock

Hollywood food stylists are little short of magicians—only instead of pulling rabbits out of hats, they’re turning piles of mashed potatoes into ice cream sundaes. Indeed, making food (or food-like products) appear photogenic and appetizing onscreen is a job for a true illusionist. Mental Floss spoke to a few food stylists working in TV, film, and commercials—from Game of Thrones to Taco Bell—to bring you the tricks of their magical trade.

1. MOST OF THE FOOD BEING FILMED IS REAL.

While food stylists are well-versed in the old-school swap tricks—using a pint of white glue to impersonate a glass of milk, for example—those are being phased out. Now, directors want actors to interact with their food, and high-definition camera lenses have made the fake stuff much more obvious. Plastic food props only appear in the background of scenes today, where they're less visible and susceptible to scrutiny.

“I only deal with real food,” says Chris Oliver, who has styled food for movies including Gone Girl (2014) and TV shows such as Seinfeld and Big Little Lies. “You also have to think about how a character would cook something or put a plate together. Realistic food is not all beautiful and perfect. I make ugly food and burnt food, too.”

There’s a trend in commercial food styling to present dishes that are less-than-perfect, too. Shellie Anderson, who styles food ads for clients including Burger King and Ragù, says it’s the consumers who are demanding food look more realistic and therefore more approachable.

“People are tired of seeing something in a TV commercial and then ordering it in a restaurant and it doesn't look the same,” she says. “You don’t want it to look staged anymore. You want a burger to look like the cheese naturally dripped off and landed on the plate.”

2. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF FOOD ...

Bowl of strawberry ice cream
iStock

If a food stylist needs one sprig of parsley for a shoot, they’ll often order 10 bunches. They never know what the condition of the parsley is going to be when it arrives from the produce vendor, or if the shoot is going to require more than they originally planned for. Carving a turkey in a scene? That may require two dozen birds if an actor keeps flubbing his line.

“It really depends on how much of a story point the food is and how important the scene is for the director,” Oliver says.

Food stylists usually have relationships with produce vendors, who can look for products with the specific size, shape, and color that stylists need. No bruises or dents, and no frozen lettuce! But stylists can hide those things if they have to.

Ice cream is infamously hard to keep intact because it melts so quickly. Food stylists have been known to replace the scoops with dollops of meringue, which don’t melt, or butter rolled in sugar. Oliver makes her sundaes the day before and sticks them in the freezer, spoons and straws and all. If they freeze rock hard overnight, they can last a few hours on set the next day before being replaced with another sundae lined up in the deep-freeze. Anderson sprays her ice cream with cold spray, an aerosol can of super-chilled gas used for cooling electronics.

3. ... BUT THE FOOD RARELY GOES TO WASTE.

On film and TV shoots, there are rarely leftovers. In fact, good food stylists often compete with the caterers: Actors usually have to eat the food during their scenes, and the crew finishes off the scraps. While shooting a Chinese New Year scene for the show Fresh Off the Boat recently, actress Lucille Soong told Oliver, who was styling that episode, that she was going to skip lunch because she wanted to enjoy eating her food on camera. “That was pretty freaking flattering!” Oliver says.

Because Oliver works on multiple TV shows in a single day, if an item doesn’t get used on set and never comes out of her cooler, she can just take it back to her shop and recycle it for use on another show. If something can’t be used again, she’ll take it home and make salsa or jam. “When it gets really old, I'll just stick it in vodka,” she says.

Commercial shoots tend to have more unused food. Anderson says anything that’s still edible will be given to a food pantry. “I once donated an entire swordfish when we did a commercial for a fish restaurant,” she says. “We never even used it. So I kept it on ice and took it to a men's homeless shelter. They were thrilled to have it.”

4. THEY VALUE FOOD SAFETY.

Another reason food stylists swap out on-camera food so much is because of safety concerns—hot and cold foods need to be kept at certain temperatures that may not be practical on-set. Sushi-grade tuna may be replaced with watermelon, for example, because the fish spoils so easily.

Oliver requires all of her employees to have a food handler’s license. She also only works out of commercial kitchens (including the one on her fully-equipped food styling truck). But not every food styling team does; some prepare food in their homes. “The reason that I get so much work is that everybody knows I'm a chef and I have a real kitchen,” Oliver says. “People trust my food. I’ve done a bunch of movies with Reese [Witherspoon] because she knows that if I’m on set, the food is safe to eat.”

5. WOMEN DOMINATE THE FIELD.

woman styling food
iStock

While there are a few well-known male food stylists, for the most part the key food stylists in the U.S. are women. (Both of Anderson’s daughters are food stylists, too.) The reason for this dates back decades.

Before food styling became its own career in the 1990s, it was up to network employees with home economics degrees (almost always women) to cook on-camera food. Then props departments became responsible. “But props guys can’t even make spaghetti,” Oliver says, laughing. So according to her, these guys would go home and ask their girlfriends or wives to make whatever food was required for the next day’s scene. “Eventually they would just hire their girlfriends or wives to do it; keep the money in the family,” she says. “I know five food stylists who at one time were in relationships with prop masters.”

Also in the 1990s, networks began making more multi-camera TV shows. A lot more food began appearing on screen, and actors openly discussed their dietary restrictions. They were vegan, sugar-free, and low-carb all of a sudden. Oliver trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had worked in restaurants and catering jobs before stumbling into this career. “Because I was a chef, and I understood how food works, I knew how to feed people and make food last on set,” she says. “And I could charge anything I wanted to.”

To get a job as a food stylist today, it helps to know someone already in the industry and have a culinary background. Everyone starts as an intern, and then may be able to work their way up to being an assistant and then a stylist. “Not everybody can be a food stylist,” Anderson says. “You have to be able to cook, but you still have to be creative. And you have to be able to work fast and under pressure.”

6. THEY LIVE OUTSIDE OF LOS ANGELES NOW.

Now that movies and TV shows are frequently filmed all over the world, instead of just on sets in Los Angeles, food stylists can be based anywhere. There is a concentration of stylists who live in Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, because that's where many shows are now filmed. Labor laws also often require production crews to hire locally, so residing outside of L.A. can be a real advantage.

Some commercial food stylists, like Anderson, are flown in for shoots. “Food stylists can make or break a commercial,” she says. “And if you have trouble and you don't know what you're doing, it can be a real problem for production.” This is especially true on out-of-the-country shoots, when stylists don't have the resources that they’re used to. So clients who know her and her skill level, such as Taco Bell, will fly her to wherever they're filming.

7. THEY TALK LIKE CHEFS AND FILMMAKERS.

hand styling pancakes
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Food stylists use a mix of back-of-the-house kitchen lingo and film jargon. Some examples: The “hero” is the food that is written into the script, is being shot, and must appear in front of the actor. “Bite and smile” is when an actor takes a bite of food and pretends to like it. “All day” is the total number of items needed; if they needed five turkeys on a set, they would say “five all day.”

8. NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO BE IN THE MOVIES.

Food stylists usually specialize in different media: film, TV, commercials, or print editorial. Stylists often prefer one over the other. Print editorial is shot in a controlled studio and tends to have more leeway for creativity. Commercials are tied to a brand’s specifications. Film and TV shoots on location are in unpredictable settings and can be physically demanding. But everyone tends to work long, 12- to 14-hour days. For commercials, it can often take three days to shoot one 30-second spot.

When working on a movie or TV show, the actors’ demands usually take precedence over the food needs. After working on one film, Anderson had had enough and dedicated herself to commercial work. “When I do commercials, the food is the star,” she says. “So [the directors] want to make sure I have everything I need. On a movie, they could care less about you.”

9. FOOD STYLISTS DON’T JUST MAKE FOOD.

Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal
NBC

Sometimes food stylists are expected to create sci-fi props—what would a person eat in the year 3000?—or fantasy items that they have no experience with. While working on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Oliver made gooey, edible slime from her imagination. “I also had to roll with the [actors’] different dietary needs,” she says. “I had to be able to make vegan slime, sugar-free slime, gluten-free slime, gelatin-free slime … Slime, any way you want it.”

Oliver also has to make items that you don’t really want to put in your mouth. While filming the TV show Big Little Lies, she made green-colored vomit for actress Reese Witherspoon of cucumbers and parsley. She says it was tasty, like green gazpacho. For a war film, she had to make 400 pounds of “dirt” for a group of prisoners of war to eat. She got Pakistani soil shipped to California so she could match it exactly. (Her recipe: ground-up Oreos and graham crackers, mixed with brown sugar and white sugar.)

Janice Poon, the food stylist behind the cannibal-centric TV show Hannibal, had a more challenging obstacle: how to make dishes that resembled human flesh. She refused to do research on cannibalism websites, she told HopesAndFears.com, but she studied a lot of anatomy books. “I’m just like Dr. Frankenstein,” Poon said. “I’m always stitching things, exchanging, putting one kind of meat on a different bone, patching stuff together. ... The key is to let the viewer’s imagination do more of your work.” She transformed veal shanks into human legs, and used prosciutto slices to mimic slivers of a human arm.

10. THEY PACK SOME SERIOUS GEAR.

When shooting, stylists need to be prepared for anything. They carry tools including tweezers, scissors, paint brushes, knives, offset spatulas, wet wipes, syringes, rulers, Q-tips, and spritz bottles.

“Think about your kitchen: all of your mixing bowls and utensils … I have that times 10 in my kit,” Anderson says. She also has a torch on hand for quick-cooking burgers and cold spray for extending the life of ice cream. Other stylists may have glycerin for adding shine or Kitchen Bouquet sauce for adding color. Poon often uses a white ceramic knife so she can see what she's doing on dark sets and work more quietly, so as not to disturb the acting process.

Food stylists sometimes work in erratic environments. Oliver brings her own 17-foot, cab-over truck to shoots. “It has a lift gate and everything's on wheels, so I can take everything out and have a kitchen in the middle of the desert, if I want,” she says. Inside, she has a full commercial kitchen: a six-burner stove, refrigerator, microwave, grill, freezer, prep tables, storage, TV, and a generator.

11. THEY’RE SKILLED AT IMPROV.

When production starts, the prop team sends memos to actors or their reps asking about food allergies and dietary restrictions. As trained chefs, most food stylists are happy to accommodate such limitations, cooking convincing swap-outs. “I find out what they will eat and make it happen,” Oliver says.

For example, Poon once made a convincing vegan “raw meat” on Hannibal using only grains. “I made lamb tongues out of bulgur and water,” Poon told HopesAndFears.com. “It’s like making a Lebanese kibbeh. You mix cracked wheat with water and it makes a kind of mush that holds together. The texture is a little 'nubbly,' so I added a pink food coloring, made little tongues out of kibbeh dough, steamed them up, and they were my little lambs’ tongues.”

Sometimes a director changes his or her mind at the last minute, and what was supposed to be a spaghetti dinner, for example, is now a breakfast spread. So the food stylist will squish down the meatballs and turn them into sausage patties. In an interview with NPR, food stylist Melissa McSorley recalled a time when a movie director suddenly decided to cut open a birthday cake she had made. The problem: It wasn’t real.

“So we had to cut the cake that was made out of Styrofoam, and I had to use a saw in order to do it because none of my knives could get through it,” McSorley said. “And then we had to layer in cake so it did look like it was real and then we had to send people scurrying to many markets to find white layer cake so it looked like people in the background could be actually be eating the cake.”

12. THERE’S ALWAYS THE SPIT BUCKET OPTION.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, David Bradley in Game of Thrones
HBO

Professional actors will often pick at the food in front of them, but not eat it because they know their scenes are going to require a lot of takes; they could be eating birthday cake for eight hours straight. Others dive right in. For a scene in The Guilt Trip (2012), actress Barbra Streisand had to pretend she was in a steak-eating contest. Oliver says they went through more than 300 pounds of meat for that scene’s three-day shoot and Streisand was totally game.

“But there’s a part towards the end where she has to eat really quickly and do a line without, you know, choking and dying,” Oliver says. “So I switched out the steak with seared watermelon. She took one bite and it sort of dissolved in her mouth, so she could do her line. If you watch it, and you really listen, you can hear the crunch of the watermelon.”

Sometimes, though, the spit bucket is the only option. In season one of Game of Thrones, the character Daenerys Targaryen had to eat a whole horse heart. But the actress who plays her, Emilia Clarke, actually had to eat 28. They were made of solidified jam, which tasted like “bleach and raw pasta,” she told The Mirror. “It was very helpful to be given something so truly disgusting to eat, so there wasn’t much acting required. Fortunately, they gave me a spit bucket because I was vomiting in it quite often.”

13. SOMETIMES THEY’RE SURPRISED BY THE FINAL PRODUCT.

Food stylists who work on multiple projects at a time, like Oliver, can’t always stick around to see how their food will be used. They may later find out that a gorgeous spread was relegated to the background, or worse. For a scene in Seinfeld, Oliver was once asked to prepare a perfect, glistening turkey. “Later I was home watching the episode and they had put the turkey on Kramer!” she says. “I was literally crying I was laughing so hard. Never in a million years did I think my turkey was going to end up with a guy’s head.”

14. THEY THROW EPIC DINNER PARTIES.

Food stylist preparing vegetables
iStock

You’d think that being around food all day would make food stylists tired of making things look nice. But most food stylists love to cook, and on the days they aren’t working, they love to throw parties. “People always expect to have beautiful food,” Anderson says. “And I don't disappoint.”

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.

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