This is Marketplace Money from American Public Media. I’m Tess Vigeland.
How do you celebrate the start of summer? Trip to the beach? A new set of shades? How about a day at the amusement park? Hundreds of them opened this month. And aside from fondle cake, the main thing they have in common is the rumble of rollercoasters. On this week’s A Day in the Work Life, we buckle in and chat with the guy who designs them.
My name is Chad Miller. The name of the company is the Gravity Group LLC. And we are wooden rollercoaster designers and engineers. I’ve known that I’ve wanted to do this since I was, like, 9. Well, I didn’t have a wide variety of writing experience, anyway, as a kid. I do now because we do it all at parks and, you know, we ride as many coasters as we can while we’re there. But I, you know, once I see the point in King’s Island, just about every summer, as a kid, I would spend a two-hour drive home, sitting in the backseat, drawing rollercoasters. Coaster enthusiasts have very strong opinions about which is better, steel of wood.
Of course, I like wood coasters better. There’s been kind of a rise in the demand among small parks. They’re seeing other small parks have success with them, you know? And just a small park can afford a wood coaster because they’re, they’re cheaper. For a medium-sized wood coaster with 3,000 feet long, you might be looking at anywhere from $3 million to $4.5 or $5 million, depends on who’s building it, depends on how many trains, or it depends on the topography of the land. If it’s a nice, flat site with really good soil, then it’s a lot cheaper than if it’s a real undulating site, and maybe-not-so good soil.
There are not a lot of people doing what we do. But with those two or three other people that are doing it, it’s very competitive because now we can make a living on one or two jobs a year. But if we don’t get that one job, you know, the others don’t have a job, or, you know, there’s, it’s all or nothing. I don’t make any more than a normal engineer makes with my experience level. And I might even make less, you know? We have a good year, we make more. I would say between $50,000 and $100,000 is the range that it might fluctuate between.
The ride we’re doing in Texas now is called the Boardwalk Bullet. It’s a very small site with actual footprints of a coaster. It’s one acre. But it’s a pretty 200-foot long with new rollercoasters. So, it’s well on tight in there. It crosses over itself 42 times or something, which is insane. We look forward to riding our rides at the end of every project. That’s really the reward because we spend a year, a year and a half maybe on a coaster. It’s a lot of time to think about it and wonder what it’s going to be like, and plus seeing other people ride it and listening to their reactions as they get off of the ride, looking at their faces and, that’s a really rewarding day.
I don’t really like heights. And sometimes, I walk to the top, you know, after the ride’s done or while it’s being constructed. I make myself do it. I don’t really like it. But I don’t mind being in a coaster car up that high. It’s when I’m walking or, you know, I have to count on my own dexterity not to trip over something there, then I’m worried. If I’m stepping to something, I don’t care.
A Day in the Work Life was reported by Katie Yore.
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