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.

10 Secrets of Victoria’s Secret Employees

A Victoria's Secret retail store in an airport mall
A Victoria's Secret retail store in an airport mall
studioportosabbia/iStock via Getty Images

Victoria’s Secret was born out of an awkward shopping experience. Roy Raymond didn’t feel comfortable browsing for underwear for his wife at a department store, and he wanted to create a more upscale lingerie destination that was welcoming to both men and women. The first Victoria’s Secret location opened in Palo Alto, California, in 1977.

In the 40-plus years since, Victoria’s Secret has changed the fashion industry, launched the careers of supermodels, and made shopping for bras slightly less awkward for the people who don’t wear them. Behind the company’s success are the sales associates responsible for keeping panties neatly folded and finding customers bras that fit correctly. Employees may confess they don't really know what Victoria’s secret is, but they can tell you how to get them to let you shop in peace, where to go if they don’t have your size, and more insider information. We spoke with a couple of former employees to discover their most revealing insights.

1. Victoria’s Secret employees are trained to fit all body types.

The clientele of Victoria’s Secret is diverse, and employees are trained to help every person who comes into the store find a bra that fits them. According to Andrea, who worked at Victoria's Secret from 2015 to 2019, bra fitting specialists undergo about six weeks of training to prepare for almost every possible scenario.

“Whether you’re somebody who’s had a mastectomy, or somebody who’s transitioning, or somebody who’s getting a bra for the first time, that’s what we’re there for and that’s why we do our jobs,” she tells Mental Floss. “Let’s say you have somebody who had a mastectomy. You always measure for the breast that is there. That even goes for people who have uneven breasts. So if one breast is a B-cup and the other is a C-cup, we always measure to the C-cup. Also, if you’ve just had your breasts done, like a breast lift or implants, we would measure differently for that too because the bras are going to sit differently on your chest [compared to typical fitting]."

2. Victoria’s Secret employees are allowed to suggest other stores.

There are some scenarios where the only option employees have is to admit they can’t help a customer. Victoria’s Secret only carries sizes 30A to 40DDD, and if someone comes in looking for a bigger size than what’s available, associates are allowed to send them elsewhere. Andrea says she would recommend Torrid or Soma to people in need of larger bras. “We did give other bra places business because we feel like everyone should feel good in their bra, even if it doesn’t come from us," she says.

3. At least in the past, being conventionally attractive helped you get hired at Victoria’s Secret.

The Victoria’s Secret image is synonymous with ultra-thin supermodels strutting down a runway in lingerie and high heels. The company has struggled with sales in recent years, and some industry experts blame that in part on the brand’s limited view of what's considered “sexy." Victoria’s Secret is trying to combat this by experimenting with marketing featuring more diverse body types, but when Rita (not her real name) worked there roughly a decade ago, the old beauty standards were still enforced. The former sales associate tells Mental Floss, “They would hire someone pretty over someone smart or capable. It was definitely part of the ‘fantasy.’”

4. If you're shopping for your partner, Victoria's Secret employees might recommend something other than lingerie.

When people come into Victoria’s Secret looking for a gift for their romantic partner, they rarely have all the information they need. “For boyfriends, they usually never know their girlfriend’s size. Like, ever,” Andrea says.

Even a professional bra fitting specialist can’t guess someone’s exact size based on sight alone. That’s why employees might recommend skipping the intimates altogether and considering alternative gifts if you’re shopping for someone else at Victoria’s Secret. “For dudes shopping for their ladies, unless you know for a fact what their size is, do not buy them lingerie,” Rita says. She suggests gift cards, lotions, and body sprays as safer options. And if you’re absolutely set on getting your significant other something they can wear, Andrea recommends panties and bralettes, which tend to be more forgiving in the size department than underwire garments.

5. The people who work at Victoria’s Secret see more than they want to.

Employees at the chain want their customers to feel comfortable, but in some cases, guests can get too comfortable. Rita recalls a woman who shared a little too much when shopping for intimate wear. “She'd just reconnected with her high school sweetheart—she was probably in her forties/fifties—and she made a point to mention her recent boob job. Then all of a sudden she basically flashes me in the front of the store. ... It was definitely not a normal customer interaction.”

Some stories of unusual customer behavior are not for the squeamish. Andrea recounts one such example: “I had a woman come up to me and say, ‘Do you have a cup?’ And I was like ‘No ma’am, I’m sorry, I don’t have a cup. What do you need it for?’" The woman replied that she really needed to urinate. "And I was like, ‘Ma’am!’”

On a different occasion, a customer of Andrea's found a creative use for one of the pink bows used to decorate the bras. “She takes it and she flossed her teeth with it in front of me. I was like ‘No!’ It’s so gross.”

6. Victoria’s Secret employees get sweet perks.

If they’re willing to deal with the occasional gross encounter, Victoria’s Secret employees can take advantage of benefits many retail workers don’t get. One of them is paid time off. “Even though I was only a part-time associate, because I worked so many hours, they did give me paid time off,” Andrea says. “Most places I’ve worked for, you only get paid time off if you’ve been there for a year or are a full-time associate, so being a part-time associate and being able to have paid time off without being there for a year is really rare and something that we really appreciated as associates.”

The pay is also competitive compared to similar businesses. According to Andrea, “Victoria’s Secret has a yearly raise, and I went from making $11.50 to $22.14 when I left [after four years].”

7. The holidays at Victoria’s Secret are as crazy as you’d expect.

Victoria’s Secret has been known to ring in the holiday season with deals designed to lure customers into stores. For shoppers, this means cheap bras, but for associates, it means congestion, disorganized displays, and the rare scuffle. “Holiday time is crazy,” Andrea says. “I’ve literally seen grandmas punch each other in the face.”

8. There’s a trick to getting Victoria’s Secret employees to leave you alone.

To shy shoppers, or those just craving a bit of peace, there are no worse words in the English language than “What brings you in today?” If the thought of getting this question from a Victoria’s Secret employee fills you with dread, know that it isn’t their goal to harass you. “It’s not that we want to bother you, that’s what we’re supposed to do,” Andrea says. “And most likely we don’t want to come up to you as much as you don’t want us to come up.”

But if you ever do get over-eager sales associates, Andrea has an insider’s tip for getting them off your back. “A good trick if you don’t want help is to remember the name of the person who you’re introduced to. So if the first person is like ‘Hi, my name is Stephanie,’ and then two or three more people come and say ‘Do you need more help?’ just say ‘Stephanie’s helping me, thank you,’ and they will leave you alone.”

9. Victoria’s Secret smells like body spray for a reason.

If you’d rather shop for lingerie without walking through a cloud of perfume, too bad: Spritzing the store with the brand’s latest scent is part of the job for sales associates. Rita says, “If we were working the front rooms, we had to wear ‘beauty belts’ with the latest body spray in them to spray around the room (cue the headache) and carry around the newest bra." And in case the constant spraying wasn’t aggressive enough already, Rita was also instructed to pitch it to customers—along with apparel and the Victoria’s Secret credit card. “We basically had to accost anyone who walked in with ‘Have you seen the new bra? Have you smelled the new perfume? Do you have the angel card? Why not? Don't you want exclusive offers? Blah blah blah blah,’ and it scared a lot of people off.”

10. Victoria’s Secrets ends up with items it can’t sell.

Victoria’s Secret has a generous policy when it comes to returns: Stores offer a full refund for items brought back within 90 days of purchase as long as you have a receipt (without a receipt, the policy may vary). According to Rita, some customers take advantage of this policy by bringing back garments that are clearly not fit to be resold. “People will try to return anything, claiming they just bought it last week and it ‘just didn't work out’ when it's clearly not a bra we even carry anymore and it's super worn and gross.”

Some customers ruin clothing without buying it first. “The worst part was having to damage out [retail slang for swapping out an irreparable item] underwear that girls had tried on without leaving their own underwear on," Rita says. "Happened all the time. It was absolutely disgusting.”

13 Secrets of Halloween Costume Designers

vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images
vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images

For consumers, Halloween may be all about scares, but for businesses, it’s all about profits. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers will spend $8.8 billion this year on spooky goods, including $3.2 billion on costumes. “It’s an opportunity to be something you’re not the other 364 days of the year,” Jonathan Weeks, founder of Costumeish.com, tells Mental Floss. “It feels like anything goes.”

To get a better sense of what goes into those lurid, funny, and occasionally outrageous disguises, we spoke to a number of designers who are constantly trying to react to an evolving seasonal market. Here’s what we learned about what sells, what doesn’t, and why adding a “sexy” adjective to a Halloween costume doesn’t always work.

1. Some Halloween costumes are just too outrageous for retail

For kids, Halloween is a time to look adorable in exchange for candy. For adults, it’s a time to push the envelope. Sometimes that means provocative, revealing costumes; other times, it means going for shock value. “You get looks at a party dressed as an Ebola worker,” Weeks says. “We have pregnant nun costumes, baby cigarette costumes.” The catch: You won’t be finding these at Walmart. “They’re meant for online, not Spencer’s or Party City.”

2. … but there are some lines Halloween costume designers won’t cross.

Although Halloween is the one day of the year people can deploy a dark sense of humor without inviting personal or professional disaster, some costume makers draw their own line when it comes to how far to exceed the boundaries of good taste. “We’ve never done a child pimp costume, but someone else has,” says Robert Berman, co-founder of Rasta Imposta. Weeks says some questionable ideas that have been brought to the discussion table have stayed there. “There’s no toddler KKK costume or baby Nazi costume,” he says. “There is a line.”

3. Designers can produce a Halloween costume in a matter of days.

A lot of costume interest comes from what’s been making headlines in the fall: Costumers have to be ready to meet that demand. “We’re pretty good at being able to react quickly,” says Pilar Quintana, vice-president of merchandising for Yandy.com. “Something happening in April may not be strong enough to stick around for Halloween.”

Because the mail-order site has in-house models and isn’t beholden to approval from big box vendors, Quintana can design and photograph a costume so it’s available within 72 hours. If it's more elaborate, it can take a little longer: Both Yandy and Weeks had costumes inspired by the Cecil the Lion story that broke in July 2015 (in which a trophy hunter from Minnesota killed an African lion) on their sites in a matter of weeks.

4. Beyonce can help move stale inventory.

Extravagant custom tailoring jobs aside, Halloween costumes are a business of instant demand and instant gratification—inventory needs to be plentiful in order to fill the deluge of orders that come in a short frame of time. If a business miscalculates the popularity of a given theme, they might be stuck with overstock until they can find a better idea to hang on it. “[In 2016] we had 400 or 500 Zorro costumes that we couldn’t sell for $10,” Weeks says. “It had a big black hat that came with it, and I thought, ‘That looks familiar.’ It turned out it looked a lot like the one Beyonce wore in her ‘Lemonade’ video.” Remarketed as a "Formation" hat for Beyonce cosplayers, Weeks moved his stock.

5. Women don’t usually wear masks as part of their Halloween costumes.

Curiously, there’s a large gender gap when it comes to the sculpted latex monster masks offered by Halloween vendors: They’re sold almost exclusively to men. “There just aren’t a lot of masks with female characters,” Weeks says. “I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because men in general like gory, scary costumes.” One exception: Hillary Clinton masks, which were all the rage in 2016.

6. Food costumes are always a hit for Halloween.

At Rasta Imposta, Berman says political and pop culture trends can shift their plans, but one theme is a constant: People love to dress up as food. “We’ve had big success with food items. Bananas, pickles. We did an avocado.”

7. Adding ”sexy” to a Halloween costume doesn’t always work.

It’s a recurring joke that some costume makers only need to add a “sexy” adjective to a design concept in order to make it marketable. While there’s some truth to that—Quintana references Yandy’s “sexy poop emoji” costume—it’s no guarantee of success. “We had a concept for ‘sexy cheese’ that was a no-go,” she says. “'Sexy corn’ didn’t really work at all. ‘Sexy anti-fascist’ didn’t make the cut this year.”

8. People ask for some weird stuff when it comes to Halloween costumes.

In addition to monitoring social media for memes and trends, designers can get an idea of what consumers are looking for by shadowing their online searches. Costumeish.com monitors what people are typing into their search bar to see if they’re missing out on a potential hit. “People search for odd things sometimes,” Weeks says. “People want to be a cactus, a palm tree, they’re looking for a priest and a boy costume. People can be weird.”

9. Halloween costume designers have workarounds for big properties.

Go out to a Halloween party over the past few years and you’re almost guaranteed to run into the Queen of the North. But not every costume maker has the official license for Game of Thrones. What are other companies to do? Come up with a design that sparks recognition without sparking a lawsuit. “Our biggest seller right now is Sexy Northern Queen,” Quintana says. “It’s inspired by a TV show.” But she won’t say which one.

10. People love sharks.

From the clunky Ben Cooper plastic costume from 1975’s Jaws to today, people can’t seem to get enough of shark-themed outfits. “We do a lot of sharks,” Berman says. “Maybe it’s because of Shark Week in the summertime, but sharks always tend to trend. People just like the idea of sharks.”

11. Dead celebrities mean sales.

It may be morbid, but it’s a reality: The high-profile passing of celebrities, especially close to Halloween, can trigger a surge in sales. “Before Robin Williams died, I couldn’t sell a Mork costume for a dollar,” Weeks says. “After he died, I couldn’t not sell it for less than $100.”

12. The Halloween costume business profits from people shopping at the last minute.

Ever wonder why food and other novelty costumes tend to outsell traditional garb like pirates and witches? Because costume shopping for adults is usually done frantically and they don’t have time to compare 25 different Redbeards. “People tend to do it at the very last minute, so we want something that pops out at them,” Berman says. “Like, ‘Oh, I want to be a crab.’”

Weeks agrees that procrastination is profitable. “We make a lot of money on shipping,” he says. “Some people get party invites on the 25th and so they’re paying for next-day air.”

13. It’s not actually a seasonal business.

Everyone we spoke to agreed that the most surprising thing about the Halloween business is that it’s not really seasonal on their end. Costumes are designed year-round, and planning can take between 12 and 18 months. “It’s 365 days a year,” Quintana says. “We’ll start thinking about next Halloween in December.”

This piece was first published in 2017 and republished in 2019.

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