Have you ever wondered how a roller coaster can operate multiple trains without having a collision? Coaster101 had the opportunity to interview Jonathon England, an amusement industry professional with experience in controls and more. Enjoy!
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am an associate controls engineer. Have worked in the theme park industry for 8 years and done everything from ride the coasters to construct them. I was trained in electrical and electronic repair, as well as working on many mechanical systems. I gained one of the highest levels of technical repair through Universal Studios and eventually worked on developing the skills of other technicians.
How did you get involved in the industry?
Needed a job. I was working as a lifeguard for Disney hoping to get into the maintenance department with them. My wife worked at Universal Studios and heard of a job there and I went over and applied. I had a great manager who saw my potential and placed me in an area where they needed electronic work done. I was able to work my way to the operational shift where I loved the stress and skill level required to perform the work. It was here I began the process of learning the coasters and the way they operated from the inside. This was when I first discovered what a controls technician actually did.
What companies have you worked for?
With coasters it started with Universal Studios Orlando, Sentosa Singapore and including control systems I can add City of Dreams Macau.
What projects have you worked on?
I worked developing systems all through my career with Universal. We rewired several smaller rides and installed new controls as updated technology as new devices became available. My first large project was as an associate Engineer on a new coaster being installed. I was able to be involved when every room was bare, and to see every piece of electrical wire get installed and to check and inspect every control device on the coaster. The second project was to go to Singapore and assist with the construction of the entire park. That was exceptional to work with Contractors from around the world and help them get their systems operational.
That sounds incredible! What were some of the challenges of working in Singapore?
My first challenge was the culture change. Title and honor are very important to them. They could be a supervisor or a Senior Supervisor. If their title had the Senior in front of it, then it meant something to them and you needed to be aware of that. Second was they didn’t have the mind set yet on doing certain tasks. This was a brand new facility and for the most part it was a new type of work for many of them. So you had to keep a watchful eye on things to prevent mishap. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t smart, because they were. They caught on quickly and were very good at learning new techniques and how to achieve the goals assigned to them.
But theme parks are very safety oriented. We look at each nut and bolt on every car every night. We inspect the tracks every day and we walk the ride track to ensure every effect is in its place. This is very different to them and they had to receive training on how to do it effectively.
Sounds like quite the challenger. Do you have any good stories?
I could do an article all by itself on the stories. We had a vehicle that was basically two cars put together with a movable joint. I had asked a few of the technicians to check it out and see how we could best fix an issue we had. I showed them the manuals and gave some simple inspection techniques. Next day I come in and the whole thing has been separated and the joint pulled apart. At first I was upset because this would take the whole car out of commission for a few days. But I calmly addressed the situation and asked them what was up? They said they didn’t understand the way it worked and had decided the best way to learn was to take it apart and look at it closely so they could understand it. This was the way they learned and I couldn’t fault the enthusiasm they showed. Once it was back together it also didn’t have the problem any more.
As a associate control engineer, could you perhaps offer a little more technical details about what it is you actually do?
I explain it like this to my friends. You see a coaster going around a track. But why doesnt one car hit another? Or, why did one stop over there and another didn’t? All around the track there are sensors telling you where the vehicles are. The sensors all go to a central computer which looks at the spacing and will prevent movement or allow it. To do this it could close a brake to stop a vehicle or start a set of motors to speed you along your way. On some rides there could be shooting water, opening doors or even flames that blow up. All these are controlled by the computer and the input from the sensors. The controls Engineer is responsible for setting these up and ensuring everything works together safely. As his associate we work many hours with him placing the sensors in just the right spot he wants, so something like the brakes work at their optimum capacity. I was blessed to work throughout each park and work on every ride they have. Some are real challenges and some very simple. When you visit a park you hopefully don’t even notice some of the work we do. The same controls that are in the large coasters are sometimes in the water jets the kids play in. A sensor that can see a kid and spray water for them to chase is the same as a sensor seeing a coaster and applying a brake. Ensuring both work is the job we do on a daily basis.
What would a typical task or day be?
Every day there are a group of individuals who go and inspect every part of the coaster. Sensors, buttons and lights are inspected to ensure they are still working. Voltages checked to ensure no issues are in the wiring and every break and motor gets looked at. Same for the mechanics. They all look at the vehicles and give them a very good inspection every night. Any issue is addressed or the vehicle is pulled from service until it is fixed. During the day when the ride is running we monitor the ride and keep the animation up and running. If an issue comes up we respond to it and get it fixed as soon as possible.
Although not a set policy I always had our team make a walk around the park and watch the shows or ride the rides. I wanted them looking at things from a guests perspective. If a piece of animation was down or a light was not lighting an effect then they needed to find it and fix it. Last thing I wanted to get was a call from the operations team saying something was wrong. We took great pride in keeping show quality high and down times to a minumum so we always liked to find a problem first and get it fixed without anyone knowing it was there.
What was the most challenging project you’ve worked on and why?
It was my first year in the theme park environment. We had some old technology running a hatching dinosaur and we couldn’t get the parts anymore. So a new board had to be installed, programmed and run against the existing program in another computer. Well, I knew nothing about robotics at the time so I had to learn everything I could to integrate it together. The most challenging part of the process was getting the sounds to match with the movements of the hatching. Because the two computers were running at different speeds you had to really play with the timing to get everything to match. Once completed and the kids started watching the hatchings and you saw their amazed looks it was all worth the effort.
Do you have any advice for young individuals looking to get into the industry?
Decide what you want to do and learn all you can about it. In coasters, there are three main systems: mechanical, electrical and programming. Each discipline has its own problems and to be good at it you must take time to learn it thoroughly. Once you do then you can supplement your knowledge by learning the other two. Its hard to just become a repair tech since many large companies want you to be skilled in your field and have several years of experience. Look into apprentice ship programs if you want to enter quickly.
Since this is for Coaster101, do you have a favorite roller coaster (or other attraction)?
For riding it is more of a type than a certain one. I like a coaster that takes off fast and has loops to twist and invert you. I especially like themed coasters and dark coasters. So one of the top is the Rockin’ Roller Coaster at Disney World. It has induction drive to boost you out of the loading area. Inverts you several times and is dark, but has city theming. Music right in your ears that gets you going from the start up.
Rockin’ Roller Coaster is a fun ride. Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
My greatest certificate, over and above any degree or training I ever took. This award was given by the operations teams to the technical department. All the top managers got input from their rides, all rides and all shows in the park. Then they decided who was best to receive the award for outstanding work done to assist the guest, operations teams and the park. To have been acknowledge was a great gift. To be actually chosen was a great recognition by all of the operations department and it was sent through the Technical department heads so they could see it. But for me it was the teams on each ride who I loved working with.
I’d like to thank Jonathon for taking the time to answer our questions and teaching us more about controls and what goes on behind-the-scenes at major theme park attractions!