What it Takes to Light a Roller Coaster with Andy Versluys of KCL Engineering
In 2016, Adventureland, located in Altoona, Iowa, opened The Monster, the first Gerstlauer Infinity Coaster to open in the United States. One of the most notable features of The Monster, outside of its beyond-vertical drop and five inversions, is the elaborate lighting package that accompanies the coaster.
The company behind that lighting package is Iowa’s KCL Engineering. While at the IAAPA Expo several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet with Andy Versluys, an electrical engineer for KCL Engineering, and talk with him about how KCL got their start in the amusement industry, and just exactly goes into lighting a roller coaster. We were also joined by Jon Meeker of Ride Entertainment, who have a partnership with KCL Engineering to sell and market their attraction lighting systems.
The Drop Tower and Ferris Wheel at Adventureland, featuring lighting from KCL Engineering
C101: How did KCL get started in the amusement industry?
Andy Versluys: Our other lighting designer, Mike Lambert, lives in Altoona where Adventureland is. He’d been talking with them and building a relationship with them. We’d lit a drop tower for them, just a couple of lights that change color. Then we did some research and helped light their Ferris Wheel which was an eworks product. So, we had a relationship with them, and when they got the deal with Ride Entertainment to bring Gerstlauer to Adventureland, Mike immediately started calling them up and saying, “hey we can do lighting, let’s talk about lighting!”
One of our philosophies is “no project is out of our scope, we can design anything.” We worked on some groundbreaking geothermal heating system to take excess heat from cold storage systems to recycle that to deliver to homes. So we work on some crazy, out-of-the-box stuff.
C101: So was it more KCL pitching it to Gerstlauer and Adventureland than them putting out a Request for Proposal (RFP) for this project?
AV: We were pitching to Adventureland to start, and we developed a computer model. We got a model of the ride from Gerstlauer, and we set it up in the lighting design software that we use for buildings. We started aiming lights and we came up with a couple of tiers. One was just the ground lights illuminating the structure, and then just for fun — we didn’t think anyone would go for it! — we started mounting lights all around the track. We gave some prices on both those options. To our surprise, Adventureland said “Yeah! Let’s do the more expensive option, that looks good!” We ran with it, and then had to figure out how to actually do it.
C101: What kind of lighting do you use for these projects?
AV: We use LED flood lights.
C101: Is it difficult to change the effects and patterns on a roller coaster?
AV: Yeah, a little bit. For The Monster, we used a lighting controller that we had used before to light sculptures and structures. There’s a building in Des Moines that’s lit up in blue typically and we used the same controller on that. We reused that because that was what we knew how to program on.
We found out that to program 137 track mounted lights to do a chase effect, you’ve got to go in and write your program for each of those fixtures and tell them when to turn red and when to turn blue. If you want to change colors or you find out you need to change timings on it, you need to rewrite the entire sequence. It takes over an hour to rebuild that every time.
After doing that four or five times we figured out that we needed to start looking at a more complex control system. Something that maybe we could program. Luckily, we have some programming background in our office, so that’s what we’re doing for our next project with Knott’s Berry Farm (Hangtime). We have a more complicated system that we can program on.
C101: So, what did you learn from The Monster that you can apply to Hangtime and future projects, other than the new control system?
AV: One of the reasons that we want the advanced system is that we want to be able to do multiple effects at the same time. We want to be able to stack our chase effects on top of any other color or effects. So if it’s Halloween we can do a color, if it’s Christmas we can do different colors but still keep that chase going with it without rewriting it all. Just having more varied shows incorporated from the start instead of just one or two. We want to have every new system have at least 5 or 6 pre-programmed effects. It adds variety and brings people back to the park.
Jon Meeker: That also gives you flexibility to have that additional system, where not every park is looking for the most advanced, most out of this world lighting package, you’ve got somebody like Knott’s and Cedar Fair who are looking for an incredible show product, but then you’ve got some smaller regional parks like Adventureland or Casino Pier that are just looking for a way to light up the attraction and make it look great and kind of creating a unique ride experience for the parks.
C101: Is there anything special about the Infinity Coaster that makes it more conducive to lighting?
AV: Oh yeah, of course. The Infinity coaster has the 3 bar design that allows us to mount a light in the middle. The middle is open so light can travel, so we can have lights every 15 feet. We can have one small floodlight shine through 15 feet of track and illuminate the whole thing. If we were trying to do a B&M we’d have to figure out a completely different mounting strategy because they have the square bottom bar. They have that steel beam, so you couldn’t mount a fixture inside to illuminate it.
Our other lighting designer Tom has expressed that he wants to do a wooden coaster because there’s a lot of structure and you can do a lot of cool stuff with ground lighting. So, like all the chase effects we do with the track lighting you could also do with ground mounted lights, where you just have a flood of ground lights.
JM: It gives you more canvas to play with.
C101: Can you give us any hints about what the lighting package on Hangtime will look like?
(Author’s Note: There was some great back and forth here between Jon and Andy about what was allowed to be revealed for Hangtime. Based on their conversation, it’s going to be amazing, but they weren’t ready to tell me everything quite yet.)
JM: You can talk about the one effect that comes down and splashes back…
AV: Oh the wave? Okay. We’re going make some waves. We’re going to have the chase, but then we’re also going to make some waves. (Laughter)
C101: What makes an amusement project special compared to a “regular” lighting project?
AV: Well, with my regular projects I can’t post online and get a bunch of positive feedback. It’s just a 2×4 light fixture. It’s not sexy, it’s not something I can put on my Facebook. I mean, I can, but I get a lot more clicks if it’s a roller coaster.
C101: Anything else you’d like us to know about KCL Engineering?
JM: For KCL this is a lot more than just engineering, this is a personal passion for them. That’s why Ride Entertainment identified KCL, based off their first attractions, as the partner they want to work with.
AV: Oh yeah, we love roller coasters. We spent lots of late nights at Adventureland when Monster was being setup. Even when the lights weren’t fully installed we were out there programming on half the roller coaster because the rest weren’t hooked up, and then we had come back the next week when the rest were hooked up. So yeah, it’s definitely a passion.
AV: We love it, and it was perfect to start on The Monster because that’s our hometown coaster. We were able to go out there after hours any time. With Knott’s we’ll have to remember to actually schedule time to be out there the first couple weeks or so, because it is going to be a lot of time and labor to get that timing and the effects right and the colors right.
All Photos/Videos in this article are via Ride Entertainment and KCL Engineering.