Amusement Park Club Wins National Contest with Model Roller Coaster 

CAPED members pose with their model roller coaster
CAPED members pose in front of Ride Engineering Competition sign after a successful showing with their Jammin’ Jungle roller coaster during the national contest.

A club of themed entertainment enthusiasts claimed first place at a national ride engineering contest with a model roller coaster that showed creativity, ingenuity and a weld strong enough to withstand a nail-biting flight across the country.  

Cal Poly Amusement Park Engineers and Designers, or CAPED, wowed Ride Engineering Competition judges with their jungle-themed roller coaster, winning overall and technical writing categories.  

“I don’t think it sunk in when they announced we had won,” said Tim Jain, a mechanical engineering master’s student and project manager for CAPED’s Ride Engineering Competition team. “It took a few days to process the fact that all our hard work had paid off, but I had no doubt our team was capable of this.”  

CAPED was founded in 2006 to help students from a range of disciplines appreciate, learn about and connect with the themed entertainment industry and its focus on the design and installation of interactive and immersive environments, rides and attractions. The club hosts speakers in the field, sends members to conferences and organizes projects including an entry for the Ride Engineering Competition, a nonprofit run by a team of volunteer students and young professionals.  

The contest was conceived during COVID and held in a virtual format until this year, when teams from universities across the country traveled to Carowinds amusement park in Charlotte, North Carolina, for the April 14-15 competition.  

“This competition helped me see behind the scenes of the whole amusement design process, something I’ve always been passionate about,” said Jain, who grew up with a season pass to Disneyland. “And I’m confident that the experience inspired our members for years to come.”  

CAPED members pose in front of the Bonderson Projects Center with their model roller coaster
Cal Poly Amusement Park Engineers and Designers wowed Ride Engineering Competition judges with their jungle-themed roller coaster, winning first-place overall and in technical writing. Victorious members of CAPED gather with their Jammin’ Jungle roller coaster in front of the Bonderson Projects Center where much of the Learn by Doing magic happened.  

‘Thrilling but Safe’ 

The Ride Engineering Competition prompt for 2023 – Track Takeover: Roller Coaster Tech Challenge – asked teams to design, engineer and manufacture a section of a roller coaster of a certain size that could run for six continuous hours without an operator.  

CAPED’s Jammin’ Jungle roller coaster features a ladybug-shaped car with room for four Starburst candy chews, representing riders, that follows a winding steel track from the top of the forest to the bottom as it tries to avoid getting eaten by monkeys swinging from branches.  

“We wanted to give riders a thrilling-but-safe experience,” said Jain, who also competed in last year’s challenge, when CAPED placed third with its drop tower design.  

The project was launched as 30 to 40 members were split into four sub-teams: mechanical; controls; build/theming; and standards. From December through early April, students gathered throughout the week to work on their project assignments, then met as a full team on Sundays to report their progress.  

While engineering majors are the most prevalent in CAPED, the club also attracts students outside the college, from English majors who penned the systems engineering report to architecture majors who helped meet industry amusement park attraction standards.  

The project called for creativity and lots of manufacturing – bending track, cutting to length and welding sections together.  

“There were many chances for people to get into the shop to manufacture prototypes and try different things to see what worked,” Jain said. “It was all Learn by Doing.”  

CAPED member places MIG welding beads on small surfaces of the track cross-section pieces
CAPED manufacturing team member Matthew Eggers precisely places MIG welding beads on small surfaces of the track cross-section pieces. 

‘No Turning Back Final’ 

Second-year mechanical engineering student Jackson Reynolds’ excitement about theme parks is palpable.  

Both his parents worked for NBCUniversal and whenever their family traveled, they would visit amusement parks – close to 25, he estimates.  

Reynolds appreciates the thrill of Universal Studios rides, citing the “Velocicoaster” as his favorite, and the storytelling of Disney parks, where “Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind” ranks as his other top ride. He’ll intern with Disney starting this summer and hopes to work in ride development.  

The second-year mechanical engineering major joined CAPED his first year at Cal Poly after spotting the booth at a club showcase and is the club’s mechanical lead this year.  

The first design of the Jammin’ Jungle Ride looked great on paper, but bending stainless steel tubing to fit a banked curve was a welding nightmare, Jain said. The next iteration using rubber tubing and epoxy was even worse.  

For Reynolds, though, troubleshooting was the highlight.  

“When we get to the point where we’re asking, ‘How did we end up in this situation?’ that’s the greatest part, because you never know what the next steps will be,” he said.  

He joked about his team naming their project file “Final,” declaring, “We think this is done,” before realizing. “Oh, wait, we have to make changes.” They named their next file “The Final,” and the one after that “Final Squared” and finally “No Turning Back Final.” 

Getting to a competition-ready design taught Reynolds a valuable lesson about perfection. 

“Just like Walt Disney said Disneyland would never be completed if imagination is left in the world, we learned that there never will truly be a ‘final,’” said Reynolds, who added with a laugh that they will change the naming convention for project files next year.  

Manufacturing team members test tube bending for the track backbone
Members of the manufacturing team Maxwell Cuellar, Molly Koretz and Reilly Humphreys study the Tube Shark hydraulic bender in the Hangar shop to test tube bending for the track backbone.  

Hard Work Pays Off 

Reynolds’ team aimed to build a steel structure so strong that if the plane transporting their ride crashed, the roller coaster would be the sole survivor.  

They knew they’d met their goal when they could jump on the track, he reported proudly.  

During the final stage, the team built a sturdy crate from plywood and two-by-fours to secure the ride for their cross-country flight, encased the ride in bubble wrap and headed to the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport.  

“I have a bad feeling about this,” said Jain when he spotted four airport officials with a special scale to weigh the ride that came in 60 pounds over the limit for oversized baggage.  

Their only choice was to ditch the crate, secure the bubble wrap and hope for the best.  

“It was a big ordeal,” he said, laughing now about the incident that led to an anxiety-inducing trip.  

They all breathed a sigh of relief when the roller coaster survived the flight and connection, making it safely to the hotel where members who had arrived earlier were scrambling to rewire the ride.   

“There was a mess of wires that had to be organized and we had to get the braking system to work,” said Reynolds, who added their last night was a flurry of Home Depot runs and last-minute modifications to the control system.  

CAPED members stand in front of the Carowinds amusement park sign
CAPED competed at the Ride Engineering Competition, held at Carowinds amusement park in Charlotte, North Carolina.  

The morning of the competition at Carowinds, members watched all their hard work pay off as the roller coaster performed perfectly.  

“To see a working final product that showcased all our dedication was so rewarding,” he said.  

The win is only the beginning of more good things for the club that Jain believes can bolster the themed entertainment industry with an infusion of Cal Poly graduates.  

He will finish his blended master’s program this summer, leaving with industry aspirations and a greater appreciation for the roller coasters he’s been riding since he was a kid.  

“I am more reassured to ride attractions now because I know the amount of time that goes into it,” he said. “You can trust the engineers.”  

By Emily Slater