Meet the 28-year-old woman who designs rollercoasters for a living

Bryony Firth-Bernard
Photo credit: Roc Canals Photography - Getty Images

From Cosmopolitan

The average person might turn to Netflix and wine after a stressful day at work. But for 28-year-old Michelle, whizzing exhilaratingly fast, upside down and round the bend (multiple times and for free) is the only way to relax. She’s the Themed Attraction Project Manager at Chessington World of Adventures and it’s her job to oversee and deliver all the new attractions on site, from start to finish.

Here, she tells Cosmopolitan UK how she broke into the industry.

“I’ve always loved visiting theme parks; as a child I would count down the days to our next family trip. Aged 14, I attended a rollercoaster design lecture with my dad and was instantly hooked – from that moment onwards, I knew I could turn my love of rollercoasters into an actual career.

“After completing my A Levels, I bagged a scholarship to study civil engineering at the University of Reading, as well as work experience at a civil engineering company. They offered me a job designing bridges and railways once I’d graduated, and I eventually ended up overseeing the main projects. Two years later, my current job as project manager at Chessington World of Adventures came up, and I knew I’d be perfect for it.

“The role involves coming up with ideas for new attractions, and overseeing them all the way through to opening. I’ll sit down with the creative team, who’ll say, ‘OK, we have these brilliant ideas, but how do we make them into a reality?” Theoretically, we can make attractions as exciting as possible, but what usually limits us is the budget. From there, it’s my responsibility to pull together a team of specialists, like architects and engineers, to work through the design, and eventually create a planning application. Once that’s been reviewed, we give all the design work to the contractor and they build the attraction.

“Building a rollercoaster takes around five years, from the initial idea to the actual opening, and I’m on site daily overseeing construction. Unsurprisingly, there’s so much more that goes into it than just making the rollercoaster structurally sound; we have to think about every detail. How will it make guests feel? What special effects will we have? Is there audio playing? We want to transport our guests to another world.

Photo credit: Jamalrani - Getty Images

“The biggest ride I’ve worked on at Chessington was Land of The Tiger’s ‘Tiger Rock’. It’s a log flume ride with a 50 foot drop, and real life tigers walk on bridges above the ride and over people’s heads. It certainly added another layer of complexity to the project! I don’t have a favourite ride, but Chessington’s Gruffalo River Ride Adventure was my first project, and it’s very cute.

“Theme parks are an incredible world to work in, but it can be challenging trying to come up with solutions to unusual problems. For Land of The Tiger, I had to figure out how high tigers could jump in order to make it completely safe. There’s always an overarching feeling of responsibility to make sure our visitors are safe – we have a whole team of experts to make sure of it.

“One of the great perks is riding rollercoasters when I’m stressed; but nothing beats the feeling of opening a new attraction. I make sure I’m there on the opening day, just to stand and watch people try it. The most rewarding thing is seeing customers’ reactions – whether families or thrill-seekers – after they’ve been on a ride we’ve designed.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Michelle

"Doing research is great, too, because we get to try out all the new attractions and see if there is anything that we might want to incorporate at Chessington. And obviously being able to go to all the Merlin Magic Making theme parks is a huge bonus!

“When I tell people I’m an engineer, many act surprised because I’m a woman. But I’m very proud of my career – I studied hard, learned a lot, and I love it. My family are very proud – but that might have something to do with the free tickets I give them!”

This is Engineering Day (6th November) was launched by the Royal Academy of Engineering to raise awareness of what an engineer is and showcase the breadth of careers available in the profession. Visit www.thisisengineering.org.uk

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