When sitting on a roller coaster, you probably don’t marvel at the feat of engineering you’re experiencing. However, without a very smart person behind the scenes focusing on every twist and turn, your safety would be at risk.
Working on amusement park rides is a specialty for engineers at Barr Engineering in Edina. Primarily, the company works on water rides, like flumes or river rafts, but it’s also had a hand in the infrastructure of nearly every ride at local amusement parks like Valleyfair.
Barr Engineering has been around officially since 1966, but it traces its origins all the way back to the early 1900s. Founder Doug Barr was a hydro engineer, which led the company to design the river raft ride at the Minnesota State Fair. The company currently has 700 employees and focuses mainly on power, mining and fuel industries. For example, its engineers work with the city of Edina water management systems, and have worked on nearly all the dams in the area, such as the one at St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis.
Working on amusement parks “is something of a niche for us,” says Paul Schiller, vice president and senior engineer at Barr. “It is fun to work on the rides, but the real fun is not so much the design work, but seeing people enjoy it afterwards.”
It was the water ride at the State Fair that put Barr on the path of amusement park ride design. From that first raft ride, Barr was hired to help design attractions at Valleyfair, which they work on to this day. Over the years, Schiller and the Barr engineers have worked on rides at Busch Gardens, Sea World, Nickelodeon Universe and for other large amusement park clients in Tampa and Beijing.
Clients typically come with an idea of how they want a ride to function and then Barr’s engineers get to work designing the ride. “Safety is always the first thing that has to be assured,” Schiller says. “Typically we are at the periphery there, because there are industry standards.”
From there, designers make sketches, creating a ride that will function according to client requests. Often, the biggest parts of Barr’s work are the most mundane functions: engineers must calculate optimal water flow, shapes of water channels and the necessary pumps to keep water flowing and a ride moving forward. Each of these integral pieces must work together to create the thrills that riders seek.
Once a ride is completed, park operators put dummies filled with water on the ride and test it hundreds of times to ensure everything works correctly. Any final kinks are worked out at this stage to make sure the ride is safe and ready for the public.
The final step before opening a ride: The engineers, construction crew and park employees get to try it out before the park opens. “It’s pretty awesome,” Schiller says. “We sit in the front row every time.”
After all that work, new rides are ready for operation and open to the public. It’s strange to think about all the engineering work that goes into building the rides we love. And luckily for Valleyfair thrill seekers and Minnesota State Fair lovers, there are engineers like the folks at Barr Engineering in Edina who have figured out every little detail for us.
To learn more about Barr Engineering, visit their website.