The difference between a theme park and a destination is the same as the one between a ride and an attraction: Storytelling.
Ride integration is the unique sector of construction that builds the castles, jungles and even characters that transport theme park guests to the worlds of their favorite franchises. While the design and installation of the track itself is handled by a special team of engineers, the ride integration team constructs the set around the ride.
The complex process requires closely coordinating with multiple teams and adhering to tight deadlines – all while working in top secret during broad daylight. There are few construction teams in the U.S. equipped to take on the challenges of ride integration, and fewer still that can do it well.
PCL Construction is home to one of the top ride integration teams in the country, with decades of experience building popular attractions from Hollywood to Orlando.
“Our goal is always to create a truly memorable experience for park guests,” says Nick Palazzolo, a PCL project manager specializing in ride integration. “We have more than 100 people in our office that live and breathe theme park construction, which is why we’ve been so successful in helping our clients bring their vision to life.”
Over the years, these passionate professionals have perfected their system for building unforgettable attractions. It comes down to the three “S’s” – sequencing, scheduling, and secrecy.
Ride construction occurs in an inside out order. Because of the extensive testing required before opening day, the ride track is often finished before the elements that set the scene have been built.
“Ride integration requires a mastery of sequencing,” Palazzolo says. For example, the electrical wiring that powers the rollercoaster is installed before any power source for video screens or special effect lighting. This is to provide extra time for the ride’s extensive safety testing. While testing of the track is underway, PCL sequences remaining construction to other sections of the ride to literally build the set around the track.
This is where PCL’s extensive experience in ride integration is key. The team has the knowledge needed to set appropriate milestones and plan for the correct order of installations. This requires extensive coordination between consultants, subtrade partners, ride vendors and the client’s creative team. It’s complex, but careful planning ultimately results in a smooth process for construction and on-time delivery for the client.
Once the core of the ride’s track is finished, the theme park’s operating team will begin testing the ride for safety.
“Most coasters will have hundreds of motors, along with animatronics, track switches, and much more,” explains Palazzolo. “All of these parts and pieces need to be individually tested, then the ride is tested with one car, then with two, then three. Each test needs hundreds of cycles with no failures to pass safety standards.”
The PCL team plans for the testing phase of the ride from the very beginning of the project. For example, roller coasters use what’s called a “ride envelope” to test the ride’s clearance. Certain pieces of construction, such as the scaffolding, could block the envelop during the testing phase if not carefully planned out.
“We create a highly detailed construction model and factor in the ride envelope at the start of project planning,” Palazzolo says. “This allows us to identify and relocate any physical elements that could get in the way of testing before construction even begins, rather than have to modify and rebuild the scaffolding during the testing process.”
Because safety testing is occurring at the same time as the ride integration, the teams have to share a space and split their time – operating on a 12 hours on, 12 hours off basis.
“Once ride testing has begun, safe containment zones are created with fencing, site signage and access points to allow work to continue safely,” Palazzolo says. “By shifting schedules to focus on other areas of work while testing is underway in another part of the ride, we are able to successfully complete the project while prioritizing a ride track in the middle of active construction.”
Confidentiality is crucial in ride integration. By keeping the core elements of a ride secret until opening day, parks are able to build anticipation and buzz among fans. After decades in the ride integration business, secrecy is refined skill for the PCL Construction team.
“If the site of the ride is right in the middle of the park, we can’t bring material in when the park is open,” says Palazzolo. “We also have to work to mitigate noise and other disruptions. It can be challenging, but it’s always rewarding when we’re able to continue construction without guests even knowing we’re there.”
And while the process of ride integration can be complex, it also offers unique rewards.
“We get the opportunity to ride them well before anyone else can,” says Palazzolo. “That’s very rewarding.”
“But it’s even more satisfying to stand back and realize how many people are thrilled and excited about something you had a part in doing. My kids have gone on rides I’ve built and said, ‘wow, my dad did that.’ It’s definitely a point of pride to make your mark like that.”