Story of a… Roller Coaster Designer

Engineer and Skyline Attractions co-founder Chris Gray made good on his childhood dream of crafting thrill rides.

Schoolyard rush. Gray cobbled together his first thrill rides in grade school. He and his friends “would take old lawnmowers, put seats on them, and push each other over hills to re-create the feeling of being at a theme park.” He was always dreaming about new rides and sketching ideas in his school notebooks.

A redemption song. For years, his parents didn’t believe he had a real job. Gray comes from a blue-collar family. “The whole idea of building rides was a fake dream to them—something they couldn’t quite grasp.” Until he invited them to the commissioning of his new ride at Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s theme park, located three hours from their home in Kentucky. When they witnessed their son working hard, like a NASA crew member running safety checks before a launch, something clicked with them. “They were both crying. That moment validated all those years of me being a poor, crazy kid from Kentucky who just wanted to entertain millions of people.”

G Wiz. Besides designing everything with a safety factor of four—“as in there would have to be three failures before you get to the last one,” there are rules to designing coasters. The apparent acceleration of gravity is the biggest limitation on what the human body can experience. “The average person can handle 3 Gs for a second or so. The biggest coasters pull 2.5 to 3 Gs at the bottom of the first drop. Your body feels three times heavier than it is.” The danger in prolonging this state is that “blood starts draining from the brain faster than the body can push it back up.” Stay like this long enough, and you’ll faint. This relationship with gravity is also what causes the “tickle in your stomach when you go over the top of the ride” at zero Gs.

Everyone has a fear factor. Some rides scare Gray. “I know I’m completely safe, but there are rides that I can’t do anymore. If I do, I’m torn up for hours. There are just certain limits that your brain and senses can and can’t handle.” On his no-ride list are big, tall swings and the Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. The drop lasts just 3.8 seconds, but it hits 120 mph and falls 420 feet. “You go from absolute silence to a loud roar. Last time I rode it, my eyes couldn’t focus afterward, and I was weebly wobbly all the way down the steps. My buddy Dan told me that I screamed like a girl the whole way.”

If it’s got a motor, it inspires. His latest inspiration hit at Splitsville, the Disney Springs bowling alley where guests can watch the pin-replacing machine. “That’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Looking at a mechanical system like that can really give you wild ideas about how to move people around.” Inspiration also hits at home. “I look at the mixing machine and the washing machine, and I think someone could probably make a ride out of those.”

He’s keeping a secret. So, what’s next for Gray and his design team? “There’s an idea we have floating around that we won’t tell anyone outside of the shop. We’re pretty sure it’s going to revolutionize the industry.”

Categories: People