Five Questions for the Designer of the World’s Tallest Drop Ride

A rendering of Zumanjaro: Drop of DoomCourtesy Six FlagsA rendering of Zumanjaro: Drop of Doom

The world’s tallest drop ride just opened at Six Flags Great Adventure (SIX)in Jackson, N.J., where the inaugural batch of riders took the 415-foot plunge on the Fourth of July.

Zumanjaro: Drop of Doom had been slated to open in late May but bad weather delayed the event. Engineers achieved monumental height by building the ride on the face of Kingda Ka, the tallest and fastest roller-coaster on record. Zumanjaro riders are strapped into gondolas, hauled up 41 stories, and left to dangle for a suspenseful moment before plummeting downward at speeds up to 90 miles per hour. The plunge takes about 10 seconds.


For those of us who cringe with fear at spinning Teacups, that “thrill” might seem like a flirtation with death. But even the timid can appreciate the careful engineering that goes into creating a ride that shatters records and manages to keep safety inspectors happy. Bloomberg Businessweek spoke to Michael Reitz, who designed Zumanjaro, about the ride’s construction, how he turned scaring people into a full-time job, and the limitations of physics.

Zumanjaro under constructionCourtesy Six FlagsZumanjaro under constructionHow did you become a roller coaster designer?
I was bored with engineering a couple years after graduating and decided to go to medical school, but I had almost a year before I could start. So I answered a small job ad in the newspaper: “Project Engineer, Knowledge of German Advantageous.” I have a degree in German, as well as mechanical engineering. Obviously, I never went to medical school.

Tell us some details that give us a sense of Zumanjaro’s scale.
It’s taller than London’s Big Ben and twice as tall as Lady Liberty. It has 810 linear magnetic brakes, equal to the height of the Great Sphinx reclining on top of the Golden Gate Bridge. There are 161 different kinds of bolts used to build Zumanjaro—and a grand total of 26,502 bolts throughout the entire ride.

What are a few things you think the general public doesn’t know about rides?
Computer modeling and proprietary calculations software are so advanced now that we rarely, if ever, need to build a scaled model of a ride. We often test rides with what we call “water dummies”—water-filled plastic containers that fits in the seats. On some rides, we use magnetic eddy current brakes, which are completely frictionless and do not wear out.
The Zumanjaro gondolaCourtesy Six FlagsThe Zumanjaro gondola

What the biggest misconception about roller-coasters?
That taller and faster equates to higher g-forces [the force of gravity on the body]. This is simply not the case, as g-forces are a function of acceleration, not velocity.

What’s the one thing you wish you could build into a roller-coaster, physics be damned?
Levitation. That would change everything.

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