Mastering Theme Park Design

A young man smiles next to a Disneyland recreation of the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars

September 15, 2021 | Sam de Leve

The magic of Disneyland has never worn off for Alex Bicknell, graduate student at Iovine and Young Academy. The engineer grew up just 20 minutes from the park, and when he wasn’t riding the rides, he designed his own in games like Rollercoaster Tycoon. "I was always playing those games and I was like, oh, it'd be fun to do this as a career," Bicknell says. 

But how does a kid with a love of theme parks become a real-life rollercoaster tycoon?

To learn how rides really work, Bicknell studied engineering – with a twist. Though his degree is from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, as an undergraduate Bicknell also attended “Disney College,” a semester-long program at Disney World where college students live in Disney dorms, work at the park, and attend special events. Disney teaches classes in topics from animal sciences and costuming, to Imagineering and the business of hospitality. 

“It’s college without homework,” Bicknell explains. As soon as he graduated, Bicknell sought to return to work for the most magical place on earth.

A young man in sunglasses grins in front of a blurred background of an outdoor park
Riders in a rollercoaster car zoom out of a full loop

Left: A day at Disneyland for Alex Bicknell. Right: Photo credit Chris de Tempe/Unsplash

Bicknell sent applications to over a hundred different jobs at Disneyland. The internship he landed suited his technical skill set: quality engineering. Quality engineering inspectors ensure that rides are safe and in compliance with state regulations. And yes, they ride the rides. Just to be sure they’re safe, of course.

Though a materials engineer by training, Bicknell soon found that he fit right in with the mechanical engineers on his crew, who inspired his pivot into the field. Today, Bicknell is an Engineer-in-Training, with the first of two licensure exams under his belt and an apprenticeship ahead of him.

Bicknell, however, wants more than to understand how rides work — he wants to create his own. He speaks reverently of the Disney Imagineers in Glendale, who design concepts for new rides. 

“That would probably be the dream job, if I could be honest,” he says. 

He explains that in Disney’s Imagineering department, they seek “a jack-of-all-trades” who can dream up creative ideas, prototype and implement them. That’s what led Bicknell to Iovine and Young Academy’s Master of Science in Integrated Design, Business, and Technology (MSIDBT) program. 

“I was looking for a program where I could really become more well-rounded and adaptable and round out my professional skills,” Bicknell says. “I was also looking for a creative outlet that I might not be able to find. While engineering is creative, I feel like there are some constraints to that, and I was looking for something a little bit more creative to really tap into that. That's what drew me to this program.”

The Academy’s integrated curriculum combines design, business, technology, and communication – everything an aspiring Imagineer might need. Rides are feats of incredible engineering, but that’s not the only skill required to create the most thrilling ride. Creativity, experiential design, business acumen, and teamwork are all essential facets to building a roller coaster. Each ride costs millions of dollars to construct, so engineers convey and refine their ideas using everything from storyboarding to 3D modeling to building miniature versions of the ride itself. In addition, each ride must serve the park’s business and core market, ensuring that the experience provides a good return on investment.

When all those elements come together, the result truly is magical. 

“It makes you forget that you're just in the theme park,” Bicknell says. “It gets you in the moment of your surroundings and it makes you feel like you're somewhere else. It takes you out of reality for a bit. That’s what would make a good ride.”

Silhouetted against a setting sun, the car of a rollercoaster begins its dive

Photo credit: Meg Boulden/Unsplash