Steel-built rides bring thrills to theme parks across the globe
One of the world’s most prestigious rollercoaster and ride manufacturers is reliant on steel to move people in new and exciting ways in some of the world’s biggest theme parks
Disneyland Paris. Universal Studios. Coney Island. You could name almost any large theme park in the world and the odds are their visitors will have enjoyed a Zamperla ride. From traditional family rides, all the way to modern, white-knuckle feats of engineering, this family-run company has a global presence and sits at the cutting edge of modern entertainment.
Beginning life in the early 20th century as an equestrian circus, before moving via street cinemas into the amusement ride business in the 1960s, the Italian manufacturer has risen to become a premium and preferred supplier of theme park rides.
Chief Innovation Officer Antonio Zamperla outlines the company’s unique position, saying, “We are the world’s biggest amusement rides manufacturer in terms of the number of rides. We produce more than 250 rides a year, ranging from $40,000 to several million dollars for big projects like those with Disney and Universal. Basically, we cover the whole world.”
A family business
Antonio is the third generation of his family in the amusement ride business that was started by his grandfather more than 55 years ago. Originally, Antonio Zamperla senior was a showman, building and operating rides that he toured around various trade shows and fairs.
This was so successful that eventually colleagues began asking him to build rides for them, leading to the founding of a production company in Vicenza, Italy. This facility, where they produce and manufacture their own steel components and structures, was the basis for today’s globe-spanning manufacturer.
“Steel is at the core of our rides, it’s at the core of our production. We provide entertainment and we move people with steel.”
Antonio Zamperla, Chief Innovation Officer
Antonio junior has been assembling and installing rides since his early teens, but after various periods working in different sectors of the business he landed in his current role in charge of innovation within the company.
It was his grandfather’s innovative thinking that provided the spark for the company’s incredible growth. Antonio Zamperla senior’s great idea was to develop rides that both adults and children could ride. Back in the 60s, rides were designed with one audience or the other in mind, but Zamperla’s plan was to unite them.
“That drove the whole company basically. Our mindset was to try to put people together to be entertained and to create memories together,” stresses Antonio.
A reputation built with steel
Antonio shares his grandfather’s commitment to innovative thinking and that is represented in the scale and scope of the amusement rides the company now produces. However, there is another uniting factor between the company’s first rides in the 60s and the modern marvels gracing today’s theme parks. That factor is steel.
Vittorio Babini is the Zamperla company’s Engineering Director, heading up a team of 40 that deal with all the technical aspects of ride design. While the company has more than 50 years’ experience in ride manufacture, their 12-strong rollercoaster team was formed in the late 90s as a dedicated unit.
“The ongoing goal is to optimise the design in order to use all the performance that steel can give to a designer.”
Vittorio Babini, Engineering Director
The need for a specialised team is due to the extreme engineering challenges presented by this type of ride design. Thrill rides ask a lot more from the design team, the engineering team and from the materials that form the structures and components of the rides themselves.
These rides are often in intensive use all year round, with parks sited in a range of environmental conditions, from the humidity of Florida to the sun-baked climate of Dubai. Faced with these performance challenges, reliability is key, and this is an area where steel can shine.
“We have been using steel since the beginning,” says Babini, “so as a company we have learned to work with steel, design with steel and to engineer steel structures. For us it is the main material for our construction, because of its performance and also the ability that we have to manufacture components with steel.”
Thrillingly safe and reliable
Crafting a rollercoaster is a demanding engineering process, with the considerations of performance, weight and safety all presenting their own unique challenges.
“Steel is a very flexible material for our type of construction,” says Babini. “This is relevant for the structure of the rides, but also for mechanical components. Except for the wood used on certain types of rollercoaster structure, we don’t have any alternatives for this type of construction.
“That’s why we focus our attention on steels. Obviously, there are many types of steels, there are construction steels, specialty steels, high-performance steels. We use all types in our work and in our current production for load-bearing components we use only steel.”
“We are the world’s biggest amusement rides manufacturer in terms of the number of rides.”
Antonio Zamperla, Chief Innovation Officer
Two crucial parts of design in this field are passenger safety and consideration for the ride experience. Turning the desired rider experience into a set of engineering parameters that meet all relevant safety requirements is a complex and time-consuming process. With these twin factors in mind, the correct choice of materials is paramount.
“I think steel will continue to be one of the main materials used in our industry as fatigue in the structures and mechanical components is the biggest issue we face. The ongoing goal is to optimise the design in order to use all the performance that steel can give to a designer.”
“For rollercoasters in particular the track structure is made from steel and this is not going to change in the coming decades.”
The best in class
An area where the Zamperla company have consistently had to raise their game is in their dealings with Disney. Beginning with their partnership in the late 80s when they were approached to produce rides for Disneyland Paris, Zamperla have now provided nearly 30 rides to Disney parks all over the world.
This makes them the largest supplier in number of rides to one of the world’s biggest theme park operators and the challenge of meeting the entertainment giant’s industry-setting standards is one Zamperla has embraced.
“The manufacture of iconic rides like Dumbo for Disney was a very special moment in Zamperla history,”
Vittorio Babini, Engineering Director
“The manufacture of iconic rides like Dumbo for Disney was a very special moment in Zamperla history,” says Babini. “Disney is the best in class in our industry and as a result is a very demanding customer.
“Working with them we grew up not only from the technical standpoint, but also in project management because of the complexities of working within their time frames. Starting from the design phase up to installation is a three-year period so it’s very demanding working with Disney but every time it’s a pleasure.”
Looking to the future
As the company’s Chief Innovation Officer, Antonio Zamperla is already planning for the next stage of amusement rides, and this involves uniting new technologies with traditional ride structures.
“We are looking at augmented reality,” he says, “we are looking at virtual reality as an inclusive way to bring people together and to share an entertainment.” Something unlikely to change, however, is the need for safe, reliable, high-performance rides and the materials that make them possible.
“Steel is at the core of our rides,” says Zamperla, “it’s at the core of our production. We are a steel manufacturer and we don’t foresee in the near future any kind of change to this.
“We provide entertainment and we move people with steel.”