Interview: Talking waterslides with the brain behind a record-breaking ride
Everyone loves a good waterslide, but few live and breathe them like Ray Smegal. The professional hockey player-turned builder of flowing dreams heads up product development for Canada-based waterpark design firm ProSlide, which recently snipped the ribbon on a record- breaking ride in Melbourne. We chatted with Smegal about the evolution of waterslide design and how he goes about creating the ultimate rider experience.
ProSlide has been in the game for more than 30 years and has built waterslides of all shapes and sizes around the world. One relatively new addition to its catalog is the TornadoWAVE, which sends rafts surging up and across a massive curved wall, giving those aboard a momentary sense of weightlessness before they are sent hurtling around bends and down chutes into the pool below.
TornadoWAVEs have been installed at 47 parks around the world, including the likes of Six Flags and Seaworld, but none quite reach the heights of Funfield's Gravity Wave on the outskirts of Melbourne. Opened last month, it is the longest and tallest of its type, measuring 177 m long and 25.4 m high (580 and 83 ft). This shoots riders along at up to 44 km/h (27 mph) for a full second of zero gravity across the surface of the wall.
We picked Smegal's brains about the how his team achieves these feats, and for a few observations on waterslides in general.
Is sending riders up a vertical wall to experience maximum zero gravity simply a matter of speed? How do other factors, like physics and geometry, impact the rider experience?
The Gravity Wave at Funfields is based on the TornadoWAVE technology, which is based on the reducing radius funnel that the tornado is known for (i.e. the increase in velocity as the radius of the tornado tightens toward the bottom). So it is about the geometry, about how we position the boat in the feature, and then the rest is just up to physics. Because waterslides aren't on a rail, you sort of have this freeness that you can't get from a rollercoaster.
So what is going on with Gravity Wave is a lot of very technical ride-path design to get that boat traveling across that apex as long as possible. The reducing radius aspect means that as the boat is traveling across the top of the feature, the radius of that wall is actually reducing as the boat starts to fall towards the earth. So you're always staying on that equator line. You're always staying at that peak zero-G moment as you cross the apex.
That's just one example of the geometry and how it works, I could talk for hours about all the details. But when you're looking at that ride, guests are going to see that moment where you're just weightless as you're moving across the top. It's a beautiful thing. Thousands of times a day, millions of times a year guests are enjoying that experience.
What do you think it is about waterslides that makes them so appealing to people?
The water parks of today are obviously a lot more sophisticated than they were 30 or 40 years ago, but they all come down to the same basic principle. Families getting in their bathing suits and spending a day outside of the city or away from their homes. And because they're in their bathing suits they are maybe a bit more vulnerable than they would be in their suit and tie or the clothes they wear during the day. It's sort of like everyone is a kid again when you're at a water park.
So it's a unique experience in this day in age, with so much technology, so much information bombarding people that this is a way to get back to the roots. It's almost a basic need for people to be near water, and water parks are a way for people to have a lot of fun and enjoy some unique thrills together.
What have been the biggest innovations in waterslide design over the past few decades?
Water parks have only been around in a significant way for the last 25 or 30 years. It went from, you'd go down on your body and then you went down on a tube, and then quickly in the late 80s early 90s, we innovated the Mammoth River ride, so that was a whole family traveling in a slide together.
And that was a really critical moment in the industry, because it allowed people to share the experience of a water ride. And from there, it opened up a whole universe of options. Products like the Tornado, large funnel slides, TornadoWAVEs were another large feature and water coasters have been extremely popular and a highly innovative space. We have actually got water coasters that travel uphill with linear induction motors, so really high-tech stuff. The sky is the limit.
How do you continue to push the boundaries of waterslide design?
Here's the beautiful thing. Water parks are going global in a big way. The markets are getting larger, parks like Universal Studios and Volcano Bay in Orlando are opening to the public and investments made by the parks globally are starting to raise the bar. So water parks are becoming the new theme parks and really great businesses, so we're just ratcheting up the innovation.
At ProSlide, we've got about 140 people now and there's such a strong design and production innovation culture. You hear a lot about tech companies like Google and Facebook being really innovative and using technology, and we have the beautiful privilege of being just as innovative but with products, real products, that families get to enjoy. So we spend a lot of time at water parks and we spend a lot of time talking about the future. It's just all about pushing the limits continuing to think about new ways people can enjoy water.
How did you get into waterslides?
The owner of the company is a ski racer and a lot of people at ProSlide come from an athletic background. I think that helps us understand how people move and how you can create thrills. I was actually a professional hockey player and then I connected with ProSlide. You sort of learn the craft by working through it with the company. So through experience and through learning the craft from people at ProSlide who have been doing it forever, you sort of become an expert.
Can you talk us through a day in the life of a waterslide designer?
Well, it's highly collaborative. So our teams are always working together to consider new ways to do things. Ours is a really unique business because it's global, so you're always engaging with cool clients around the world that are dreaming up exciting projects. A lot of it is connecting with those clients and delivering the water ride expertise to realize their visions.
That would be the major thing that a water ride designer is involved in, working together with their teams to create, design and sketch new products and working with customers around the globe to make those products a reality.
Who are your waterslide testers and how can our readers apply to become one?
Well, you can definitely visit the website and take a look at our careers page. But I think, without a doubt, it is the coolest job on the planet and it's a very important job. You've got to love to travel, you've got to love an adventure and you've have a lot of bathing suits!