Why riding a roller coaster as tall as the Burj Khalifa could kill you

  • Kingda Ka is the tallest roller coaster in the world. At 139 meters, it’s nearly the height of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
  • But what if someone built a roller coaster as tall as the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world?
  • Although the engineering would be possible, it wouldn’t be safe to ride because intense wind resistance, flying pieces of debris, and bird strikes could injure or even kill riders.
  • Plus, the high g-forces could cause people to blackout as blood moves away from their heads and towards the rest of their bodies.
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Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: This is Kingda Ka, the tallest roller coaster in the world. At 139 meters, it’s nearly the height of the Great Pyramid of Giza. But what if we built a roller coaster even taller? What if there was a coaster that went as high as the tallest building on Earth, the Burj Khalifa? Well, it’s a good thing we don’t, because strapping in to a ride like that might be the last thing you ever did.

The true limit of a roller coaster’s height has less to do with engineering and more to do with the limits of the human body, because the higher the roller coaster, the faster you’ll drop under gravity. And on our 800-meter-tall mega-coaster, riders would hit the blistering top speed of 370 kilometers per hour. Going this fast, the wind alone would cause serious damage. For comparison, Here’s what a wind tunnel does to a human face.

Matt Calabrese: Your skin would pull back at the cheeks. Your eyes would be seeing a lot of damage if there was debris in the air or anything like that. And your ears would probably start popping, which wouldn’t be fun.

Narrator: Some of this is already a problem for Formula Rossa, the fastest roller coaster in the world. It reaches a top speed of 240 kilometers per hour, and anyone who rides it has to wear goggles to protect their eyes, because at those speeds, dust and debris in the air turn into tiny missiles. Speaking of missiles, dust and debris wouldn’t be the only problem.

Calabrese: The main thing I’d be worried about is if you had a bird strike.

Narrator: Yes, a bird strike. It’s rare, but it can happen.

Matus: And I was like, oh my God, oh my God.

Narrator: At lower speeds, it could leave you with a bad bruise or a painful welt, like with the Kingda Ka rider. But at 370 kilometers per hour, you and the unfortunate bird would likely die from the collision. Now, you could just wear a motorcycle helmet and protective clothing before strapping in, but there’s another problem that no amount of protective gear could fix: g-force.

It’s the force that makes you feel heavier than normal, like when you’re riding through a coaster loop. Normally, you experience 1 g-force, but when you rapidly accelerate, like when you’re going through a coaster loop, the g-force ramps up, which causes blood to rush away from your head and often makes riders feel light-headed. For this reason, most roller coasters don’t subject you to more than 5 g’s, tops. But we’re not talking about your typical coaster. If you enter a loop on the Khalifa coaster at more than 300 kilometers per hour…

Calabrese: Blood will start to move away from your head and to the rest of your body, and that means you’ll start to gray out and then possibly black out, and that’s not good.

Narrator: So what can engineers do to protect riders as they continue to build taller, faster coasters? The boring option is to slow down the ride by adding brakes along the first drop. But there’s a better, more exciting way around the problem: loops. Really big loops.

Calabrese: All we have to do is manipulate the curvature to maintain the g-forces that we want. So instead of a tight loop that you would see on a low-speed roller coaster, you’d need big, swooping loops and large radius curvature to make sure that you’re not generating huge amounts of g-force at that speed. As you go through the roller coaster and you lose speed due to air resistance and drag in the wheels, your speed drops, and your curvature will get tighter.

Narrator: That’s why many roller coasters start with one big loop, followed by a series of faster, lighter ones. So in theory, our Khalifa coaster is rideable, as long as we add big enough loops and hand out protective eye gear. That said, we’ll probably never see a roller coaster get much taller than they are today, because nowadays there are cheaper and more efficient ways to thrill and terrify riders.

For example, hydraulic or magnetic launching systems accelerate riders to extreme speeds, without needing to build an expensive, giant drop. So perhaps the only reason to ever build something like a Khalifa coaster would be for the view.

Calabrese: I love roller coasters with beautiful views. And it adds so much to the experience, having a view on the way up. So any beautiful location, love to see a roller coaster in order to get a different perspective on those views.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in July 2019.

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Here’s how much workers are paid at America’s amusement parks

Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida
Visitors attend the Universal Studios theme park first day of reopening from the coronavirus pandemic, on June 05, 2020 in Orlando, Florida.

17. Waiters and waitresses make an annual salary of $22,940.

restaurant waiter

Total employed in US amusement parks and arcades: 2,110

What they do, according to O*NET: Waiters and waitresses take orders from customers and serve food and drinks at restaurants or cafes.

16. Lifeguards, ski patrol, and other recreational protective service workers make an annual salary of $23,550.

lifeguard
A lifeguard runs into the water to rescue a youth that was calling for help in heavy surf due to being caught in a rip current on the Windward side of Oahu, Hawaii.

Total employed in US amusement parks and arcades: 5,330

What they do, according to O*NET: Lifeguards, ski patrol, and other recreational protective service workers make sure people are safe in amusement parks, whether they’re in the pool or on the slopes.

15. Fast food and counter attendants make an annual salary of $24,060.

cafeteria

Total employed in US amusement parks and arcades: 11,980

What they do, according to O*NET: Counter attendants serve food to customers from counters or steam tables. This job category includes cafe servers, cafeteria workers, and snack bar attendants.

14. Amusement and recreation attendants make an annual salary of $24,310.

Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida
Visitors attend the Universal Studios theme park first day of reopening from the coronavirus pandemic, on June 05, 2020 in Orlando, Florida.

Total employed in US amusement parks and arcades: 28,640

What they do, according to O*NET: Amusement and recreation attendants operate amusement concessions, kiosks, or rides, and maintain amusement park supplies and equipment.

13. Recreation workers make an annual salary of $24,320.

amusement theme park worker

Total employed in US amusement parks and arcades: 1,410

What they do, according to O*NET: Recreation workers organize and promote activities, including arts and crafts, sports, games, music, and other social activities.

12. Maids and housekeeping cleaners make an annual salary of $24,340.

housekeeping

Total employed in US amusement parks and arcades: 2,580

What they do, according to O*NET: Maids and housekeeping cleaners’ duties may include cleaning rooms, making beds, and vacuuming.

11. Cashiers make an annual salary of $25,110.

Walt Disney World Resort

Total employed in US amusement parks and arcades: 4,990

What they do, according to O*NET: Cashiers handle customers’ money using cash registers or scanners. 

10. Janitors and cleaners make an annual salary of $25,350.

janitor

Total employed in US amusement parks and arcades: 3,620

What they do, according to O*NET: Janitors and cleaners keep buildings clean and orderly using equipment ranging from brooms and mops to carpet cleaners and floor waxers.

9. Concierges make an annual salary of $28,110.

hotel reception

Total employed in US amusement parks and arcades: 1,040

What they do, according to O*NET: Concierges assist patrons with personal services, such as business services.

8. Restaurant, lounge, and coffee shop hosts and hostesses make an annual salary of $28,820.

restaurant host hostess

Total employed in US amusement parks and arcades: 1,300

What they do, according to O*NET: Host and hostesses welcome patrons, seat them at tables or in lounge, and help ensure quality of facilities and service.

7. Security guards make an annual salary of $30,440.

security guard black friday

Total employed in US amusement parks and arcades: 2,790

What they do, according to O*NET: Security guards monitor premises to prevent people from breaking the rules.

6. Transit and intercity bus drivers make an annual salary of $30,530.

bus driver

Total employed in US amusement parks and arcades: 1,000

What they do, according to O*NETThey drive buses and may assist passengers.

5. Customer service representatives make an annual salary of $31,040.

customer service representative

Total employed in US amusement parks and arcades: 1,760

What they do, according to O*NET: Customer service representatives assist customers with questions or complaints, either in person or over the phone.

4. Landscaping and groundskeeping workers make an annual salary of $32,280.

Gardener
A gardener irrigates a facility with imperial crowns on the grounds of the Brandenburg State Garden Show.

Total employed in US amusement parks and arcades: 1,470

What they do, according to O*NET: Landscaping and groundskeeping workers take care of lawns, plants, and trees. Their duties include sod laying, mowing, trimming, planting, and watering, along with keeping the area free of general trash and debris.

3. First-line supervisors of personal service and entertainment and recreation workers make an annual salary of $39,900.

hotel maid

Total employed in US amusement parks and arcades: 2,650

What they do, according to O*NET: First-line supervisors of personal service workers coordinate personal service workers like make-up artists, caddies, or maids.

2. Maintenance and repair workers make an annual salary of $40,200.

amusement theme park worker

Total employed in US amusement parks and arcades: 2,440

What they do, according to O*NET: Maintenance and repair workers make sure mechanical equipment is running smoothly. This includes pipe fitting, boiler repairs, welding, carpentry, and other general building repairs.

1. First-line supervisors of food preparation and serving workers make an annual salary of $41,540.

how much to tip waiter

Total employed in US amusement parks and arcades: 1,240

What they do, according to O*NET: First-line supervisors of food preparation and serving workers coordinate workers to ensure efficient customer service.

Method and data source

The salaries of amusement park workers in the US vary widely. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics program offers data on employment and wages across different occupations and industries.

According to BLS, the amusement parks and arcades industry employed about 125,250 people in May 2020, the most recent period for which data is available. The typical annual wage for all occupations in this industry is lower than the median for all occupations regardless of industry. The median annual wage in the amusement parks and arcades industry was $27,300, far below the median across all industries of $41,950.

For our analysis, we looked at the occupations with at least 1,000 employees in the amusement parks and arcades industry in May 2020. We then ranked this set of occupations from the lowest to highest median annual wage. We excluded sales representatives of services because although they had at least 1,000 employees, no median annual salary estimate was available for May 2020. 

In addition to the annual salaries, the above slides also include the number of people employed in each occupation in this industry.

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