The Brains Behind Your Stomach’s Drop

The first roller coaster Jim Seay rode was the wooden Cyclone at Coney Island when he was 9 or 10 years old. He admits being “pretty scared.” Today, Mr. Seay, 59, is behind award-winning, heart-in-throat thrill rides around the world.

After graduating from Cornell University with a mechanical engineering degree, Mr. Seay worked at the Hughes Aircraft Company in California in the company’s aerospace department. In the late 1980s, as military spending dropped, Mr. Seay shifted into entertainment, working for Six Flags before opening Premier Rides, based in Baltimore, which designs, constructs and tests attractions like Revenge of the Mummy at Universal Studios and the soon-to-open Dragonfire in Qatar. As president of Premier Rides, he spends more than half the year traveling to rides or to explore future coaster destinations.

Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Seay.

There was a significant learning curve. At Hughes Aircraft it was a white-collar engineer environment. In the theme parks, there’s a very technical side. The engineers are developing the attractions, but there’s also an entire team of electricians and mechanics. They are the people who actually know how to make things work. I learned that the people at the theme parks tend to understand the equipment better than even the suppliers who are building it. They live with it daily. They inspect it daily. I learned a tremendous amount about the safety and maintenance side of things from the front-line technicians.

Sometimes we design our own attractions based on the creative talent at Premier Rides. Sometimes you have people who want to develop something around an intellectual property and you work together to develop something. We were very fortunate to do that with Universal Studios on the Revenge of the Mummy attractions. That ride is now in three locations around the world. Over 160 million people have ridden those rides. It’s very humbling.

It’s a way to escape the complexity and stress of everyday life. You put yourself into an environment where you know you will be safe, but you’re not in control of where you’re going, how fast, how it’s going to turn and maneuver. And you’re usually sharing the experience with someone. I see people riding with their wife or child and they’re screaming the whole time. At the end, they catch their breath, don’t say anything and high five each other. They remember the ride for the rest of their lives.

You see people love rides and love to be thrilled no matter where you are, but there are cultural differences that make the experience more unique. The Chinese put on these amazing shows, very elaborate Cirque du Soleil-like performances.

Here people think of going to a park as a destination, but the parks in Europe are very much part of the community. There are parks like Tivoli Gardens (Copenhagen) or Liseberg (Gothenburg, Sweden) where people will go after dinner to listen to music or ride rides. I was at a park in Finland called Linnanmaki when they put on tango music and all these people just danced on the midway. It wasn’t planned. They just love the tango in Finland. It was really interesting. Parks are just part of your community there.

In the Middle East they don’t want to build a traditional theme park. They want it to be very, very special. For example, if you go to Abu Dhabi there’s Ferrari World. They enclosed the entire theme park with a bright red, Ferrari-themed roof which you can see from outer space. That’s an expense that would be hard to justify in other areas, but that’s the scale that they do it at in the Middle East.

I do. I think it’s very important when you go to a location to immerse yourself. I make it a point to always have time to disappear into the community, meet local people, try local food. I’ve never had a problem communicating, never had a problem working with anyone. I think if you respect people when you travel, that respect is returned. People are not as different as we think they are.

There are some amazing places to go in Chile. I was on a business trip to Santiago and was looking at other places to go while we were there. The only way to get to Easter Island is to fly from Chile. There’s a direct flight. At the last minute, my wife, a friend of ours and I decided to jump on one of those flights. We spent three or four days exploring Easter Island. There are volcanoes on the island that you can go to and you’ll be next to 30 of the famous Easter Island heads.

I’ve wanted to go to Africa since I was a child. I just haven’t been. Business is what drives my travel. I don’t take vacations because I always get a few days when I go somewhere. I consider those my vacations. There are a number of countries in Africa seeing tremendous growth, so I think there will be a reason to go there soon.

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