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Thrilled to Win: Engineering student group wins major thrill design challenge

By Jeremy Henderson

Published: Mar 4, 2019 1:00:00 PM

Members of Auburn University's Theme Park Engineering Group pose after winning the award for Best Attraction at the 2018 Ryerson Invitational Thrill Design Competition Members of Auburn University's Theme Park Engineering Group pose after winning the award for Best Attraction at the 2018 Ryerson Invitational Thrill Design Competition

The members of Auburn University’s Theme Park Engineering Group are thrilled about pursuing careers in the themed entertainment industry, which is why thrilling the judges at the country’s most competitive collegiate level thrill design competition was so thrilling.

Resume wise, winning at the Ryerson Invitational goes a long way.

Held last November at Universal Studios in Orlando, the five-day multidisciplinary competition tasked groups similar to TPEG from 12 schools with solving real-world problems facing theme parks, as well as with designing an actual ride within certain constraints. Competitors included Cornell University, the University of Michigan, the University of Florida, the University of Arizona and competition organizers Ryerson University.

The design presented by the eight TPEG members, all students in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, was deemed the best of the bunch.

The only catch? They can’t really talk about it.

"One of the things that’s difficult about the Ryerson Invitational Thrill Design Competition is that since a lot of the stuff is proprietary, we can't really talk much about what we did specifically for the challenges," said TPEG founder and former president Gavin Prather, a senior in mechanical engineering. “The ideas we presented in those five days are now owned by Universal.”

Yes, the work produced by RITDC participants is so good, host Universal Creative has them sign nondisclosure agreements in case the designs one day become reality.

“We basically had to design an entire ride system using existing technology, but incorporating it in a unique way with different special effects that went along with the different aspects of a design prompt,” Prather said. “We were given access to the parks, so we got to see what we needed to understand a ride system, and to ask the team members how they thought it could be improved.”

Thankfully, they were also given access to a lot of free coffee.

“It was really intensive,” Prather said. “We had to work throughout the night and into the mornings. We barely got any sleep, and then had to present to executives from Universal and various vendor companies around the industry.”

Those would be the folks who supply the flying elephants and Scream Machines and log splashes to places like Disney World, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Six Flags.

Auburn mechanical engineering senior Harper Pannell’s favorite park is Dollywood.

“But Dollywood doesn’t hire engineers,” said Pannell, TPEG’s secretary. “So I’d have to work for one of the companies they buy their rides from.”

That shouldn’t be a problem; that’s one thing about the RITDC experience Pannell and Prather are completely free to discuss — the career benefits.

“Winning the Attraction Design challenge is something we can show off in our applications,” Prather said. “The themed entertainment industry is very network oriented, very competitive.

“This is an extreme career booster for all of the people involved.”

Media Contact: Jeremy Henderson,

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