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Busch Gardens engineer found his calling designing thrills

Nobody has left more of an imprint on Busch Gardens Tampa Bay than Mark Rose.

At 60, the theme park vice president of design and engineering has overseen the conception and construction of almost every new or remodeled attraction in the 330 acre park. He's remodeled every gift shop twice, and he even built two Bill Austin restaurants in an ill-fated Busch attempt to sell the park's trademark smokehouse menu outside park gates.

Hired as project manager in 1982, Rose has been an integral cog in Busch Gardens and its parent company's collaborative approach to create one-of-a-kind theme park rides. While wrapping up construction of the park's new Cheetah Hunt coaster and animal habitat (scheduled to open May 27), Rose talked about the process, offered behind-the-scenes secrets and explained how his family served as his testing lab including a 17-day fact-finding vacation to 17 theme parks.

A committee of Busch executives develops ride ideas, but you often provide the kernel then hire and direct the experts and contractors who make them reality. How does that work?

We do a lot of brainstorming, but ideas evolve. I initially proposed SheiKra, our dive coaster, as like riding a barrel over Niagara Falls, 160 feet straight down into water. Not compelling enough, they said. So I raised it to 200 feet and added a four-second delay before the plunge. Next came a second drop into a tunnel and a complete inversion before the coaster threw up a 60-foot high rooster tail in a pond. They went for that.

How about Cheetah Hunt, which is designed to mimic a cheetah bounding along in pursuit of prey?

It's a run close to the ground out and back though a long trench, so my sense of the experience came from Star Wars — the one with the Ewoks — where they're driving rocket speeders through a forest, dodging logs, rocks and trees. Because I could not build a lift hill tall enough to get the speed, it's propelled by magnetic motors that push it 60 miles per hour uphill as fast as downhill and accelerate when you don't expect it. It's not really a coaster. It's a machine with 109 motors in each train and 130 electric starters built into the track. It needs three control rooms and a 70 ton water chiller to cool the starters. That's enough to air condition 14 houses.

What do you mean by "design for Grandma Rose"?

My mother would never ride the Tidal Wave, but she would love to see her grandkids ride it. So I put in the big glass window for her, where she could stay dry, get the best view of their getting dripping wet and say "you crazy kids." It meant building Kumba and SheiKra so she can sit in one place to see it go through all these moves and appreciate the forces at work. She'll see Cheetah Hunt speed under a pedestrian bridge, then shoot back overhead tilted on its side with people screaming.

August Busch loved his company's theme parks so much he was in this one 26 weekends a year. Did he often roust you?

Sure. I remember being called in from the woods in my Boy Scout uniform (Rose, a one-time Eagle Scout, is a scoutmaster, a member of the nine-state regional board and served on the site selection committee for a new 11,000 national campground in West Virginia) when he wanted a briefing about our rebuilding 40th Street.

What makes Busch Gardens attractions different?

Our secret sauce is using landscaping and other structural elements to make a new attraction look like it's been here for years. We have a full canopy of trees. We once just slapped up stucco and concrete walls, but now we use artists who sculpt realistic looking ruins and story-telling icons, then color them in shades of aging, like moss or mold.

You grew up in a family of mechanical engineers in Connersville, Ind., population 17,000. After getting an engineering degree, what led you Busch Gardens?

A professor told me we would all end up civil engineers who build bridges or design cars the rest of our lives, but I had a different idea. I worked three summers in college as a construction laborer in Hawaii, which meant I could surf a couple hours after work every day. At 22, I was hired as city engineer for my hometown. For five years, I built parks and playgrounds and wrote the city's first long-range plan for infrastructure. I was recruited to be public works director over 400 people at Alexandria, La., which had a zoo. I saw a newspaper ad to fill a project manager job at Busch Gardens in the library one Sunday afternoon.

Why theme parks?

I had always loved amusements parks. My epiphany was at age 9 at Tom Sawyer's Island at Disneyland. It was so well done and realistic, I thought I was the very first kid ever to find Indian Joe's Cave. It struck me somebody had designed all this. Wouldn't that be a cool job? I told Busch I had experience running a small city, and Busch Gardens was a small city.

Did your wife, Fifi, sons David, 24, and William, 21, and daughter Emily, 27, play a role?

They've been my research. When we built Land of the Dragons, I had my kids out there at midnight jumping in the bounce cloud. Security came by and said, "Oh, it's you guys again." We've had family picnics in new attractions just to see how my kids react to them.

How about field trips?

In the early 1990s, we passed on European designers Walter Bolliger and Claude Mabillard's second coaster and their first inverted coaster. Once their second, Batman The Ride, was a big hit at Six Flags in Illinois, we got their third, Kumba, and their inverted coaster, Montu. Like B&M, many designers were turning to computer engineering to take coasters to new levels. I've been on more than 100 coasters. But to better understand what changed, I took my family on a 17-day vacation to ride every coaster in 17 theme parks. Later, we did another forced march of 10 parks in 10 days in California. It was important because Busch is a family coaster park, not a teenage park. My daughter actually passed out on Goliath and I felt my field of vision shrinking and got a headache from the G-forces in one long spiral. It helped me learn to stay with forces people can handle.

Your animal habitats set new standards for zoos. How did some favorites evolve?

A lot of this job is learning about something you never expect to do again. We drove sheet metal pilings into the ground in 5-foot lengths to dig a moat at Myombe Reserve because we only had nine months to do the job. That saved us months of excavation and saved some mature trees. To get people closer to the animals, San Diego Zoo tried 1 1/2-inch thick tempered glass, but it had a tint that was hard to see through. I spent six months learning how PPG made crystal clear 2-inch laminated glass for jewelry stores, but there was so little demand they only made it at one plant every two years. Our installing it at Myombe revolutionized zoo displays.

You designed your own home on 2 wooded acres in Lutz, then outfitted it with trap doors, secret passageways and hidden ladders. What's your favorite part?

The hardwood floor basketball court in the family room. Some of my best shots are from the kitchen through pantry door. When we play H-O-R-S-E, my E shot can only be made lefthanded from the dining room over a soffit.

Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727)-893-8252.

Busch Gardens engineer found his calling designing thrills 04/02/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 3, 2011 1:10pm]
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