Nothing captures the human desire for thrill quite like an amusement park. From the pulse-pounding heights of roller coasters and Ferris wheels to the imaginative realms of Jurassic Park and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, attractions at these parks offer a controlled environment for uncontrolled fun. But how do we ensure that the thrills are both exhilarating and safe? The answer, to a large extent, is nondestructive testing (NDT).

NDT, or the inspection of structures and materials to ensure their stability and integrity are sound, plays a pivotal role in ensuring that theme park attendees can let loose with confidence. NDT allows for meticulous inspection of rides without causing any damage, a critical line of defense in maintaining safety standards.

The many roles of NDT at amusement parks

With so many elements at play, NDT is not a one-size-fits-all scenario when it comes to amusement park safety. Take Universal Studios’ Jurassic Park: The Ride, for instance, which involves water, mechanical dinosaurs, and steep drops. Elements like water pressure and the mechanical integrity of the animatronics are all well suited to NDT examinations to ensure a safe experience for riders.

Additionally, different rides require different methods of testing. Rides with a lot of cabling may require eddy current or magnetic flux leakage for examining cable strength and tension, while other structures often require magnetic particle testing (MT), dye penetrant testing (PT), radiographic testing (RT), ultrasonic testing (UT) and visual testing (VT).

The Star Wars universe has its own immersive attractions, with intricate simulations of space battles and laser strikes. Blaster marks, which are intentionally fabricated to create an authentic look, require a more nuanced approach. Inspectors use NDT methods to validate the integrity of these fantasy elements while distinguishing them from actual wear and tear.

Going behind the scenes

When NDT personnel conduct inspections on theme park rides, they usually do so when the attraction is not in active use. Inspectors often walk the rides with interior lights fully turned on, offering a stark contrast to the experience of regular patrons. On the ET The Ride at Universal Studios Hollywood, when it was still there, for example, the track was inspected routinely — usually weekly but sometimes nightly under certain circumstances — to keep the attraction running smoothly until unique, specially ordered parts arrive. Such routine and special inspections are crucial to ensuring the material integrity of the ride as thousands of amusement park attendees go for the thrill it provides every day.  

The work of NDT personnel behind closed doors and unnoticed by guests helps keep some of the most iconic amusement rides in operation. The High Roller Wheel on the Las Vegas Strip is the second largest Ferris wheel in the world and has become a recognizable element of the Vegas skyline. Originally fabricated in China and shipped in sections to be constructed in the U.S., the ride was thoroughly evaluated with inspectors conducting every method of NDT to ensure material and structural integrity throughout the assembly process. Thanks to the continuing diligence of regular NDT inspectors, guests can feel comfortable and safe riding such iconic attractions and checking them off their bucket list.

While most visitors are engrossed in amusement park immersive experiences—whether they’re dodging T-Rexes or flying to escape Darth Vader—an army of inspectors works to keep these patrons safe. These NDT experts grapple with unique challenges, such as dynamic loading, and forces not commonly seen in static structures such as buildings.

Getting into the industry

How does one prepare for such a specialized field? Often, the journey begins in adjacent industries like welding or construction. Skills across industries, from aerospace to oil and gas, are largely transferable, although the amusement park world offers unique challenges, like identifying whether the “distressed” Millennium Falcon at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge actually has structural issues or if it’s merely thematically appropriate. In this case, NDT inspection was applied throughout the manufacturing process in addition to post-construction. This helped prevent the potential development of cracks and defects from the onset.

Although welding and construction skills are applicable in the NDT profession, inspectors are required to undergo training and certification programs to become qualified personnel. Courses from third-party organizations such as those offered by the American Society for Nondestructive Testing (ASNT) offer multiple levels of certification that are universally recognized as a standard of excellence across industries, including theme parks.

NDT allows you to enjoy the ups and downs

The next time you buckle up for a roller coaster or find yourself piloting a spaceship in a galaxy far, far away, remember that your experience is backed by the rigorous science of NDT. In a world that constantly seeks to blur the lines between fantasy and reality for the sake of entertainment, nondestructive testing serves as a critical reality check. It ensures that whether you’re escaping a rampaging dinosaur or joining a Rebel alliance, your adventures will be both thrilling and safe.