Disneyland (CA)

Forces, Physics, and Fun(!) at Disneyland

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Now, don’t be scared off by that title, because this post has to do with roller coasters. Yay roller coasters! And I need YOUR help, too! You can share your opinions about roller coasters with me, and I’ll send you some good Disney karma or maybe a hug if I even happen to meet you in the parks. But first, a little background info.

 Look! A roller coaster!

Hi! I’m Kelsey. I’m a senior at Scripps College in Claremont, CA. I’m a Physics major. Somehow, I convinced my advisor to let my write my thesis about roller coasters and forces, specifically California Screamin’ at Disney California Adventure. How did I manage that, you may ask. Honestly, I have no idea. I’ve been using my iPhone’s accelerometer to measure the acceleration of Screamin’ during the ride with the goal of figuring out the best place to sit on a roller coaster. I’m defining the best place to sit as the seat with the maximum acceleration values that make you feel as if you’re floating or being pushed down into your seat. At the moment, there isn’t really a scientific qualification of the best place to sit, and that’s what I’m trying to figure out by measuring acceleration.

This is the part where I need your help. I’ve had trouble coming up with a definition of the best place to sit. My maximum acceleration definition is kind of arbitrary; I picked it because I needed a numerical way to define the “best” seat. But in my thesis introduction, I want to talk about some non-scientific measures of the best seat.

Here’s how you can be an absolutely amazing person! All you have to do is leave a comment telling me where your favorite place to sit on a roller coaster is, for coasters in general, or maybe just your favorite Disney one, and a completely non-scientific reason why it’s your favorite spot.

For example: On Big Thunder Mountain, my favorite spot to sit is the back row because the ride feels bumpier.

Or: I like to sit in the front row of Expedition Everest because it goes the highest where the track is “torn” and reverses for the first time.

And one more: I like to sit in the front row of Space Mountain at Disneyland because it feels like you’re flying through space, but I don’t like to sit in the front row of Space Mountain in the Magic Kingdom because I feel like the train is going to hit something.

See, it’s really easy! By the way, those are all my actual favorite spots. I’d love to know yours! If you leave a comment, prepare for some good thesis/Disney karma coming your way! Just like the little green aliens from Toy Story, I’ll be eternally grateful for your help!

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Kelsey Lubetich

Kelsey is one of the "West Coast Informants" for Touring Plans. She attends college a short 45 minute drive from Disneyland, and spends a lot of her time there, even though her friends don't quite understand her love of Disney. Her favorite ride is Indiana Jones, and she can recite its safety spiel from memory. She can be found on Twitter @cookiqueen.

31 thoughts on “Forces, Physics, and Fun(!) at Disneyland

  • Hi Kelsey! It was pretty awesome to see this as I’m a high school senior headed to Pitzer in the fall who will definitely be heading over to Disneyland.

    Space Mountain I prefer the front, because I like feeling like I’m flying. Expedition Everest I like the front, because the back is too much for me (as some others have said). Those are the only two that I really have preferences about.

    Good luck with your thesis!

  • Back of rock in roller coaster has a sweet whiplash. The back of Everest has that “oh crud” feeling when you you backwards.

  • I rode once in the front of Everest & it was a great ride.
    Rode again, this time in the back.
    Got a concussion. No joke.
    Whipped around like crazy & for about 2-3 hours afterward, my brain was in slow motion. I had to consciously parse every word that everyone said to me & really concentrate on what was said.

    It was a very disquieting feeling.
    I only found out afterward that it was a classic symptom of a mild concussion — which is your brain being smacked against your skull.

    I will only ever ride that ride from the front if at all.

    Rode Rock-n-Roller coaster last week from the middle & it was very smooth.

    Space Mt at WDW can’t sit in front, much as I’d like to because there’s less leg room.

  • I generally like the back seat on wooden coasters and the front for steel coasters. I love that bumpy ride of the good old fashioned wooden ones! Ten years ago, I wrote my senior comp about ‘Peter Pan’ and have a special place in my heart for a Disney inspired Thesis topic! Good luck!!

  • I’m super late to commenting, but I thought I would add something because I’m going to be writing my thesis next year and figure I need good thesis karma.

    On slower, lower G rides, I like the back because the ride is wilder (Big Thunder, Space Mountain). But on attractions where the car is already going fast by the time it goes into its first hill, inversion, etc., the thrill of the front is the best (like Rock N Roller Coaster). And the front on Everest is just awesome for no reason.

    For well-themed coasters like those in Disney World, I care less about the “best seat” because I’m going to get a ride plus a well-told story, but if I’m going to Six Flags, then the best seat is more important because the ride is the only thing I’m getting out of it.

    Good luck on the thesis!

  • I have collected accelerometer data at Walt Disney World and I want to pass on a few lessons learned. Cellphone sensors are usually set to a single gain appropriate for determining phone orientation but not necessarily high-g situations of roller coasters (although, it’s been awhile and new phones could be using better sensors). Collect data at 20Hz or faster to ensure sufficient data for post-processing. WDW rides reach 3-4 g’s typically. Universal Studios rides reached 4-5 g’s. Also, it is critical that the sensor is properly coupled to the coaster. Holding the phone in your pocket or hand is not going to yield consistent results. I suggest double sided tape to attach the sensor to the seat. The data will need some post-processing to remove the noise and smooth the results. Finally, you will notice differences between front, middle, and rear in terms of peak and timing. The elapsed time of the ride changes depending on loading conditions (number of coasters on the track, weight of the riders, etc). Good luck and have fun collecting data…all in the name of science!

  • The best seat for me depends on the ride and the attraction, quality or the resultant motion or direction of the ride. If the ride has very high drops and it is a forward motion only then the best seat is in front because the perception is that I am hanging off the cliff, and I don’t have any cues from the other passengers in cars before me to alert me to the buses and falls.

    If this is a forward backward moving ride like a boat moving in an arc and swinging around with some suspension in the air as we go all the way around then he thrill is at either end because it feels as if you will be going faster and once you hit the top you feel like you will fall out from any seat.

    If the roller coaster goes upside down and has a top bar going over your head then the frot is best because of the hang and being the first without warning of the upside down turns is amazing.

    I find for roller coasters where they deprive you of the sense of sight I.e yu go through a tunnel it does not matter where you sit the ride is awesome anywhere..

    Good luck with your thesis and hope this helps!

  • My 11 year old daughter and I love the front on all coasters. We love the rush of the acceleration on Rockin Roller Coaster , the better views on Expedition Everest, and I love the extra leg room on Space Mountain. Big Thunder is the only one we don’t care where we sit.
    What a fun thesis!

  • Front seat on Space Mountain is the best! Especially single file at WDW makes me feel like I’m the only one on the ride.

    Back of California Screamin’ feels the fastest = best!

    Rockin Roller Coaster I don’t notice a difference either way.

    Thunder Mountain I like any way I can get it!

    Expedition Everest I like the front row for the view.

  • Big coaster fan here with about 150 different coasters ridden to date, though I’ve never been to Disneyland. On multi-car train coasters, I love the back seat for the airtime and speed. But sometimes I sit in the front for the view, especially if it’s a suspended coaster (hanging from the top rail).

    Good luck on your thesis!

  • I enjoy the back seat on roller coasters that are smooth (usually new ones)!! Front is always a safe bet too!!

  • We tend to ride Disneyland and Disney World Coasters. My Disney roller coaster thoughts:

    Expedition Everest – front seat is fabulous, because you have no one blocking your view going forward and can’t see those “in front” of you going backwards. Plus the disorienting feeling when you see the last car above you a split second before you feel the tug pulling you around backwards is fun. One caveat to this… when we took our little kids on this ride the front was too scary (they prefer more space between themselves and the Yedi). In retrospect, I wish we had been in the middle for their first ride.

    Thunder Mountain – We just returned from a trip that was heavy with rides on this one. My preference (and that shared by the other two adults in our group) was that the back was much less jerky than the front. In the front, not only was our view blocked by the train, but we found ourselves sliding and bumping much more in the front. We each had a small child with us, so we were much more attuned to not crushing into the person next to us and really had to work to not move when we were in the front. In the back, we could just sit and enjoy the ride without being slid at all. For some reason, the 6 times we rode it were all either very front or very back cars and the difference was dramatic.

    Rockin’ Roller Coaster – love the front! I love not seeing anyone in front of me and the start feels more dramatic up front. Probably raises my heart rate a few beats per minute just anticipating it! When my kids finally go on it, we’ll probably be happier in the middle or back.

    Splash Mountain – not sure if this is “roller coaster” but I do prefer the front on this one. Seems to be a tad drier if you duck in the front. Usually.

    Good luck with your thesis!

  • Either the front or back, hate the middle. Front for the visual preview of the track to come, especially when hanging over the top of the first hill. The back is great for the speed and getting pulled over the top of the first hill. I grew up in Ohio and went to Cedar Point every year where they continually set world records for height of first hill and that was awesome for front and back seats.

  • What a GREAT thesis idea!! I know nothing about physics and have no real idea what G Forces mean, so my choice of roller coaster seats depend on 2 things, view, and that “push down in your seat” feeling you get when it takes of….which i THINK is the G Force, but no idea what positive and negative mean. LOL

    I want to ride in the front of most coasters for the view. the only time i DON”T want to be in the front row is when there is a big drop right at the begining after climbing the hill. the front car goes down the hill very slowly at the begining because the back of the train is still climbing….it feels like you’re missing half the drop! So then I want to be in teh back to experince more of the drop. And the back seems to slam you in your seat more than the front, but I also think that has something to do with body size.

  • I think the rides I like best are those that have the quickest “rate of change”, i.e. quick drops, sudden banks, etc. Perhaps you could incorporate not only the accelerometer ready, but also the time element to gauge the change over tim, say from a 1 g condition to a -2g condition. I feel the more sudden the change, the more “wow factor” a ride has!

  • I actually like the back row of most roller coasters. I feel like I get the most out of the experience that way. We’re the last to get over the “hump” when climbing a hill, but we get to enjoy the full speed of the drop longer than the people in the front row. The only time I want to sit in front is when I’m looking for a view.

  • First I’ll congratulate you on your work. I generally prefer the back seat except on Everest where the front seat is the best view and technically the back seat during the reversed period.

    Now as a physics graduate I can’t help bit offer to throw another complexity at you. The front and back must travel at the same speeds and we generally consider the back faster on the drops. This would mean the front would be faster on the inclines. Perhaps you could define a best negative G seat and a best positive G seat depending on your preference.

  • I like the front of all roller coasters because I like to see what’s coming.

  • Obvious. The last seat. It offers the most freefall time. People in the front spend the first part of the hill waiting for the rear to catch up.

    • This. Except for Everest, in which case the speed of the rushing air in the front seat outweighs everything else.

  • This is fantastic! I’m an engineering major so im constantly thinking about this stuff too!
    On big thunder, I like the back best because you have the least hang time off the chain lift hill, rather than the front of the train which is halfway down the hill before it can move freely.
    On rock n roller coaster, i like the front best. The acceleration and the wind feel stronger in the front, and it is less rattley than the back (I dont like my head bouncing against the headrest).
    Good luck!

  • Hey Kelsey,

    Well the sappy answer is, Next to you having the most fun in the world just hanging out with a great person. 😉

    Not that any part of that statement is not true, given my choice, I like the front seat for the view and there is the great point on some coasters like Screamin’ where your over the top of the lift hill and the front car is pointing down but most of the train is not and your almost hanging there and as the rest of the train passes over the crest and more then 50% of the weight is on the down hill side and you get that “push” down and your the train starts to pick up speed so fast. It’s a lot like the Magnetic Accelerator at the “launch” on Screamin’. The only down side is if there are teen girls (or some wimp boys) just behind you screaming as loud as they can.

    As for Space Mountain at WDW, it’s a coaster I am not fond of. Any coaster that you can’t put your hands up on because you WILL hit part of the ride is just not as fun. Tell the truth, you can’t have a bad ride and not have fun with your hands up. Try it, just sitting in your chair put your hands up and try not to say “WOO HOO”. See!!!

    Back to topic, I am not a big fan of the back seat because of the whip affect but if that’s the only seat, LETS RIDE!

    I should also say I like older coasters like the Matterhorn at Disneyland and the Giant Dipper at Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk.

    I hope this is helpful. Hope you see you soon.

  • Ok….you’ve got a huge coaster fan, so this will be my favorites (and observations) on coasters in gereral after riding lots of different coasters.

    I am typically a front seat rider, but the reasons for it vary depending upon the type of coaster.

    Wood coasters: back of the train tends to be the roughest and most jerky (ie you’ll most likely have bruises), so I stay in the front half. The front seat tends to have more of a visual impact (“head chopper”) and SEEM to go the fastest.

    Steel coasters (non inverted): I love the front on these coasters due to the feeling of speed. You feel the push of the rest of the train when it is fully on the lift hill, get the wait time as you hang over the top of the first hill waiting for the train to catch up so you can go down, and the wind in your face make it just seem faster. If it goes upside down, the lateral gs are much more pronounced in the rear half, which I avoid.

    Inverted steel: The front wins again because you can see the sky and scenery (making collistions seem more likely) and since the track is above you, you don’t have a visual to where you are going next. I have found that the back half is again rougher, although it is due to lateral gs rather than bumpiness. Actually my only illness on an ‘upside down’ coaster was due to giving myself a slight concussion wacking my head on the harness (I’m shorter and forgot to hold my head still properly) during a corkscrew.

    All together I found that the front half of the coaster tends to feel faster and give more airtime over the smaller hills, while the back half gives a rougher ride with more lateral gs.

    Oh, and any coaster in the dark, indoors or at night with minimal lighting, definitely feels faster.

  • Hi, Kelsey!

    First, my hat is off to you for thinking up such a cool thesis topic and then convincing your advisor to let you do it. Well done. 😉

    I love roller coasters and can say that, generally, if you want a wilder, more intense ride, with greater positive and negative G-force changes, then the back row is the way to go, the front less so. The middle of the train will typically give you the mildest ride. But there are always exceptions.

    Disney coasters are not designed to be super-scary, with really intense forces, so I prefer the front rows of most of their rides. Space Mountain in Disneyland is probably my favorite roller coaster in the world, because of that beautiful musical soundtrack, and the incredible blur of stars all around you. Truly magical.

    X2 at Magic Mountain is an amazing roller coaster, but it can be startlingly rough. But it turns out that there’s one seat – the inside back row, on the “front of the park” side of the station – that somehow delivers a much smoother ride, every time. Magical in its own way. 😉

    Good luck on your project!

  • I always feel like I’ll be spontaneously decapitated at Space Mountain (CA) because I can’t see any of the coaster’s structure, but the front is my favorite place to sit anyway for the visual appeal.

    Not exactly a roller coaster, but I love the front seat on Splash Mountain as well for the same reason. There’s nothing like being the first one over the falls!

    As for roller coasters in general, I prefer not to sit in the front if it’s my first time on a particular track. There’s just too much uncertainty and trepidation. But if I’ve ridden the coaster before and feel safe on it, I love being at the head of the curves.

    • The last time I went on Space Mountain, the woman in front of me had her arms raised for the whole ride and I was sure they were going to be ripped off and I was going to get slapped in the face by them. It caused so much anxiety that I can’t ride it anymore.

  • Ok well I’ve only been to WDW so all of these apply there:

    Space Mountain: the front seat of either car so I have more room for my legs/backpack. It all feels the same to me.

    Big Thunder Mountain: The back row is the best for the bumps and that you don’t have to wait at the top of that first lift hill.

    Rockin Roller Coaster: I love to be in the front especially through all the black lit props. It just feels so rock and roll and cool! I’ve tried the back on that one but it doesn’t seem any faster to me and I like not seeing anyone in front of me.

    Everest: The front is cool at the very top but I also like the back when you go backwards. On this one I will even sit in the very middle to get the best of both effects plus those rows tend to have the least lines and I can re-ride faster early in the morning.

    Hope that helps!

    • Hmmm… my experience two days ago at Space Mt in WDW is that the front seat has far less leg room than any other seat. My knees are in my chest up there, whereas they’re straight out for any other seat. FYI, I’m 6’0″.

  • I love the front of Expedition Everest for the view.

    I DESPISE the front of Space Mtn (FL) because I feel like my head is going to be lopped off by a misplaced beam.

    I love the back of BTMRR (FL) because the ride feels faster and whippier (is that a word?).

  • I must sit in the front row. I need the visual preview of the track contour to prepare myself.
    The front row will experience less G force than the back, so for me that is also a bonus.

  • Oh, this is fun! I like the front of Expedition Everest because it goes the highest when the track breaks and the view is spectacular. But I have to say that the smoothest ride is the middle. I had the occasion to ride it 5 times in a row on my last trip. The front was awesome but the middle was smoother. I rode in the back, too and it was too bumpy for me.

    That’s the only one I’ve ridden consistently in a favorite spot. Space Mountain at WDW hurt me the last time I rode and I was in the front and felt like I was going to get slung out of the seat.

    Big Thunder Mountain at WDW is just plain old fun, LOL! I like the back, too :).

    Oh! Rockin’ Roller Coaster! I love the back on that one. It’s like I’m flying!

    If it makes any difference I’m a mom with kids :). I love the idea of your thesis. Sounds like a lot of fun! Good luck!


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