Billy Boyd, Weber Group

With the warm weather upon us and the kids out of school, it might be a good time to take the family for a little river smuggling. Relax — we’re talking about a ride at Cedar Point in Ohio that was created with the help of a local design and build company called Weber Group

Located in Sellersburg, Indiana, Weber Group specializes in custom fabrication and traditional construction. The company is known for work in themed entertainment experiences.

Louisville Future spoke with Billy Boyd, technology project manager at Weber Group, about the company’s latest project — the Snake River Expedition at Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio.

How did the company become involved in the Cedar Point project?

Boyd: We’ve been doing what we call themed entertainment, which is kind of designing for amusement parks and water parks, for a number of years. We’ve done a lot of rock sculptures, characters and overlays to make buildings look like they’re from the 1800s or part of a safari. We’ve worked with museums and zoos, mostly in the decorative capacity. 

Cedar Point is on an island in Ohio off the northern coast of Lake Erie. Inside that island is a smaller island with a lagoon around it. They wanted to put a boat ride on that lagoon and then have a bunch of characters that would move along the shore.

The primary challenge of the whole thing was that the ride needed to be extremely safe. They wanted to be able to have tracks that passengers would activate to scare (but not harm) them. So we had to work with it quite a bit.

Can you give us an example?

Boyd: The premise of the ride is that you’re smuggling goods to a lost river settlement. At the beginning, a guy tells you about it and says to be aware of snakes. We’ve set sensors that emit a snake sound, so you feel a tickle around your ankles, as if snakes are biting you. As the ride finishes, you pass this 40-foot animatronic snake that spits at you as your boat passes.

No thank you.

Boyd: We also blow a couple of things up. It’s all to develop that sense of wonder. Because this has to happen every two minutes, every day for 12 hours for six months out of the year, it has to be highly repeatable. If it does have failures, then it needs to be very easy to access everything and fix it. Those are the challenges we face.

What is the tech that went into it?

Boyd: It’s mostly sensing. We had to make sure the everything was secure and encoded, because a lot of people like to hack this stuff just for fun. We had channel security. In addition, we had some ladder logic type stuff going on with the animatronics. This meant that if there was some kind of mechanical issue, they could harmlessly stop.

But the primary challenges were more mechanical — getting all of the pneumatic systems and electric motor systems that drive the animatronics to not only work but also look right, because everything is scripted. This involved programming it to do what you want it to do, reprogramming it and getting everything ready.

How did you come into this line of work?

Boyd: I went to the University of Kentucky School of Architecture and then worked for a couple of architecture firms. The work got kind of repetitive, so I started looking around for something more exciting. Then I saw an ad for Weber Group, and the rest is history.

We design and fabricate all of our stuff. We outsource some things — you can’t master every discipline — but we try to keep as much in-house as possible. Right now in the shop, there’s a giant 10-foot ice cream cone and a couple of characters.

What are the advantages of being located in this area instead of Silicon Valley or New York City?

Boyd: I think people value their opportunities a little bit more in Louisville. When they get a chance, they’re more willing to go to bat and put “more skin the game” to get things done.

In the long term, everyone develops strong connections. The turnover rate in tech companies in general is pretty quick. But I’ve been here for eight years, and I love it. I don’t really want to go anywhere else, and a lot of people I work with are like that.