White-knuckle work

Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s new chief engineer tells Douglas Friedli about one of the scariest jobs in the business

Father of two David Rothwell has just landed what must be one of the best Dad’s jobs of all time – chief engineer at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

Sitting on a rollercoaster, scared out of your wits before a mighty, gut-wrenching drop, it is easy to forget the sophisticated technology which keeps the whole thing going. Most visitors are unlikely to give a passing thought to how it all works, or the people who keep it working.

But there is plenty of technology, and Rothwell heads a team of 100 electrical and mechanical engineers and animators. They cater for the 7 million visitors a year who make Blackpool Pleasure Beach the UK’s most popular tourist attraction.

The technology used on the newer rides is advancing in leaps and bounds, driven by the public’s appetite for new thrills. One of the most recent additions to the beach is Playstation – The Ride, which blasts its victims up a 200ft tower and then drops them back to the ground. `I go to seminars and talk to engineers from places like ICI. When I talk about the technology we’ve got here, they are amazed,’ says Rothwell.

Technophobes are likely to find the modern rides particularly scary. `We have a lot of computers, and a lot of rides which are driven by plcs (programmable logic controllers) – on some of them, an operator just has to press one button and it’s all taken care of.’

Rothwell entered electrical engineering on advice from his father. `He was an engineer, but not an electrical engineer. He always said to me that the best trade to go into was the electrical trade, because they got a better deal – better pay and better conditions.’

Living in Blackpool, the Pleasure Beach was the obvious place to start, and Rothwell began as an apprentice in 1976. Four years later he became an electrical engineer, and rapidly climbed the ladder at the family-owned company.

His successes have included winning Apprentice of the Year in 1978 and the Lighting Design Award in 1995, but he regards his most recent promotion as his biggest achievement so far.

Much of the job involves dealing with safety matters and breakdowns. But the most stressful part is handling a different kind of white-knuckle ride: working for a family firm. `It’s definitely a bizarre place to work,’ he says. `In a family business where the family take an active role, people like me get between family members. You’ve got to play mind games and work out all the political aspects of the job. If it was just engineering there wouldn’t be a problem.’

Rothwell’s favourite holiday destination is the US, where there happens to be a huge number of theme parks. `It’s a bit of a busman’s holiday really,’ he says. `Somebody like me can’t go on a ride without looking at how it works, what gets you from A to B. I have to go on more than once – the first time I’m looking at how it works and the second time I might actually enjoy it.’

His own favourite at Blackpool is the Big One, a `hyper coaster’ built in 1994. It starts from a lift over 200ft high and finishes two and a half minutes later after snaking between all the other attractions.

Away from work, he enjoys the crashing, soaking experience of rides like the half-mile long Congo River Rapids at Alton Towers. The attraction is that he can take all his family. `I enjoy a lot of the scarier rides, but in the past my son and daughter have been too young,’ he says.

Rothwell’s children, aged seven and 11, have grown up in a theme park family. His wife, Elaine, is personal assistant to the finance director and the operations director of the Pleasure Beach, and his brother works at Frontierland, a sister theme park on Morecambe Bay.

Although he feels his father was right to say that electrical engineers get a better deal, he hopes his children will try different careers. `My son might become an engineer, but if I have my way he’ll do very well at school and do something else. But I wouldn’t have a problem if he came and worked here.’

The Pleasure Beach’s general manager is due to retire in five years, so Rothwell has another goal to aim for. However, the work itself is as important to him as career progression. `I take it personally if there’s a ride down for a full Saturday or a Sunday. I don’t see it as just a job.’

One of the best things about working for the Pleasure Beach is being able to try out all the latest gadgets. However, says Rothwell, the industry will give little away about what the next big thing will be.

Accordingly, Blackpool’s latest attraction, due to be unveiled in Spring 2000, is being developed in strict secrecy. Rothwell remains tight-lipped over details: `It’s an indoor ride – a water ride, in the dark,’ he says. `And that’s all I’m going to tell you.’

David Rothwell at a glance

Age: 39

Education: Palatine High School, Blackpool

First job: Electrical Apprentice at Blackpool Pleasure Beach

Current job: Chief Engineer at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, in charge of a team of 100 engineers at the UK’s largest tourist attraction

Interests: Football, theme parks, being with family