October 14, 2016, BY Matt Hughes

the TRON Light-cycle Power Run; photo courtesy of Disney Imagineering
photo courtesy of Disney Imagineering

Helping to Engineer Shanghai Disneyland's New Coaster was a 'Moving' Experience for Holly Hodges '10.

Disney’s newest roller coaster, TRON Light-cycle Power Run, is as far from “it’s a small world” as rides come. The centerpiece of Tomorrowland at Shanghai Disneyland, Disney’s $5.5 billion-foray into mainland China, the ride begins in near darkness, its only light a dazzling array of pulsing cobalt-blue “portals.” The hum of surging power thumps rhythmically behind a dramatic score as a voice counts down in Mandarin — sân, èr, yî. A second later, the train rockets to nearly 60 miles per hour, first outside beneath a color-changing canopy, then back into darkness, twisting through a course of LED-illuminated portals. Oh, and the rider experiences it all headfirst. This is one wild ride.

Years before the grand opening on June 16 of this exhilarating ride through a computer “grid” that recreates iconic scenes from the 1982 sci-fi film TRON and its 2010 sequel, plans for creating the coaster lived inside the computer of Holly Hodges '10. The mechanical-engineering graduate has been a ride engineer for Walt Disney Imagineering for six years and played a key part in bringing TRON Lightcycle Power Run to life.

Growing up in Orange County, Calif., where going to Disneyland was an annual rite of summer, Hodges was fascinated with the machinery behind amusement-park magic. But it wasn’t until her Engineering 100 course at Bucknell that she realized, “I could build roller coasters,” she says.

Through Bucknell’s Career Development Center, Hodges connected with Justin Schwartz '04, a ride engineer for Universal. Schwartz helped her land an internship at Universal Creative, working with him to ready a new coaster. Her Universal experience impressed the folks at Disney, and she interviewed with her current boss her senior year. Hodges joined Imagineering as an intern just as the Shanghai project was revving up, becoming one of the first eight engineers on the team. Six months later, Hodges was offered a staff position.

Hodge’s main contribution to the TRON ride is perhaps its most distinctive feature: the “lightcycle” that passengers ride headfirst. Hodges helped to modify the look and scale of the vehicle, working with a team using a poster image from the 2010 movie as a guide. They devised a system in which riders straddle the seat, as they would a motorcycle, adding additional safety features to keep guests secure. “It’s really very comfortable,” Hodges says.

Besides creating a new way of riding a coaster that’s safe and fun, Hodges and the team also had to meet accessibility and capacity needs — as well as cultural standards. Market research suggested that guests in mainland China would be more prone to motion sickness than Americans, so the team designed a track that is mostly outdoors, offering a glimpse of what’s in store.

This spring, Hodges was among the first riders to climb aboard, and she confirms that the coaster is a blast. She experienced the attraction with the lights on during final ride testing, zipping through the show building almost silently. It wasn’t yet the music-pulsing, laser-lit experience she’d worked so hard to help create, but it was moving just the same for Hodges to finally see the project come to life.

“I was moved to tears,” she says. “It was a really special moment, riding along with the people who made it with me as a team.”

Nearly a million guests have experienced Shanghai Disneyland since its opening, and TRON Lightcycle Power Run is a favorite attraction.