Q&A: Sean LaRochelle on the magic of backyard coasters

Sean LaRochelle and the team at Magictecture made headlines over the past two years when, stuck at home due to pandemic-related lockdowns and unable to visit any theme park, they decided to construct their own rollercoaster in their Napa backyard.

Matterhorn: Alpine Escape, which went viral, was always intended to be temporary, and stood for nearly a year before it was dismantled to make way for an even more ambitious coaster project, Little Thunder Mountain.

LaRochelle spent some time describing to ACE NorCal the inspiration behind the thrilling projects, and what’s next for the budding team of coaster engineers.

Photo courtesy of Magictecture

ACE: How did your first build come to be?

Sean LaRochelle: Our first backyard coaster, Matterhorn: Alpine Escape, started off as a Covid project sketched on a napkin. My brother Michael and I grew up watching the backyard coaster personalities on YouTube and always wanted to try to put one together ourselves. The lockdowns forced us to slow down and think about how we could occupy our time in a constructive way.

ACE: Where do you get your inspiration for your builds?

SL: Walt Disney for sure has been the biggest inspiration. Growing up with Disneyland nearby, our childhood was punctuated by the immersive storytelling of the Walt Disney Company. This early seed of inspiration blossomed with age as I was exposed to construction, set design, literature, different cultures, and the power of storytelling.

Photo courtesy of Magictecture

ACE: Both of your backyard coasters are inspired by Disney attractions. What draws you to Disney’s work?

SL: Walt Disney orchestrated a high performance team of talented individuals who worked together to pull off the most detailed, innovative and immersive storytelling experiences ever created. This can be seen especially in the early work where the teams were constantly generating original experiences which moved audiences in a manner unprecedented. I think if I was to choose one word to describe what draws me to that work, it would be detail. The level of detail is what constantly brings me back to his work and something that we hope to emulate at Magictecture.

Photo courtesy of Magictecture

ACE: Before you start a build, how do you determine the scope of your project?

SL: We begin each project with a story. We ask ourselves, “What is the message we want a guest to take away from this experience and how do we tell a compelling story to get them there?” Once we’ve answered this question, we block out the scenes and timing necessary to immerse the rider in the story and time out how long it will take for each rider to comprehend what is happening.

Because these projects are self-funded, we have to be cognizant of our budget. To meet the budget, we shave off all the extra portions of the ride which, although nice to have, are not necessary for telling the story. From here we can determine track length, height, kart type, speed and technical requirements.

ACE: Is the design fully finalized before building, or do you tweak and add new elements as the build takes shape?

SL: Alpine Escape had a plan and elevation for the track. We did not deviate from the track design.

Little Thunder had a very detailed plan set which included 3D drawings of the track, karts, mechanical systems and mountain concepts. We also put together technical electrical, ride control and show drawings. The town was designed by my sister, Nicole, who has her Master’s in Historic Preservation and took incredible effort to ensure that the buildings were true to the styles and building techniques of the time.

The only elements that truly changed for both coasters have been the rockwork. Although I have proficient design skills using tools such as Rhino & AutoDesk, there is an art form to the rockwork. Our approach to this has been that once the structure of the coaster has been built, we take photos from various points of the track and structure. My wife, Emily, who is a talented artist, then draws over the pictures to begin realizing how the mountain should actually take shape. From here we frame out the rough shape and then bring in large teams of 20-50 people and have “rock parties” to create unique and convincing formations.

Photo courtesy of Magictecture

ACE: How long did Alpine Escape and Little Thunder take to build? How long to dismantle them?

SL: From planning to completion, Alpine Escape took five months to build. We spent four months planning Little Thunder and had it constructed and fully functional in three months. We dismantled Alpine Escape in the span of a few weeks. It stood for nearly a year before it was taken down. Little Thunder’s fate was much sadder as it only stood for a few weeks before being completely dismantled due to us selling the property. We were aware that Little Thunder would not be able to stay, however, and have preserved the entire track and control system which is currently in a storage facility.

ACE: How many people in your building crew?

SL: Magictecture is a partnership with a core group of nine individuals who each bring a unique discipline to the team. The coasters have turned into community projects with nearly 50 people helping on different aspects of construction.

Photo courtesy of Magictecture

ACE: How do you stay motivated during the building process, knowing that the coaster is only temporary?

SL: Having worked in theater set construction for several years, I am conditioned for fast-paced construction for sets that only last a short period. Regarding our coasters, we have long-term plans to take the skills and talents and apply them to a much larger goal. These projects are means to an end and we see ourselves getting closer every project to the final end.

ACE: What’s next for you?

SL: Magictecture has a couple of projects in the pipeline. The most public being a collaboration with legendary backyard coaster creator Will Pemble. This project aspires to be the most impressive backyard coaster ever built bringing together talents from all over the backyard and professional coaster world. The folks at Magictecture have been working hard to make sure that the storytelling is told at the highest possible level.

ACE: Thank you for taking the time to tell us about your work! Anything else you’d like to add?

SL: Thank you so much for the interview. Please check us out on our YouTube channel, Magictecture, or on our website at magictecture.com. Also, if you are interested in acquiring Little Thunder, we are currently looking for a new home for it. Inquires can be made via email: contact@magictecture.com

Photo courtesy of Magictecture

About Erik Chalhoub

Erik Chalhoub is the Magazine Editor at New SV Media in Gilroy (and a roller coaster fanatic!). He is also the proud recipient of the 2016 ACE NorCal Richard Tuck Spirit Award.

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