USF Engineering Graduate Takes Busch Gardens By Storm

USF engineering graduate Jeff Hornick develops mechanical skills into designing and building roller coasters for theme park.

Jeff Hornick earned both a BA in Mechanical Engineering and an MBA from USF and is currently the Director of Design and Engineering at Busch Gardens Tampa. Photos Courtesy of Busch Gardens

By Helen Bierko

     USF News

Tampa, Fla. (Sept. 12, 2014) - While other children his age were playing with their trucks or cars, a young Jeff Hornick enjoyed taking his toys apart and putting them back together again, aspiring to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an engineer. Hornick grew up in the Tampa area, and living so close to Busch Gardens, his family had the privilege of holding year passes. As he got older, Hornick came to love the excitement that surrounded theme parks. He soon developed an urge to learn about the inner workings of the park and a desire to get involved in the design process. “To work in theme parks, you have to have huge passion,” Hornick explains, “and if you want to be in the industry, get your foot in the door.” Jeff began working as a ride operator for Busch Garden’s “Kumba” shortly after graduating from Riverview High School in 2003.

As he prepared for college, Hornick chose to attend his parents’ alma mater at the University of South Florida and major in mechanical engineering. “I got into other schools,” Jeff Hornick says, “but I chose USF because it was the right fit.”

Looking back on his college career, Hornick fondly remembers an engineering capstone class, taught by USF Professors Don Dekker and Stephen Sundarro, which gave him the freedom to be innovative. Alongside six other students, Hornick earned his first patent from the university for a motion-activated wheelchair for USF’s mixed-ability dance group.

During his undergraduate degree, Jeff Hornick also contributed to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, completed many hours of volunteer work and got involved in Phi Sigma Pi, a co-ed honors fraternity on campus.

Hornick is enthusiastic about helping current students find their paths to success. “The key is knowing that good grades are not the only important thing,” he says. “You should have extracurricular activities, jobs, and internships that show your employer that you can balance the load. When I’m hiring someone, I want to know that you can “juggle” multiple tasks. That’s what I do every day.”

After graduating with honors in 2007, Hornick returned to USF to complete his MBA. “I was able to work with other students who were outgoing and really passionate about their careers,” he states, recalling an entrepreneurship course in the graduate program. In this class, Hornick worked with others to create a pill bottle opener, and his efforts earned him a second patent. “If I didn’t go to USF, I wouldn’t have these opportunities,” he explains. “USF gives you a good background that pushes you to work outside of school, which really prepares you for the real world.”

Hornick graduated from the masters program in 2010, and he continued to work at Busch Gardens. With two hard-earned degrees under his belt, he was able to quickly climb the corporate ladder and learn more about the “inner workings” of the rides. Hornick soon became a drafting technician and eventually, a project manager at the park. Finally, this intelligent, young engineer became the Director of Design and Engineering, which is his current position.

Each day, however, Jeff Hornick is responsible for much more than just designing the rides. He collaborates with others to determine the themes, colors and animals that will be displayed in each section of the park. “I have to know a little bit about a lot of different things,” he says.

Hornick lead a team that designed Falcon's Fury.

The park’s latest addition, Falcon’s Fury, is a 335-ft. drop tower that Hornick has been working on since May 2011. At the top of the tower, it is estimated that one can see a 22-mile radius, making it the tallest free-standing drop tower in North America. After being rotated 90 degrees to face the impending drop, the ride shoots down at an alarming speed of 60 miles per hour, making this experience like no other rollercoaster in the world. The engineering team’s specially designed seats make Falcon’s Fury both comfortable and safe, which was just one of the engineering challenges Jeff Hornick faced throughout the design process.

Hornick explains that in order to build such a high tower in a hurricane-prone area, his background in mechanical engineering was put to the test. “Designing new features at the park is a lot like college,” Hornick explains. “From the initial napkin sketches to the final product, the whole process takes about three or four years. By the time we’re done, we’ve learned so much, and it’s exciting to see what we’ve accomplished from beginning to end.”

Because this ride is so “polarizing,” Jeff Hornick and the design team have taken the surrounding area and created what they call “Pantopia,” which is beautiful and culturally diverse. Hornick’s wife Kelly, a fellow USF graduate and member of Busch Garden’s Media and Marketing Relations department, is thoroughly impressed with the park’s new developments. “Whenever Jeff asks little boys what kind of rides they would create if they had his job, it’s always something to do with dragons breathing fire,” she says, laughing, as her husband admires one of Pantopia’s elaborately-designed buildings, the Dragon Fire Grill. He strongly believes that Busch Gardens should be a place for the whole family to enjoy, which is why having a range of attractions that appeal to different audiences is so important to his team’s design process.

Hornick’s enormous passion for each of his projects and overall love for his career is clearly portrayed in the incredible work he has done for Busch Gardens. This USF graduate’s hard work and dedication paired with his positive and fun-loving personality has earned him a great deal of success at a surprisingly young age. “My favorite part is doing something no one’s done before with a ride, working on the engineering problems and solving them through a creative process,” Jeff Hornick expresses. “It’s so much fun to think like a kid, and it’s a rewarding feeling when you’re done with a project and you get to see the smiles and hear the giggles and screams coming from the park.”

Helen Bierko is a communications intern in the University Communications and Marketing department.