Disney is one of my family’s favorite vacation spots. I am an avid roller coaster enthusiast, and my oldest son Joshua loves thrill rides of all types. So we often spend our Disney vacations getting off and back on Expedition Everest, Test Track, and the like. But before I get into that, let me tell you about my background and my interests in teaching a class on the behind-the-scenes mathematics at Walt Disney World.
I have been at Furman since 2006, and I am a Professor in the Mathematics Department. My academic background includes an undergraduate degree in Mathematics from Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas (my home state), a Master’s and Ph.D. in Mathematical Sciences from Clemson University. In between my graduate degrees, I spent two years working in industry as an Operations Research Analyst helping a manufacturing company design an efficient operational layout to minimize material movement within a new plant it was building. While in industry I loved working on new and interesting problems, but I found that I wanted more time and independence to really study the mathematics behind the problems, so I went back to school to pursue a Ph.D. emphasizing Operations Research. This industrial experience has had a big impact on the types of mathematical research problems that interest me. It also shaped what and how I teach. I’ve found that students are often motivated to learn hard mathematics if they can see a direct application of their effort. So whenever possible, I try to introduce new mathematical topics with an application of that topic. What I find most rewarding about this May-X course is that at Disney World, the applications are everywhere!
My primary research field is in Combinatorial Optimization. This is an interdisciplinary field that combines the fields of Mathematics, Computer Science, Engineering, and Management Science. Problems in this area are concerned with the efficient allocation of limited resources to meet some desired objective. For instance, a production scheduler for a manufacturing plant might ask, given a product’s projected demand, how much labor and raw materials are needed to meet that demand while minimizing the cost to the company. At Disney, a vacationer might ask how to schedule her visits to attractions in order to minimize her time waiting in lines or, perhaps, to maximize the number of visits to Tower of Terror! Further, a Disney employee might ask how to allocate families to hotel rooms so as to satisfy the demand and to not disrupt vacations with unnecessary room switching.
I am excited to be able to introduce these types of problems to our students during the May-X course. The wealth of scenarios that can be modeled using mathematics at Walt Disney World makes it a prime location to help students discover how the abstract mathematics they see in the classroom can be applied in the real world. I can’t wait to get started!
For me, this includes any ride that makes you feel like your stomach has moved toward your brain. I have been known to have uncontrollable fits of laughter on my favorite Disney attraction, Tower of Terror. The detail and intricacies of the staging area for that ride and the unpredictability of the drop sequence makes it stand out from other free-fall attractions. In the 2014 version of this course, I rode Tower of Terror 31 times. I’m hoping that I have the chance to do that again. Expedition Everest is a close second for its uniqueness among roller coasters. My first experience on Everest was with my youngest son, Will, when he was five. He spent most of the ride trying to avoid looking at a Yeti. At the end of the ride, he looked at me and said “That was fun! Do I have to ride it again?” At that point, my thrill-seeking eldest son and I discovered the single-rider line and proceeded to ride it another 20 times. Being somewhat tall, I find a lot of the “thrill” rides at the Magic Kingdom uncomfortable, but generally I like any ride there ending in “Mountain.” Finally, when I am tired and ready to wind down for the day, I really enjoy hanging out in the World Showcase at Epcot.
At the suggestion of a good friend, I tried Boma on one my family’s visits to Disney. My friend said that he sometimes drives from South Carolina to Orlando just to visit Boma. After eating there, I can see why. The wonderful flavors and the setting at Animal Kingdom make this a top favorite of mine. I also like Biergarten at Epcot for the food and the authentic German entertainment. Actually, I’m always up for going to any restaurant in the World Showcase at Epcot. The memories I have of my kids not being able to control their laughter at the Hoop-Dee-Do Revue also makes it a favorite of mine. Wherever we go for our special meals on the trip, I’m sure it will be fantastic, but I will probably be thinking about how to get to Tower of Terror again before closing time!