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Low Pay Buys Poor Quality in Theme Park Employees

Low pay in the theme park industry is driving high turn-over among ride operators. And that leaves the public at risk.

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Published: August 30, 2004 at 5:15 PM

Theme parks should have learned their lesson by now. But too many parks continue to treat their ride operators like disposable parts -- spend as little as possible on them, and when one fails, go get another. Not only does that attitude result in lousy guest service, it's injuring and even killing the industry's customers.

Want the latest example? Read the State of California's report laying much of the blame for the most recent injury accident at Disneyland's Thunder Mountain roller coaster on a newly-trained employee. That individual, on his third day at the attraction, screwed up the procedure for storing a train, leading to an on-track collision which sent four to the hospital. An experienced operator would not have made that simple mistake. Had a long-time employee been in the coaster's control tower that evening, not only would those four visitors been spared the pain and expense of their injuries, Disneyland would not have had to close one of its more popular rides for the past two months. Closing Thunder certainly didn't help Disney's summer attendance, which some Wall Street analysts described as flat to disappointing.

Didn't Disneyland learn anything from the Christmas Eve accident in 1998 which killed a park guest? In that incident, an untrained supervisor tried to stop the multi-ton Sailing Ship Columbia with a plastic mooring rope. The rope tore a cleat from the ship's hull, launching it into a waiting crowd on the dock. Theme park rides involve sophisticated, heavy equipment with the capacity to main and kill those who get in their way. But the theme park industry continues to pay ride operators like unskilled go'fers, offering starting wages at or barely above minimum wage, with few opportunities in place to encourage workers to stay beyond a single summer.

Disney once tried to get its best ride ops to stay. At one time, many of the company's mid- and upper-level managers got their start with the company working "on stage" at Disneyland or Walt Disney World. But Disney's elimination of leads in the mid-1990s closed the path that ride workers once walked toward management. Many of my former coworkers at Disney World chose to leave the company at that time, since they didn't see any future with Disney anymore.

No one expects parks to pay their ride operators enough money to make loading a roller coaster a lifelong career. But parks owe their customers an experienced workforce that keeps rides running, keeps customers safe and keeps wait times as short and as pleasant as can be. To do that, theme parks need to take a hard look at their budgets and find ways to offer enough pay to attract high quality ride ops who are willing to stick around a while. Otherwise, low pay ensures high turnover -- and a high probability that the employee responsible for a critical operation has little experience to guide him or her.

I'll confess, I was pretty worthless my first summer working attractions at Disney World's Magic Kingdom. Allow me this chance to apologize to those unlucky guests stuck on my raft while I floundered about trying to coax my raft over to Tom Sawyer's Island. All the while another group waited on the Island for me to take them back, and wait times for rafts creeped toward an hour.

But I came back at Christmas. And for two summers after that. My last year at Disney, I made lead on Tom Sawyer's Island, and I used my frustration trying to learn how to drive those rafts to change the training procedure for new drivers. After watching crowds trying to cram onto rafts for a couple summers, I changed the layout of the docks' waiting areas and worked with other departments to change the design of our queue. And by the time I finished, Tom Sawyer's Island had doubled the number of guests visiting each hour, slashed wait times, and moved from last place to first in the park's annual quality competition. Would that have happened without me? Maybe, but it certainly would not have happened with a crew of new hires, overseen by an untrained supervisor with no park operations experience.

Well-trained, experienced operators represent a theme park's best investment in guest safety and enjoyment. Many of my fellow cast members at Disney bragged about their ability to spot folks who would hold up an attraction before the got to the loading platform: a sniffling kid about ready to cry, an anxious teen who might hop the loading line. The employees moved aggressively, but always politely, to tell folks the rules, comfort kids who needed it and project an image of authority that would keep the crowd, literally, in line. But it was their months and years of experience that helped them spot potential problems and address them before they slowed the line or shut down the attraction.

When parks cut corners on attractions personnel, balance sheets look good in the short term. But visitors leave the park complaining of long lines and inattentive or surly employees. And that's the best case scenario.

My last summer at Disney World, I also trained new hires on Pirates of the Caribbean. One of the many new employees I trained simply wasn't understanding all the procedures for restarting the ride after a downtime. After five days of training, I felt this employee still didn't understand how to operate the attraction safely. So I refused, as his trainer, to check him out and ask the lead to approve him to work the attraction. Unfortunately, my lead overruled me, and allowed the new hire to go into the rotation.

A few weeks later, in May, 1990, a boat caught on the flume wall at the bottom of the ride's drop, tripping a sensor and stopping the next boat at the top of the hill. That employee whom I'd refused to let be checked out was sent to see what had happened. He forgot to check the bottom of the flume, assumed that the sensor had tripped accidentally (which it often did) and manually released the boat at the top of the drop.

Down on to heads of the people in the boat below. When I arrived the next morning, I ran into several area managers who'd been at the park all night, filling out reports and checking on the progress of injured guests. And that's when another lead told me these details about what had happened. (No was killed, thank goodness.)

Let's not single out Disney. Competitors, including Six Flags, Cedar Fair and Universal, also have pled poverty when setting or negotiating contracts for their ride operators. It's time to stop. Theme parks are losing customers to an untold number of entertainment alternatives. The industry cannot afford preventable accidents resulting in injury or death. Nor can it afford to treat customers with anything less than the respect, courtesy and honest effort that high-quality service employees can deliver. Maybe its time for theme parks to cut back on press junkets and executive salaries and throw a few extra bucks at their most important employees -- ride ops. And to open pathways to management for the best ops employees. And find more ways to encourage good ride ops to come back for another year.

Promotions, parades and new thrill rides get people in the gates. But it is the reliable smiles of a park's employees, the competence of their work, and their steady hands on the tiller which keep guests satisfied and returning, year after year. Theme parks that shortchange their ride ops endanger their guests... and their companies' futures.

Readers' Opinions

From John Franklin on August 30, 2004 at 11:39 PM
Robert, you can now add this story to the above examples.
You know why the Keel Boats at Disneyland were taken out?
The story I heard states that at the end of the day for the Keel Boats (which would be around dusk), the two ride operaters manning the atraction decide to make one last trip with the remaining Keel Boat instead of two trips. So they disregared the loading restrictions for the boats and loaded as many guests as they could to the top level of the boat. About halfway round the Rivers of America, the boat started to wobble and finally capsized. It was too top heavy all because thes two guys wanted to make one final trip instead of two for the day. This was indeed the final trip for both Keel Boats and they were shut down for good.
From Kevin Baxter on August 31, 2004 at 12:05 AM
I don't think new hires necessarily need to be making the big bucks, but seniority should definitely be rewarded. Not just for the valuable knowledge they bring to the job...

Back in the day, you could tell Disney theme park employees were happy campers. Because of that, lots of kids grew up wanting to work at Disneyland. After all, those people had to be happy for a reason. With so many people WANTING to work at Disney, they could take the cream of the crop. Now people know there isn't a future there so they get to pick mostly from the same crowd they get at Six Flags et al.

It's especially bad in SoCal, where there are so many opportunities to work. For example, Target will pay you as much as Disneyland, if not more, and you get a discount on merchandise there and at Mervyn's. Nowadays, that discount is gold to young adults.

Orlando is a different story, as there aren't as many opportunities. And I think the pay there is higher, even though the cost of living is much lower. Plus, they have better perks, like two free nights at Pleasure Island and discounts are for far better restaurants.

Disney needs to bring back leads. The parks can certainly afford it. At least more than they can afford another "employee-caused" accident.

From David Holley on August 31, 2004 at 6:02 PM
I worked in Resort Operations for 7-8 years. While I never worked the front desk when leads were present, I did experience the aftermath known as EMPOWERMENT. The intent was to give the front line cast the power and authority to deal with guest service issues then and there. There were many cast members who embraced this and not surprisingly the Guest Inconvienice expense went up. (Let me comp you 1 night since you had to wait in line to check-in.) By the time I left, years after the leads went away, the attitude of the front line cast was to schluff off guest complaints and let the manager's deal with the problems since 'I'm not paid anything more to deal with the complaints - let the managers deal with them.' At least when the leads existed there was always someone immediately available to deal with guest problems. (Which brings me to another point...)
When I started in Resort Ops, no one was considered for the management program unless they had been statused as a lead first. Also, I seem to recall that another requirement was that the person had to have worked at two different resorts. The intent was to have managers that had a STRONG operational background dealing with a variety of situations and clientele. Since the leads went away, there has been a corresponding decline in the overall quality of front line managers. Its not that they're all bad, its just that they don't have the operational experience of the prior generation of managers. ("Its not about knowing the operation, its about wether or not the person can be a leader.") While a good manager can theortically manager anywhere, there is a distinct difference when the manager has front line, HOURLY, experience.

David H
(May God have mercy on your soul if you have a problem during your upcoming stay at a WDW resort.)

From Shane Falcone on August 31, 2004 at 8:01 PM
Lets take this thread a little furthur to all companies....its the same thing wheather you work at Disney, Universal, BJ's or Wal*Mart. Low Pay plus the managers always siding with customers on how "customers are always right." It has to stop becuase you will get disgruntled employees and that will lead to disgrunlted customers. A high turnover rate and more complaints. And screw ups will happen
From Joe Lane on August 31, 2004 at 9:27 PM
Disney in particular had to draw a line with the issue of the customer (guest) being always right at some point. Not but a few years ago, Disney would fall all over itself to help make a guests visit better--ranging from full ticket refunds to free stays at the resorts. Some folks found out about this policy and took advantage of it, abusing the system. Minor displeasures became grounds for a freebie. Disney eventually had to put an end to this kind of guest treatment. Today, the folks at City Hall still work their hardest to give their best, but they still get some real stinkers every once in a while, and there's always a story to tell about nightmare guests.

Of course, Guest Relations/Services folks don't always have the same daily experiences as a standard load/unload ride op CM.

From John Franklin on August 31, 2004 at 11:28 PM
Well people you know the old saying: You get what you pay for.
Think about it. At one time, many people went to Disneyland to get a summer/seasonal job (at one time, Disneyland work experience really looked great on a job application since DL was so picky on whom they hired) only to end up making a career of it as they started to move up to lead positions, area assistant supervisiors, and area supervisiors. Some were just content with doing attractions for their whole careers.
Not so now. Disneyland had to relax its dress code for hosts by allowing facial hair just to get enough people to run the parks.
And if DL had eliminated leads (I thought DL still had leads), then there's no place for Cast Members to go. So, very few people stick around like in the old days, much less make a career of DL now. And this is really a sad state of affairs for DL.
From Robert Niles on September 1, 2004 at 9:58 AM
The lead position was reinstated a while back (after the Columbia incident.) I'll check on the exact date, but if someone else has it off the top of their head, feel free to post that.

But, reinstating leads did not bring back a significant number of the people who had held lead or other senior operator positions and had left the company. Nor did it revive the institutional memory that was lost with their departure.

From Kevin Baxter on September 1, 2004 at 12:36 PM
Or the deep-rooted belief that those positions could disappear again at any moment.
From V Pickard on September 3, 2004 at 8:15 AM
As in any job, senority should be rewarded. However, in today's society somewhere values and dedication are over looked by management. It's a shame.

This may be a totally different topic, but does correlates to poor service quality. I can't speak for all of the amuzement parks, but for Cedar Fair, I know they give work passes for summer jobs for non-US citizens. As I look at these individuals with high regard (I couldn't go to Germany and run a roller coaster in German), they for the most part speak English EXTREMELY well. However, there have been personal instances at Water Parks and on rides (at CP) where the operator ,who's name tag read they were from Czhekoslovakia, had to ask a fellow worker for a translation when a rider asked a question regarding how to go down the water slide (hand behind head or over chest).

This leads me to believe the note Robert had touched on. Allowing individuals to run rides not fulling understanding all the SOP's. On certain water slides the difference of where your hands are placed make a difference and how you may or may not be injured.

From Orlando Insider on September 5, 2004 at 11:02 PM
I have been freaked out/disappointed a few times through my experiences as a guest/employee.

My worst experiences seem to come from Six Flags, where more often than not I saw ride operators that were obviously not properly trained to do their job (with exception of newest attractions). One time I walked up to a small coaster after opening, and there was one (maybe 2) employees there who informed me that they were unable to start the ride and to "come back later".

While working at Universal as a ride operator, there were several instances where employees would be written up for hitting an e-stop (accidently), yet other employees would be caught failing to do their job due to complete inattention but without any consequence.

From John K on September 6, 2004 at 7:38 AM
let me repsond to the orlando insider comment.

Sae with Six Flags, you accidently hit the E-stop you do get in trouble. Why? That really shows you're not paying attention to what you're doing and they don't need you there. The E-stop on Freefall at SF magic mountain could actually knock someone out, how? When you hit the bottom of the drop and the e-stop was hit, the car comes to a jolting stop, and you bang you're head soo hard.


I know it sounds unpleasant when operators say, "the ride is closed, come back later." This usually for mechanical reasons. No one knows how long the maintenance staff will take to fix it, sometimes it'll take a few minutes, sometimes a few hours.

I'm getting tired of saying this (I've said it a few times), you're OWN SAFETY is more important. Let me ask everyone this; would you prefer to go on a ride that is on the virge of breaking down? or Would you rather have'em fix it?

Also let me menion this. Six Flags magic mountain employees are better trained (on their rides) than disneyland employees. Not that many accidents at SFMM compare to Disneyland. Disneyland only has a FEW big rides. Big thunder has three accidents in less than 12 months, are you with me??? I don't know about you, but I say that's pathetic. I rather be at a park with no rides open then go to disneyland