Theme park cast member stories: Going overboard at Pirates of the Caribbean
By Robert NilesHourly capacity is the Holy Grail of the theme park business. The more people you can put through an attraction in one hour, the shorter its line will be. The more people a park's attraction can put through, the more rides you can go on in one day. So, high hourly capacity = happy customers.
Published: May 11, 2009 at 9:48 AM
It shouldn't surprise you then, to learn that Disney runs some of the highest capacity rides in the business. When I worked at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, the highest capacity ride on our side of the park was Pirates of Caribbean. We could put more than 2,000 people per hour through Pirates, without breaking much of a sweat.
But one summer (was it 1989 or 1990?), our hourly numbers were lagging. Counts dipped below 2,000, to 1,800 - then 1,600 - per hour, and our mid-day wait time was creeping over one hour.
In those days, Pirates loaded boats in two side-by-side channels, which merged as the boats made a right turn into the upper grotto. Slow boats would linger there, allowing the boat from the other channel to catch up and pinch it at the merge point, stopping both boats and forcing attraction operators to come down and pull the two boats apart. That delay slowed the flow of boats (and guests) into the ride, crippling the hourly count.
So what was management's solution?
To put the most experienced operators at the load and tower positions at peak periods, to better time the dispatch of boats? No.
To increase the volume of the ride pumps at the merge point, to blast more water and make the boats flow faster? Nope.
Management's solution was... to put a cast member in the water at the merge point, to push the boats faster through the ride.
Only male cast members were allowed into the water, as our Pirates costumes included shoes. (Ladies who worked Pirates wore their own black character shoes, and Disney didn't want to have to pay for employees' shoes that were ruined by getting wet.) We wore chest-high rubber waders that someone borrowed from maintenance, and would give each boat a shove as it drifted by.
To get into the water, we'd have to stop the line at load, get into an empty boat and ride to the merge point. There, we'd hop over the side and into the water, while the person we were relieving would climb back in, for the ride back around to unload. You had to be very careful to go over the side of the boat, and not the front or the back. That way, you'd stay outside the ride flume, because if you got into the water inside the ride flume, well... as they say, dead men tell no tales.
Now, one could question the wisdom of taking a boat out of commission every half hour to do the switch, when we were trying to increase the number of guests in the ride. But, hey, given the number of work safety rules this little scheme was violating, it should have been clear that wisdom wasn't exactly in play here. (Pirates SOP [Standard Operating Procedure] was explicit that all water pumps had to be turned off before any cast member entered the water. Oh, well.)
Did it work? Supervisors eagerly checked our numbers throughout the day. And the hourly counts did tick up a bit, usually when less-experienced cast members went into the water, leaving the more experienced ones to work load and tower.
After a few weeks, though, word came down one morning - do not get into the water. The waders were removed from the Pirates office, and the leads told the operators not to bother asking if we were going to do that again. We all suspected that a manager "higher up the chain" got word of what was happening, freaked out, and ordered the pushing stopped. Immediately.
Later that week, a couple of us decided to address the hourly capacity problem our own way. A CM named Benny and I "froze" ourselves at the two loading positions for two hours, telling everyone else to bump around us. A CM named Marc did the same in tower. For those two hours, we worked as a slick machine, filling boats and dispatching them smoothly, with no merge point problems. The hourly counts? More than 2,800 guests per hour.
Plus, I got a good story out of this.
Tell us, in the comments, what was the stupidest thing that you've seen done by employees at a theme park in an effort to improve efficiency.
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