Theme park cast member stories: 'Quit thinking and just drive the raft'
Written by Robert Niles
Every Monday (Tuesdays in holiday weeks), Theme Park Insider editor Robert Niles shares one of his stories from working as a cast member at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. If you have ever worked at a theme park and have a story you'd like to share in this weekly feature, e-mail Robert.
I've been telling this story at journalism training conferences for some time now, since I believe it illustrates some common problems with corporate training. But it's a good theme park story, too, so I'll include it here today.
My experience with water craft before starting that hot, humid June morning was limited to canoeing while in Boy Scouts. I'd never sailed (which would have been far more relevant), so my trainer took me through the steps.
Unlash the stern. Push the bow away from the dock. Come around back and put the raft into forward gear. Straighten the tiller and until the mast lines up the Frontier Mercantile sign across the river.
And that was just the first half of the trip, mainland to island. There was another set of instructions for getting back.
Most of the time, I could "stick to the script" and get over and back without incident. But if I pushed off a little too hard when leaving the main dock, or started my turn at the wrong moment near Duck Island, I just didn't know how to adjust. So I'd be stuck in the middle of the river for five minutes (or more!), blocking the canoes, keelboats and sometimes even the riverboat, as I rocked the throttle back and forth, swinging the tiller around, trying to find the magic combination that would lead me back to shore.
After a couple weeks, my lead had seen enough. It was time for retraining.
She sent me out the next morning, before the park opened, this time with a different trainer.
"So, how'd you learn to do this?" he asked.
"Well, I push off the bow, then line up the mast with the Frontier Mercantile sign."
"Oh, God, no."
He took the tiller and steered us to the middle of the river.
"Okay, Robert, drive the raft."
"Just drive the raft. Take us wherever you want to go."
"I've always wanted to drive around the island," I said, looking away.
So we went, with me slowly nursing the raft around the Rivers of America.
"Speed up," my trainer said. "The faster you drive, the tighter you can make these turns."
For the next 10 minutes, we sailed around the island, with me taking the raft from riverbank to riverbank, wherever my trainer asked me. But he never told we what to aim for, or what on the raft to move - just where he wanted me to go. I felt the tiller and the throttle, how they worked together, and what combinations would move me where, and how quickly.
When we made it around, he asked me to dock on the island side. I swept the tiller to the side, and slid up next to the dock.
"Okay, let's head back."
I cast off, and with a smooth turn, brought the raft into the mainland dock.
"You're fine," he said, hopping off the raft and jogging into the office. "Don't worry about where the mast is pointing. Quit thinking about it.
"Just drive the raft."
I never missed the dock again.
For more stories from Robert, check out his eBook, "Stories from a Theme Park Insider".
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Stories from a Theme Park Insider
What's it like to work in a theme park? Stories from a Theme Park Insider takes you inside the famous tunnels and backstage at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom for a look at how theme parks really work, sharing the funny moments and embarrassments that can happen when your job is someone else's vacation.
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