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Theme park cast member stories: 'Quit thinking and just drive the raft'

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Published: June 8, 2009 at 10:56 AM

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 first day in Magic Kingdom West attractions, I was assigned to learn how to drive the Tom Sawyer Island rafts.

Rafts to Tom Sawyer's Island

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.

When the raft gets to a certain shrub on Duck Island, push the tiller all the way to the right to make the raft turn left. Hold the tiller there until the mast swings around to the shack on the island dock. Then cut the throttle to neutral and swing the tiller the other way, all the way to the left. Give the raft a blast in reverse to slow it down, then work the throttle forward or reverse, as necessary, to ease it close to the dock. (Put the tiller to the right when going forward and to the left when in reverse.)

Then lash the stern, put the throttle in forward, go around front, tie off the bow and help guests off the boat.

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."

"Huh?"

"Just drive the raft. Take us wherever you want to go."

"I've always wanted to drive around the island," I said, looking away.

"Let's go."

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".

Readers' Opinions

From TH Creative on June 8, 2009 at 11:04 AM
That's a terrific story!
From Joshua Counsil on June 8, 2009 at 11:18 AM
Every time I start a new job, the training is always very hurried, ending with something along the lines of, "You'll figure it out".

Then, naturally, I make some fatal error in front of the boss, causing him to absolutely lose it on me, sometimes threatening to take my job away.

Yeah, you'll figure it out, alright.

From Robert Niles on June 8, 2009 at 11:24 AM
I like this story because it illustrates the difference between teaching a procedure and teaching a skill. For something like Country Bear Jamboree, you need to teach the procedure. ("Press the button and you've got 20 seconds to spiel before the show starts...")

But driving a TSI raft requires developing a skill, not simply following a procedure. A skill can adapt to a change in environment; a procedure cannot. (It's like a computer program that's coded to handle a thrown error, versus one that is not.)

It's much easier to teach a procedure, but far more effective in the long term to have developed skills.

From Eric Malone on June 8, 2009 at 11:34 AM
Great story! I know I don't go out to Tom Sawyer Island a whole heck of a lot, but considering I'll be taking several first-timers, that'll definitely be a stop. I'll have to thank the raft operator next time I'm there. ;)
From Wok Creative on June 8, 2009 at 11:50 AM
Great life lesson, too. Thanks for sharing.
We watched someone struggle for quite a while at Disneyland once. It didn't seem right to have them still in training mode with guests on board (and also holding up the rest of the river traffic.) Everyone really felt for the driver.

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