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Theme park cast member stories: The quest for overtime

By Robert Niles
Published: June 29, 2009 at 10:21 AM
Theme Park Insider readers might not be fond of the crowds that pack the nation's theme parks each Fourth of July holiday, but when I worked at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom I loved the holiday throng.

Why? Because big crowds meant one thing to me... overtime.

Working overtime not only meant extra hours in my weekly paycheck, it meant a 50 percent pay increase for those hours, as well. So I and everyone else I worked with at the MK did just about everything we could to score as much overtime as we could stand.

Robert on the parade route
Robert, in Thunder Mountain garb, rolling out the parade route in Liberty Square.

Now "as much as we could stand" varied wildly from employee to employee, as you might expect. As enthusiastic 20-something, I had the will and stamina to work long hours. And since I wasn't that into the cast member party scene, I usually didn't have anywhere better to go, either. So on holidays like the Fourth, I aimed for an opening shift, then volunteered to extend my day as long as I could find a location that would have me.

Back in my day at the MK, any time worked over eight hours in a day was paid at the time-and-a-half overtime rate. If you were really good at working the schedule, and could get more than 16 hours in a shift, that time was paid at double your usual hourly rate.

All time worked on a sixth or seventh day in the work week also was paid at the time-and-a-half rate. And all full-time employees got eight hours of holiday pay on the Fourth, whether they worked it or not.

Finally, if you had less than six hours between the end of one shift and the beginning of the next, you started that second shift at the same pay rate that you ended the previous one. This "shift differential" was key in hitting the double-time jackpot on holidays. Work through the late close (as late as 2 am), then come back for an opening shift the next day (around 7am) and you could start the day on overtime, moving swiftly to double-time, once you hit the 8 hours of overtime mark.

The most lucrative shift I ever worked came one New Year's Day, after working late on New Year's Eve and picking up an opening lead shift when dozens of other cast members called in, uh, "sick." But I'll leave that story for later.

There were three basic rules for extending:

1) Extend at a different location. Working your second shift at a different location helped break up the monotony of a long day.

2) Try to extend into a shift that would send you to a parade. Several attractions shifts were assigned to go to parade audience control (PAC) for a couple of hours during their shift. Scoring one of these meant, again, more variety and less monotony - key to staying alert and engaged during a long, long day. Plus, working at Disney is a social experience. Going to parade meant seeing another dozen or so of your friends that you wouldn't have gotten to see otherwise that day.

3) Avoid extending at theater shows. It's okay to start a double-shift day at someplace like Bear Band (Country Bear Jamboree), Tikis or the Hall of Presidents. Heck, that'd help you save energy for later in the day. But ending your day sitting through the shows is no way to stay awake.

If you wanted to extend, you let your lead know early in the day, making calls around to other locations if your lead wouldn't do that for you. If you didn't get a yes right away, you might get an extra shift later, when people started calling in sick or not showing for their shifts.

The last Fourth I worked, I opened at Tom Sawyer Island, reporting for work just before 9am. My seven-hour shift ended after the 3pm parade, but I knew I wouldn't be going home then. I knew that the park would need as many people as it could get to work crowd control for the parades and fireworks that night, so after working crowd control for the afternoon parade, I extended with the PAC group for the rest of the evening.

I walked downstairs to the tunnels to change from my TSI gear into the PAC costume (white short-sleeved shirt, grey polyester slacks, and burgundy striped tie), then set out with a few other crew members to step up ropes and stanchions for the evening.

The Fourth keeps you busy as a cast member. You've got to keep the Liberty Square bridge clear for night parade to pass, shooing away folks trying to camp out for good places to see the awesome special fireworks show. Guests will commandeer benches and chairs and move them to places one wouldn't think possible. I once confronted two teens who'd moved chairs from the Liberty Square cookie stand on to the roof of one of the local shops.

After the parade, we moved swiftly to rope up three lanes across Liberty Square bridge, rolling out the stanchions we'd stashed in the middle of the bridge. The lane closest to Castle would be for folks to stand still and watch the fireworks. The one in middle would be for walking from the hub to Liberty Square. The one farthest from Castle would be for walking from Liberty Square back to the hub.

At some point the hub would fill and the people trying to exit Liberty Square would have nowhere to go. At that point, we'd cut access to bridge and direct people either to the left up the path toward Fantasyland, or to the right through what was then a backstage path toward the Adventureland bridge and Main Street. (Disney's since created a permanent guest pathway along that route.) About a half hour before the fireworks began, the park achieved total gridlock, and there was nothing to do but chat up the folks around you and wait for the show.

After the show, we made ourselves as tall as we could be, then started waving or flashlights over our heads, in the direction of Main Street, while shouting "Please keep moving" at the mostly immobile crowd. I'm sure that folks became a bit annoyed at our constand pleading, but we had no choice.

Yeah, we wanted the crowd to move. But mostly we needed to keep moving, too. After 14-16 hours that day in the park, the last thing many of us wanted to do was just stand there watching, like whatever poor soul was stuck that hour in the Bear Band theater.

Got a fun story about a park on the Fourth (working or attending)? Share it in the comments, please.

Readers' Opinions

From 74.99.87.236 on June 29, 2009 at 11:11 AM
us at busch gardens williamsburg are considered seasonal and dont get any pay increase for overtime.
From 67.37.163.106 on June 29, 2009 at 11:26 AM
I have heard of extending your shifts like that from Cast Members on the tours at WDW. I would agree that working in one area the entire day could get a bit crazy!

I wonder if this still is going on with the economy being in the tank and Disney, along with other theme parks, cutting back.

From Anthony Murphy on June 29, 2009 at 11:28 AM
The mystery person is me(not busch person). I forgot to log in :)
From Raymond Sydowski on June 29, 2009 at 1:39 PM
Good lord, this takes me back. I was never a part of this particular rat race (I was a part-timer), but I watched in amazement as people regularly balanced 60-80 hour work weeks when they could get the hours.

I've seen people emerge from their cars at westclock, having slept their the night before. Thank god for the showers in the utilidors.

From Dan Babbitt on June 29, 2009 at 4:31 PM
This has nothing to do about the Fourth but my brother volunteered to work at the MK 24 straight hours! There was a hurricane and the needed cast to stay and prepare for the storm and to assits with any repairs or such. He said he really didnt do anything but he got to take the Speedway cars of the track and have the govenors taken off the cars. He slept on a couch in Tommarrowland.

I havent worked a Fourth yet but I did do Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years! Each day I workd at least 12 hours. I do have to say it was the best days I have worked for WDW!

From tyler bell on June 29, 2009 at 8:16 PM
This isnt about the fourth.My dad used to work at Hollywood Studios Disney World.He said that one day he and his friend were eating lunch, and he saw Michael Jackson walking with four bodygaurds MJ acknowleged him and my dad waved back to him.He wanted to go walk over there to him but he didnt know how the gaurds would react
From TH Creative on June 30, 2009 at 2:10 AM
I don't really have a story. But every time Mr. Niles posts that photo I just have to remark how awesome it must have been to get such a cool photo of Elton John walking around the Magic Kingdom ... with a big spool of rope.
From James Rao on June 30, 2009 at 6:21 AM
I agree with TH, that Elton John photo is awesome! I would love to hear the story behind his visit to the park! ;)
From Elizabeth Gray on June 30, 2009 at 7:12 AM
While I am not a Theme Park Employee I worked in the National Park System for many years. Working overtime on the 4th of July was always good money. I often worked a day off and got double time plus the Holiday dif. I also worked the museum at the National Archives in DC which on a good day in the summer has 5000 people (mostly 8th graders) in a very small space. However on the 4th it was usually double that and we had re-enactors and booths. You have to learn to keep smiling.

However the greatest was working for the Park Service in 2000 and having to work the Capitol Lawn concert in DC. The one they broadcast on PBS. That year the headliner was Ray Charles. The producers need the stage guarded while he performed but wanted "friendly faces". They pulled the Park Service staff doing crowd control to do this. There I was center stage with Ray Charles behind me singing "America the Beautiful" and then the fireworks went off as he sang. It was one of the coolest moments of my life and I was being paid for it. Awesome!

From Robert Niles on June 30, 2009 at 8:26 AM
Great story, Elizabeth.

I posted that pic 'cause I knew it would elicit a touch of snark from TH. Dependable, as always....

From William Clark on June 30, 2009 at 10:09 AM
I have never worked for any theme park but I've been a guest at Magic Kingdom many times. We, my wife and I, always arrive right at opening, 9am. On the days we attend and there is a party like the Halloween Party, we get there at 9 am and don't leave until after midnight. 15 hours in the park often goes by very quickly for us. However it must be tough on folks working those long hours. Even after midnight though the cast members are still perky and smiling and courteous to us. I always try to respond in kind and thank at least one individually and tell them that we had a great day and that we appreciate their efforts. It's then that they smile with their eyes and thank us for coming.
From TH Creative on June 30, 2009 at 12:00 PM
Honestly, that pic needs to be printed on t-shirts and sold in the TPI retail; section.

Two words: "Like Hotcakes!"

From parker reave on July 1, 2009 at 11:14 AM
Yep. Overtime and double pay. I love the big holidays working at theme parks.
From Larry Zimmerman on July 3, 2009 at 1:05 PM
Great story, Robert. Makes me second guess my decision to work for the government instead of Disney...

Oh, and Elton John never had that much hair!

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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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