Theme park cast member stories: The Old Man and the Caribbean Sea
Written by Robert Niles
"Sorry for the hold-up, folks. Seems to be a slow-moving train up ahead. You just remain seated, and we'll be right with ya."Tweet
The "old man" was up, which meant we were down at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. I'd been trained at Thunder only a couple weeks earlier, but had already learned about the "old man" - the pre-recorded spiel of a supposed prospector that played automatically whenever the roller coaster's computer system shut down the ride.
A little kid on the main side station had been crying, so the crew held the train. Disney rules prohibit dispatching a ride vehicle with a crying child: The child has to either stop crying, or get off the ride. We would allow families to wait on the unload platform as long as necessary until their child stopped bawling, then reseat them on the next train. But no train was going anywhere with a crying kid on it.
Unfortunately for everyone in line, if the family of the crying kid didn't accept the, uh, invitation to wait to the side, that train could not leave. And if one train didn't leave on time, that meant there was no room in the station for the train behind it on the track. (Thunder has two stations, with up to five trains on the track.)
With one train stuck outside the station, the train on the lift behind it on the track had to stop. Which meant the train on the lift behind that had to stop, too. Which meant that the old man would be getting up, and the ride was going down.
Coming back up from a "cascade stop" such as this was relatively simple. You just get everyone off the train on the spur side station, then send it back into storage. Then you bring in the next train off the track, unload its guests, and then send it back into storage. You keep doing that until all the trains are off the circuit, leaving each one either in storage or in a station. Then you bring the trains back onto the circuit, one at a time, until you're running the three, four or five trains you need - depending upon the size of the crowd in the park.
A train coming down from 'C' lift on Thunder at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom
Whichever cast member was working Thunder's control tower when the old man woke up is the one who gets to oversee the restart. That day just happened to be the first-ever downtime for guy in tower at that moment, a guy who, like me, had been working months at Pirates of the Caribbean and just recently cross-trained on Thunder.
The ride's lead hurried up to the tower to assist. Typically, with a more experienced cast member in tower, the lead just stood by and chatted with CMs and guests. Today, she stood closer, watching as the rookie slowly worked his way through the procedures.
When the trains stop on the lifts throughout the ride, we'd turn on the lights and send operators to each lift, first to check on and calm the riders, then to restart the lifts. We always worked our way backwards, starting one lift at a time, so that no one would have a train rushing by him or her while out on the track. But, still, because there were operators on the track while other parts were starting up, the tower operator had to announce over the ride-wide loudspeakers as each section of track restarted.
And he did. Oh boy, did he!
"Attention on Pirates of the Caribbean. Block zone four is restarting."
Knowing the rookie was fresh over from Pirates, several of the Thunder vets started to giggle, then caught themselves. I, a Thunder newbie like the rookie, simply thought, "There but for the grace of the Old Man, go I" and kept my mouth shut.
"Attention on Pirates of the Caribbean. 'C' lift is restarting."
At that point, no one on the load platform could contain themselves. The dispatcher on spur side actually doubled over in laughter. Even guests in the crowd turned to one another, asking, "Did he just say what I thought he did?"
"Attention on Pirates of the Caribbean. 'B' lift is restarting."
The crowd on the load platform started to laugh. The dispatcher on the spur side composed himself enough to start singing "Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate's Life for Me." Many in the crowd joined in.
Already overwhelmed by his first solo restart of the ride, and now utterly perplexed by the reaction on the platform, the rookie leaned over the mic to announce the next lift restart.
"Attention on Pi-"
Recognition dawned scarlet on his face. He eyes grew with terror, then squeezed shut. The lead was about to draw blood, she was biting her hand so hard to keep from laughing.
"Uh, attention on Big Thunder Mountain, 'A' lift is restarting," the rookie croaked, in a meager voice.
The Thunder CMs erupted in applause. The dispatcher who'd been conducting the crowd stood tall and pointed toward tower: "That's right! Y'all's on THUNDER MOUNTAIN now!"
The rookie drank free that night.
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