Theme park cast member stories: It's all hands on deck when a ride evacuates
By Robert NilesFollowing last week's highly popular vote of the week on theme park attraction evacuations, I'd planned to tell my story about the time I evacuated myself from Walt Disney World's Pirates of the Caribbean. But then, I remembered that I'd already told that story.
Published: December 27, 2010 at 12:29 PM
But, as the many, many comments on last week's vote demonstrated, there's much more to say about attraction evacuations than can fill a single post. (For one, that they are now officially called "in-show exits." Thanks to a Theme Park Insider reader and theme park employee Raymond for that update.)
I think that we see attraction evacuations (hey, I'm gonna use my term) as such big deals because they are big deals. They don't happen everyday (God willing), and millions of theme park fans will go their entire lives without experiencing one.
Evacuations are big deals for park employees, too. When a ride evacuates, it doesn't just involve the crew at that attraction. Employees from around the area are pulled in to assist, potentially affecting the operation of rides throughout that area.
A theme park ride is designed for guests to enter in one location, and to exit in one location. (Often, they're the same place.) So the crew just has to have people on the ride to staff those locations.
But in an evacuation, people will be exiting the ride throughout the circuit. Sure, there are designated evacuations points - but a crew needs many more people to go to those "in-show exit" points than it needs in normal operation. There might be a few spare employees waiting around on break who can be pulled in to assist, but typically, you need to call other, nearby attractions to send help.
I was working in tower at Big Thunder Mountain as my lead strode up the platform, with his eyes locked on mine, in a serious glare. This was not a "hey, I just wanted to thank you for a job well done" look. It was a "you might want to acquaint yourself with the Fifth Amendment, 'cause you are about to be in so much trouble" look.
"They want you over at Pirates," he said. "Now."
It's not unusual that attractions cast members would be sent from one attraction to another in the middle of their shifts. Effective scheduling relies as much on luck as planning. Some days, a more than expected number of people would call sick at one location, and others would have extras. Leads then would work out sometimes complicated "trades" to find people who were trained on the attraction that needed people and send them over while not leaving any other locations hanging.
But if you were being sent to another location, you'd just get pulled out of the rotation the next time another co-worker entered it. Almost never would a lead jump into your spot in the rotation to pull you out, immediately.
"They're evacuating," he explained.
Ah, so this was no typical shift change. As I walked out of the station to take the backstage path over to Pirates, I saw an area supervisor waiting in a cart.
"Get in Robert," he said.
Now I'd seen Pirates evacuations before, but I'd never seen supervisors chauffeuring cast members over to the ride. You were supposed to hoof it yourself, as fast as you could. I sensed that the supervisor understood the confusion that surely was evident in my expression.
"Pirates is evacuating. And you're directing it."
Whiskey, Tango, Flounder?
The job of directing an attraction evacuation typically falls to whatever poor soul is unlucky enough to be in the tower position when the ride goes down. If that person has never run an evacuation before and doesn't know what to do, it's the lead's job to jump in and run the show.
But today, the Pirates lead was new to the ride - in fact, I'd just finished cross-training her on the attraction the week before. No one in the rotation that afternoon had ever run a Pirates evacuation, either. The odds of that happening? Long. But it had, so the lead had sent word to the area supervisors: Get Robert over here, stat.
As I arrived in the tower a few seconds later, half a dozen Jungle Cruise skippers ran up the steps behind me. Three more, plus an extra from the Tiki room, were out front, closing the Pirates queue so that the Pirates cast members could come inside the building to help with the evacuation.
Even in an evacuation, we tried to preserve the theming of the show by having only CMs in pirate costumes inside the ride, helping guests from boats. But outside the show building, we'd use the Jungle skippers to direct people around the building and back to the "on stage" section of Adventureland. Main Street would be sending over guest relations CMs from City Hall, too, with handfuls of free tickets discreetly tucked inside their purses and bags, to mollify guests with complaints. (Today, CMs would offer additional FastPasses before pulling out park tickets.)
No guests would see me in the tower, in my forbidden-in-Adventureland Big Thunder Mountain Railroad costume.
Within 10 minutes, we'd have everyone out, the backstage secured and the ride turned over to maintenance to figure out what the heck had gone wrong. (In this case, it was a busted motor on one of the belts at unload, if I recall correctly.) The new Pirates lead and several Pirates CMs had gotten to see a real, live evacuation so that they'd know how to run one in the future.
And a few hours later, I would be enjoying a free dinner, courtesy the Pirates lead.
You can read more of Robert's stories about working at Walt Disney World at themeparkinsider.com/stories.
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