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Theme park cast member stories: It's all hands on deck when a ride evacuates

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Published: December 27, 2010 at 12:29 PM

Following 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.

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.

Readers' Opinions

From 98.108.143.2 on December 27, 2010 at 1:22 PM
Well, this brings back memories of my days at Disneyland in the mid 70's. The fun part of a Pirates evacuation was to get into the waders (which always seemed to have a hole in them) and push the boats to an exit point...that is once the pumps that guided the boats were off and the building lights were on. The guests always seems to linger just to see the place in 'daylight'. We got more volunteers to do the water work during the hot days than during the colds ones. No suprise there for obvious reasons. It was a treat to use the skills that we practiced every now and then to remove 1,500 folks off a complex attraction without injury to them and us.
From Tyler Stover on December 27, 2010 at 1:54 PM
Sometimes it feels really nice to be the expert on something. Being the guy to go to when things go wrong can be frustrating, but if the right people recognize and appreciate your work it should be good for job advancement.
From Raymond Sydowski on December 27, 2010 at 2:28 PM
Thanks for the tip of the hat, Robert.

That was another nice thing about working Everest. Our evacs (with only 3-4 trains running at a time) could be done entirely in-house, letting us get back up and running even faster.

Evacs and downtime - I know that people don't want to hear this- were treasured as a change of pace by a significant number of cast members. We always wanted to get back up and running ASAP, but sometimes, just sometimes, it was nice to do something different for a change.

From Steph Ramos on December 27, 2010 at 3:57 PM
They gave free TICKETS away back in the day?! Are you serious?! Man...now I feel swindled...a fastpass doesn't seem to cut it in comparison....
From David Sutter on December 28, 2010 at 4:54 AM
Oh belive you me I can relate. When i was a cast member at WDW I wotked on "Living with the Land" in Epcot. And when we hand a inshow evacuation it was a major event. There are 17 exit points in that attraction. And each boat holds 40 guests in a wheel chair boat and 42 in a regular boat. And there are approx. 18 boats on the water at any given time. So yea theres nothing pleasent about it. And it can take up to 45 mins to do as well. As a trainner on it walking new cast members thru eveac. proceedures most of the time Id get "your kidding" from them. And Id have say nope and this is on the check out test. Youd be amazed how many wed lose. Besides knowing hand signals, evac. proceedures,and memorizing 17 pages of script to do the green house boat tour. Granted they had a week to do it which is more then any other attraction. But theyd beat feet to switch loacations.
From Daniel Etcheberry on December 28, 2010 at 9:41 AM
How do you evacuate "Pirates" if there is water around you?
From 24.147.125.102 on December 28, 2010 at 10:12 AM
Five years ago DH and I were "evacuated" from Test Track due to heavy rain that picked up after we had begun our ride. No Fast Passes for us :(
From Robert Niles on December 28, 2010 at 12:14 PM
In answer to Daniel's question, in a Pirates evacuation, you first turn off the show elements (i.e. the music) and turn on the building work lights. Then you turn off the ride pumps that push the water around the building.

At that point, cast members can enter the water (always outside the ride flumes!) and push the boats back or forward to the nearest designated emergency exit point. These are the points in the ride where the ride flume comes right up against the walkways and show scene floors around the building, so that riders can step out of the boat without getting into the water.

Once everyone's out - riders and CMs in the water - then maintenance and address the problem and turn over the ride to attractions personnel to restart when ready.

From Will Chilcote on December 28, 2010 at 3:46 PM
Interesting, Robert. I worked at one of the Six Flags parks a number of years ago and all they would do is close the queue (even leave the queue open sometimes, on the coasters it was sometimes a regular thing to happen) and send the lead out to get people off the ride. I love how professional Disney is about things even worrying about theming in an evacuation. This is the main reason Disney is the King of Parks and why I love to go there... :-)

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