Theme park cast member stories: When to evacuate a ride?
Published: February 28, 2011 at 10:55 AM
This isn't a question for theme park visitors. (Or, at least, it shouldn't be.) But it's an essential question for theme park attraction operators. At what point is a ride so compromised that you need to order an evacuation? Or, as they say now, an "in-show exit"?
Evacuations aren't always a big deal. One of the reasons why folks came up with the term "in-show exit" was the silliness in calling some things an evacuation. But, technically, that's what it was when you stopped the Country Bear show and asked everyone to leave because Henry peed his pants and couldn't continue. (Those temperamental animatronics!)
On rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, though, evacuations are a much, much bigger deal. Evacuating Thunder, for example, requires sending two ride operators to every train left out on the tracks, helping people one-by-one out of the trains, then escorting them back through the mountain to the unload area.
And that's a relatively easy ride to evacuate. I've heard some of the stories about evacuating rides such as Space Mountain and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which can require deploying special equipment to reach and retrieve visitors. At Pirates, we had to shut down the water pumps that pushed the boats through the attraction, then put cast members into the water to push the boats to the nearest safe exit point.
Obviously, if you can avoid these hassles, you do. But how long do you keep trying to get stopped ride vehicles moving before you throw in the towel and call for the evac? If you can get the ride going swiftly, you avoid the hassle of the evacuation, and get people on their way. But if you wait too long, you're just adding to the wait and frustration of stuck guests.
The first thing a conscientious ride operator should do during a downtime is shut off the ride music and animation. Being stuck inside Pirates for five extra minutes is one thing. Being stuck for those five extra minutes while listening to "Yo Ho, A Pirate's Life for Me" on infinite loop is quite another.
You also want to acknowledge to the guests that you're aware of the problem and working on it, by getting on the loudspeakers and talking to them. It's the uncertainty that unnerves people most. If they know that people "out there" recognize they are stuck and working to get things moving again, you've bought some time and goodwill.
But at some point, you need to make the call: Is this ride going to get moving, or not? As soon as you take one person off a ride, you have to take them all off. Safety demands that if even one person is exiting the ride mid-way through, you must power down the ride, turn on their interior lighting and provide an escort to show the person safely back to the station. Decency demands that don't keep other people waiting through that process only to leave them still stuck on the ride.
Ride operators need to have a good relationship with the maintenance crew assigned to their attraction. If they talk to each other with honesty, ride ops can make a quick and well-informed decision about whether to evacuate. An evacuation looks bad on maintenance's performance record, so I always wanted to give them a chance to make things right. But I didn't want to keep my guests waiting, either. Maintenance got one shot - usually five minutes - to either get the ride moving or tell me that they couldn't. After that, I was calling the ride down and ordering the evac.
At Thunder Mountain, the ride would shut down several times a week not due to any maintenance problem, but because of guests. If people couldn't get into or out of the the train quickly enough, we couldn't dispatch it from the station. That meant the train behind it on the ride would have to wait on the course outside the station. And that meant the train behind *it* would have to wait on the last lift, and so on - shutting down the ride. (There's no "pause" button on a roller coaster - either you're running, or you're not.)
Once we cleared the people out of the train and sent it back to storage to clear space in the station, we restarted the ride by bringing those waiting trains back into the station, one at a time. First the one just outside the station, then the one on the last lift (the "C" lift), then the "B" lift train, and finally the "A" lift train.
Bringing the trains in one at a time got everyone off the ride more quickly than if we evacuated, so that was our preferred way to clear the ride after a downtime. But if just one person insisted on getting off their stuck train, we had to evacuate them all. Which is why Thunder operators tried their best to be chipper and upbeat when they went out to a lift to restart it during a downtime. We wanted to reassure everyone on that train that they were better off staying on board and going through the rest of the ride than getting out and walking back to the station.
Of course, sometimes things didn't go as planned. When Thunder went down, the ride system played a recorded spiel we called the "Old Man": "Sorry for the hold-up, folks. There seems to be a slow-moving train up ahead, so, we gotta sit here for a spell. You just remain seated and we'll be riiiiight with ya!" I got sent to the "A" lift this time, the position many of us dreaded, since it meant waiting the longest time with increasing anxious guests as the trains ahead of them were sent back into the station.
That night, I had an especially anxious guest on the train. I smiled my widest and explained the entire process to everyone on the train, trying my best to make that one guest feel as safe and comfortable as I could. And it worked. She agreed to ride it out. A minute later, I got the call to push the button to restart the lift and send my train on its way.
I turned to walk back down the lift and back to the station. But as I got to the bottom, the lift chain stopped.
"Sorry for the hold-up, folks..."
The ride had gone down, again. The train hadn't made it back to the station. It'd stopped in the safety brake in front of the "B" lift. There'd be no avoiding an evacuation now. Discouraged, I slunk back into the station, and told the lead, "I guess we'd better ask guest relations out here. That train's not going to be happy."
We'd tried our best. But it'd be free tickets for everyone that night.
For more of Robert's stories about working at Walt Disney World, please visit themeparkinsider.com/stories.