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Theme park cast member stories: When to evacuate a ride?

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Published: February 28, 2011 at 10:55 AM

When do you have to evacuate a theme park ride?

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.

Readers' Opinions

From 98.155.74.151 on February 28, 2011 at 11:32 AM
In my experience as a ride operator, there is a qid-pro-quo as to what the ride operator is to do. Just about every circumstance is visualized and a response there to is required. Should a ride operator fall off the reservation and deviate slightly, they are written up.

Theme park owners don't want to take chances and most of these actions are VERY conservative. Consider SeasWorld and the "Journey to Atlantis in San Diego". Any event that requires an e-stop requires an evac. Lets say a kid gets off the ride on the transfer track ahead of dispatch(happens often), obviously an e-stop should be made. But even if the kid was easily retreaved, ALL of the passangers anywhere on the ride must be manually removed. The process though is very safe and is very well trained, practiced and tested. BUT it is a royal pain.

From Amanda Jenkins on February 28, 2011 at 11:56 AM
I have been stuck on rides before, for long periods of time and yet have never had to evacuate. I would imagine that it would be an interesting experience. The only ride that bothered me while trapped with no end in site was It's A Small World. My husband and I were stuck in the last area for 40 minutes. They never turned the music off. Now normally, I do not mind nor get angry if stuck; but a person can only stand that song for so long without thoughts of doing bodily harm to animatronics. The cast members would at certain times break through the music to let us know that they were doing all that they could to get the ride going again, which helped in keeping our sanity.

The ride that I had the most fun and laughed the hardest at being stuck was Kongfrontation at USF. Our vehicle would not stop for us to disembark. We made the loop throughout the ride eight times before they were able to get it working properly. Our "guide" went ahead and did the ride's script each time. We were all laughing so hard, because eventually he would sound more and more bored. By the seventh time, his dull voice would say, "Oh no. He is going to hit us. Watch out." We all left knowing the lines so well, that we could have easily been hired. After all these years, I still remember some of my favorite parts, "What's this? It looks like a war zone!"

From 74.82.64.35 on February 28, 2011 at 12:16 PM
Great story. I actually got stuck and had to be evacuated from Pirates this past Friday. We had to be evacuated from right before the drop. It was a great experience though. I enjoyed being able to see a backstage area, even if it wasn't that amazing. XP
From 72.50.102.228 on February 28, 2011 at 12:17 PM
Speaking of leaving the music and animation on.

About 10 years ago my family and I, where passing in front of the Hulk (before it was dirty), we rode it earlier that day, but wanted a second ride. It was Summer (July to be exact) Islands was PACKED but we decided to go in, so we stood outside in the queue really near the building entrance. Then all of the sudden a voice says that they were having some problems, and that guest could wait or come back later. So we decided to wait it out... We waited people kept leaving and we move forward and a little more forward but the "damn" music and videos were left playing. So we moved a few feet stay there for about 10 minutes of the same, then move again to ten more minutes of the same music/images etc. Until finally we made it to the loading area after waiting about 45 minutes with that annoying song/video of the Hulk transforming and fighting the ARMY and a damn tank!!

I still, to this day (10 years later) remember that damn video!! So I agreed turning the music/animations off is a great idea...

From 72.50.102.228 on February 28, 2011 at 12:22 PM
Hey I didn't write my name. I wrote the Hulk "terrible" story.

-Francisco

From 141.152.158.116 on February 28, 2011 at 1:58 PM
A single ride is nothing compared to evacuating a hotel/water park combo for a tornado.

That's TONS of fun :P

From 98.14.59.201 on February 28, 2011 at 8:42 PM
Yea I had to be evacuated from the logflume at playland again it was the same prcedure one by one they took the passengersthey had like 4 or five staff members though. i remember it like yesturday it happend to me like 3-5 years ago
From 173.76.39.216 on March 1, 2011 at 11:40 AM
We were evacuated from Big Thunder Mountain 3 years ago. It was fun seeing the behind the scenes stuff!
From 12.163.85.93 on March 1, 2011 at 12:25 PM
I "am" one of those anxious guests who gets uptight and starts panicing when an attraction e-stops. Even when the Haunted Mansion or SpaceShip Earth stops to allow disabled guests to board or disembark, I start holding my breath. It has gotten so bad with age that now I find I don't even enjoy these attractions any longer as I spend more time anticipating being stuck in them than I do getting pleasure from the ride itself! I swear I have bad luck as I know over the course of my life (35+ years), I have been stuck in almost every WDW attraction out there...including the monorail!
What gets me the most is the inconsistency in the way the ride-op handles each situation. Granted what seems important to me may not be important to them, but there should be mandated rules for an e-stop. I'm certain there are but as this article states, much ultimately falls upon the ride-op and what they chose to do. Most guests can roll with whatever happens...and maybe even enjoy it. But there are people like me out there that instantly lose their sense of control and start feeling panic and anxiety set in. I would feel far more at ease knowing that the same procedure was being followed no matter what attraction I was in or who was pushing the buttons.
Most importantly, talk to me! Tell me what's happening and what to expect. Like the article says, not knowing is the WORSE feeling and can completly shoot the enjoyment out of the entire day! The automated "sorry folks" message is fine for 2 to 3 minutes. But at some point within that first 5 minutes, you have to talk and let me know what's happening. I listened to "Looks like some critters are causin' a little commotion up ahead..." for 20+ minutes without moving. I understand that breaking in with voice can damage the magic...but trust me, 20 minutes in the same spot without having a clue what is going on has already destroyed the magic...even for a five year old. Give me a clue...I don't need to know that sensor 3A failed on lift B but I'd like to know that things are progressing or that someone will be around shortly.
Yes, turn off the music and turn on the lights. Don't wait to do this! I was stuck in Small World for 30 minutes WITH the audio still going! I honestly don't mind the loops. What scares me is that for it to go on this long, I believe someone inexperienced is working the ride and that there are no adults taking care of things. There needs to be a level of confidence felt. I never fear that I am in danger, but that claustrophpobic "trapped" feeling swoops in immediately.
I've always loved Disney and always will. I just wish there was a little "less" free will involving e-stops. If I knew what to expect each time, I would save a LOT of worry time. Not knowing how each ride-op choses to run his or her ride is just as nerve racking as not knowing why we've stopped and what is being done about it. Maybe I just need some stronger medication :-)

-Fig-

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