Written by Robert Niles
Published: August 30, 2004 at 5:15 PM
Want the latest example? Read the State of California's report laying much of the blame for the most recent injury accident at Disneyland's Thunder Mountain roller coaster on a newly-trained employee. That individual, on his third day at the attraction, screwed up the procedure for storing a train, leading to an on-track collision which sent four to the hospital. An experienced operator would not have made that simple mistake. Had a long-time employee been in the coaster's control tower that evening, not only would those four visitors been spared the pain and expense of their injuries, Disneyland would not have had to close one of its more popular rides for the past two months. Closing Thunder certainly didn't help Disney's summer attendance, which some Wall Street analysts described as flat to disappointing.
Didn't Disneyland learn anything from the Christmas Eve accident in 1998 which killed a park guest? In that incident, an untrained supervisor tried to stop the multi-ton Sailing Ship Columbia with a plastic mooring rope. The rope tore a cleat from the ship's hull, launching it into a waiting crowd on the dock. Theme park rides involve sophisticated, heavy equipment with the capacity to main and kill those who get in their way. But the theme park industry continues to pay ride operators like unskilled go'fers, offering starting wages at or barely above minimum wage, with few opportunities in place to encourage workers to stay beyond a single summer.
Disney once tried to get its best ride ops to stay. At one time, many of the company's mid- and upper-level managers got their start with the company working "on stage" at Disneyland or Walt Disney World. But Disney's elimination of leads in the mid-1990s closed the path that ride workers once walked toward management. Many of my former coworkers at Disney World chose to leave the company at that time, since they didn't see any future with Disney anymore.
No one expects parks to pay their ride operators enough money to make loading a roller coaster a lifelong career. But parks owe their customers an experienced workforce that keeps rides running, keeps customers safe and keeps wait times as short and as pleasant as can be. To do that, theme parks need to take a hard look at their budgets and find ways to offer enough pay to attract high quality ride ops who are willing to stick around a while. Otherwise, low pay ensures high turnover -- and a high probability that the employee responsible for a critical operation has little experience to guide him or her.
I'll confess, I was pretty worthless my first summer working attractions at Disney World's Magic Kingdom. Allow me this chance to apologize to those unlucky guests stuck on my raft while I floundered about trying to coax my raft over to Tom Sawyer's Island. All the while another group waited on the Island for me to take them back, and wait times for rafts creeped toward an hour.
But I came back at Christmas. And for two summers after that. My last year at Disney, I made lead on Tom Sawyer's Island, and I used my frustration trying to learn how to drive those rafts to change the training procedure for new drivers. After watching crowds trying to cram onto rafts for a couple summers, I changed the layout of the docks' waiting areas and worked with other departments to change the design of our queue. And by the time I finished, Tom Sawyer's Island had doubled the number of guests visiting each hour, slashed wait times, and moved from last place to first in the park's annual quality competition. Would that have happened without me? Maybe, but it certainly would not have happened with a crew of new hires, overseen by an untrained supervisor with no park operations experience.
Well-trained, experienced operators represent a theme park's best investment in guest safety and enjoyment. Many of my fellow cast members at Disney bragged about their ability to spot folks who would hold up an attraction before the got to the loading platform: a sniffling kid about ready to cry, an anxious teen who might hop the loading line. The employees moved aggressively, but always politely, to tell folks the rules, comfort kids who needed it and project an image of authority that would keep the crowd, literally, in line. But it was their months and years of experience that helped them spot potential problems and address them before they slowed the line or shut down the attraction.
When parks cut corners on attractions personnel, balance sheets look good in the short term. But visitors leave the park complaining of long lines and inattentive or surly employees. And that's the best case scenario.
My last summer at Disney World, I also trained new hires on Pirates of the Caribbean. One of the many new employees I trained simply wasn't understanding all the procedures for restarting the ride after a downtime. After five days of training, I felt this employee still didn't understand how to operate the attraction safely. So I refused, as his trainer, to check him out and ask the lead to approve him to work the attraction. Unfortunately, my lead overruled me, and allowed the new hire to go into the rotation.
A few weeks later, in May, 1990, a boat caught on the flume wall at the bottom of the ride's drop, tripping a sensor and stopping the next boat at the top of the hill. That employee whom I'd refused to let be checked out was sent to see what had happened. He forgot to check the bottom of the flume, assumed that the sensor had tripped accidentally (which it often did) and manually released the boat at the top of the drop.
Down on to heads of the people in the boat below. When I arrived the next morning, I ran into several area managers who'd been at the park all night, filling out reports and checking on the progress of injured guests. And that's when another lead told me these details about what had happened. (No was killed, thank goodness.)
Let's not single out Disney. Competitors, including Six Flags, Cedar Fair and Universal, also have pled poverty when setting or negotiating contracts for their ride operators. It's time to stop. Theme parks are losing customers to an untold number of entertainment alternatives. The industry cannot afford preventable accidents resulting in injury or death. Nor can it afford to treat customers with anything less than the respect, courtesy and honest effort that high-quality service employees can deliver. Maybe its time for theme parks to cut back on press junkets and executive salaries and throw a few extra bucks at their most important employees -- ride ops. And to open pathways to management for the best ops employees. And find more ways to encourage good ride ops to come back for another year.
Promotions, parades and new thrill rides get people in the gates. But it is the reliable smiles of a park's employees, the competence of their work, and their steady hands on the tiller which keep guests satisfied and returning, year after year. Theme parks that shortchange their ride ops endanger their guests... and their companies' futures.