Theme park cast member stories: Going overboard at Pirates of the Caribbean

May 11, 2009, 9:48 AM · Hourly capacity is the Holy Grail of the theme park business. The more people you can put through an attraction in one hour, the shorter its line will be. The more people a park's attraction can put through, the more rides you can go on in one day. So, high hourly capacity = happy customers.

It shouldn't surprise you then, to learn that Disney runs some of the highest capacity rides in the business. When I worked at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, the highest capacity ride on our side of the park was Pirates of Caribbean. We could put more than 2,000 people per hour through Pirates, without breaking much of a sweat.

Pirates of the Caribbean

But one summer (was it 1989 or 1990?), our hourly numbers were lagging. Counts dipped below 2,000, to 1,800 - then 1,600 - per hour, and our mid-day wait time was creeping over one hour.

In those days, Pirates loaded boats in two side-by-side channels, which merged as the boats made a right turn into the upper grotto. Slow boats would linger there, allowing the boat from the other channel to catch up and pinch it at the merge point, stopping both boats and forcing attraction operators to come down and pull the two boats apart. That delay slowed the flow of boats (and guests) into the ride, crippling the hourly count.

So what was management's solution?

To put the most experienced operators at the load and tower positions at peak periods, to better time the dispatch of boats? No.

To increase the volume of the ride pumps at the merge point, to blast more water and make the boats flow faster? Nope.

Management's solution was... to put a cast member in the water at the merge point, to push the boats faster through the ride.

Only male cast members were allowed into the water, as our Pirates costumes included shoes. (Ladies who worked Pirates wore their own black character shoes, and Disney didn't want to have to pay for employees' shoes that were ruined by getting wet.) We wore chest-high rubber waders that someone borrowed from maintenance, and would give each boat a shove as it drifted by.

To get into the water, we'd have to stop the line at load, get into an empty boat and ride to the merge point. There, we'd hop over the side and into the water, while the person we were relieving would climb back in, for the ride back around to unload. You had to be very careful to go over the side of the boat, and not the front or the back. That way, you'd stay outside the ride flume, because if you got into the water inside the ride flume, well... as they say, dead men tell no tales.

Now, one could question the wisdom of taking a boat out of commission every half hour to do the switch, when we were trying to increase the number of guests in the ride. But, hey, given the number of work safety rules this little scheme was violating, it should have been clear that wisdom wasn't exactly in play here. (Pirates SOP [Standard Operating Procedure] was explicit that all water pumps had to be turned off before any cast member entered the water. Oh, well.)

Did it work? Supervisors eagerly checked our numbers throughout the day. And the hourly counts did tick up a bit, usually when less-experienced cast members went into the water, leaving the more experienced ones to work load and tower.

After a few weeks, though, word came down one morning - do not get into the water. The waders were removed from the Pirates office, and the leads told the operators not to bother asking if we were going to do that again. We all suspected that a manager "higher up the chain" got word of what was happening, freaked out, and ordered the pushing stopped. Immediately.

Later that week, a couple of us decided to address the hourly capacity problem our own way. A CM named Benny and I "froze" ourselves at the two loading positions for two hours, telling everyone else to bump around us. A CM named Marc did the same in tower. For those two hours, we worked as a slick machine, filling boats and dispatching them smoothly, with no merge point problems. The hourly counts? More than 2,800 guests per hour.

Today, Pirates at Disney World loads in a single channel, eliminating the merge point issue. And I've heard that it often runs more than the 24 boats that we usually ran back in my day. But good, experienced cast members at the load position can still help boost the hourly count and draw down a line, at Pirates or any other attraction.

Plus, I got a good story out of this.

Tell us, in the comments, what was the stupidest thing that you've seen done by employees at a theme park in an effort to improve efficiency.

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  • Replies (14)

    May 11, 2009 at 11:06 AM · Cool story. I wish I had a stupid story of a cast member increasing efficiency. Instead, I have several stories of stupid cast members decreasing efficiency, specifically at Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios, and Busch Gardens Tampa.

    At IOA, I see far too many empty seats on Dudley Do Right's, Incredible Hulk, and Dueling Dragons. Same goes for Sheikra at Busch Gardens.

    The funniest incident, however, was one day at Universal. The line for Mummy was packed, so the single riders line was opened. The geniuses on the loading platform would load about three rows of the carts with people in the standby line, then they would fill the fourth row entirely with single riders! This means that a family of four could enter the single riders line and ride together with less than half the regular wait time. Sheer idiocy.

    May 11, 2009 at 11:45 AM · Great story, Robert. Thanks for sharing.

    I don't have any of my own stories to tell, having never worked at a theme park, but, like Josh, I have had plenty of nightmares waiting in poorly managed lines.

    At Holiday World, the ride attendants are overly serious about safely. So much so that their coasters are the slowest loading coasters I have ever ridden. Not only do you have to wear a seat belt and a lap bar, but you also have to get fondled by an attendant who tightens your lap belt every single time you ride. My advice to you all: tighten the lap restraint then hold the strap out for the attendant so he/she does not have to go groping around for it. Unless, of course, you are into that sort of thing.

    At BGW's Apollo's Chariot, during my 2008 visit, the ride operators did a lousy job of filling empty seats. This ride had way too much traffic to have empty seats. However, there is no point in picking on BGW, as this empty seat problem is all too common with many of the coasters that have four-across seating and no (or seldom used) single rider lines.

    However, the worst line I have waited in recently was at Six Flags Saint Louis for Xcalibur, a Bussink Evolution ride. It is not a Flashpass attraction and the line moved slower than any midway line I have ever experienced. The ride operator did a horrible job of filling cars, and seemed to wander aimlessly around the ride, sending people to various cars willy-nilly. Now, maybe there is some order that the ride has to be filled on slower days, but on days when the line is packed with hot, unhappy customers, just fill the thing up as fully as possible and let it go. I started timing each ride cycle, and this attendant was clocking in at ten minutes per cycle (load, ride, unload). These types of delays will suck the life out of your amusement park visit. And since I was already in a foul mood because of the lousy condition of the park, having to wait FOR-ever for a midway experience did not make me any happier.

    On the other hand the associates at Adventureland in Altoona, Iowa, took a page out of Disney's book and micromanaged their coaster lines, filling every train as much as possible, and preventing the bottlenecks that frequently occur in the back and front cars. However, if you like to choose where you ride your coasters, then you have to be very clever and arrange your place in line accordingly before you reach the final queuing area.

    I think on busy days, when lines are peaking out wait times, operators should employ every possible strategy to get things moving as quickly as possible. If that means jumping in the water, giving a POTC raft the old "heave-ho" and risking life and limb in the process, then so be it. Kudos to Disney for going above and beyond to increase throughput! ;)

    May 11, 2009 at 3:00 PM · Did anyone else read this story expecting the cast members in the water to break out with some kind of flesh eating virus?

    James - Holiday World HAS to be hardcore about that. There was an unfortunate incident a few years back that happened when they weren't hardcore about it (apparently, back in the day, it wasn't uncommon for folks to score "one-click" rides).

    May 11, 2009 at 3:22 PM · We did have one lead who threw a handful of Midol into the Pirates water every month, claiming that was the only way to keep the ride happy. And, having worked some Grad Nights (another story!) I saw plenty of other, um, stuff, dumped in that water, too.

    Lisa Simpson's experience with "The Little Land of Duff" ride (can't find a YouTube link, darn it) resonates with me. There might have been filters, but I always washed very thoroughly after getting out of that water, whether it was for boat-pushing or one of the evacuations I assisted with.

    May 11, 2009 at 3:34 PM · Those are crazy statistics. Nice Story.
    May 11, 2009 at 7:08 PM · Good Story. I never worked inside the parks however I have worked at the Disney Resorts (All Stars, Animal Kingdom, Boardwalk, and a few others). One story I can tell is that the higher priced resorts, you get better tips (Grand Floridan). Meanwhile most of the cheap resorts like the All Stars, you get hardly any tips. One time I was working at the Boardwalk and some old person gave me a $50 tip for taking their bags.
    May 11, 2009 at 7:42 PM · James, regarding your comment about empty seats on Apollo's Chariot, I was at BGW yesterday, and AC's single-riders line was open--for the first time in two years, as far as I know. They actually made a big deal out of it when they shut down the line, posting a sign in the queue reading "single rider line no longer available." How long it'll stay this time is anybody's guess, but the ride ops were using it properly and filling all available seats (ditto for Griffon). Maybe BGW is becoming more comfortable with the single-rider line concept.

    Wish I could say the same for Alpengeist--there are always empty seats on that ride.

    May 11, 2009 at 8:05 PM · Sorry guys no good stories at the Tower of Terror like Robert does. But I can say, like Robert, that I'am one of the top 10 fastest loaders there. Our capacity at the Tower is 1530 per hour which I was able to, at 1 of the loads, load 386 guests.

    But nothing that I can compare to Robert standing in the middle of the water!

    May 12, 2009 at 6:40 AM · Seems to me that it's a no-brainer for every high-capacity, high-interest ride to have a single rider line. Every one, and that's always open when there's more than, say, a 20-minute wait. And of course, that's enforced - unlike the Mummy story above. There's nothing more frustrating than standing in a 45 minute line for the Hulk at IOA and seeing a number of single seats empty, when - by myself - I could've ridden a half hour earlier.

    I know Men in Black has a fantastic single rider line, that's very fast even when lines are long. My son rode for the first time in the single rider line and didn't mind at all that he wasn't with me (he's 13). We ended up riding MIB maybe 6 times, and never waiting more than 5 minutes while the regular standby queue was 30-45 minutes. Does anyone know the hourly capacity for MIB? It has to be massive.

    At Dollywood, on Thunderhead at least and maybe Mystery Mine, they don't have a single rider line but they do call out for single riders when you get near the loading platform. It may not cut a lot out of your wait, but it does get a single rider on somewhat sooner. And keeps the hourly capacity up.

    Disney seems to rarely do this - I know it would involve, in some cases, to redesign and refurbish the queue but there should be ways around this.

    May 12, 2009 at 11:45 AM · A guy I used to work with (outside of theme parks) worked POTC at DL in the seventies and talked about the way they crammed (unsafely) as many guests as possible onto the boats, more of a challenge/contest for themselves. I don't know how long they got away with it.
    Knott's is notoriously slow about loading, especially in the Camp Snoopy area - not enough ride operators, and about zero motivation to do anything any faster.
    I just found out yesterday that Indiana Jones at DL has a single rider line - going through the exit, taking the elevator, with almost no wait time at all.

    Pushing the boats --- great story; funny, yet very scary that it went on at all.

    May 12, 2009 at 11:47 AM · To Barry Wallace:

    You have to remember to Disney its not just the ride that there looking at but the whole story of the attraction in general. At the Tower of Terror at DHS for instance, they were contemplating putting in a single rider line and realeized it would take a lot from the story of the attraction.

    Also the "Single Rider Line" is actually a new concept that Imagineers and ride designers have to beware of and draw it into there plans. All the older rides like the 3 mountains at MK, Dinosaur at DAK, Tower at DHS, and others may not have the ability to convert a line into a single's line only even though the attraction would be a candidate for the line.

    Just think where would they put in the line at any of the mountains at MK?

    Well I do know that loaders at those attractions do ask for single riders which I do and make a joke in the process which do get laughs! Of course the joke is what you would expect from a CM and you may or may not thinks its funny.

    May 12, 2009 at 1:25 PM · I agree that the queue is part of the experience, and should be enjoyed along with the ride but for me (and I suspect a lot of people) I hate lines and just want to ride the ride. So any way to get me to load-through quicker is fine with me (especially after I've ridden the ride before and have seen the queue. I know my friend who took me to Universal the first time made sure I went through the queues for Spiderman, Men in Black, Mummy, etc because they are very well done (and they are) but in repeat visits and repeat rides, again, I want up there and I want up there now! Because there are many more things I want to experience at that park, and don't have time to waste waiting in a 45-60-90 minute line.

    I know it would be difficult to retrofit a number of the Disney rides to include a single rider line, but they successfully put in FastPass lines at most (all?) of the Mountains so they could do the same with single rider if they felt the need.

    May 12, 2009 at 2:20 PM · With the fastpass line it was a little different. If you remember there used to be 2 lines which brought done the length of the gueue while keeping the wait times the same. They just didnt have the lines snaking through the park.

    What they did do is close one of the lines and made it "Fastpass" and the other "Stand-by". For an example of this look at Pirates at the MK. This ride is not fastpass but has 2 queues that snake through a great themed castle! The mountains also snake through a great themed area but they closed 1 for fastpass holders.

    But I'am in agreement with the newer e-ticket rides an attractions should have a single rider line especially low ride capacity attraction ie: Toy Story Mania!

    May 13, 2009 at 3:41 PM · One of the hottest summers on record at Universal Studios Hollywood, probably 1988 or 1989. Trams were backed up all over the backlot, so the tram loading area was really, really backed up (the old one, up top behind the ticket booths, sort of where the Universal Store is now at CityWalk).

    Boarding passes were out well into the evening, and the actual wait in line, even after you brought your boarding pass, was at least two hours (these are the days before any "rides", kids... just the stunt shows and the tram tour).

    One manager was convinced that all the situation needed was some entertainment, a costumed character to placate the near-rioting guests. He got on the radio and broadcast to everyone within earshot, "We've got a bad situation here, send in the wolfman."

    To this day, me and many of my friends and ex-co-workers (and, from what I hear, even some folks who still work at the tour) use the term "send in the wolfman" when things are at their most ridiculously dire.

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