Theme park cast member stories: The Old Man and the Caribbean Sea

September 21, 2009, 6:08 AM · "Sorry for the hold-up, folks. Seems to be a slow-moving train up ahead. You just remain seated, and we'll be right with ya."

The "old man" was up, which meant we were down at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. I'd been trained at Thunder only a couple weeks earlier, but had already learned about the "old man" - the pre-recorded spiel of a supposed prospector that played automatically whenever the roller coaster's computer system shut down the ride.

A little kid on the main side station had been crying, so the crew held the train. Disney rules prohibit dispatching a ride vehicle with a crying child: The child has to either stop crying, or get off the ride. We would allow families to wait on the unload platform as long as necessary until their child stopped bawling, then reseat them on the next train. But no train was going anywhere with a crying kid on it.

Unfortunately for everyone in line, if the family of the crying kid didn't accept the, uh, invitation to wait to the side, that train could not leave. And if one train didn't leave on time, that meant there was no room in the station for the train behind it on the track. (Thunder has two stations, with up to five trains on the track.)

With one train stuck outside the station, the train on the lift behind it on the track had to stop. Which meant the train on the lift behind that had to stop, too. Which meant that the old man would be getting up, and the ride was going down.

Coming back up from a "cascade stop" such as this was relatively simple. You just get everyone off the train on the spur side station, then send it back into storage. Then you bring in the next train off the track, unload its guests, and then send it back into storage. You keep doing that until all the trains are off the circuit, leaving each one either in storage or in a station. Then you bring the trains back onto the circuit, one at a time, until you're running the three, four or five trains you need - depending upon the size of the crowd in the park.

Thunder Mountain at Walt Disney World
A train coming down from 'C' lift on Thunder at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Whichever cast member was working Thunder's control tower when the old man woke up is the one who gets to oversee the restart. That day just happened to be the first-ever downtime for guy in tower at that moment, a guy who, like me, had been working months at Pirates of the Caribbean and just recently cross-trained on Thunder.

The ride's lead hurried up to the tower to assist. Typically, with a more experienced cast member in tower, the lead just stood by and chatted with CMs and guests. Today, she stood closer, watching as the rookie slowly worked his way through the procedures.

When the trains stop on the lifts throughout the ride, we'd turn on the lights and send operators to each lift, first to check on and calm the riders, then to restart the lifts. We always worked our way backwards, starting one lift at a time, so that no one would have a train rushing by him or her while out on the track. But, still, because there were operators on the track while other parts were starting up, the tower operator had to announce over the ride-wide loudspeakers as each section of track restarted.

And he did. Oh boy, did he!

"Attention on Pirates of the Caribbean. Block zone four is restarting."

Knowing the rookie was fresh over from Pirates, several of the Thunder vets started to giggle, then caught themselves. I, a Thunder newbie like the rookie, simply thought, "There but for the grace of the Old Man, go I" and kept my mouth shut.

"Attention on Pirates of the Caribbean. 'C' lift is restarting."

At that point, no one on the load platform could contain themselves. The dispatcher on spur side actually doubled over in laughter. Even guests in the crowd turned to one another, asking, "Did he just say what I thought he did?"

"Attention on Pirates of the Caribbean. 'B' lift is restarting."

The crowd on the load platform started to laugh. The dispatcher on the spur side composed himself enough to start singing "Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate's Life for Me." Many in the crowd joined in.

Already overwhelmed by his first solo restart of the ride, and now utterly perplexed by the reaction on the platform, the rookie leaned over the mic to announce the next lift restart.

"Attention on Pi-"

Recognition dawned scarlet on his face. He eyes grew with terror, then squeezed shut. The lead was about to draw blood, she was biting her hand so hard to keep from laughing.

"Uh, attention on Big Thunder Mountain, 'A' lift is restarting," the rookie croaked, in a meager voice.

The Thunder CMs erupted in applause. The dispatcher who'd been conducting the crowd stood tall and pointed toward tower: "That's right! Y'all's on THUNDER MOUNTAIN now!"

The rookie drank free that night.

Replies (11)

September 21, 2009 at 6:17 AM · This was my personal favorite of your theme park stories, Robert. I love rookies.

On another note, I cannot stand parents who disregard the well-being of others for the sake of their child. If your kid is crying, exit the attraction, especially if it's in a movie theater attraction.

September 21, 2009 at 6:39 AM · I thought the more interesting part of the story was how a ride breaksdown/powers back up. I also never knew that Disney will not let a crying child on a ride. Is it because it would ruin the magic for the other guests or is there some other reason?
September 21, 2009 at 7:17 AM · Anthony, it's actually more a safety concern than aesthetics. At least it was on Rock'n'Roller Coaster. If a child is crying in the station, they aren't wanting to ride. They're scared. They might panic mid-ride and try to squirm out of safety restraints, or hurt themselves in their panic. The rule about not letting crying children ride is left up to the descretion of the cms usually (again, it was at RRC). If the child is just sniffling, but seems ready to ride we dispatch away. If the child is crying and obviously doesn't want to go, we make the parents remove him. Unlike Thunder though, we didn't have a problem if someone took awhile deciding. We could back up a bit and not go down.

Convincing parents that we had the safety of their kids in mind wasn't always easy though. We heard "I paid all this money for you to ride rides, and damn it you're going to ride them!" more than once.

I had one really terrific father one time though. He got on the ride with the kid, who then panicked. We asked him to step aside, and he did, choosing to stand in the area just on the platform side of the exit hallway. My position was on the platform, and my location to stand between trains was right on the other side of the safety gate from where the father and his son were standing. Father talked to the kid, finding out exactly what he was afraid of. I answered some questions, and confirmed a lot of what the father was saying. He didn't lie to the kid (we heard that alot - "it's not scary," "you don't go upside down," "it's not really a roller coaster" - terrific parenting telling lies to your kid to get them to go on a coaster). He didn't negate or berate the kid's fears. He talked to him and encouraged him. Doggone it if that kid didn't tug on my sleeve about five minutes later asking if it was too late to ride. I told him of course it wasn't, and put him on the next train. He looked petrified but determined. I got bumped onto the next position while he was in the launch area and was sent to the ride's exit platform. I was there when he arrived in the station. He had a HUGE grin on his face. "Can I ride again?" he immediately asked his Dad. His father couldn't have looked prouder if he'd tried! I put them both back through the reride hallway to do it again. Anyone who's that brave deserves another run!

September 21, 2009 at 7:25 AM · I always look forward to the cast member stories. They're always quite a treat.
September 21, 2009 at 7:35 AM · GREAT story, Diane! Those were the parents I loved at Disney.
September 21, 2009 at 7:43 AM · Very good explination!

However, my mother was one to drag us on rides that we were frightened of! Of course it was Alien Encounter and the Tower of Terror so we never were in much danger. Then again, we really didn't cry on the ride. Very interesting protocal though! Not sure why I enjoyed that part so much.

One of my twisted pleasure at Disney is watching kids get on attractions they don't think are scary and then freak out inside the attraction. I am sorry if that sounds mean, but its a gas on Stich's Great Escape (which I think kept all the scary parts in it) and Honey I Shrunk the Audience (we like to guess how many people will leave after the mouse scene)

September 21, 2009 at 7:51 AM · Yes, sometimes parents don't like to think of their child's safety from time to time, especially when parents try to lift their kid up so they can hit the height stick...which I find hilarious cause A) we're standing right there watching their every mode and B) they know that it isn't going to work. But whenever we call them out on it we are now the arrogant jerk/vacation ruiner/anti-Christ (yes I have been called the Anti-Christ on height stick before).

I have a crying kid story too (although not as funny as Robert's). Working at Kali River Rapids, the same rule applies where if a kid is crying, they cannot leave the turntable. Like over at Thunder, we can bring them to the center and regain their composure or they could not ride, but we couldn't let them off until the kid stops. Well we had a family who wouldn't leave like Robert's story. Well the parents were stubborn and wouldn't leave until they rode the ride. The kid, however, wasn't having any of it. He was balling so hard, he sounded like he was being tortured. He was trying to get his seat belt off, he wouldn't sit down, and he had that "get me out of here!" look on his face. While me, another cast member, a coordinator, and a manager were trying to calm the kid down and get them off, the parent was yelling at us to turn the ride back on.

At this point, everybody in the other rafts and in queue started to pick up on what was going on. I had to explain to everybody what was going on and what we had to do. Everybody understood, but was growing impatient of the parents. About half way up the ramp that comes down to the turntable, there were a group of 5 or 6 frat boys. I could see they were scheming something. I turned around to head back to the turntable, and I heard a chant starting behind me:


What do you know, it was the frat boys. Everybody started to giggle, and even some started to join in. The coordinator went over to shush them, while at the same time, the family was getting out of the raft. The entire queue starts to applaud. At this point, I caught a look at the father in the group...and this is when my heart jumped into my throat. To explain what he looked like, some would say Lou Ferrigno, some would say Hulk Hogan without the mustache, I would say all of the above...and he wasn't a happy camper. The mom held the child, yelling at him while they were walking off the turntable, with the father behind. As he was leaving, the dad and one of the frat boys met eyes...oh boy...

Now I have never seen a fist fight while working at Disney world, but this was the closest I have ever seen one. The frat boy said something, and the dad grabbed the frat boy by the collar and said something about "Stay out of my sight" and something about ripping genitals, I'm not really sure I wasn't that close. At this point, the frat boys were trying to save their buddy and the manager was grabbing Lou Hogan away from everybody else. Everybody on the turntable, guests and cast alike were looking trying to see what was going to happen.

Ahhh...there's nothing like working at the happiest place on Earth.

September 21, 2009 at 9:13 AM · I had an unhappy experience with my own little girl, not at Disney but at Busch Gardens: Williamsburg. The rest of our family (me, my wife and my older son) had ridden Curse of DarkCastle before and loved it, and wanted to get little Tink on the ride too. She was hesitant, afraid, but never really sobbed. We reassured her throughout the queue that it was fine, wasn't really that scary (which it wasn't, to us..). During the ride, I had forgotten a particular scene with scary flying ghouls or a big evil head or something, and she freaked out a bit, digging into my side to hide. I remember very clearly, "Why did you BRING me on this ride!?!?!?"

I was quite chastened, and very apologetic to her after it was over, and she soon calmed down.

A couple years later we coaxed her into riding the Haunted Mansion at WDW for the first time - I was very familiar with it, and even went through it station by station with her on before we got there. She was also hesitant but older a little bit, so didn't mind as much. She also knew the song inside and out from me, and while she had no need to ride again seemed to reluctantly enjoy it.

So parents, be careful when taking your kids on rides. Be SURE they can handle it, and don't put your own enjoyment about theirs.

September 21, 2009 at 7:17 PM · Our crying child story took place at Cedar Point's Halloweekends in 2004. First I have to explain that we adopted our two children, Kristina and Anton, from Kazakhstan that year. She was 9 y.o. and Anton was 5 y.o., and they had been in this country only about seven months, but we had taken them to CP many times already. They had never been in a haunted house before, but Kristina wanted to go into one of the scarier ones. We explained it carefully to her in English that she could understand (they spoke Russian until they came here, and their English was still rather stilted) that it would be scary, with lots of flashing lights, loud scary sounds and people jumping out at her, but not touching her. She was determined to go inside (Anton wasn't the least bit concerned- he has absolutely no fear of anything!).
In we went, and after about 30 seconds she was crying and sobbing in fear, and holding onto us tightly. We showed her the emergency exit and told her we would take her out, but she refused. She did NOT want to leave, and refused when I tried to lead her out of the haunted house. OK, we proceeded through the rest of the house, with people jumping out at her, loud scary know the rest. One especially scary guy jumped out at my 5 year old son Anton and hollered some kind of horrible blood-curdling scream at him. Anton just looked up at him and calmly said, "Hi! How ya'doin'?" The monster practically melted in disappointment that he didn't scare this little boy and just meekly said, "Uh, fine. How are you?" Anton just smiled and we moved on, with Kristina still sobbing. We finally got to the end of the haunted house, and were practically carrying her, one on each side. We left the building, got about 20 feet away from the door, and Kristina went completely hysterical, almost collapsed in my arms, sobbing and causing several people waiting in line to enter to have second thoughts. We tried to get her to calm down, when Anton started tugging on her shirt sleeve and said in a very sweet way, "Kristina, don't cry. They only playing," to which she yelled at him "Anton, SHUT UP!" But she did stop crying, and 1/2 hour later wanted to go back through it again! We talked to her about it, but she insisted, and we went through again. She was much more in control that time- probably one of those "facing your fears" things, and she loves haunted houses now.
September 21, 2009 at 8:22 PM · On my last trip to Walt Disney World, as I was getting on Tower of Terror a father was forcing his screaming, crying son on to the same elevator. Even though the kid was at the point of choking on his tears, the CMs for whatever reason still allowed it. They were seated in the last row and we were in the front row. The boy calmed down a bit as the ride started, but of course the drops didn't do him any favors. When it was all over and we were heading back to the doors in darkness, he stopped crying long enough for his dad to ask him how he was doing (gee, thoughtful of el jerkface to ask now) and all we hear is the boy say in a small voice "I think I'm going to throw up." I can just imagine the fear now running through the guys behind me in the second row. I tell you, I've never wanted to punch anyone on Disney property like I wanted to punch that father.
September 22, 2009 at 6:25 AM · I love how this went from rookie Cast Member mistakes to the collection of children's tears

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