Theme park cast member stories: The sickest place on Earth

April 5, 2010, 10:19 AM · Note from Robert: I'm reading some of my favorite stories each Monday on Cosmic Reid's Starlight Cafe, which airs at 1pm Eastern each week on I hope you'll tune in.

If you can't afford to travel the world, working at a theme park - especially in Orlando - provides a great way to meet people from around the globe anyway.

In my time working at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, I met folks from the United Kingdom, France, Brazil and dozens of other countries. Taking time to chat with folks - even if just in a crude pantomime - immerses you in accents, attitudes and cultures unlike anything you'd find in most any other "normal" workplace.

It also, unfortunately, immerses you in the world's wide variety of nasty cold and flu strains. Working in Orlando in the summer, you're welcoming thousands of South American visitors who are escaping their winter. Unfortunately, many also are bringing their winter colds and flu with them.

Perhaps after working several years at Disney World, you develop the immune system of a veteran kindergarten teacher - exposed to the worst germs the world has to offer, you develop immunities that keep you healthy year-'round.

But in your first couple years at Disney, you're like that rookie kindergarten teacher - coming down with every illness brought into the classroom by your germy students.

And so it was that the sickest I've ever been in my life was during my time working at Walt Disney World. I remember the moment the illness hit me. I was getting my hair cut when an icy blast penetrated my entire body, but from within. My body shook, then immediately I felt the cold melt away and I broke into a drenching sweat. As soon as the barber finished, I tried to rise from the chair, but my legs buckled. I had to stop again and sit by the front door for a few moments to gather my strength to walk 10 yards out to my car.

Foolishly, I went ahead and drove into work. It was a six-hour closing shift, and I just parked myself in the County Bear Vacation Hoedown theater. Normally, I wouldn't feel too excited about watching show after show, but in my state, I was happy for a place to sit in the dark and quietly count the hours until the end of my shift.

Eventually, midnight came and I dragged myself through the tunnels and to the bus which would take me to my waiting car. I almost made it all the way home, too. But along the way, the second phase of the illness hit, and, uh, well, there's no delicate way to say this. Twice, I had to pull over to, well, return my lunch.

Fortunately, I had the next day off, so I could stay in my bed and sleep - dead to my family and the outside world. And the day after that? Well, as quickly as the illness had hit me, it went away - like a South American tourist blasting into town for a whirlwind visit, then catching the next flight back to Rio.

Ever take ill at a theme park? Share the (not so) gruesome details, in the comments. Be sure to check out the archive of Robert's cast member stories, too.

Replies (18)

April 5, 2010 at 10:40 AM · I've never gotten ill at a theme park but I do have a little story about my friend. We were at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg and went out to the parking lot to eat lunch that we had packed. Well some of us had peanut butter and jelly, some had ham and cheese w/ mayo. My friend decided to have both. The first ride we rode was Apollo's Chariot. He was doing fine and just felt a little nauseous and he thought he was going to make it. Until the train pulled around to the end and the brakes were applied. Here he "returned" his lunch as well. It got a little on the legs of the two people beside him. It was a little embarrassing I'm sure, but then the little girl sitting in front of him turned around and pointed at him and started laughing.
April 5, 2010 at 11:11 AM · Can't say that I recall getting truly ill at a theme park. Usually, when I get sick while traveling, it's when I'm the furthest away I can be. I regularly travel to Alabama, and I find myself getting sick half the trips. I'm not honestly sure why, since I have good hygiene, but I guess that's just my luck.
April 5, 2010 at 11:26 AM · I wash hands all the time now, whenever coming back into the house, and always before eating when I'm out of the house. That cuts down in the number of illnesses I have, I'm sure. But, ultimately, I've always thought that exposure is the best defense. You pay upfront when you travel, but if you keep with it, keep your hands clean and rest when you need to, you get the benefit later of a stronger immune system.

The "rest" part is *so* crucial. At the first sign of sniffles on a trip, slow down. If given a chance to mount a defense, your body often can. But not if you're hauling it around a park like Napoleon moving across Europe.

I'd been working way too many shifts when I got hammered with my big illness that year at Disney. If I'd taken more time off before, I'm convinced it wouldn't have it me so hard. I just had no energy to deal with it.

April 5, 2010 at 11:27 AM · I never got sick when I worked a WDW. I worked at the Jungle Cruise too where there is more direct contact with guest than most rides. I did realize how many people were going through there, so I used the hand sanitizer provided by Disney to its cast members and washed my hand often.

You have to give Disney credit. Most ride surfaces are cleaned nightly, the bathrooms are scrubbed several times a day and the food places are spotless. Even the streets are sanitized and hosed down at night. So despite the large and international population, I felt like I was working in a clean workplace.

Now some of my co-workers did get sick a lot. Needless to say some of them were messy and not very clean. Others just couldn't get used to the climate/enviroment as well, and others had bad allergies. Also too that some of the people who worked at the Jungle also got sea sick. Not that I am calling anyone here unclean or mess etc.

But of the many jobs I had (lifeguard at large pools, library to name a few), and of the many parks I've been to across the country, Disney was hands down the cleanest, and the cleanest to their ability.

April 5, 2010 at 11:27 AM · While staying at the Disneyland Hotel on the day of the 50th anniversary, my wife and I had dinner at The Rainforest Cafe. Fortunately for me, I had deep fried food which is almost impossible to screw up. My wife however ordered a pizza and wasn't so lucky. She spent the entire night on the floor of the bathroom with pizza and everything else she ate coming out of both ends. She was so sick the following morning that I couldn't move her. We were supposed to check out that day, so I had to ask for a late check out. I scoured the grounds trying to find a bunch of saltines but could only find pretzels, which she looked at and ran to the bathroom again. I tried and tried to stay another night but being the 50th anniversary, every hotel room in Anaheim was booked. I was able to get her to the lobby to rest until late afternoon, then carried her to the car and drove her home. Definitely not the way we wanted to spend the Disneyland 50th Anniversary but it tought us never to eat at Rainforest Cafe again.
April 5, 2010 at 12:07 PM · My Niece got that hihgly contagious dysentery that you get on cruise ships. We were on the grapevine just outside Magic Mountain when she started getting sick. She felt a little better later but threw up twice while we were at and started running a fever during the Halloween event at Knotts. We spent the next day in an overpriced hotel near Disneyland. Her fever broke and the next day we went to Disneyland a better.

However everyone she met got sick including me and her grandma.

April 5, 2010 at 5:21 PM · My only theme park illness story is from my time before I was a Cast Member at Disneyland. Actually, it was only a few weeks before I started. My girlfriend at the time (who is now my wife) loved Disney just as much as I did, so for our first anniversary of dating I decided to secretly order us tickets for the Fantasmic dessert package at Disneyland. For about $60 a person, you got reserved seats on the balcony of the then Disney Gallery, and a pretty good dessert buffet. (By the way, now that the Gallery is the Dream Suite, the reserved seating is at the base of of one of the light towers and the desserts are served prepackaged in boxes.) I ordered the tickets months in advance (good thing we stayed together!) and had to get on the phone before 8AM on a Monday morning and sit on hold for half an hour to make sure I reserved them before they ran out. Interesting side note - Disneyland Resort's reservation hotline has on-ride music clips for its hold music. Anyway, after ordering the tickets I was told they were non-exchangeable and non-refundable.

Flash forward a few months. I convince my girlfriend that a day in Disneyland is the perfect way to spend our anniversary, and the night before we had dinner together and watched a movie at her apartment. As the movie was ending I noticed a minor gurgle in my stomach. I left and went back to my apartment, and by that time the gurgle had grown into a full-on sickness. I was up every few minutes kneeling before the porcelain alter giving my offerings. The next morning I was a complete wreck, still feeling kinda sick and completely sleep deprived. I remembered that the tickets waiting at guest services were already paid for and non-refundable or exchangeable. I picked up my girlfriend, and she was understandably concerned about how I looked. I said I was a bit sick the night before, but I was rapidly improving and nothing would help more than a wonderful day out with her.

Driving to the park, I got really shaky and felt some numbness in my hands, and chills all over. We got to the park and my sickness actually helped at this point, because while she thought I was making another restroom visit I actually picked up our tickets. I then figured my shaking was from hunger, so we got a decent breakfast. After that we rode Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters, where I posted a horrible score. Then we got in line for Storybook Land, and that's when things started going downhill again. My girlfriend looked at me and said I kept looking worse and worse. I said I felt fine, but I really was feeling worse and worse. Finally I felt breakfast coming back up again, and I luckily made it out of line and to the nearest trashcan in time.

It was at this point that I learned that Disney trashcans have a deep lip inside the door that makes being sick in them rather difficult. I also learned that Disneyland's infirmary is pretty nice. My girlfriend demanded an explanation as to why I insisted on going when I was clearly too sick, so I had to show her the surprise tickets and explained I couldn't return or refund them. The nurse suggested we try anyway, so while I napped in the infirmary my girlfriend went to City Hall. They were very understanding and exchanged our tickets anyway for two weeks later.

Two weeks later the weather was very cold and the windchill even worse, so the usually insane crowds gathering for unreserved spots for Fantasmic were reduced to a handful of people. I felt slightly cheated out of the main benefit of reserved seats, but the buffet was excellent, and the balcony provided a very interesting perspective of the show.

April 5, 2010 at 6:15 PM · As a Brazilian I feel obliged to stand up in our defense, the Flu is really not such a big thing down here. Please remember that the coldest day of the year in most of the country is warmer than a mild Orlando spring day.

The funny thing is that last year in june I almost cancelled my annual trip to Orlando, afraid of the H1N1 flu outbreak in the US. My wife made us carry individual alcohol gel bottles. And wipe down everything we could before rides.

Now that I got this out of the way. From a HealthCare worker point of view. The thing you have to be most concerned in any trip is with food intoxication. You get more downtime in average from an infected meal then you get from most other bugs. Any place where food gets exposed to people, your chances to get something are multiplied. Even places with top hygiene don't account for airborne virus and bacteria landing on exposed food stuffs.

All in all, good personal hygiene, good eating habits that reinforce your immune system and a little luck go a long way in preventing trip spoiling illness.

April 5, 2010 at 7:20 PM · My first week working at Splash Mountain, I came down with some sort of demon virus. I was sick as a dog, but we were understaffed and management wouldn't let me go home early. It didn't help matters that I was a brand new CP and the interns don't exactly have a great reputation for showing up for work. Usually getting sick doesn't really affect me very much. I generally feel decent aside from whatever cough or sore throat I have. That particular day, I had a terrible cough, a splitting headache, and a churning stomach. I had been up since before dawn so I could finish my last day of training (we had to train in the morning before the park opened). I remember standing at the dispatch podium consciously shifting my weight so that I was leaning a little to the right (away from the flume) so that if I passed out I wouldn't fall into the flume. That shift was the one and only time that I was glad to get rotated out of station and into one of the boring positions where you stand around outside doing very little. Luckily, I survived the shift without taking a dip in the flume and got to sleep in before my night shift the next day. The rest of my program was all uphill from that point.
April 6, 2010 at 12:43 AM · Me personally, the only time i felt sick was when they opened Island of Adventure (1999 i believed) i guess i got to themed park happy or something. Cause i cruise with my fam all day long didn't stop that many times to rest or cover from the sun. (Which i personally think that IOA doesn't have too many places to cover from the sun.)

So to my shame i got some insolation, to my shame cause i actually live in the Caribbean and sun is stronger here. (Not as humid but definitely stronger. But we actually don't go out much more than 1 or 2 hours cause is suicide.) I got back to the hotel feeling sick, and hot. I remember i kept trying to sleep but i had those fever dreams. (Those dreams that aren't fun at all when you have fever and your not fully awake or really at sleep.) So i kept feeling like i was on a roller coaster and every single turn i would hold strongly to my pillow, cause i felt like the roller coaster was going oh, so fast. I managed to wake up and sit on the floor i took something for the fever and somehow slept through that night.

The next day i was feeling better ready to take on the next park. But careful not to expose my self to the sun all day without break.

April 6, 2010 at 3:20 AM · We discovered how nice (and BIG) the first aid facilities at WDW Magic Kingdom are several years ago. We were at WDW for the week after Thanksgiving, and the weather was uusually hot for that time of the year (80's). We were careful to be sure the kids ate properly and drank plenty of fluids. We had been at WDW for four days, and after lunch our family and a friend who had gone with us decided to split up for a few hours, to do just what we wanted to do. Our friend took my son Anton to go over to Tom Sawyer Island to run and blow off some energy (he was 9 years old and has ADHD). About 1/2 hour later I got a phone call from them- Anton had started to throw-up. "I'm on my way," I told them, "Where are you at?" "We're sitting in front of the Crystal Palace Restaurant." Great, I thought, my son is sitting in front of one of the best restaurants in the Magic Kingdom, vomiting, and we haden't even eaten there! I got there in a few minutes, and there sat my son, a pale green, and luckily not hurling on the sidewalk. "OK," I asked our friend, who was sitting next to Anton and looking at me like it was MY fault, "where is the first aid station?" We got out our map to look for it, when this little voice from Anton quietly said, "It's behind me." We looked up, and there was the sign to First Aid. My friend, who doesn't have kids and never had to deal with vomiting ones before, said "He's yours now. See you later," and left. He had done his job, and I didn't blame him. I took Anton in, and I was very impressed with the care he got. Basically, we think he just was tired and a bit overheated. They put him in a room, turned the lights off, and let him sleep. It was nice and cool, and I almost fell asleep also. After about an hour and a half he woke up and said he wanted to go back to the hotel. The staff made sure he was alright, no more vomiting and he had drunk some water, and we headed back down Main Street to the buses to take us back to the hotel. My wife met us at the train station- she was also tired and wanted to go back and take a nap. While walking down Main Street Anton said, "I'm going to be sick again," and while I don't know about the previous comment concerning the trash cans at Disneyland being hard to throw-up in, the ones at Magic Kingdom work just fine. He stuck his little head inside and didn't mess-up the sidewalk at all- although he did make some really strange sounds with his head inside the trashcan. We got him out of the park, and my wife warned the driver about what was happening. He handed them a bag like on an airplane, in case he got sick on the bus, but they got back to Pop Music with no trouble. I stayed at Magic Kingdom with our daughter (she'd been with Mom) and met up with our friend (who's first words to my daughter were "You're not throwing up too, are you?). Mom and Anton slept all afternoon, and by evening were fine.
April 6, 2010 at 12:21 PM · When I was fifteen (fifteen years ago), and Opryland was a nice small themepark in Nashville,Tn; I became quite sick. I had been running some fever the night before we went, but I was bound and determined to have a great time there. As we were waiting to ride one of the roller coasters, I took a step forward then everything went black. Next thing I know I have bloody knees, workers, friends, and strangers are looking down at me. I had fainted because I was running a 104 fever, and it was the end of June with a lovely 99 degree temperature. We had to find my parents, and begin the three hour trip home back to Memphis. While having chills and fever the whole trip, I finally found out that I had a nasty case of strep throat. I would end up spending the next seven days battling 104 and 103 degree fevers. It is also one of the two times in my life that I have fainted.

I guess you can take being a diehard theme parker to the extreme when you think you can make it with severe sickness. Needless to say, I have been sick at Disney World twice due to a mixture of heat, food, and motion. Thankfully I have never been so sick as I was at Opryland.

April 6, 2010 at 5:32 PM · THe same with waterparks I am always afraid of them. Splsih splash is clsoeby to me but there very clean. it is smaller ones I worry about. I have herd these indoor ones oare famouse for virus like the Nor. Sixflags lodge in lake george had a bad case flying around like wildfire few years ago. but for me I never been sick at a themepark but have gotten kinda sick on the rides but not to the point were I am barfing.
April 7, 2010 at 5:41 AM · Six years ago, when my grandson Zachary was just 5 years old, we were in a queue at Universal. I was in front of him and as I turned around to say something to him, I got the shock of my life.

As kids will be kids and do almost anything, I thought I saw Zachary licking the hand railing. NO, I said loudly, to the surprise of everyone around us. I leaned down and asked him if he indeed had been licking the railing and he said yes.

I explained to him, how people form all over the world came there and how they could put germs all over the railing that would make him sick. Thank goodness the H1N1 virus was not around yet. But long story short, by the next morning, he was sick as a dog, as the saying goes.

I was nice enough to change the bedding for housekeeping, since he got sick all over it. Nothing like getting sick for two days on vacation, even worse if it's a child. And Zachary never licked another railing.

April 7, 2010 at 6:04 AM · Threw up on a bush at EPCOT when I was 12, visiting for the first time, just as you get to the Mexican pavillion heading from Norway. The Mexican pavillion remains my favorite of the countries at EPCOT, and each time I go back I visit my bush and smile with pride at how big it has gotten over the years.
April 7, 2010 at 7:56 AM · Only thing close to being sick at a park happened this last trip to Orlando I had last month.

The first couple days had been kinda chilly, but Monday was going to be beautiful, so we planned for an Islands of Adventure day. I got up, and immediately realized I had a rather awful headache. I took some Advil and a nice long, hot shower hoping to get rid of it, but to no avail. I tried eating a little breakfast and drinking a bottle of water, nothing. Still, we were determined to enjoy the park.

Just as we were about to leave our hotel room, my stomach went from ok to uh oh in about 2 seconds. I gave a prayer to the porcelain gods, but after felt a lot better. The headache was ebbing away, though my stomach still felt awful. After about 20 minutes, we left to go to the park. By the time we got there, I felt good enough to do Hulk as my first ride. Not the best of ideas, but it turned out ok, though I was worried throughout the entire line.

By the time lunch rolled around, I felt perfectly fine.

April 8, 2010 at 3:15 AM · Anyone who has to make that transatlantic flight to visit the Parks will know about the "flu-like" symptoms that you develop on those due to the recycled air. ( In Economy you actually get less clean air than you do in the more expensive seats ).
Anyway both my wife and I had this underlying feeling of snotty heady grossness when we were staying onsite up at Universal. We only had a week there before moving down to WDW.
We got through almost all of the rides including The Hulk but kept putting off Dueling Dragons.
On our last day we had to " bite the bullet" and just go for it. Standing in line we both felt awful and we aren't big coaster fans either.
Dangling from Ice whilst being thrown all over wasn't the best way to treat our condition in retrospect.
When we got off I had reacted pretty oddly. It was as if I'd drunk about a litre of alcohol.
My legs were rubber and my ability to focus or walk a straight line had deserted me entirely.
I must have walked into at least half a dozen people before coming to rest.
We had to laugh whens somebody walked by and loudly proclaimed that people shouldn't be allowed into the Park if they've been drinking alcohol.
We just pointed breathlessly at Dueling Dragons. Sometimes actions speak louder than words.
April 9, 2010 at 2:32 AM · Many years ago we took the kids to Sesame Place, in PA, so many kids were sick there, we didn't think about it until we all came down with something.

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