Why working in a theme park is harder than it looks

October 8, 2017, 12:50 PM · Working operations in a theme park is a lot harder than it looks.

Okay, I can feel the pushback from some of you. "You wave people onto a ride and press a button. How hard can it be?" Well, the trick isn't in pressing the button. It's knowing when not to. It's not just standing by while things go right. It's keeping them from going wrong.

I needed a couple of summers working operations at Walt Disney World to learn this lesson, but working operations in a theme park has almost nothing to do with operating attractions. The real job is in managing the people who go on them.

I thought about this when I read a response in our thread asking for people's most embarrassing theme park mistakes. A Theme Park Insider reader described a conflict that followed the reader's family's attempt to use an elevator to bypass steps to get to Disneyland's monorail ride. The elevator is supposed to be reserved by use by guests with disabilities, and another couple on the elevator called out the reader's family for not belonging.

From the reader's description, there was plenty of blame to go around, and a cast member handled the situation badly. But the situation the reader described also sounded to me like a tough scenario for a theme park employee to manage.

Why? Because what the cast member initially saw as the entire problem was in fact just one part. Unfortunately, this happens all the time in theme parks, and it's situations like this make working ops such a hard job to do well.

The cast member tried to diffuse a fight between the families by kicking the reader's family off the elevator for verbally attacking the couple that called them out for being there. OK, that's fair. But the cast member didn't take the time to learn that the reader's family was on the elevator in the first place because one family member had just had knee replacements and should not be climbing steps. The cast member focused too much on the fight and didn't broaden his focus to see the circumstances that led to it. So a guest was denied an accommodation that he legally was entitled to have. That's bad.

When I started working what was then called Parade Audience Control at the Magic Kingdom, I tried to do my new job well by obsessing over what was happening in front of me on the parade route. Was I keeping the route clear and directing people behind the ropes? Was I telling people to put back the benches they'd moved up to the route? Those were my responsibilities, so I focused narrowly on them.

After a few months on PAC duty, I'd learned to stop looking at the actual parade route. Instead, I broadened my focus to everything happening away from the route. I looked for people creating bottlenecks behind the ropes that would force traffic onto the route itself. I watched people sitting on benches to see if they were talking about moving them. I looked for people who looked lost or confused.

I looked for problems as they were developing and tried to resolve them before they created any issues on the parade route. If you go up to someone standing up to move a bench and ask them nicely to keep it where it is, they're far less upset with you than if you bust them after they've already done the work to move the heavy thing 10 yards up to the parade route. About once a month, I'd hear the family trying to move a bench push back on my request, saying that grandma or grandpa had a walker and needed to sit down for the parade, but wouldn't be able to see it from back there. That gave me the opportunity to tell them about the disabled viewing area they'd never heard about and offer them an escort to it. They left happy, and I wouldn't have a knee-crunching bench to deal with on the edge of the street.

Working well in a theme park demands an optimistic skepticism. You must remain skeptical of everyone in the park, anticipating all the various ways that they can screw up your operations. Yet you also must remain optimistic, believing all those people are there for a good time and that you have the ability to deliver it for them without compromising your job, other guests, or yourself.

Doing that means resisting the urge to label people "good guys" and "bad guys." You're not there to judge people, but to manage behavior. And what might seem like a simple problem often obscures deeper issues. The man asking when to rent a wheelchair doesn't really need a wheelchair. He needs a medical unit to attend to his elderly mother, who is suffering a heat stroke.

The best cast and team members have the experience necessary to identify potential problems and prevent them from interrupting normal park operations. You see the anxious child and take that family aside to calm them, instead of putting them on a ride you'll have to shut down when the kid starts wailing and tries to climb out. You listen to people and redirect them when you realize that they're heading the wrong way. You stop people before they can move the bench.

Even with experience, things sometime go south. When that happens, you need the skill to call for help in case you can't broaden your focus, calm your frustration and see a clear path to get everything — and everyone — back to normal again.

Working well in a theme park requires you not just to master the specific duties of whatever task you've been assigned. It requires you to learn how to manage an ever-changing collection of thousands of unique people every single day. And if you do that job really, really well, none of them will even notice that you managed them.

Replies (5)

October 8, 2017 at 3:03 PM · Great insight. I always cut a break to operators with a job much harder than it seems and handling such issues so nice to see talk of how they do it.
October 9, 2017 at 10:46 AM · One of your best articles. Thank you.
October 9, 2017 at 5:03 PM · Yess I work rides at SW and the hardest part is dealing with the guests that are not so nice.. but those who are make it all worth it.
October 9, 2017 at 6:00 PM ·
October 9, 2017 at 8:56 PM · This describes my job so perfectly. I love it.

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