Have you ever wanted to be on a theme park ride when it "broke down?"
Well, welcome to 2020 — the year the global themed entertainment industry stopped, and we got to see the whole thing with the work lights on.
I evacuated a lot of guests from Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Pirates of the Caribbean over the years that I worked at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. Those "in-show exits" actually inspired me to create Theme Park Insider — after I saw how happy some guests were to get an "insider's" backstage tour of the attractions as I led them out to the exit.
But other fans hated the backstage view. For them, anything that revealed how the attraction worked ruined the "magic" of the experience. They wanted to get what they considered a deeply unpleasant experience over as quickly as possible and in a way that showed them as little of the backstage workings as possible.
After a few trips, I learned to poll guests if they wanted the "tour" before I escorted them off the ride. Most of the time, they could not wait for me to finish asking before exclaiming "yes!" But every now and then, a group would politely ask me to keep quiet and to get them the heck out of Dodge, ASAP.
The lesson? As always, people are different and want different experiences from life.
The challenge for themed entertainment designers is to provide that diversity of experience in a way that helps everyone who visits feel satisfied rather than frustrated. As an operations host evacuating guests, I had to take on that same challenge in trying to help a wide variety of guests get over the disappointment of not being able to experience an attraction the way that its designers had intended.
And as the editor of a website that covers the theme park industry, I face that challenge in trying to report the news and provide insight to an audience — you — who comes to Theme Park Insider from different generations, communities, nations, and life experiences. When the pandemic hit the U.S. theme park industry in mid-March, I did not change course but just doubled-down on the coverage. You got daily Covid-19 updates and then extra features after the parks closed, designed to provide a (sometimes literal) taste of the parks experience, including an online cooking show and virtual road trip posts.
But when it became apparent that the closures would last months, not weeks, it became impossible for me to avoid what the work lights were showing. This pandemic — and resulting collapse of the global tourism industry — has exposed a lot of stuff that a lot of people have been very happy to overlook. Among them:
* Cast members, team members, ambassadors, and model citizens really are ultimately just employees to their companies — paid workers who lose their hours, and eventually their jobs, when the guests stop coming. When a loss of income threatens a company's bottom line, all that talk about being the "heart of the magic" goes away, and theme parks dump their workers just like any other industry does.
* And even when they were getting hours, theme park employees don't get paid jack when compared with C-suite managers at their companies. And the bigger the company, often the bigger the pay gap. We are talking ratios of up to 1,000 to 1 here. Do the math, and you'll see that an executive who takes a permanent 50 percent cut to their salary could save hundreds of entry-level employees' jobs. But who does that? (Crickets.) The pay gap means laid-off workers face devastation that people making six- and seven- and even eight- and nine-figure salaries cannot begin to imagine.
* For as much as parks spend on labor, it's capital that drives attendance in this business. But even the biggest parks are limited in their ability to spend money on new rides and expansions when guest spending dries up. This pandemic has forced layoffs not just in parks but at many of the design and manufacturing companies that support theme parks' new attractions and developments. Should this downturn continue, we could lose a generation of potential theme park design talent to other industries, as firms stop hiring and recruiting.
* Running a theme park is inherently a political act. Operating any business than employs thousands of people and generates millions, if not billions, of dollars in revenue each year requires political engagement with local, state, and national authorities. If you ignore politics when covering theme parks, you'll never get the complete "insider's" view of their design and operation.
Beyond the parks, the pandemic and its aftermath have exposed societal faults that deeply affect the design and operation of themed entertainment, as well.
* Systemic racism endures in America, and the theme park and creative industries are not exempt from that. Attractions have perpetuated stereotypes, causing damage to some when they should have been providing comfort to all.
* While many people are willing to help make experiences better for those around them, some people can act like sociopathic jerks. (To be fair, anyone who has ever worked on stage in a theme park already knew this.)
* Labor is discounted and disregarded in the United States, which ultimately leaves this country susceptible to boom-and-bust cycles and social breakdowns, such as what we are experiencing right now.
* And to that end, tying health care to employment has to rank among one of the stupidest public-policy decisions of all time. Even if you support private health care over a government-provided system, making people lose their health care when they lose their job during a pandemic is beyond senseless — it's just cruel and dangerous to make scramble for replacement coverage, especially when so many doctors have restricted practices in this moment. Workers and their families deserve better than this.
The work lights are on right now, not just for the theme park industry, but for our entire society. Whether you choose to ignore that — to rush past the social and political machinery to get back to the happy facades on the other side — or to stop, look, and think about how to fix what has gone wrong... is up to you.
I'm just here to tell you what I see as we walk together.
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