50 Years of Walt Disney World: Pirates of Thunder Mountain

September 22, 2021, 5:57 PM · One week from Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Walt Disney World Resort. To get ready for the big birthday, all this week I am featuring stories from my book about working at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Stories from a Theme Park Insider.

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"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 - as I was told - prohibited 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, outside the station. (Thunder has two stations, with up to five trains on the track.) The Old Man was 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 in the station, then send it back into the storage area. 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 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.

The cast member who was working Thunder's control tower when the Old Man woke up was the one to oversee the restart. On that day, the guy in the tower just happened to be a guy who, like me, had been working several months at Pirates of the Caribbean and just recently cross-trained on Thunder. This was his first-ever downtime on the roller coaster.

The ride's lead hurried up to the tower to assist. Had a more experienced cast member been working in the tower, the lead would have just stood by and chatted with cast members and guests. Today, the lead stood closer, watching as the rookie slowly worked his way through the procedures.
When the trains stop on the lifts throughout the ride, we turned on the ride's work lights and sent operators to each lift, first to 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. Because there were operators on the track, the tower operator had to announce over the 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 my side of the station 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 my 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.

The Thunder cast members 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.

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You can support Theme Park Insider by ordering a copy of "Stories from a Theme Park Insider," available in paperback for $6.99 and for Kindle as an eBook for just $2.99.

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Replies (2)

September 23, 2021 at 10:28 AM

Hahaha, another good one, thank you.

September 25, 2021 at 9:28 AM

Ha ha ha ha o boy do i enjoy this story bits....thanks for sharing!!

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