An Insider's Look At The Dark Underbelly Of Amusement Parks
There's nothing better than an amusement park: The thrills of the roller coaster, the tastes of the fair food, the smells of that nice carny who wants to show you his van -- truly, it is a park ... of amusement. And then we made the terrible mistake of talking to the people who work there, and ruined all of the majesty. After they snapped out of their flashbacks, sweating and screaming, they lit a cigarette, and told us ...
Brutal Fistfights Are Depressingly Common
Riding a roller coaster in the winter is like getting blasted in the face by an ice-shotgun, so theme parks tend to do most of their business in the summer. That comes with its own problems: Between the heat, the long lines, and the smell of taint sweat, tensions run higher than some of the guys operating the rides. Fistfights are basically guaranteed. Anthony, who used to work at a pretty famous amusement park, tells us:
"While working the line for , a giant fight broke out because someone had saved a spot for their brother. The people behind them did not like it, and started yelling at them. The yelling turned into screaming, which turned into fighting. By the end the person who 'cut' had a broken nose and broken teeth."
But at least everyone involved was guaranteed a ride ... of some sort.
Things were pretty much the same at Worlds Of Fun in Missouri, where Nick used to work: "One time that sticks out is when I was working the guessing game, where I guess your age, weight, or birthday ... One drunk guy comes waltzing up to me past all the people and asks, 'Hey! How much is it to fucking play?! This game looks fun!'"
In nature, that guy would be rattling like a snake about now.
"I told him it's five dollars, but you'll have to go to the back of the line, a man and his daughter are up next. He says, 'Fuck that! I wanna play now!' 'Sir, get out of the way, it's our turn.' 'No! Fuck you!' Then that dad hit the drunk guy so fucking hard. Knocked out fucking cold. Both people got kicked out of the park. I made sure that dad got a prize for his little girl, though. Dude deserved it."
Which was pointless since no prize in the world can match the joy of punching an obnoxious drunk.
We're sure the daughter had so much fun that day, and was in no way scarred by these events.
Do Not Eat Anything, Ever
If you're a fan of corn dogs, Anthony is about to ruin your day -- even more than your several-corn-dog lunch would:
"Regular practice in our kitchens -- when we find rodent droppings -- is to throw away only whatever the droppings are on."
"Nah, it's cool. I just farted on these ones."
"We had a bad rodent problem, and any of our food that was OBVIOUSLY in contact with mice was thrown out, while food that could even be in the same bag was saved."
... and then put on a plate/stick, and, eventually, inside your mouth.
Now, for various liability-related reasons, we can't tell you exactly where Anthony worked, only that it was a super well-known park with locations all over the world. Not Disneyland, though, even if the rodent droppings would be a perfect thematic fit for them.
Though a six-foot mouse might produce some droppings that'd be a bit harder to overlook.
"Like many other corporations, the park was all about their bottom line," Anthony continues. "They will try to save money any way possible, and that, unfortunately, usually was felt in our food services department. Our fryers were hardly ever changed, and the oil would be there months. I have also seen employees drop food on the ground, and continue to use it. I have no idea if their standards have gotten better, but I refuse to eat in the park anymore."
Though to be fair to the park, you are supposed to be drunk when confronted with that decision.
No one should ever be eating deep-fried ranch dressing balls unless they're a bit 'beer battered' themselves.
Some Parks Operate On Slave Labor
Outsourcing jobs is old hat. Nowadays, all the cool theme parks are really into insourcing, i.e. hiring seasonal help from abroad for so little money, you'd have to double it to call it a "slave wage."
"Our park participates in a foreign exchange program targeting economically depressed countries," Anthony says, "like Turkey, and Thailand, to find students who want to participate in their foreign 'work study' program."
Anthony was right to use quotation marks there, because the only thing foreign exchange workers actually studied was the art of grifting.
That and which power-washers get out the corn-dog vomit stains the best.
Foreign workers at Anthony's park were brought into the country with promises of fun work, good pay, and all the drugs they could steal from the guy who runs the bumper cars. In reality, though:
"They are paid the same minimum wage we were, except 70 percent of their paycheck is given back to the park for room and board costs. However, each room held four or five students at once," and taking 7/10ths of a person's paycheck for the privilege of sleeping under a card table isn't exactly moral.
We hate to harp on the topic, but slave wages are a lot more common than you previously thought.
"There was also a massive language barrier when they first come in. They are in the park for around six months, so eventually they start speaking English well. When we were all finally able to communicate, they spoke of how horrible their conditions were. They felt almost like prisoners in the camp," and that's hardly an exaggeration.
The park owners "didn't sponsor the workers to fly to America to take these jobs," Anthony explains. "More often than not, the workers have to take out loans, or get sponsorship to fly out to the U.S. The cost is around $3,000 to do so. Since they are being paid minimum wage and having their rent taken out of it, most workers end up not making enough to pay back the cost of what it took to fly out there."
Well, that is pretty representative of the modern-day American experience. Good job, theme parks?
It's not a real American job until you get the "This job won't pay for the education required to get it" caveat.
If You're A Live-in Employee At An Amusement Park, They Own You
The problem with human employees is that they're occasionally late, or get sick, or insist on having their own lives outside of work. That's why theme parks cannot wait for current technology to catch up to Westworld. In the meantime, they just have to settle for housing some of their local workers in company dormitories as well, thus granting themselves an insane level of control over their workers' lives.
Heather, who used to work at Cedar Point in Ohio, explains: "I lived in a dorm with three people ... This way the park knows exactly where you are at all times, who your friends are, who you're dating, probably who you slept with previously, and therefore shouldn't work with. If they want you to come into work early, they'll call you -- knowing you live a mile and a half down the road and can get there, so 'no' is not really an answer."
"You need time off for bereavement? What, you can't be sad on a Ferris wheel?"
Hell, with a pair of binoculars, they could probably see what you were wearing. And then scold you because you weren't wearing the park's communal underwear.
"All of those things can, and will, be used against you (by housing or your supervision) if necessary, to get you to apply for a certain position, or to come in early or stay late, or to add a couple more weeks on to your contract."
"Some light cleaning will burn off that bag of Oreos we saw you eating at 2 a.m. last night. This is for your health."
And if you don't comply with all of Cedar Point's requests, they might make you work while battling an infectious disease. Ha, just kidding! They might make you do that even if you're a model employee.
"When I came down with pink eye," Heather says, "my boss sent me to first aid, but first I had to finish my shift. But because of my condition, I wasn't legally allowed at the control panels. Walked around all morning with a bottle of hand sanitizer, unable to take places at rides or help unbuckle seat belts because I couldn't see and didn't want to spread germs ... At my clinic appointment, the doctor said 'That's pink eye. Wow. That developed overnight? This looks like you've had it for days. What job do you do?' and upon hearing that I was in contact with children 10 hours a day, told me the only worse thing I could have said was that I worked with food ... Sent me home for two days with antibiotics, effective immediately."
"Don't worry; we've got somebody who works with food already."
A Lot Of People Die At Amusement Parks
So just how likely are you to die at a theme park? We don't know. In fact, nobody does, because there isn't a single federal agency responsible for investigating or counting fatalities at amusement parks. Yet strangely, there is one that governs how geographical names are used.
Right now the best system is to avoid any ride where the exit is suspiciously close to emergency parking.
What we know for sure is that three of our sources saw somebody die at their park.
"Once, when I was working near The Detonator," Nick says, "which is a tall ride that you sit in and it launches you upwards, someone had a heart attack and died right there. Those warnings about heart attacks on roller coasters, etc., are not fucking around ... Another time, a teenage girl and a friend wanted to ride the Timber Wolf. It's a wooden coaster with steep hills and such. Halfway through, her friend said she wanted to switch seats. So they tried, in mid-ride, and failed. She fell to her death."
According to an informal survey, those were only two of around 1,200 accidents that occurred in America's 400 parks in 2011. However, the survey came from the International Association Of Amusement Parks And Attractions, i.e. the parks themselves, which is a little like asking the NRA how many gun owners in America shot off their dicks. You know they'll try to seriously low-ball that number.
It's particularly odd since so many parks are in Florida, which reports every fucking thing else.
Still, based on what Justin saw, some of those accidents were probably the fault of the victims:
"One night, a call goes out over the radio about a person injured on the Batman ride. This ride has the rider in a seat with their feet hanging free. At one point the ride comes out of a loop close to the ground and this woman's leg and part of the seat assembly struck an employee who had jumped over the fence and was in this prohibited area. There was no doubt he was dead, and nothing could be done except wait for the coroner. Upon inspection, his pockets were filled with a large amount of change. We figured he was attempting to collect the money that fell from people's pockets and was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
And this kind of thing is why you don't pay employees 30 percent of minimum wage.
According to Justin, this same ride also killed a teenager a year later, when he jumped the fence to get back the hat he had lost. A nearly identical accident happened at Anthony's park -- hat, suspended roller coaster, and all:
"There was a man who lost his hat on a ride, got off, and decided to jump over the fence to get it. He ended up getting hit by a car on our . One other case occurred at our water park. A man cut through the line, fought through guests and the lifeguards, and jumped down one of our tallest slides, which is almost a complete vertical drop. He tumbled over and landed on the fence below. He died."
In conclusion, the biggest killers at amusement parks are idiocy and Darwinism. Don't fuck with them and you'll be OK. And maybe stay away from the corn dogs.
Anthony is a part-time teacher and podcaster and a full-time mythical Goat-Devourer. You can follow him on twitter @elchupacabradlx. Dominic Danzo is a former employee in Games at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.
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For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World and 6 Hidden Sides of Disneyland Only Employees Get to See.
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