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Working in a Theme Park

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A ferris wheel in a theme park.

Theme parks are a divisive subject: for some people their annual trip is the highlight of the year; for others the crowds, the screaming kids or the nasty food make it an experience to forget. But what's it like working in one?

The Constants

Nearly all theme parks, and all jobs within those parks share three constants - low pay, dodgy hours, hard work. The standard theme park worker will be on minimum wage where that exists, and poverty pay where it doesn't. You may find that you are not paid for all your hours (time spent on internal transport and changing into your costume for example) or that what would normally be termed unsociable hours earn no special recompense. Your contract will be as short as they can get away with - most of these parks are not open in the winter, and frankly, if you don't want frostbite, most of them are not good cold weather jobs.

So how about the working hours, then? When do people go to theme parks in general? Yes, you guessed it; school holidays, weekends, and in some cases evenings. So if you are a seasonal worker, you can kiss goodbye to your weekends, and if you are a permanent worker, you can forget your summer holiday. There will probably be an early and a late shift, and neither will be 'office hours'.

Improving Your Lot

It may be true that there are no easy jobs in a theme park, but you can at least try and pick one which is compatible with your likes and dislikes. Here is a short list of some of the options, with positive and negative aspects.

  • Merchandising: Or 'selling stuff'. Being a shop assistant is very similar to working in a shop anywhere else, with the exception that grab-and-run or armed robberies are generally perceived as a poor option inside the park. Furtive theft is just as much an issue though. The advantage is that the shop may not be open for all the hours that the park is open, and that you may get some transferable skills for any other shop job.

  • Selling food: Again, just like a normal fast food outlet or other restaurant. One downside is that you may not be able to accept tips.

  • Working on a Ride: - These are the more novel jobs, and often the more amusing. It depends a bit on which ride, though. Will people be sick? Will there be screaming kids? Is it dark? Will you have to go up a very long ladder if the ride gets stuck? Are there technical controls to master? All of these are possible, and you need to know what you're letting yourself in for - they may tell you that the ride doesn't break down very often, but if it does, you need to be able to deal with it.

  • In fact some of my fondest memories are of ride breakdowns - sprinting down the tunnels to get to the restart posts, trying to placate the stuck visitors and so on. Especially one time when the ride broke down very late in the evening - I was sat on top of the 'mountain' on my own for about thirty minutes on a beautiful warm summers night - watching the park shut down, waiting for the call to restart the mechanism. It was a rare moment of calm amongst the normal madness.
  • Cleaning: No one does this if they're offered anything else, normally. Only advantage is plenty of time to think...

  • Ticketing: And also 'front of house'. Not a bad option, usually with some protection from the elements. The work can rapidly get very routine though.

  • Costume and Entertainment: The downsides of wearing a big furry costume are obvious - you boil in the heat, the kids treat you like a cartoon character1, you can't see where you're going - all in all, very intensive. On the other hand, unless you're working for a real cowboy outfit (geddit...?) you should be getting quite long breaks, more pay than your less furry colleagues, and you don't have to smile under that big head. Or talk (normally). The other types of entertainment are singing, dancing, juggling etc. This is showbusiness, albeit of the least glamorous kind, so different pay and conditions should (hopefully) apply.

In addition to these main jobs, there are also often hotels or other accommodation, where the work is the same as any other hotel, more or less. There are also some fairly technical jobs - the rides in particular need maintaining, so they recruit technicians and engineers. However, this is getting worrying close to a career - you would need specific qualifications to do this, and you might even get paid more than minimum wage.

Other Things to Watch Out For

Most theme parks have constant music. This can be simply a background noise, or it might drive you loopy.

I can still whistle 'Rawhide' and 'The Good the Bad and the Ugly', more than a decade since last working in a theme park.
— An h2g2 Researcher

You also need to check out what you are going to wear. For ride jobs in particular, you may be out in all weathers, so you need to think about whether your costume will protect you from the cold, the wet, and the blazing sun. In addition, there is the issue of how silly you will look - a little silly is par for the course, but if your mates come, and they take a photo (which you will have to smile for as a true professional) will you need to move town when they put it on the social networking site of their choice?

This brings us on to another particular aspect of many theme parks. This is that you may be expected (a little bit) to stay in character, and you will be expected (a lot) to smile all the time and be friendly to the stupidest visitor2. You may need to have short hair, no tattoos and little jewellery, and generally be expected to look kempt. You may have a name badge and there may be overt or covert controls of your behaviour. Let's put it this way - if you are a naturally grumpy person, you may want to consider the haunted house, if there is one, or give these jobs a miss.

So, Good Job or Bad Job?

Well, there are some surprising positives. Firstly, most of the people there don't take the job too seriously - there's a sort of holiday feeling, and it may be easy to share flats, crash parties, and chill out at break times. Secondly, most visitors are there to have a good time - the atmosphere is rather positive, and if you're in the right mood, you can have fun too. Thirdly, even with the less pleasant visitors, it offers plenty of opportunity to observe the stupidity of your fellow humans. Chortle at the man who insists his sunglasses will stay on top of his head as he goes round the rollercoaster - boggle at the parents who want to carry their baby in their arms on the loop the loop - and giggle with your colleagues at the visitors who ask whether the ducks in the lake are real...

One of the funniest moments in my last stint in a theme park was on a break. The break area is behind a fence - it's not locked but you have to find it. All of a sudden a little old lady wanders round the fence and stands there with her mouth open - in front of her is a Tigger with his head off, smoking away, a cowboy sat in the lap of a haunted house lady in full gear, and various other staff in bits of costume. Eventually she recovers enough to ask for the toilets and toddles off, clearly wondering if she hadn't had a little too much sun...

On the other hand, the routine, the crowds, the relentless obligation to be cheerful, and the feeling of being exploited rapidly grind you down. Most people can't hack more than a few summers unless they have no other choice, or unless they can start to move up the greasy pole a bit. There are worse summer jobs, but don't let it become your only option.

1Some of them kick and punch, or pull you about - you should have a minder with you, but it can still be tough.2Even the most controlling theme park employers recognise that shifting people into and out of a wild west train all day is likely to get a little wearing if you have to say 'howdy partners' every time you do it and that real cowboys did not smile all the time, or shave every day...

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