The unrealistic expectations of theme park workers

Jeff's avatar

I don't usually plug my blog here, and it's definitely not news, but I thought this might be a fun discussion. For whatever reason, Twitter shows me a lot of malcontent around this subject, and that prompted the post.

Jeff - Editor - - My Blog

This could get interesting if you have a lot of park workers who mill around in here. It has been a long time since I was on the front lines in that world. (30 years now since my first summer at Geauga Lake...holy smokes.) I want to say I was making $3.15 an hour (maybe a little more) and I thought I was in heaven that first year running the Jumbo ride in Rainbow Island. After that first summer I started hanging around longer tenured employees who would inevitably gripe about how they were "mistreated" and I started to develop a similar attitude.

Fortunately I started getting supervisor jobs and a little more pay and suddenly I felt valued. As a Full Time employee at Cedar Point I saw the other side of the coin. Yes, there are droves of people who want FT positions in parks so they need not pay a lot of money for those positions. Now, back in my day (God I'm old) the positions often went to good people who were good workers but did not necessarily make good managers and that was a problem but there were plenty of people waiting in the wings if a hire didn't work out.

As bad as it was at the seasonal parks, it was worse at Disney. Man did those FT front line cast members gripe...about everything. I showed up as this happy college student and the FT guys (I was on the Jungle Cruise it was all guys) did everything they could to sour me on the company and suck the joy out of the job. I thought they were crazy and I would have given anything back then to get a FT job (and would have probably been happy no matter what they paid me). It finally came to me that those folks who were so bitter probably showed up with this idea of a foot in the door that would have them on the path to become the next Michael Eisner...only to realize that the real jobs that paid well were pretty scarce and the competition for them just ridiculous.

Had I somehow ended up in a FT job at Disney my guess is that today I'd likely be an average-at-best paid middle manager with little chance of growing much more professionally. Sorry to say my good friend was in that situation. He got that FT job 25 years ago, spend many years in middle management hoping for something more, and finally came to the realization it wasn't going to happen. He left the company.

That was a lot of rambling but I suspect it captures pretty well what is happening in that world. I'm happy to look back and appreciate that particular unanswered prayer.

I live here in Portland, and came across this article shortly before I satisfied my Coasterbuzz fix. You see, Portlandia isn't all that much of a send up of reality here...

Jeff's avatar

Soon there won't be any burgers flipped by humans, either, if they expect a $5 raise.

Wahoo: I suspected that you'd weigh in on this. I would add something that you touched on. There's also an expectation that you can be management material because you were a strong individual contributor. I'm of the growing opinion that there's probably not any industry where there is any correlation between the two. Some people simply don't have the people skills to lead, but that doesn't mean they're limited necessarily. It depends on the profession. I mean, you can be an actuary or a software developer and live very comfortably in middle to later career stages and never have a direct report. I had a former boss who owned restaurants on the side, and interestingly he said that it was hard to hire and retain good restaurant managers because the pay wasn't great, and if they were good managers, they were better off in other industries. I imagine front end theme park managers are in the same category.

There are certainly exceptions even in the industry though. A lot of people made a ton of money off of Disney as consultants during the NGE program. I've heard of some people doing very well while NBCUniversal is making that Harry Potter money across town as well. Full-time (as opposed to contract) is a mixed bag depending on profession. Creative, IT, finance are doing well, but operations it's still the same story.

Jeff - Editor - - My Blog

Part of me wants in retirement to be a seasonal worker as just something to do, but if I can afford it I may just hang out with an AP instead.

2022 Trips: WDW, Sea World San Diego & Orlando, CP, KI, BGW, Bay Beach, Canobie Lake, Universal Orlando

Bakeman31092's avatar

I can share my experience with this on the professional side. Back in 2015, I landed my dream job as a design engineer for a roller coaster company, but the career change came with a 14.5% reduction in salary. I had to go for it because it was what I always wanted, but it only took 15 months to realize that it wasn’t going to pan out. It was difficult working below my earning potential while having a family to support and two kids to eventually put through college. I ended up moving back home and getting my old job back, and we all lived happily ever after.

I never heald it against the company because I knew, just like Jeff said, that there were plenty of people lined up behind me that wanted the position.

Dreams are nice, but money is also nice.

Bakeman makes a great point. My dream job changed when my dreams changed. Before marriage and kids Cedar Point seemed outstanding. After I got married and my wife and I were basically on opposite schedules the job became more that...a job. The idea of having children in those conditions didn't sound great (though many people do it and do just fine).

I do agree with Jeff's idea that not everyone is cut out for management. Frankly, there are subtle and not so subtle differences in jobs that look the same inside and outside the theme park world. A hotel manager job at a Holiday Inn is vastly different than a hotel manager job at a resort...and that is vastly different than a hotel manager at a seasonal resort. A good manager in the "real world" may be ineffective in the seasonal world where they are dealing with college aged kids who are not thinking about their futures or their ambitions.

I think the amusement park world (or at least those in the ops segment of the industry) may also overvalue the Operations Department. One would argue they are the reason people go to parks but it is hard to judge their value outside of limited downtime (typically attributed to maintenance and not operations) and turnstile records. An effective restaurant manager can be judged by profits. An effective custodial manager can be judged on cleanliness. Games, security, even the warehouse has a lot more metrics that can be considered when judging the value of people in those positions.

Operations in many ways is really just someone working on an assembly line...but with a lesser skill set. (I say that with affection because I spent most of my theme park years in operations.) The reality is that we thought we were "all that" because we worked the big, fancy rides....but frankly just about anyone could do that job.

"You can dream, create, design, and build the most wonderful place in the world...but it requires people to make the dreams a reality." -Walt Disney

Jeff's avatar

That's the part that gets me. It feels really special, but those feels come from the fact that it's an unusual and rare job. What's not special is the person doing it. It's the movie Adventureland: "We are doing the work of lazy, pathetic morons." I wouldn't characterize the work as lazy or pathetic, but the qualifications aren't much more than having a pulse and some relatively basic skills existing as a human.

Dreams, yeah, I know dreams. I mentioned the friend who "made it" quickly after college in the blog post, and that mirrors my experience working in radio. The reality was something like, "Cool, I get paid to talk at people and play tunes, but they pay sucks, I can be displaced at a moment's notice and seriously, did I need to go to college for this?" I'm sure 13-year-old me would have been disappointed. My wife made it as a union stage manager, working in New York and Cleveland, and while she loved it, there was little room for much of anything else in life (which may be why I was lucky enough to meet her mid-30's and she was still available).

And mind you, those are three anecdotes about people who followed their dreams and quickly made it, only to find it wasn't what they hoped. That makes me sad for people who persist for years trying to get to something that frankly might not be so great in the long run.

Jeff - Editor - - My Blog

Having worked on air in commercial radio as well as spending many years working at Walt Disney World both in hourly and low level management positions, literally all of this. I’d say more, but it’s all been said so perfectly.

wahoo skipper said:

... outside of limited downtime (typically attributed to maintenance and not operations) ...

You'd be surprised, just saying. ;)

June 11th, 2001 - Gemini 100
VertiGo Rides - 82

I'm so thankful that I worked the Walt Disney World College Program. First, it was a great half of a year. Second, it made me realize that it wasn't that different than working at Geauga Lake or Cedar Point and it may not be where I would want to spend a career. Had I not worked on the WDWCP there is a good chance I would have graduated, went down there to get a FT job, and had a long path to limited success.

The one caveat I will say is that my timing at WDWCP was pretty solid. While I was there they were recruiting heavily both for Euro Disney and in preparation for Animal Kingdom. There is a chance I may have parlayed that timing into something above middle management...but my path turned out ok. What really put me off was a conversation I had with a middle manager about career opportunities. She was really downplaying college to me and I just asked her, "what advantages do I have if I get my degree"? Her answer, "none". And, that was true back then. People who were not qualified but with the company a long time often got the promotions. An almost, "it's your turn" mentality instead of a "you've earned an opportunity" mentality. That made for some pretty poor management in the company in the late 90s and early 00s and I think if you look back at what people were saying about WDW back then the evidence is there that it was true.

(To be fair, the "it's your turn" mentality is something that was pretty prevalent in the amusement industry.)

The other upside to working at Disney is that it really can be attributed to me getting into interviews. I don't think it alone got me the jobs but it got me in the room, and that is half of the battle. I have no doubt I ended up on some short lists simply because some recruiter or hiring manager wanted to talk to me about my time at Disney. For anyone looking to go into the hospitality business I would strongly recommend they spend some time at Disney. The odds are not in your favor of significant advancement there (Florida alone has some 60,000 cast members. Imagine how many applications they get for the good openings...just from their internal staff.) But, having Disney on your resume will open some doors.

Last edited by wahoo skipper,
Vater's avatar

Years ago I asked a well known professional in the amusement industry for his recommendation about getting my foot in the door. I was in my mid- to late-20s and was already on a decent path to my current career, though a little frustrated/disgruntled at the time, and working in an amusement park in ride maintenance or possibly even design was very appealing.

His answer made me reconsider. Had I started at at the bottom rung in my teens, perhaps things would be different, but as an adult about to get married, I wasn't prepared to be in financial ruin (and probably still single) just so I could maybe one day work on roller coasters.

I did a lot of jobs in the business. I worked rides, games, marketing, 3rd party concessions, foods and hotel/campground management. The time on the rides was probably the least interesting job (except when I worked the Jungle Cruise at Disney which was closer to a performers job).

At Disney my best friend also worked on the College Program and he was hired in custodial. At first he declined, but then 6 months in Florida sounded good to him. Ask us both who had the better working experience and he would say he did, in a landslide. I would agree. He had a LOT more guest interaction than I did, got all around the park, had a chance to work overtime shifts, etc. I was tied to the Jungle day in and day out doing the same thing over, and over, and over, and over again. No contest really. And, I was on a fairly interesting ride. Dispatching trains all day in the dark on Space Mountain? No thank you.

Really enjoyed reading Jeff's blog as well as the comments here.

I remember knocking on Dick Kinzel's office door when I was 14. I wanted to meet him so bad and when he answered I introduced myself and told him I wanted his job someday- his reply was a giggling "Wait in line..."

He did give me a free shirt and I got a picture with him (and of course the fanboy in me still has it).

All of this discussion made me think of John Hildebrant's new book. I enjoyed reading it because it was an insider look as to how he rose through the ranks. One big piece that I took away from reading John's story was the sacrifice it took for him to get to where he got. Working six days a week, missing valuable family time, all of that while probably not making much until he was in his late forties.

I also thought it was interesting when he talked about amusement park enthusiasts. He mentioned that he enjoyed meeting enthusiasts through the years and their obsession with the park. He also mentions in the book that there were some rides he only rode once, and some he admittedly never rode (Can you imagine?) To him Cedar Point was something different than it is for us. It was a job.

John talked about how he is passionate about The Civil War, but that he didn't go into a career around it. I think this is where I've made my peace with not being in a career related to the industry. I worked at Geauga Lake under the Cedar Fair banner, Disney World as a Jungle Cruise Skipper, and later I did my college internship at SeaWorld Orlando in their HR department. I saw what many mentioned here---- a long line to get to where I dreamed of being, with no guarantees and no fast lane.

I'm currently in education. Salary isn't that great, but I love what I do, and I get two months in the summer to enjoy my favorite pastime.

What years were you at WDW Tilt?

In my experience as a manager, good people rarely stay at a job, even if they really like it, if they can make more money elsewhere. Most can only live in Dreamland for so long before reality kicks in. The problem with this, in many cases, is that you end up having really horrible employees who won't leave without being fired because no one else will hire them OR you end up with a lot of trainees who leave once they realize they are too good for the job. Either way, quality service and products are hard to acquire from establishments who operate like that.

Points made in this thread apply outside the amusement park industry as well. In particular, they apply to choices kids make in college with respect to majors.

Tilt-A-Whirl said:

John talked about how he is passionate about The Civil War, but that he didn't go into a career around it. I think this is where I've made my peace with not being in a career related to the industry. I worked at Geauga Lake under the Cedar Fair banner, Disney World as a Jungle Cruise Skipper, and later I did my college internship at SeaWorld Orlando in their HR department. I saw what many mentioned here---- a long line to get to where I dreamed of being, with no guarantees and no fast lane.

This. My years as a WDW Cast Member were the years I cared the least about this hobby. A combination of Florida summers, six day weeks, and constantly dealing with park guests had me all but give up on parks and coasters as a hobby. Combine that with a natural decline in interest during college and there was a 10-ish year gap where other than a few trips to Cedar Point when I was visiting my parents in Ohio, I really had no interest (or time) to actually enjoy going to parks. My current gig is decent but not great pay, but it's better than theme park pay, the job is more enjoyable, and the work-life balance is something I never would have had if I had stayed in WDW middle management. Separating work and theme parks was the best thing I could have done, and I am more invested and interested in the hobby now than I have been since I was a geeky coaster kid.

I started as a seasonal at Cedar Point for two summers- my first as a front-line and my second as “manager” of my own little place. I was good at it, was in hog heaven, couldn’t imagine what could be better, and envisioned climbing the ladder to become a higher-up. Especially because I was able look around and easily identify many in those positions who clearly didn’t have the love for the business that I did. I was made for it, and I didn’t hate it.

That was until the food service contractor I worked for left Cedar Point and all of a sudden I was without a job. I applied with CP but they didn’t have room for me. I know now what a favor they did me- the following two college summers I worked as an occasional at the telephone company which upon graduation turned into a full time job that lasted my entire life. Oh, the work wasn’t always easy (which is why it’s called work) but the pay was good, I had super benefits, and retired with a pension. And I was able to actually visit amusement parks rather than be eternally stuck at the one where I was working.

I always smile when I see employee forums where students are wringing their hands over needing to work at Cedar Point, and worrying about landing that job- and god forbid it should be something other than ride op. Or where they’ll live. And what park perks employees get. I always want to pat them on the head and say “Good luck and enjoy your summer. But be careful what you wish for and please take what you learn there and turn it into something better.” As it turns out, life is more than a seasonal amusement park.

One more thing. My neighbor is an attorney and when she graduated from law school thought she’d apply at Disney and be one of their corporate lawyers. (She did well and landed an offer). But she went down for her interview a few days early, visited a couple of parks, and familiarized herself with as much as she could thinking it would give her a leg up. When she mentioned that experience the interviewers looked up and said “Oh, honey, no. We don’t go in there. Ever.”


She turned them down, recalling the glazed-over look on their faces and the general bad vibe she sensed. She’s heard horror stories since, and she’s really glad she didn’t get sucked in.

Theme park work seems best suited to teenagers who don’t know better, and retirees with time on their hands. The measly pay is suitable and each of those groups are probably in a better position to say “F this” if things don’t work out like they thought.

I had a friend whose dad's view was that careers were to make money. Fun/passion were for hobbies. Took it to an extreme but I understand the concept.

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