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A “behind–the–ears” look at Disneyland
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David Koenig
Sacre bleu, it's deja vu
This week's Pirates accident is a near-replay of an incident four weeks ago. What happened and why.

State authorities took four months to investigate the fateful Roger Rabbit accident at Disneyland. Even now, no one's sure who or what's to blame, and the ride remains closed.

Investigators spent a few hours looking into Tuesday's Pirates of the Caribbean accident, and the attraction reopened the next day. This time, the cause was readily apparent: operator error.

Two cast members messed up at the same time. An unloader allowed guests to begin exiting their boat even though it hadn't advanced to the proper position, and the dispatcher in the Control Tower allowed the boat to lurch forward while the guests were climbing out. Passengers went flying. One woman, carrying her 16-month-old daughter, tumbled backwards over two rows of seats and hit her head. Another woman caught her knee between the boat and the dock.

That answers how the accident happened. What about why?

For one reason, the two ride operators were brand new, fresh from the ride's brief, two-day training program. Apparently, under the new Cast Deployment breaking system, they were forced to remain in the same position for about two hours, and their concentration lapsed. As well, the ride's experienced, highly skilled lead was out in front of the building, struggling to operate the time-consuming new breaking system.

Now, guests have been falling into prematurely dispatched boats since Pirates first opened in 1967. What's different is that now Disneyland is staffed with a record number of inexperienced and overwhelmed employees.

Consider that the latest incident occurred just four weeks after a near-identical accident, also caused by a pair of new hires, who were manning the Front Unload and Control Tower positions.

The Pirates treasure room inside the attraction
The Pirates treasure room inside the attraction

The Pirates dock allows loading and unloading of two boats at a time. A Front Unloader and a Rear Unloader help guests exit each boat, then, after the new passengers have safely boarded, hit an Enable button, located under the handrail on the third row of railings. After both Enable buttons are depressed, a green light turns on in the middle of the dock signaling the Tower that it may be safe to dispatch the boats. The dispatcher makes a final scan of the dock, and, if all's clear, presses the Dispatch button to send the boats out of the station and into the bayou.

During slow periods, Pirates can operate with a single unloader by loading just the front boat. The dispatcher activates a "No Rear Enable" button, so only the Front Enable button needs to be engaged to trigger the green light (since there shouldn't be guests in the rear boat).

On New Year's Day, the Front Unloader, a new hire, suddenly decided that he needed to use the restroom. He abandoned his position and walked backstage. The experienced cast member at Rear Unload was incredulous. He moved to Front Unload, asked the loader to fill only the front boats, and told the dispatcher to engage the "No Rear Enable."

With the rear boats now going out empty, the attraction's capacity was cut in half, backing up both the Standby and FastPass lines. Guests, especially in the overcrowded FastPass line, began growing impatient and intimidating the new hires working the queue. The ride's lead rushed to their assistance.

After about 10 minutes, the AWOL unloader returned from backstage and went to chat with the dispatcher. The veteran unloader, incensed that the rookies were oblivious to the backup, phoned the Tower to send the unloader to his position immediately. When everyone finally was back in place, the loader resumed loading both the front and the rear boats.

Unfortunately, the dispatcher failed to disengage the "No Rear Enable," meaning only the Front Enable button had to be pressed to trigger the green light. Instead, the dispatcher began talking on the phone, mindlessly hitting the dispatch button whenever the green light turned on without paying attention to the boats themselves.

After a few dispatches, the experienced Rear Unloader turned to assist wheelchair-bound guests (who board on the unload side), when he heard screams. He wheeled around to see the boats moving through the station even though he hadn't pressed his Rear Enable button. He fought through guests to get to his Station Stop button. The rookie Front Unloader looked on, motionless, as a young woman's leg jammed between a boat and a hand railing. A loud "pop" echoed through the station as the woman's leg twisted around the railing. Another woman trying to step into the boat tumbled backwards. Her husband, their baby in his arms, toppled across the seatbacks onto other guests.

As the Station Stop button brought the boats to a lurching stop, two seasoned employees rushed to the young woman near the railing. She was clutching her leg and in noticeable pain. The loader ran to the Tower to call "911," only to discover the dispatcher still on the phone, oblivious to the screams and pandemonium below. The veteran cried, "I have to call 911!" The dispatcher replied, "I'm on the phone." The veteran grabbed the receiver, hung up the phone, and dialed 911.

At last, noticing the flashing emergency lights, the dispatcher remarked, "Hey, I got a Station Stop light here. What's going on?"

The lead quickly arrived and summoned several managers to help calm the enraged guests. Downstairs, the boats backed up into the Battle Scene.

Nurses also responded to tend to the injured woman. "The injured leg could have been worse," says one operator. "If someone had been knocked into the flume and onto the loading belts, they would have been chewed to pieces before the Station Stop could have been pressed."

Maybe it's because the park is so short-staffed, but the two culprits received minimal punishment. The Front Unloader, who instigated the fiasco with his sudden bathroom break, was reprimanded. Little did management know, he never even went to the restroom. Coworkers say they saw him flirting with a girl in the employee cafeteria.

"The whole thing makes me sick," complained one old-timer. "Some of the new cast members hired from the Job Fairs are bright, courteous and pleasant young people, like Disneyland has always hired. But many are just useless and cause constant problems, and are requiring intense amounts of follow-up after their initial training. Some of the new cast members are not very intelligent and did poorly in school. They don't have good people skills, some have limited English speaking skills, and many have no sense of responsibility about their important job duties. Many of the new cast members are quite obviously rejects from the jobs available at the malls."

In fact, the dispatcher was a longtime annual passholder who had been trying to get a job at Disneyland for years. Casting always turned him down. Then, at a December Job Fair, up against a deadline to hire a remaining few thousand workers, Disney suddenly deemed him qualified. To make matters worse, notes a cast member, "with the crazy 'grab-whoever-comes-in-the-door' attitude at the recent Job Fairs, he was hired directly into Attractions and trained on one of the most important attractions in the park. In the past, it was an honor to work Pirates, and only the best of the best would get trained there. Those days are obviously gone."

For his transgressions, the dispatcher received a one-day suspension. His days at the park, though, were numbered. One day last week, he approached his lead to ask if he could wear a stuffed parrot on his shoulder while he was onstage. The lead asked, "What position were you in?" "The Tower," he answered. The lead about had a heart attack when she realized that he had left the Tower empty and unattended while the ride was operating. He was placed on another investigatory suspension, and then terminated.

Certainly the vast majority of Disney cast members are highly capable. But, as we've seen, the labor pool has been diluted.

Hang on. I think we're in for a bumpy ride.

Part Two: Sacre bleu, more deja vu

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.

After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999); all titles published by Bonaventure Press.

He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.

You can contact David here.

LINKS

Click here to go to David's main page for a list of archived articles.

Visit MouseShoppe to purchase copies of David's books. (Clicking on the link opens a new window.)

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