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David Koenig
Sacre bleu, more deja vu

Pirates of the Caribbean warning sign outside
Pirates of the Caribbean warning sign outside

Two eerily similar accidents on Pirates of the Caribbean within weeks of each other sparked a number of questions and even input from the Dispatcher whose failure to disengage the "No Rear Enable" switch contributed to the initial January 1 accident.

Although the Dispatcher's version of events basically parallels those related in the article, he tried to offer extenuating circumstances. He claims that he did not take off the No Rear Enable switch because he didn't see the wayward Front Unloader return from his sudden, unexcused bathroom break. Then he says:

I received a call up at tower from the assistant manager, asking me for an hourly count. Since this was a procedure I wasn't trained for, I had him walk me through it (which took a minute). After I gave him the counts, he asked me to call another extension (without letting me know whom I was calling or why). I made the call. While I was handling this call, I saw the green light out of the corner of my eye and pressed the dispatch. Next thing I knew, the console lit up.

First I figured that this was one of the routine station stops that has occurred before (the type where we had to remind someone to sit down or stay behind the line). I tried to reset the stop and couldn't. That's when I asked what was going on. Next thing I know, I have two leads running up to tower and ask me what was going on. Seeing as that I didn't exactly know myself, I couldn't tell them. That's when I found out about the lady being injured. Just like people tend to do, first I panicked, then I got flustered. Incident reports were filled out. I was put on a one day suspension.

Trust me, it wasn't easy for me. The first night after, I had nightmares. I still feel bad that I allowed it to happen. I even volunteered to quit, which they said not to do. I know I could have done a better job watching the boats (I had the first boat in my sight, but not the second one, which is where the situation occurred). I wish I had told (the assistant manager) to call back later. It's not easy to monitor the boat activity while having to read a sheet and try to conduct phone business with your super all at the same time.

As far as his termination, he explains:

I wasn't asking permission to wear the parrot. I was attempting to acquire information about this whole approval situation in general. See, when I was first trained on Pirates, I was told that If I had anything pirate themed that I could wear as part of the costume, I was encouraged to do so. So, for the past month or so, I was wearing this Disney pirate parrot beanie that was sold as part of the Disneyana convention from March 2000. I also had these two skeleton key keychains (from Pirates and Haunted Mansion) hanging from my beltloop.

Anyway, the week prior to the incident, there was a mystery guest in the park. When all was said and done, Pirates was docked points partly because of the beanie. This made me angry. What made me angrier was the next morning after the scores came out, I was asked by the assistant manager to not wear the parrot until this whole thing was straightened out. The way I saw it, this whole thing shouldn't have happened in the first place. First, I went to him and asked him who I could complain to. He said I couldn't. This in itself is B.S. So, I was went through the day in a bad mood.

Later on, I was in the tower when the assistant manager and four leads were just outside the doorway to the tower. I tried to get his attention (so I could once again beef about this whole B.S.), which failed. So, making sure I had no boats moving in the dock (I didn't want to make the same mistake as the prior incident), I got up out of my chair to try again to get his attention. I didn't leave the tower, just stood in the doorway. He asked who was watching the tower and I said that it was me. They sent me to lunch. Then, when I returned, I was asked to go fill out an incident report.

The rest, as they say, is history. I just wish that I had listened to my lead when he suggested I ER for the day and go home to relax.

He says that his brief, turbulent tenure at the park

…has soured me on the whole Disney thing. The only good thing to come out of this whole situation was I made a few permanent friends.

Pirates of the Caribbean ride entry
Pirates of the Caribbean ride entry

A former cast member, who keeps in touch with his Pirates brethren, tried to stick up for the AWOL unloader:

The cast member that left his station to use the restroom was a little less at fault, I think, than your article would lead us to believe. The Front Unloader had been repressing his need to use the restroom for quite some time through his rotation and the lead was off on break without having told anyone where she would be.

Now, if for any reason you should need to leave your station, a cast member should contact his lead. The front guy knew this and wanted to do this very thing. However, it is hard enough to contact the lead as a new cast member let alone when they don't tell anyone where they will be. I say that it's difficult to contact the lead as a new cast member, because I can remember when I was brand new—I wasn't introduced to the leads, didn't know who any of them were for at least a full week, and could never keep it straight in the beginning which lead was which. Aside from not knowing who/where my lead was, I'd have had no idea how to contact any other lead or area manager those first couple of days / weeks.

So, in desperation, the guy in front let the person in back know he had to use the restroom, the person at the rear position came forward, a No Rear Enable was set and things went on. The cast member came back from the restroom (which is down just across from the West Side Diner), resumed his position, and everyone went back about their business—except that the moron on the personal call in the tower was still on his call and had forgotten to disable the No Rear Unload button.

The Front Unloader received only a minor reprimand because it was found that he had done everything he had known to do by (a) waiting as long as possible for his lead to return, (b) informing his co-cast members what he was doing, and (c) returning to his position as soon as he could.

As for the second accident, again, this accident revolves around training and experience issues. The cast member that allowed the guest to begin disembarking should have known to ask them to remain seated because the boat was not at the appropriate location. Honestly, I was trained under the current two-day method and found it satisfactory -- however, I saw many cast members for whom this amount of time should have been increased to at least a week of supervision.

The problem with training as I see it, is not the amount of time for the training itself (after all, it doesn't take long to figure out which buttons to press), but rather the lack of supervision each new person gets after they are trained. The recent accidents on Pirates had less to do with training and more to do with experience.

To pee or not to pee? That is the question. I asked a veteran cast member for the answer:

The bathrooms are near the Westside Diner cafeteria under the Blue Bayou, but he was not seen simply passing through. He was leaning up against the Coke machine at the back wall of the cafeteria talking to a girl for several minutes. He did not run to the bathroom and run back to his position. He spent at least a few minutes during his 10 minute absence to walk into the cafeteria and chat with a girl.

Breaks are fewer and far between now at Attractions, but you still can't leave a safety position. And if it's an emergency and you do leave your position for some odd reason, you better high tail it back to your spot instead of mingling in the cafeteria. But to leave a position unmanned, without even attempting to tell someone, is inexcusable.

(The front unloader) was recently terminated. He received a suspension for a safety violation in response to his actions during the earlier Pirates incident, and then returned to work for a while. His termination came after he racked up several points for no-show's, sick calls, and tardies. He was still in his probationary period, and a serious safety violation and a growing list of points on his attendance record did him in quickly, even in this day and age. It was his attendance points however that caused his termination several weeks after the incident and his suspension.

As for the second accident, reader Scott claims to have some inside information:

Just writing you to let you know a little something about the accident. Now I am not the exact source on this but my wife works in Long Beach and one of her fellow teachers is cousin to the woman who got hurt. Now taking all that into consideration here is the story I got.

She didn't know exactly what caused the accident but she was getting out of the boat and turned around to pick up her younger daughter to carry her out as she was turning around to get out the boat lurched forward she fell back and her head/neck landed on the bar where people hang on, on the back of the seats. She tried to keep her daughter in front of her and wasn't able to take any of the weight of the fall with her hands. Luckily there was a paramedic or EMT in line and was able to assist her.

The worst part of the situation is that the cast member asked them if they could move so they could load/unload more people. Can you believe that? Again this is what the cousin of the woman said so you may want to confirm.

Unfortunately, by press time, I was unable to get a confirmation from the fellow's wife's co-worker's cousin.

The Skipper, an anonymous West Side cast member, had a few questions about this second accident:

First, under the new Cast Deployment system, the very longest we are permitted to go without a break is two hours and 15 minutes. After that, union grievances may be filed, to which they must pay us overtime for every minute past 2:15 that we work without a break. Also, if we were denied a break/lunch period during a shift, we are to be compensated for one hour's pay at the regular rate.

The discrepancy with what you said in your article relates to the amount of time we spend in each position between bumps/breaks. In your average, non-threatening position (greeter, tower), we can stay in one position for a maximum of 45 minutes without being rotated to another. In high stress/spieling positions (grouper, unloader), that time is cut to 30 minutes. This is to prevent over exhaustion and monotony for us, or so they tell us. So, the girl in Tower couldn't have possibly been there longer than 30 to 45 minutes.

Not to say that I'm condoning Cast Deployment whatsoever. With Cast Deployment, the leads are able to combine the FastPass and inside rotations, to make one big rotation. This means that people who were scheduled FastPass for that day can also work inside. This creates enormous problems. Cast members tend to get sent out front to the beginning of this giant rotation when they come on, come back from break, or an "optimized task" (the biggest waste of labor hours you could imagine—ride throughs, re-arranging strollers, fetching water for the break room… basically, doing tasks that we would have done while on breaks under the old style rotation anyway).

Well, being that it takes so darn long between bumps (it used to take us 15-30 minutes between positions, depending if our co-workers took their lunch or just a break), by the time we get to an inside position, we're up for a break. So, this means that some people (usually the leads' buddies) spend their day working grouper and tower, while the rest work the outside positions and the unload positions, which are unanimously the most demanding to work.

I don't even want to get started on Jungle Cruise's system (boat, dock, boat, dock… ad nauseam, until the lead bumps you out to a break)! So, on the memos that come to us from TDA that tell us that Cast Deployment "is better for you, because it allows you to work a variety of positions, thus keeping you happier and more alert" is a load of crap.

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

Oh, and the other thing I wanted to mention about your article, the lead working the day of the accident this week wasn't really "struggling with the new Cast Deployment system." In fact, it's quite simple once you figure out how it works. And when she's the lead, she keeps the FastPass people outside, and the scheduled ride operators inside. The problem is Cast Deployment itself. It may be tolerable on places like Mansion and Pirates, but if you talk to anybody on Thunder, Jungle Cruise or another high stress, spieling work location, you will hear the exact opposite of what the suits in TDA will tell you.

On our upcoming contract negotiations (March 2002), our demands will be simple: 9% pay raise and the removal of the Cast Deployment system. Although the system may not necessarily directly affect these recent accidents, they most certainly do cause them indirectly. On Pirates, we have two leads (FastPass and inside) for the day, and two for the night. On a weekday with a 1,000-2,000 operation, that's four leads on between noon and 5 p.m. Why wasn't one of them in tower when the accidents happened? Probably because they were "deploying" someone, rather than watching the operation of the attraction from the tower like they used to.

When I wrote that the highly experienced lead was "struggling" with Cast Deployment, I didn't mean that it was confusing her, but rather that it required a lot of her time and attention.

I again turn to a veteran cast member to ask: Were the cast members really at their positions for up to two hours? He said,

Normally the Deployment at Pirates allows for people changing spots every 30 to 40 minutes. The day in question had several no-shows out on FastPass, and the Deployment was basically frozen. That's why the lead was not in the station, she was out front helping with FastPass and trying to arrange for scheduled breaks once Scheduling could send over more cast members.

A questionable workforce has been a problem at Disney World for even longer. A longtime Magic Kingdom cast member wrote:

I applaud your article about the recent Pirate's accident at Disneyland! It's a real shame that these accidents are starting to occur more frequently, but that's what Disney's bean counters are ultimately doing to the Disney record and reputation in their unrelenting quest for record profit margins.

I've become absolutely fed up with the declining quality of cast members coming through Disney's revolving doors. With a turnover rate of around 90%, the quality of employees has become a real crisis at WDW, and judging by your article, at Disneyland, too.

It seems that upper management is extremely "out of touch" with front-line operations; they seem to have as much knowledge of our complex ride systems as the guests do! They seem to think that all we do is "push the button when the green light comes on," totally oblivious to the scale and scope of ride knowledge that separates experienced cast members from inexperienced cast members.

Cast Deployment is extremely demoralizing to the cast, leaving us essentially "mindless, lobotomized automatons" who travel without purpose with a printed receipt in hand from one ride position to another. The latest version is extremely nit-picking; if you are just one minute late from re-deploying after your break, you are "orange-flagged" in the computer. Longer delays leave you "red-flagged," and you had better have a good excuse why. There are some OSHA ergonomic "Repetitive Stress Injury" or "RSI" concerns when the blasted computer has us repeating the same job over and over again.

We half-jokingly kid management that the next version will have GPS chips tattooed to our ass-cheeks, watching our every move, every minute of the day, recorded for record-keeping to piece together "the scene of the crime." Not too far-fetched, is it? It's as if George Orwell's Big Brother has finally come to fruition.

There's some good, of course. You can see your schedule for last week, this week and next week, and how many hours you are due on your paycheck. Not a bad thing. You can pro-actively solve pay issues before check time.

With our next contract talks starting this month, for the April 28th vote, many of us feel that full-timers are being poisoned out of the Disney workforce through hostile management directives, poor working conditions caused by unforgiving Cast Deployment computers, and negative wage growth to eliminate full-time jobs.

Robert wrote:

I'm a veteran ride operator from Universal Studios, and I find the details of your story on the Pirates of the Caribbean accident horrific, to say the least. So far now, I've been reading details on how the cast members all over the park are most likely going to be changing their routine regarding breaks, duties, etc. And it brings back memories of my working conditions on the Back to the Future: The Ride attraction at Universal Studios-Hollywood.

I worked on this ride during the summers of 1994 and 1995. Things may certainly have changed since then, but "back in MY day" we ride-ops didn't receive hourly breaks. Our breaks were our lunches. You work four hours, take an hour lunch, work another four hours, then go home. I can imagine asking for a break would have been akin to Oliver Twist asking for "more." "You want a BREAK???"

As far as rotations go… every 15 minutes? No no, sir. Not for BTTF! WE rotated every HOUR. Honestly, 15 minutes would have been SWEET, but, alas, it never happened.

Back to the Future ride at Universal
Back to the Future ride at Universal

I mention all this not to appear as the old geezer, complaining about the young whipper-snappers. Rather, I want to show another side of the eminent problems involving cast members and their apparent lack of quality work. Despite the differences in amusement parks, our jobs are surprisingly similar. We both have to work very close to large, heavy, dangerous equipment. We both have to keep our wits about us to prevent serious accidents. And, we both have to be TEAM members while on the job! And, what do you know… we at BTTF managed to pull it off BEAUTIFULLY year after year, INCIDENT FREE, with fewer breaks and rotations than they do at Disneyland.

Basically, I find it offensive that Disneyland would let a cast member on the "front lines" who has so little regard for his or her fellow teammates that they would leave their posts like that! I know you can't predict everyone's behavior, especially with the number of people they have in their employment at any one time. But I can't help but feel this type of behavior has at least something to do with the lack of proper screening during the hiring process and/or proper training of those chosen to be hired. Let's face it, you just simply CAN NOT put someone with that little regard for their fellow cast members in such an important position. And, frankly, I think this applies to both the rear loader and the person in the tower!

Aside from the lack of regard for their fellow cast members, let's consider the lack of regard for the guest! Do some cast members actually have such lack of regard for safety around such equipment? I know from my experience that, just to keep YOURSELF from being injured, you have to be very alert! This only tells me that he had VERY LITTLE regard for his own well-being! Do I want someone like that in control of equipment that could potentially EASILY harm me or my family? No, I don't think so!

So I put very little stock in the changing of their rotation schedule causing problems, except in the fact that it now distracts the higher-up cast members from keeping a closer eye on the attraction for having to focus on keeping the new schedule correct. Frankly, if any of us can do a similar job without ANY breaks (not counting lunch), then certainly they can keep alert enough with the new schedule to prevent something like this from happening again. I only thank God that the more experienced front loader that day had his wits about him enough to perform his job the best he could!

Well, it looks like the soapbox has a permanent indention of my shoeprints from standing on it so long, so I'll leave it at that for now. In the meantime, keep up the great columns! I look forward to each and every one!

What will it take to convince Disney to turn things around? Here's a note from Chris Kice, a 30-year-old "nearly former Disney nut":

Let me start by saying a big "Thanks" for shining a light on Disney's darkest time yet. I have been a Disney theme park freak since I was a kid. For the past 15 years, I have made the journey to Walt Disney World about every 18 months. As we live in Chicago, this is a pricey venture but was always worth it.

Well, based on your site (and others, like WDW Blues), my wife and I have canceled our trip this year. Given the poor state of the parks, the visitor-unfriendly attitudes among the Executeers, the layoffs of Imagineers, and so on, and so on, Disney has lost its luster. We're saving our money for a possible trip to Tokyo DisneySeas. This summer, we're going to go to Las Vegas instead. They have better rides than DCA and they know how to change light bulbs!

Thanks again for trying to turn the tide of bureaucracy and penny- pinchers. Perhaps they will get the clue (and my money) sometime in the future.

Sacre bleu, more deja vu

Part One: Sacre bleu, it's 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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