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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Behind the lines: Theme Park Love Shack

Mongo, looking cool with folded arms....pfft!

That's me in 1997. It was my last day working at Cedar Point. I was so skinny back then. I was going to save this entry for a time closer to May but seeing as how the window of opportunity to secure a summer job is soon at hand, I figured it would be topical for today. By summer job, I mean the one you had when you were in college, perhaps even high school. For four straight summers, I worked in the Amusement Park industry. Two years were spent at a local theme park here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, called Idlewild. The last two were spent at Cedar Point. It's like going to a branch campus for two years of college and then transferring to main campus to get your degree. In essence, that's what working at a theme park is like, college without the books. But it is a lot more than that. Not to try and shine a derogatory light on the job set but knowing what I know now, I don't think I'd be alright with my daughter working there when she is of age. I will say upfront that I worked there in 1996 and 1997 and I'm sure a lot has changed since then. Whether it is for the better or not, I have no idea. Some things never change, especially the life of your typical college student.

I will forgo the years spent at Idlewild and focus directly on the big time. I got the job in April of 96 when it was apparent that I needed a summer job and really did not have want to work in the area of my hometown. I keep making the mistake of trying to get away from the area and it always comes back to haunt me. I was accepted and enrolled at Coastal Carolina University for all of one semester, running back home to the University of Pittsburgh. So, for some stupid reason, I thought this was going to be a different situation. Cedar Point is roughly a four drive from the Pittsburgh area, situated on the shores of Lake Erie west of Cleveland, Ohio. It is home to some 17 or more roller coasters and being a fan, I thought it would be an ideal place to make some cash for the summer. Since they employ around 4000 seasonal workers from all over the world, they provide lodging for those outside of the Sandusky, OH area. While, I'm not a boy scout, I thought it best to be prepared for any situation that should arise and insisted on packing my entire life into the back of my Dad's Dodge Pickup. That was mistake number one.

Employee Lodging
When I arrived, freshly dropped off by the turnip truck, in early May of 1996, I should have known I was in trouble. The main dormitory for men is an old hotel, built in 1915. While in its heyday it was probably luxurious accommodations, there has been little to no updating of the buildings since perhaps the 60's as it is promoted as a "summer camp style" facility by the company's website. In truth, this is a very accurate description. First off, there is no heat or air conditioning. My first morning waking up in my room was ridiculous. I could see my breath and the rooms were hardwood, throughout. Stacking four people in a room the size of a single dorm room did not leave a lot of room for furniture. Yes, they provide you with dressers and chairs. Nothing matches and looks like it was bought at a yard sale during the great depression. As a guy, it is recommended that you bring enough clothes for two weeks and do laundry often. Think what a normal teenage or twenty something girl would pack.

Keeping with the summer camp motif, bathrooms are communal and almost high school in nature. Nearly 400 employees are housed within the dorms and all share the same bathroom. There are about 10 bathroom stalls and 20 or more shower stalls. Finding a shower curtain, however is slim to none. There are bathrooms located throughout the buildings, yet the two or four that have a shower stall in them are usually kept padlocked, however, those of us resourceful enough found ways in and utilized the more private of accommodations to our own gain. I don't want to come off sounding like a typical knuckle dragging male and it's not like I have some fear of having to shower in a public setting, however, shower stalls with a curtain did get taken very quickly. Anyone who has worked there can tell you that there have always been rumors and some noted instances of the showers being used as a "bathhouse" meeting place. Usually, everyone will say that when a fire alarm was pulled in the middle of the night, it wasn't because there was a fire. That was called the "Cedar Dorms Shower Power Hour." Besides, the main reason I preferred to get a shower in one of the more private bathrooms was simple. The main hallway that led to the bathrooms took you past several windows. I didn't think much of it when I first moved in, but they appeared to be boarded up. At the end of May or early June, the boards were removed revealing screens and no glass. Again, because there was no air conditioning, they removed these boards to allow airflow. But on Lake Erie in the first half of June, the average temperature doesn't usually stay above 65 degrees. Because of the long walk, you took only the essentials, toiletries and a robe. When you were done and made the long walk back, you were still wet walking through a damp cold corridor. Not to mention you had no heat anywhere. From my dorm room, during my second year, there was a bathroom 20 feet away. Most people wondered why I got up and showered two to four hours before my shift. I did it so that I could beat the rush of those few individuals who knew we had a private shower.

The girls’ dorms, or Gold Dorms as they are called, were slightly better. They at least had carpeting in the rooms, yet it was no more than carpet you would find in an office. Again, they stacked four girls in a room which was considerably larger than ours and their bathrooms were centrally located on both floors giving them twice as many options. There was slightly better security attached to the girls' dorms and with good reason. Our dorm housed everything from an employee store to a medical clinic which saw a lot more traffic than a strict lodging facility. As we entered the dorm, we would have a color coded badge that designated which dorm we lived at. Simply flashing your badge or having it swiped identified you to front desk staff. However, the vast network of buildings attached by corridors and breezeways allowed for access to side doors and outside stairways that were neither manned nor secured. Sneaking someone into the dorm was child's play as my room was at the end of a hallway next to an open air connecting hallway complete with stairs to the surrounding yard. Not well lit and nearly invisible to everyone, it was easy to use this as a means to bypass security, especially if there was an ID check out front. This was sometimes commonplace to catch drunken employees who were underage. They had different IDs than those legal to drink. Kind of like a sobriety checkpoint for those on foot. In certain instances, they pulled your badge if you were really wasted as it was a violation of employee conduct. Whether in the park or out, you needed to be a model citizen who represented the ideals of the company.

My first year, I spent half of the summer in Cedars and half in the Commons Apartments. This was your deluxe apartment in the sky...or at least off point. The apartments were considered luxury accommodations and a there was a waiting list. I had the good fortune of knowing a guy who lived there and when a room in his place opened up, he reserved it for me and helped me move during my lunch hour, one afternoon. Apartment buildings were gender segregated by apartment which meant that once you were admitted into the complex, you had free reign between buildings. Each apartment had five bedrooms, two bathrooms with private showers, full kitchen, and living room for 16 people with cable and air conditioning. Yes, even though you are in an apartment, you still shared everything with 15 other people, usually four to a room. On occasion, housekeeping would take care of the kitchen, but I choose not to use it at all because of the sink that was piled high with dishes from day one of my residency. On one end of the complex there was also what we called the dungeons. They were strictly female at the time and mirrored the setup of the Gold Dorms. They were called the dungeons because of the gray cinderblock construction inside and out. These were the closest to college dorms you could get. All off Point accommodations required either personal transportation or employee shuttle to commute to work as you were not allowed to walk or ride a bike on the two lane causeway that separated the peninsula from the rest of the off park property.

Regardless of where you lived, you paid to live at Cedar Point. Dorms ran about $16-$17/week while the apartments were a premium at $24-$31/week. This meant that a single room in any facility with a maximum of 4 person occupancy generated anywhere between $259-$500 a month in rent. This was deducted from your paycheck and frankly, I think they made out like bandits. I figured, even if I was going to live in a hole, I would make it my own, which meant my whole world came with me. That first summer I came prepared with enough clothes for a month, a tiny fridge, television, radio, and the headboard my Dad built for my dorm room at school. The Park recommends you bring the following, a pillow, clip on reading lamp, fan, alarm clock/radio, and padlock for lockers at certain dorms. Boy, was I over packed. I ended up leaving all of my stuff at the dorms for another month until the Fourth of July when I took a week to come home. My parents were reluctant to say I told you so, but they had every right as they said I would be a fool for taking so much.

The Social Culture
While I could expound over several paragraphs the various jobs and duties which beset an employee working at the park, I won't. All I can tell you is that most jobs are performed while standing over periods of up to 12 hours, you don't get overtime, and for completing your "contract" you received a bonus amount per hour paid out sometime around October. It used to be that you were paid $0.50 for every hour worked up to 200 hours. After that it was $1.00 per hour. If you figured on a 600 hour summer, you stand to gain $500 in bonus money. At the time I was making $5.10 an hour so this was usually what amounted to another paycheck. I think the current rate is $7.00/hour and $.35/hour bonus. It roughly works out to be $1000 more now than 10 years ago. That's not much more considering inflation and cost of living increase. That is all I will say about the job. The nature of the environment and the mindset of your average employee are far more interesting.

Anthropologists could probably earn doctorates from study Theme Park Employee behavior. Just like there is a switch that flips on the normal, intelligent, human being, rendering them unable to follow simple directions or at least be aware that they are walking way too slow for people around them, the same can be said for the normal, grounded in good behavior college student who becomes a drunken dog in heat the moment they process in as an employee. The social nature of the park and the employees within promotes a camaraderie that extends beyond working hours into their free time. Some of the benefits of working in that type of setting were extremely attractive to someone like me. I am a self proclaimed roller coaster junkie. The opportunity to work in the park while spending my off hours with free access to all the rides is enough to make me a happy camper. While, you had to pay to play mini golf, or ride the go karts, the water park was in the bounds of play just like the rides. Still, being in the park meant I had to abide by the rules. I had to wait in line just like everyone else and at times it wasn't worth it to waste a day off waiting in line for a ride that would be there every other day of the summer. Ride nights were incorporated to give employees a break from the crowds. Usually set after hours, it provided us a chance to ride our favorite rides without dealing with snotty kids and your typical other park goer. Other activities such as movie nights, intramural sport events, and various group functions allowed a variety of escapism for the more demure and quiet park employee.

However, for every bright spot there is a dark and seedy underbelly of degradation that would make residents of Sodom and Gomorrah say, "Not in our backyard." While it is not often promoted, if you look you can find a world of vice and the occasional wet t shirt contest. In the summer of 1996, I had finally reached that milestone age where I was legal to drink. Directly off point and within walking distance of the dorms was a small bar with a fenced in courtyard. This was considered an employee only bar called Louie's Lounge, lovingly referred to as "Loser's" by most employees. From the moment you get your hand stamped "YES" for 21 and up, or "NO" for underage, you know what really happens here. Everyone crowds around a picnic table out in the courtyard while the one "YES" man heads to the bar and gets a open cardboard box, usually used for cases of cheap soda, filled with 12 oz. cups of shitty beer at $.25 each on quarter draft night. The "YES" man then takes the box back to the table where a bunch of "NO" people partake in the brew. Not bad for $6, huh? If you are good with your cash, you can spring for a 32 oz. Electric Lemonade or Long Island Ice Tea for $4.00. And for those who like doing a shooter from a test tube, there's the girl who is just hot enough to swindle you into paying twice as much as you would if you got it from the bar. The dance floor, cramped and crowded with sweaty bodies, moves as one to the music being pumped though the two big speakers that has caused me substantial hearing loss over my two years employed there. Elsewhere a fight breaks out over a questionable proximity in dancing space between a young man and someone else's date and both men are escorted out in accordance with the "You throw. You go.", policy. This also doubled for instances of not being able to hold your liquor and throwing up.

It's now 1:30AM and you have just a little time left to find that Ms. Right...or at least Ms. Right Now. You scan the dance floor for the one group of girls who have little sobriety left and make your best case as an object of beer goggles. Applying just the right amount of charm and additional alcohol, you score your date for the morning and make your way to the exit. Romance and foreplay are non issue as you find yourself dry humping your way to the car. Once you arrive at your dorm room destination you make the conscience decision to either just crash together with some light necking or test the limits of your roommates' ability to sleep through a nuclear explosion and go for the gold. After getting maybe an hour sleep, you have to shuffle yourself or your date out the door. You're mindful of the time because dawn brings out the catcallers all waiting for the walk of shame to begin. Everyone knows your business because they saw you the night before making your move. Rinse, lather and repeat, usually with someone different the next night.

While this is not earth shattering news to anyone who has ever gone to college, the microcosm of an Amusement Park environment lends itself to looser moral standings than that of its university counterpart. For one, it's summer break. Yes, you have the responsibility to run a multi-million dollar piece of machinery that has the capability of shooting human beings into the atmosphere at 60mph, but it's not like you're being graded on it. Mom and Dad aren't paying for you to work there. Think about that next time you get on an inverted roller coaster, like The Raptor, and you notice that the ride crew is in bad need of visine. Second, you are a seasonal employee. That means that for 12-16 weeks you will be thrown into the mix with 4000 other college age students who may never see you again. It's like Las Vegas mentality. You hook up and you leave. There's no sense of accountability. In three months, I'll never see these people again, who cares how I conduct myself. We even had a system by which to measure the hookup. I'm not even talking about the look or performance of the person. I'm talking about the distance. We called it the Shack Scale. This was a couple years before the term, "Hooking up" became the standard lingo for one night stands. Besides, "hooking up" doesn't give you a clear picture on what happened. It's too vague. We had the scale to give the degree of "shacking" that occurred. You would overhear a conversation in the employee cafeteria or around work areas that included the phrases "Yeah, I heard he picked her up at the bar and it was a Shack 1?" "That guy is such a skeeze. He had a 4 with three girls from my team in one week."

Shack Scale of 1996
Shack 1 = made out and spent the night
Shack 2 = heavy petting with exposed flesh
Shack 3 = Latin terminology....uh, oral sex.
Shack 4 = The Deed

By my second summer, we upped the ante and added an additional point for every person present in the room at the time of the shack. This only counted if you reached a four as it was harder to be quiet on a metal bed frame. 10 was the highest ever awarded as you could have roomed with 3 guys and they could have all had girls with them that evening. However, if you left before 7AM, none of it counted. This was the equivalent to crossing your finger behind your back when you swore to do something. It didn't negate the actual act but if you left before 7, you could beat the walk of shame and deny it ever happened. There have a lot of us that have secretly set someone's alarm for 6:50 once we sobered up enough to realize what or more to the point, who, we were doing.

Employee Health
Apart from the obvious health concerns outlined in the preceding, the ability to maintain good health was a harder than getting that stupid metal rod all the way to the bottom of a Wacky Wire game. In January of 1996, I weighed in at 214 pounds. At 5'10" that puts me a little on the pudgy side....ok more than a little. I did nothing out of the ordinary to lose any weight and as far as I knew it, I still weighed 214 pounds when I went to work at the park. In July, I weighed 177 pounds. I didn't exercise or change my eating habits. I got sick. In late May, I was working at an exposed game stand and during an especially damp day had gotten sick. I remember only wearing my uniform which consisted of a shirt and shorts. If available, I wore a windbreaker or pants over top, but at this point, I only had the windbreaker seen on my coworker in the picture at the top. The wind whipped down the midway at me sending me into an hour long shiver fest later that night. Run down, malnourished, and continually damp conditions when walking to the shower (The boards were gone from the windows allowing cold and wet air to breach the dorm hallways) caused me to contract walking pneumonia. I had no idea I was sick as I could still function normally. My mini vacation home in July confirmed my illness as well as the fact that I had lost 37 pounds in two months time. I was a strong antibiotic which made me extremely sick and I decided that it was in my best interest to quit early to fully recover before school. It may sound like a wuss move, but my health was directly related to my area of study and I needed to be on top of my game in order to handle the long hours.

Even those of us who took the most basic precautions to stay healthy would notice that within a couple weeks of employment we would lose our voice. It was almost like clockwork. Most employees sought out the medical clinic to be treated for pharyngitis. Until I worked there, I had never heard of the ailment, but I ended up with it my second year. When your job requires you to talk to guests, constantly, it is worst condition to have. It hurts to swallow and anything acidic, like orange juice or tomato sauce, burns like the hinges of hell. While no one is completely certain why the illness is a prevalent one among employees, most of us will claim that the number of cases diagnosed could be a direct result of the poor air quality in the area. Anyone who has been there can attest to noticing a foul smell in the air upon entering the Sandusky region. Do a search on Google for "Sandusky Quarry Smell." You'll see what I mean. Of course, it could be the fact that everyone and their brother is snogging everyone else making the park a very large Petri dish. I stand by my assertion as there is evidence that pollutants or chemical substances can cause the infection.

The Not So Bad
Debauchery and doctor visits aside, we did have a lot of fun toiling away our summers for little pay. One of the local movie theaters reserved some Monday nights as Cedar Point employee only nights allowing us discounted rates and complete availability to the joint. I remember going in a group of about 20 to see Independence Day on July 8th and then going back again the next Monday to see it another time. Otherwise, the workday for us consisted of working nearly a 12 hour shift in the park, going directly to the bar until last call, a sobering, grease filled meal at Denny's, then on to Meijer, a Walmartesque market chain, where we would spend three hours finding one or two items we needed while playing football in the aisles until way after 4AM. After that, we'd return to the dorm to crash for a couple hours and then start the whole process over. At least once a summer, we'd all schedule a day off and make trip to Put-in Bay. You could tell when park employees were there as most of the locals weren't prone to having demolition derbies with golf carts. Hey, as long as you had friends, you could never say it was boring. The friends I made at the park were some of the best I ever had. I still keep in touch with a good friend, who I consider like a brother. He was even a groomsman in my wedding and makes a trip once a year or so to visit. Because of our friendship, most people at the park would confuse the two of us with each other.

Sure, I endured a lot working there. After those two summers, I continually got bronchitis every winter from the damp conditions. Later, I found out I had developed asthma and began treating it and have been bronchitis free. Still, if I was that age again, I'd probably work there as would my friends. It was one of those experiences that defines your being, it ultimately makes you hate people who go to an amusement park. I've learned some like skills from my time there, like how to properly win at Bowler Roller without going broke. Since we were not allowed to play the games as employees, we'd clean out competing parks during a road trip. In the years that have passed, perhaps the things discussed here have become commonplace and accepted to the point where I'm just not in touch with the youth of America. Maybe it's better, maybe it's worse. Who's to say? One man's bedlam is another man's Babylon. One day, my own daughter may seek to work in an amusement park for the summer and I have no right to deny her the experience. However, if I ever hear her refer to anything with the word "shack" followed by a number, I'll ground her till the only income she can get is social security. I'm as serious as a heart attack on a roller coaster.

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