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Opryland confidential: Amusement parks, outside and in

Just about anybody who’s ever been to an amusement park savors that moment when the family car comes around a curve on the interstate or crests a hill on the highway, and there, peeking through the trees a half-mile away, sits the top slope of a roller coaster, looking much taller and more imposing than it had been in the memory. That little peek is an essential part of the theme-park experience. It’s part of the show.

My family’s park of choice when I was a kid was Opryland USA, in Nashville, Tennessee, the city where my mother had grown up and where my grandparents lived. Once a summer, we’d spend a week or two in Nashville, with a trip to Opryland as a centerpiece of our vacation. Later, we actually moved to Nashville, but Opryland remained a once-a-year kind of event, usually tied to when some cousin came for a visit, or when we could pester a friend into letting us in on their family pass. It was always a thrill to veer off on the Opryland exit and pass the flower arrangement that spelled out the park’s name—with its “O” in the shape of a guitar.

We went to Six Flags Over Georgia a couple of times when we were in the vicinity of Atlanta, and Libertyland in Memphis once when I was still in single digits. And we took one family vacation to Disney World when I was a teenager, right around the time Epcot opened. But for the most part, I was an Opryland boy. Before I experienced other theme parks, I thought Opryland originated the log-flume, the sky-ride, and the puttering old-timey cars. Even after I learned otherwise, I still had a strong emotional attachment to the particulars of the park: the shows like I Hear America Singing that the parents and grandparents would go see while the kids went on rides; the music and/or rural-themed sections of the park, like the ’50s area, and the New Orleans area; the meticulous landscaping, heavy on trees and flowers; and the rides that were less popular and thus always easy to get on, like the mine-train-style coaster The Timber Topper (later renamed the Rock ’N’ Roller Coaster, and then the Canyon Blaster after it was moved to a different park).

For as long as I was a yearly customer, Opryland retained its specialness. And it continued to do so even after I got a job there—sort of.

In the summer of 1987, I worked a cashier at a Christmas-themed shop in Opryland’s New Orleans area. (I think the manager thought it was cute to have a guy named “Noel” selling ornaments; anyway, it confused the guests, who assumed my nametag was a joke.) That cashier gig was fairly miserable. I was positioned directly across from the hourly gospel show, which meant I had to hear it about a half-dozen times per shift; and almost no one wanted to buy Opryland-branded Christmas decorations in July and August, so I was pretty lonely. My strongest memories of my Opryland cashier days are of surreptitiously reading the first collected edition of Watchmen under the counter, and of learning how to use the “overring” button to lighten my register by a few bucks each day—enough to buy a meal during my break and roughly two LPs a week.

I had a much better time in the summers of 1988 and 1989, working as a costumed character. When I was a kid, Opryland’s mascots were big walking instruments, but by the time I became an employee, the costumed character department was backed by General Mills, the same company that sponsored the park’s children’s area. For 30 minutes out of every hour, I strapped on a costume representing Count Chocula, Trix Rabbit, the Honey Nut Cheerios bee, or—most often—Lucky the Lucky Charms leprechaun. We characters shook hands, posed for photos, and hugged pretty young ladies in and around the kiddie rides. In the morning, we’d greet the guests as they entered the park, before retreating to our home base by walking through the ’50s area, where the loudspeakers played the American Graffiti soundtrack on a loop. I used to linger by The Rock ’N’ Roller Coaster long enough to hear The Flamingoes’ version of “I Only Have Eyes For You,” which sounded extra-dreamy from inside my oversized leprechaun head. I’d dance around slowly in big foam shoes and fuzzy peach-colored gloves, swinging around lampposts like a mute Kabuki Gene Kelly—as elegant as a teenager could get in comically large clothes.

Every character was supposed to have an “escort,” because it was hard to see and move inside those costumes. We had to make sure we didn’t accidentally knock over a child—something that was a common problem for Trix, with his big, heavy ears—or that some punk kid didn’t come along and start pushing us around for yocks. On a typical shift, I spent about 90 minutes sweating profusely inside a cereal mascot costume, about 90 minutes strolling around saying things like, “Play nice with Count Chocula!,” and about three hours just chilling in our air-conditioned trailer, playing epic rounds of UNO and coming up with goofy ways to waste time with my fellow furries.

One week, we made a list of 100 standard costume character moves. (Move No. 1: “Forming a smile.” Since we weren’t allowed to talk, and since our faces were frozen masks, we tried to encourage frightened kids to lighten up by using our hands to draw a smile in the air. This led to one awkward moment when I repeatedly did the “forming a smile” move for a little girl with paralyzed facial muscles. For the rest of my time at Opryland, we referred to this poor kid as The Girl Who Couldn’t Smile, imagining her as the heroine of the saddest children’s book ever.) We brought in food and threw break-parties for the other Opryland employees. We listened to music, and experimented with making mix-tapes consisting of nothing but suggestive phrases from popular songs and children’s records, looped over and over for maximum obscenity. We relished the absurdity of our giant fiberglass heads, sometimes wearing them around the trailer for comic effect, because there are few things funnier than a costumed character’s dead eyes as you pelt it with wadded up paper. And we came up with silly shtick like “Rowdy Lucky,” in which I’d knock over a souvenir map display or dump out a sweeper’s dustpan, while my escort hollered, “Row-dee!”

Back in the trailer—and when we’d go drinking after work—we’d repeat our favorite costumed character war stories. There was the time my escort threw a tiny plastic football to me, which I caught with one hand while holding my Lucky head in place with the other. (Once I told this story to some friends at a restaurant, and the waitress walked up right as I said, “Then my head started to come off.” She looked befuddled.) There was the time my buddy tried to make a guest’s park map “disappear” by hiding it in his Count Chocula head—a joke that bombed because about half the map was still visible beneath his pointy chin. There was the time some kids hassled Trix while I was escorting, and when I misinterpreted it as harmless goofery, the guy inside Trix pulled his head off in the middle of the park—a major no-no—and yelled, “What the fuck ya doin’, dude?!”

Costumed characters were considered non-essential staff—since no one came to Opryland to see the Honey Nut Cheerios bee—so if it rained or if any other area of the park needed an emergency fill-in, we were pulled from our cushy gig and made to squeegee the pavement or sprinkle absorbing dust on puddles of vomit or scrape gum off trashcans. If we played our cards right, we might get to work as an usher at one of the shows, which largely entailed standing in an air-conditioned theater, listening to showtunes. Or we might get asked to work one of the rides, which some of my colleagues preferred, but I did not. (Once, after about 20 seconds of training on the sky-ride, I was put in charge of loading guests in, then was pulled off the line 10 minutes later when the other station called and said that I had sent six consecutive cars across with unlocked doors. Whoops.)

During my cashier days, I was also called to fill in occasionally at other money-handling jobs, including the games, where I got in the habit of letting little kids play for free, because I didn’t have the heart to take their dollar and then watch them fail to throw an oversized softball into an undersized milk can. Over the course of three summers, I worked a shift or two at just about every entry-level Opryland job, save for the ones that involved food preparation or performing on a stage. I knew what was behind every gate in the park, and I was privy to break-area conversations and gossip of all stripes, from the minor (like which gospel singer was gay) to the major (like which one was cheating on his wife). 

As an adult, I’ve had trouble maintaining the once-a-year amusement-park pace of my youth. Before we had kids, my wife and I tried to work a theme-park trip into every summer, until my family’s history of heart disease started making me nervous about the tingling numbness in my arm after some of the more thrilling rides. But now that my kids are big enough to ride almost anything they want, we’re starting to make a trip to the nearest park a summer tradition. Last week we had this year’s trip, and I think my son and daughter got more out of it than they ever have before, as they dared to try the coasters that I steered clear of.

It’s funny though, how life experience can change the spiritual geography of a familiar space. I remember visiting Athens, Georgia for the first time for college orientation, and feeling like I had a handle on where the various social centers of campus would be, only to find them completely realigned once I actually became a student. And the various minimum-wage jobs I’ve had over the years have changed my relationship with some of my previously favorite places, like video stores, movie theaters, and restaurants. Once you’ve been behind the counter or in the kitchen, you’ve seen the business from every angle, not just from the carefully managed one meant for customers.

So it goes with amusement parks now. I still love them. I love the open plazas just past the main gate, and the geometrically positioned planters and park benches, and the nothing-more-recent-than-1982 classic rock on the loudspeakers, and the huge plastic cups that you can refill all day for a buck a pop. But when I pass through the children’s area and see two elaborately attired grown-ups on a stage trading puns and life lessons for a handful of kids sitting criss-cross-applesauce, I wonder whether the stars are secretly dating, or if they have older fans who track every little change in the performance, or if they’re getting close to finishing their theater degree at a nearby college. And when I see a custodian open a gate to wheel away a tub of garbage, I catch a glimpse of a winding path leading past employee changing-rooms, smoking areas, and parking lots, and I briefly pine for the show behind the show.