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.
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,
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
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.
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).
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.