In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
Sandusky, Ohio’s Cedar Point is generally recognized as one of the country’s—if not the world’s—best amusement parks, and for good reason. While it doesn’t have the Imagineering flash of Walt Disney World, it’s got 17 roller coasters—the second most in the country—including the Millennium Force, a 310-foot-tall, 93-mph behemoth that Amusement Today calls the best steel coaster in the world.
With a little over 3.5 million people funneling through Cedar Point’s 71 rides every year, who’s in charge of keeping riders safe? (Three hundred seventy-five million people attend parks in North America every year, and the percentage of people who are injured on rides is relatively low. In 2011, for instance, 1,204 people were injured on rides.) What kind of training do those occasionally blank-eyed teenagers on the ride platforms receive, and what safeguards are in place to make sure no one goes flying out of their harnesses and toward certain death during Millennium Force’s 80-degree drop? For Cedar Point, it’s Karrah Folk, the head of the park’s ride operations department. A Cedar Point lifer who started as a ride operator herself, Folk was kind enough to walk The A.V. Club through how modern coasters operate and keep riders safe, as well as to enlighten us on how many times a day some poor soul pukes when getting off a ride.
The A.V. Club: What’s the training for a Cedar Point ride operator?
Karrah Folk: We have a standard training that they go through. It’s called an IROC Course. That stands for International Ride Operator Certification. Every associate, before they can go on a ride platform, has to go through this course. Once they get to their ride, they go through another on-the-job training that’s specific to their ride, and that whole first day they’re in a shadowing position, so they’re getting trained. Somebody that’s already trained on the ride is helping them, so they learn the ins and the outs of the ride.
AVC: How long is the IROC course?
KF: It’s a two-and-a-half-hour course, and then they’re training at the ride. They start about an hour and a half before the ride opens to the public, and then they get shadowed for an eight- to 10-hour shift.
AVC: Is the training the same on a merry-go-round as it is for the Valravn?
KF: Every ride has a certain number of positions on that ride. At our midway carousel, there’s only one position. They just have a platform control host position, so they’ll get shadowed in that position for their whole shift that day. But they’re also paired with another ride. Our rides are set up in crews.
The Valravn crew, when they come into work in the morning, they have five different levels of checklists that they have to go through. They start out at the lowest level, level five. And then level one is our control operator position. They would not get trained up to control operator in one day. It usually takes a person about a week to a week and a half until they are fully trained at the ride and the controls.
AVC: Is there a hierarchy of rides? Do you start at the merry-go-round and then work your way up?
KF: Nope. When we hire our associates, we place them based on their interview. We do let them request rides—and by request, I mean we ask them if they want a slow-paced or a fast-paced ride, if they would like to work with children or adults, and if they have a fear of heights.
AVC: Why the fear of heights?
KF: They have to do walks at their ride, so they have to go up their lift hill. For instance, Valravn has a 223-foot-tall lift hill. They do have to walk up to the lift hill, and we train them on that, as in, if we ever have downtime situations, how to respond to a train.
AVC: So in layman’s terms, they have to walk up the set of stairs that go to the top of their coaster’s hill?
AVC: Do they have to do that every day?
KF: No, just once. You get trained on how to walk up the lift, and we show you where your phones are on the lift, and we show you a little bit about the ride.
AVC: Is there any other emergency training?
KF: We have evacuation training at a lot of our rides. If we ever do have a stopped train on the ride that we have to evacuate, then our associates know how they’re going to get people off the ride.
AVC: If you get assigned to Valravn, for instance, do you start working harness checks and then work your way up to control operator?
KF: Everybody starts out as a ride operator, so the first position that they’re going to work at the ride is going to be our entrance host position. They’re the greeter at the ride, checking that every guest that comes through meets our height requirement and is following all of our policies and procedures for that ride. Then from there, they go to our crowd-control position, and that’s our grouper that’s on our platform, basically. They assign the seats, and once again, they’re checking to make sure the guests are meeting the height and enforcing our loose-article policy. Then they go to their platform positions, where they’re checking the restraints and insuring that our guests are secure and ready to ride the ride. Then we have an exit host over there, and they are the ones that give the ride spiel, and they deal with any guests that are using our elevator for the ride. And then they go up to control host.
AVC: How long does it take to work through that cycle?
KF: Usually, it takes about a good week and a half until they’re fully trained in the controls position.
AVC: Are there limitations on how long someone can work a shift? Do you swap someone out of the control booth every two hours?
KF: We do. We rotate our crews every half hour, so they go from position to position every half hour.
AVC: What are the hardest rides to run?
KF: I would probably say our coasters. Some people get intimidated when they see the control panel and know that they’re the operator of the ride, so we do have the training that they go through.
AVC: What kind of fail-safes are in place on the coasters? If it gets stuck at the top, for instance, do the lap bars stay down?
KF: Oh, yeah, definitely. Every coaster has a safety system on the ride, and we also have a block system on the ride, so the coaster tells us when we can dispatch the train.
AVC: It won’t take off if your harness isn’t locked down properly?
KF: Correct. And then, if we were to have a shutdown, where a train is stopped somewhere along the course, the next train’s going to stop before it gets to that point. So it does have a safety system, and we test that system. Our maintenance staff tests them every morning, and then our ride operators test them every morning, too.
AVC: What are ride operators doing in the morning before people get on the rides? What’s on their checklists?
KF: We check all of our restricted areas and gates to make sure everything is secure. We are cleaning the ride area and cleaning our trains. We transfer our trains onto the tracks in the morning, and we cycle all the trains around—one time when they’re empty, and then we cycle them around again so we can see the safety check on our rides. And then we actually have the test ride to ensure the ride is ready to run.
AVC: Who goes on the test ride?
KF: Our associates. They have to be trained to complete the test run in the morning.
AVC: Does it get less fun as the year goes on or is it always fun?
KF: They have to follow proper riding positions, so they’re holding on at all times, and they’re not allowed to scream when they’re riding.
AVC: Seriously? They’re not allowed to?
AVC: Did you start as a ride operator?
KF: I did, yeah. I’m not going to tell you the year, but I started back on Mean Streak. That was the first ride that I worked, and then I worked my way up.
AVC: Do you turn away riders for reasons other than their height? Like they’re too skinny or fat or they’re drunk?
KF: We have a rider safety guide sign at every ride, and the restrictions come directly from the manufacturers of each ride, so every ride is different. We do have certain things like guests can’t ride if the restraint doesn’t hit them in the right spot. If it doesn’t, then they’re not allowed to ride. If the restraint is not functioning the way it should on them, they’re not allowed to ride.
AVC: What’s the dumbest thing you’ve seen a rider do?
KF: Nothing, really. I wouldn’t say anything in particular. We follow our policies and procedures for the rides, and that’s how our guests all ride, in the correct riding position. So I really haven’t seen anyone do anything.
AVC: What happens when someone throws up?
KF: We stop operation, and we clean it up. Our ride operators are aware of how to deal with blood-borne pathogens because they go through a specific training.
AVC: Is it a hose? Sawdust?
KF: We use disinfectant, and our ride operators have gloves on. We have a product that absorbs. Once the ride gets our disinfectant on it, it does have to be cycled empty for about 10 minutes, and then we will reload people on that ride.
AVC: The people at the front of the line when it happens can’t be too happy.
KF: Luckily, it usually happens when someone’s exiting the ride. It doesn’t typically usually happen on the ride, so that’s good.
AVC: How often does it happen?
KF: You know, we get guest illnesses. A ride goes down once a day, probably.
AVC: How long is an actual shift?
KF: We work between 8 and 10 hours.
AVC: Considering these people have lives in their hands, you guys probably pay pretty well.
KF: Yes, we are above minimum wage.
AVC: What would you say to people who think carnival or amusement park rides are dangerous?
KF: There is so much that goes into opening this park for the season. We have the Ohio Department Of Agriculture, they come up, and we test the rides every year for them before we open. We go through a lot of different things, like we test all our safety systems each year and every day. We have an overnight maintenance staff that works on the rides at night. Before any ride is opened to the public it is state-inspected and has to go through a certain number of pre-opening checks before we open it each day.