Whether you call it a theme park, carnival, funfair, or amusement park, the rides, games, snacks, and attractions have been thrilling people for hundreds of years. Theme parks of today, like Disney World and Six Flags, might be the standard, but their roots can be traced back to the Middle Ages.
Theme parks began as a collection of singers, jugglers, and other spectacles but have grown over the years. Amusement parks have been around for a long time, so naturally, there are plenty of less-than-fun parts to their stories. Here are some dark behind-the-scenes secrets about theme parks.
Plenty of Injuries
It may not come as a surprise that thousands of people are injured at amusement parks each year. In 1999, Fabio was injured when a goose flew into his face while he was riding in the front car of a rollercoaster. His bleeding face was all over the news, but people used the incident to make jokes.
While Fabio became the punchline of jokes, memes, and late-night show monologues, the incident was no laughing matter. He was injured in a freak accident on a ride that is supposed to be safe and fun. In North America alone, about 1,200-2,000 people are injured on rides per year.
More Serious Overseas
Although theme park deaths are rare in America, they are more common overseas. According to reports, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll die on a ride in the US. However, visiting amusement parks outside the US increases the chances of dying. Six people died in one incident in 2010 at a Chinese theme park.
There have also been several deaths at amusement parks in England. In 2001, a woman died when two carriages collided on a ride. Then a girl fell off a Ferris wheel in 2002. These are just a few examples of incidents that mirror those in Europe and beyond.
Scattering Human Remains
For many people, Disneyland is truly the “Happiest Place on Earth.” Therefore, it’s understandable why many people want to stay at Disneyland or Disney World even after they have passed away. It isn’t uncommon for people to ask their loved ones to scatter their ashes at Disney.
Disney parks are commonly the final resting place for scattered human ashes. Although it is against company policy and illegal, Disney employees have a go-to code word to tell coworkers about a remains-related incident because it happens so often. They call it a “HEPA cleanup.” It happens about once a month.
When you walk into a Disney theme park, you step onto Main Street USA and head toward the famed castle. There are daily parades, shops, and eateries, and the street is lined with flags to go along with the theme. However, everyone is careful not to say “American flags.”
While the flags look like the American flag, with the classic stars and stripes, when you get closer, you can see they are missing a star or a stripe. According to a former employee, the parks use fake flags so they don’t have to take them down and raise them every night.
The Figurines of It’s a Small World
One of the most iconic Disney attractions is the It’s a Small World ride. Some love it, and some absolutely hate it because of its infectious song. The classic ride has been running at Disneyland since the 1960s. Riders pass 300 animatronic figurines that twirl and wave to the music.
According to a New York Post article, the figurines keep dancing and waving into the dead of night. The figures never stop moving, which is pretty creepy. Because they are powered by hydraulic pressure, it’s easier to let them run all night.
They Have a Jail
Be careful not to act out, break the rules, or misbehave when you go to Disney because you could end up in the infamous Disney jail. According to former employees, the jail is a room above the candy shop on the main street.
There is an officer who takes the people to the local jail in town. Blake Lively revealed that she was sent to the Disney jail for trying to sneak in with her brother when she was six. Lively was banned from the park for a year after being caught.
An Underground System
Have you ever wondered how the trash at Disney magically disappears? The parks stay clean without a trash collection person thanks to a system of pneumatic tubes below the park. And it’s not a modern technological upgrade.
The underground system is part of the original design. Walt Disney didn’t want guests to see the trash collection, so he engineered the complex tube system. The tubes suck waste from the bottom of the trash bins and send it to a repository.
You’ll Never See Them
Not only does the underground system collect garbage, but it also has areas like locker rooms, laundry rooms, cafeterias, and hallways for cast and crew to travel from place to place. It has always been important that guests not see off-duty cast members.
Disney is supposed to be magical, so seeing a maintenance worker would ruin the illusion. Guests never get to see any behind-the-scenes action because there are precautions to prevent cast and crew members from doing their work in front of park attendees.
Secret Hand Signals
Being a theme park character isn’t easy. Employees have to wear uncomfortable costumes in high temperatures, and hundreds of people want to take pictures with them every day. If they feel sick, have to pass out, or have an issue with their costumes, they use special hand signals.
If you see a character rub their eye, it means they need to go backstage. While we know what the hand signal means, it’s still a secret how they sneak off to get backstage. Some things remain a secret.
According to former employees, there might be remnants of real skeletons in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. When the attraction was built, they wanted the bones to look more realistic, so they asked the UCLA Medical Center to borrow real bones.
Over the years, they have been replaced with fakes, but there might still be a few real bones in there. The ride cost about $15 million to build, which would be $106 million in today’s market. It was also the last ride Walt Disney supervised.
Not the Cleanest Place
If you are a germaphobe, you should probably avoid theme parks because they are a hotbed for germs. They aren’t littered with trash or dirt, but it is dirty in ways you can’t see. The rollercoaster seats, seatbelts, harnesses, benches, tables, and everything in between are covered in germs.
The rides are constantly operating while the parks are open and rarely sterilized. Theme park employees revealed that the rides are never cleaned and are only occasionally wiped down. This is true even in cases of vomit. They wipe the mess, rinse it with water, and move on.
The Games Are Easy to Win
Theme park and carnival games are very hard to win. Whether it’s a ring toss, basketball free throw competition, or target shooting, it’s difficult to get a high score and walk away with a big prize. However, they are not rigged to be unbeatable.
The games are designed to be hard, but the operators want you to win. Just not too many times. One carnival worker revealed that the bigger the prizes, the more difficult the game is to win. If you see a game with small prizes, it’s easy to win.
Stay in Character
Although it might seem fun to be a character at a theme park, it is rather grueling. Characters at many parks have to stay in character, no matter what. Even if they feel sick or overheated, they must remain in character until they can get backstage.
A scuba instructor who auditioned to play “water Goofy” on a Disney cruise had to agree that if he started drowning, he would have to be carried away by lifeguards before removing the costume. CPR wouldn’t be performed on the scene to avoid upsetting children.
Cats at Night
While sneaking into a theme park at night is illegal, you might want to learn some interesting things about what happens after hours. A former employee at Disney World in Orlando said employees release cats at night after the park closes to control the rodent population.
The cats are collected at the end of the night and kept in offices under the park. It’s creepy if it’s true, but at least guests don’t have to deal with mice and rats. They must need a lot of people to help collect the cats before the park opens.
Wait Times Aren’t Accurate
When you go to an amusement park on a busy day, it might feel like you spend more time waiting in line than riding the rides. When you get in line, signs give you a general wait time for where you’re standing, but they aren’t accurate.
A sign might say you are 45 minutes from getting on the ride, but the signs overestimate the time. Parks do this because they want you to feel like you waited less than you were supposed to. It is a strange tactic to keep visitors happy.
When you go to a theme park, you can expect to pay a lot for food and drinks. The prices of things are higher than what you would pay outside the park, and the markup can be shocking even when the price hikes are expected.
At parks like Six Flags, Disney, or Universal, prices are three or four times higher than outside food and drinks. Even if the park sells fewer items because of the prices, they still make more money than they would if they sold items at market value.
Lost and Found
Have you ever wondered what happens to the items people lose at theme parks? If someone finds it and brings it to the lost and found, people typically have 90 days to collect their property. However, it goes to a special place if the item isn’t collected in time.
At Disney, the unclaimed items are sent to a cast-only shopping area. The lost items are sold to park employees for a huge discount. Employees can purchase phones or cameras for pretty low prices. We can’t imagine why people would want to buy anything else.
In 2010, Universal added Harry Potter World to their theme parks. The cast members dress up in costumes that look like Hogwarts outfits, some of which are more authentic than the rest. A few lucky cast members get to wear genuine Hogwarts costumes.
People working at Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey wear costumes used in the films worn by extras. We would want to work there just to try on one of the genuine outfits that appeared on screen. They are also sorted into houses based on height, not personality.
Rides might not be as sturdy as you think, but you shouldn’t be scared because they are employee tested at Six Flags parks. Every day an employee rides every roller coaster, and they undergo daily maintenance before visitors arrive. These steps are required before the park opens.
Six Flags employees thoroughly inspect tracks, ride units, safety systems, and ride operations before handing them over to any operations teams. That should give people a little more reassurance before they get on some wild rides that don’t always feel safe.
Keeping Employees Cool
Some theme parks have extremely hot days, which is not good for performers who wear heavy costumes. When temperatures rise, it can be dangerous for employees in costumes because there is a risk of overheating and heat stroke.
According to a former Disney employee, “The people playing the big, fuzzy characters (like the Beast) in the parade were given wet towels filled with ice to tie around their necks. By the time the parade finished, the ice would be melted, and they’d be just this side of heat exhaustion anyway.”
The Very Exclusive VIP Suite
Cinderella’s Castle at Magic Kingdom was inspired by French Renaissance chateaux and Gothic castles of Europe. The iconic attraction features what might be the world’s most exclusive and unattainable hotel room. The luxurious living quarters were meant for Walt Disney.
Walt died five years before the park opened, so he never got to enjoy the super-exclusive suite. It has a private elevator that leads to a marble foyer, and the suite features opulent furniture. It is not available for booking because it is only awarded to sweepstake winners and celebrities.
An Expensive Ride
Theme park attractions are pretty expensive to build, but they pay for themselves over time in ticket sales. This business model is similar to the film industry because big-budget movies earn profits through theater ticket sales. In 1993, Jurassic Park had a budget of $63 million.
That film budget seems small compared to the Universal theme park ride inspired by the film. The Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios in California cost $110 million to build. It was nearly twice as expensive as the film. It closed in 2018 but made plenty of money over the years.
The Worst Outcome
As we said earlier, deaths on theme park rides in the US are uncommon. However, when a death does occur at an amusement park, it is usually in a horrific way. There have been multiple instances of decapitation from theme park rides.
In 2016, a young boy was decapitated while riding a water slide in Kansas City. The same thing occurred in 2008 on a roller coaster at Six Flags in Georgia. The sheer size and speed of these rides can easily cause deadly results.
Being a character at a theme park doesn’t sound so fun after what we have learned. However, the audition process can be tough if you are still interested in applying. To land a spot as a princess or another face character, you have to look a certain way.
If you want to be a face character, you have to have the right bone structure, figure, and height. These three things are inspected before anyone moves forward in the audition process. They want you to look the part.
Strict Appearance Rules
Once people get the job of park character, they have many rules to follow. A former Disney princess revealed that her makeup had to be done in a specific way. Her face was studied before she was allowed to leave the dressing room.
The princesses were always reevaluated about things like weight gain and makeup. They have to look perfect at all times, no matter what. Some people even play multiple characters if they have the right look for another character. Makeup and hair artists help apply finishing touches.
Just when you thought employees only cared about ensuring you were safe, they are doing other things. According to a former theme park employee, they use hand signals and gestures to make fun of people behind their backs on most of the larger attractions and rides.
It reportedly keeps them entertained on long, hot days. On smaller rides, the employees just whisper about visitors when they aren’t paying attention. It’s not right, but there aren’t rules to control this at certain parks. It probably wouldn’t happen at Disney because they are strict.
If you want to be a face character, you have to be quick on your feet. Guests will ask them questions, and they have to stay in character, which sometimes requires creative lies. One cast member who played Mulan had children try to speak to her in Chinese.
The cast member would respond, “I bet Mushu, if I could go a day without speaking Chinese, he’d feed the chickens for me tomorrow.” When kids ask Tinkerbell to fly, the cast member usually tells them she is saving her pixie dust for later.
They Have to Stay Silent
People who work in customer service at amusement parks have to deal with a lot of situations. When people threaten to sue the park, the customer service employees are not allowed to talk to them. A Six Flags employee said people would complain about fake injuries and talk about suing.
Although customers might think that is a good strategy, they probably won’t get what they want. When someone threatens to sue at Six Flags, the employee has to stop talking to them and call security immediately so they don’t say the wrong thing.
There’s a Hierarchy
According to former employees, the longer you have been working at a park, the more input you have on your job. A former cast member at Disney said there is a hierarchy with people who have been there longer. Twice a year, they have bids to request where they want to work.
For example, if you play Belle, you have the option to work at Magic Kingdom, Epcot, or one of the restaurants. The longer you have been working, the higher you are on the list to get your first choice.
Water Is Free
Although every other beverage and food item is overpriced in theme parks, you can get water for free. By law, water is free, so if you go up to any food stand, they have to give you water. It might just be a cup of water, but you will never get charged for it.
In some parks, you can ask for “magic water,” and they might hand you a cup of Sprite. That must depend on how friendly the employee is and if they are feeling generous at that moment.
When rides are retired, the park doesn’t throw away old animatronics or cars. Some theme parks will reuse audio-animatronics and even vehicles from old rides to create new guest experiences. Disney gave America Sings characters a new life in Splash Mountain.
The park also replaced Norway’s Maelstrom attraction at Epcot with Frozen Ever After. They used the same ride vehicles and a similar track. Soon, Splash Mountain will be reimagined with a Princess and the Frog-themed ride. It will be interesting to see how the new ride compares to the old attraction.
Stop the Ride
Visitors might get annoyed when they see a ride is out of order or temporarily out of service. However, they should be happy because it means the park is taking every precaution to keep riders safe. A former Six Flags employee shared why this is a good thing.
They wrote on Reddit, “We call the rides down for rain, vomit, and lost items that could be obstructing the track. So if a ride is down, it’s probably for mechanical reasons. We even pulled an emergency stop when a military official lost his ID.”
When people get hired to play a theme park character, they must practice the character’s signature hundreds of times. Because many parks have locations around the world, they want characters to have identical signatures at every location. It can’t be even slightly different.
There are multiple employees who play the same character at the same park, and they have to sign the same signature every time. Even if there is a long line, the character has to ensure their signature doesn’t differ each time they autograph a visitor’s book.
Special Trash Cans
Some theme parks care about every small detail, so that their visitors have the best experience. At Disney, there are trash cans every 30 feet to keep the park free of clutter and trash. Not only are they strategically placed, but they also have unique designs.
The trash cans are uniquely decorated, and guests can buy trash can-themed merchandise. The rest of the world should follow this idea so people can’t make excuses for not throwing their trash away. It would make the world a cleaner place.
It Was Supposed to Be a City
When Epcot was built, Walt Disney didn’t think it was going to be an amusement park. Epcot stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Before his passing, Walt wanted the park to be called “The Florida Project,” where 20,000 residents would live.
It was supposed to be a testing bed for city planning, technology, and community. However, when Walt died, the company decided that founding a city was too much without his guidance. Instead, they turned it into a permanent showcase of a future world.
Many of the buildings at theme parks look larger than life. However, they are much smaller than they seem. At Disney, the buildings on Main Street appear much larger because Imagineers are big fans of forced perspective, tricking your eyes into seeing something as bigger and taller.
This technique is used throughout Disney parks, from the windows on Main Street buildings to the big castle and Tower of Terror. It makes everything seem more grand and magical. People wouldn’t be as impressed with smaller buildings and tiny rides.
No Pointing Fingers
While characters might have special hand signals to communicate with other park employees, there is one hand signal they can’t use. Characters are not allowed to point one finger because pointing with one finger is considered rude in some cultures.
All staff members are trained to point with two fingers, so they don’t offend anyone. Pointing with one finger is so natural, so breaking that habit must be hard while at work. There must have been at least one or two mistakes, which is why training is required.
Not That Scary
Some rides at theme parks are not as scary as they seem. When you walk past Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, you might hear high-pitched screams that make you not want to get on the ride. While some of the screams are from guests, others are pre-recorded.
Pre-recorded sounds of screams play on loudspeakers to make the ride seem more intimidating. Similarly, the boats on Splash Mountain make a big impact when they reach the bottom, but that is from the help of water cannons to make the splash seem bigger.
The walkways at some theme parks are brightly colored for specific reasons. While it might seem like a way to make the park more colorful, the walkways correlate to the surrounding areas. A study by Kodak showed that colored concrete led to more vibrant photos.
Not every photo at the theme parks is Instagrammable, but the parks try to make everyone’s photos look as good as they can. Some of the colored walkways also lead people to different areas. People subconsciously follow them without knowing it.