By Michael Mander
Jokes between guests and staff is not uncommon at theme parks across the UK: but when does it go too far, and when is a joke at the guest’s expense?
“A thrill ride is not a place to joke about safety!”
Three years ago, Thorpe Park. I had queued for one hour to ride Nemesis Inferno (and an additional ten minutes for front row seats). I had ridden the coaster many times before, and so the procedure of moving into the seat, pulling my harness down and doing the seatbelt up was nothing new to me. I was visiting the park with my brother, who sat to my left. Both strapped in, the ride attendants began their walk around the seats tugging on harnesses and belts to check everyone’s safety. He stops at my brother, tugs his seatbelt and it comes undone. The ride attendant puts it in again, pulls it, and it comes out. He looks nervous, turns to his colleague and mouths “uh-oh”. He puts my brothers seatbelt in once again and looks at him. “If that happens during the ride” he said “hold on really tight to the seat.” Without warning, the ride began.
This sort of joke is not uncommon at theme parks. I’ve seen it done time and time again, each time, a guests face drops momentarily, then giggles nervously at the realization it’s only a joke.
I was very interested to hear what people thought about this kind of humour, when is it acceptable and when is it not. It turns out these jokes are much more abundant than I thought.
Speaking on Facebook, Adam Keane described an incident at Pleasure Beach. “I was on the Ice Blast at Pleasure Beach. Just before it launched, a ride attendant said my seatbelt was undone. I looked and the ride shot into the air.” Fortunately, Adam laughed it off, saying “I thought it was funny”.
But it isn’t always funny, Facebook and Twitter were filled with people responding to a questions I had posted “Is it ever okay to joke about safety?”
“The woman next to me helped hold my harness down.”
24th July, 2013. Gabrielle Luu-Moynihan is a fifteen year old girl who had spent a day at Thorpe Park with her friend. The two of them had been on many of the rides, and were going to conclude their day with a ride on Samurai. As they reached the front of the queue and sat down, she had a safety scare from a ride attendant: “me and my friend got on Samurai” she told Airgates “and one of the workers came to us to check our harness. He told me that during the test run the seat I was in had a few problems and kept coming undone, so if I felt it loosen hold it down. He offered to move me, so I said yes please. He went to find a spare seat, but the ride started while he was gone. My friend and I had to hold the harness down. We were scared, the woman next to me even helped hold it down.”
“At the end of the ride, he told us he was joking. I know not to go on that ride ever again.” She sent a Tweet to Thorpe Park to complain about the incident. They replied, describing it as ‘unacceptable’, and encouraging her to move the discussion to email. From there, nothing was ever said about it again. Gabrielle didn’t want compensation: “there’s not much anyone can do for me: it’s done now. Thorpe Park should just make sure they don’t scare the life out of a 15 year old girl again.”
A Thorpe Park spokesperson told me that joking about safety was never acceptable: “The health and safety of our guests is our number one objective and joking about the safety of a ride is not something we condone at the Park. If we were alerted to this by our guests we would of course look into it.”
But, much to my surprise, the spokesperson added: “This is the first time we have had anything of this nature highlighted to us.”
I thought back to my discussion with Gabrielle Luu-Moynihan: “I emailed them, but they didn’t reply. I don’t know of anything being done.”
I told the spokesperson about the Tweet Gabrielle had sent them, and that they had replied and described it as ‘unacceptable’.
“We’ve checked all of our Guest Services logs and we have had no complaints of this nature come through.” the spokesperson told me.
After that, my emails bounced back with an ‘Out of Office’ reply.
Update: just before publishing, I received this email:
Thanks for your help with allowing me to investigate this further.
We’ve been through our Twitter responses and have found the response from us to the guest you have been speaking to. As you can see, and as I have already made clear, this is not behaviour that we condone at the Park. We have searched through our Guest Services emails and unfortunately cannot find a log of the guest emailing us. I’m not sure why this is so I would very much like to get in touch with the guest so that we can discuss this further. I have therefore passed the email address to our Guest Services team so that we can discuss the matter with her further.
The health and safety of our guests is our number one objective and joking about the safety of a ride is not something we condone at the Park. When we were alerted to this on Twitter we asked the guest to contact us so that we could look into it further. Unfortunately we have no record of receiving any correspondence from the guest so we will be getting in touch with her in order to investigate this in more detail.
“We should never endanger anyone or make any guest worried or scared.”
Alton Towers takes this sort of behaviour much more seriously, it seems. I spoke to an employee who asked not to be named (this is not uncommon behaviour, speaking to the media on behalf of an organisation is frowned upon): “Towers takes a very strong view on joking about safety and, as a person who loves my job, I take a very strong view on it too. I’ve never seen anyone at Towers joke about safety. When we’re trained we are told the importance of safety, and that we should never endanger anyone or make any guest worried or scared.”
“Anyone who jokes about safety of riders is an idiot. It’s fine to have a joke but safety of riders isn’t one of them.”
“I love the place I work” he adds “and I’m very passionate about what I do.”
Despite my requests, Alton Towers declined to comment on joking about ride safety. Maybe they thought this spectacularly good employee said enough.
“We dropped bolts to scare nervous guests, then laughed about it after work”
I was speaking to an ex-employee of Oakwood Theme Park in Pembrokeshire when he dropped the bombshell: “At Oakwood, we used to drop a spare bolt on the floor and shout ‘uh-oh!'”
Speaking anonymously, the ex-employee told me that management never found out (but if they had, they “wouldn’t be impressed”) and loads of people did it. In fact, he added, “we all shared stories and peoples reactions after work.”
“These stories are always the highlight after a days work” he said “swapping stories about how guests were a bit weary looking when a bolt was in your hand and they were told to hold on extra tight just in case”
“Not all staff did it, but loads of us did. It happened daily, sometimes guests even joined in.”
“We dropped bolts to scare nervous guests, then laughed about it after work in the staff room.”
While writing the article, I tried numerous times to contact Oakwood, to no avail.
After the article was published, I received this email:
Dear Michael – I hope you are well. I understand you did try and get in contact with us prior to putting this feature online and I am really sorry (and concerned) that we did not get back to you.
The health and safety of our visitors is absolutely paramount. We take any allegations of misconduct among staff extremely seriously and are carrying out an internal investigation to establish if there is any evidence whatsoever of this kind of reprehensible and irresponsible behaviour taking place here in the past.
We are taking all necessary steps to discover if there is any historical evidence to support the claim and to ensure this type of totally unprofessional and malicious conduct never occurs at Oakwood.
The full investigation, I am told, will involve reviewing CCTV footage and talking to staff: “We have made it abundantly clear to all staff that this type of behaviour is not acceptable and anyone found to either be taking part in this or having knowledge of others doing it and not disclosing it to managers is liable to dismissal.”