Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Day 7: Operating the World's Greatest Amusement Park

As I would quickly find out, Operations is the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink department at an amusement park. I arrived at Cedar Fair's corporate offices and had barely even sat down when in walked Jerry Niederhelman, head of Cedar Point's Operations department. Coat still zipped, he shook my hand and told me a bit about himself: Mr. Niederhelman began at Kings Island (Cincinnati) many years ago as a seasonal employee, working his way up through the park to become their Director of Operations. Cedar Fair acquired Kings Island and the rest of the Paramount Parks before the 2007 season; last year, Mr. Niederhelman traveled a few hours north to become Cedar Point's Director of Operations.

Rather than simply tell me about all of the millions of things that fall under his supervision, he had arranged for me to meet with a few of his most important employees. We started by heading into the frigid, empty park towards the Cedar Point Police Department. The park actually does have its own police force, with four vehicles (two marked, two unmarked) and numerous officers, as I would learn from Chief McMillian. As Mr. Niederhelman showed me into the CPPD offices, the Chief came out to meet us. He showed me around the building; the park's Lost & Found service is headquartered hear, where each year the officers process tens of thousands of lost items. Anything not collected at the end of the year is shipped back to its owner when possible. The Chief tells me they've seen everything from phones and wallets to prosthetic legs and cochlear implants! They also monitor cameras pointed at every gate to the park, as well as several that watch the resorts. Aside from that, the biggest challenge according to Chief McMillian is just maintaining security in the park. The CPPD gets several calls daily with reports of disturbances in the park, usually just unruly behavior. Saturdays are usually the most active days simply because they're the busiest, but the CPPD makes a point of having officers throughout the park each day to monitor security. I also made a point of asking him if we'd see metal detectors and full body scanners at the front gate, as some parks have. Right now, the Chief monitors front gate security by having officers stationed at the front gate each morning, and while he would like to see more preventative security measures added to the park, there aren't currently any plans for full body scanners at the front gate.

After saying goodbye to Chief McMillian, Mr. Niederhelman led me around the corner into Planet Snoopy, one of the park's four children's areas. Planet Snoopy is also home to the park's First Aid department and Family Care Center. Here I met with Ken Berryhill, who oversees guest safety among many other things. Because pretty much everyone in the park is writing up budgets for next season, there wasn't much exciting work going on; instead, Mr. Berryhill showed me around his facilities. The front of the First Aid building is the Family Care Center, where parents can bring their children to rest in the middle of a long day at the park. They have a play room for young children to enjoy, as well as private rooms for breastfeeding mothers. On the other side of the building, they have several small cots for guests to lie down; Mr. Berryhill says one of his biggest challenges here is making sure that tired employees don't monopolize the cots! The back room of the building is where all the action happens: here, first aid employees treat all sorts of guest needs. Mr. Berryhill says the most common injuries are simply cuts or bruises. However, the building is equipped with defibrillators, elevated stretchers, and all sorts of medical equipment should a situation require their use.

Our next stop would be Aquatics, but that would require a walk through the park's famous ballroom to get to the Park Operations offices. The ballroom (or Coliseum) is housed above the parks massive main arcade, and once hosted such headlining acts as Frank Sinatra; today, the ballroom is not open to the public, but during September and October the HalloWeekends staff uses the large space to prepare the "Screamsters" with costumes and makeup each day.

On the other side of the Coliseum, Cedar Point has numerous offices. Down the spiral staircase to the ground floor, Mr. Niederhelman led me past many of the Operations offices to that of Brian Short, Aquatics Director. Mr. Short oversees anything water-related at Cedar Point - that includes Soak City, Castaway Bay, the park's three water rides, the beach, and the fountains in the park. The largest part of Mr. Short's job is just maintaining water quality, but when it comes to Soak City and Castaway Bay, he runs the entire operation. He does his best to make sure that everything is running efficiently and that the parks are in top form. He did tell me a very funny story from the Cedar Point beach this season: one man decided to hang glide over the beach. This actually isn't uncommon, and the park even sponsors activities on the beach like this every so often. This man, however, began dropping miniature army men action figures (each with a parachute, of course) as he flew over the beach! This was a situation that Mr. Short had never had to address before; we both had a good laugh over it as he recounted the story.

Next we headed back upstairs to the office of Colleen Murphy, head of Ride Operations at the park. According to Mrs. Murphy, the biggest part of her job is "putting out fires," to use her words. The park does occasionally have small fires, but Mrs. Murphy doesn't handle the literal ones (those go back to Mr. Berryhill). Instead, Mrs. Murphy handles the more complicated sorts - namely, ride incidents. This year, the park had a few incidents with its water rides, and it was Mrs. Murphy's job to correct each situation. In one case, a boat on the first water ride had rolled back down the lift hill and flipped over after colliding with the wall of the boat's trough. While seven guests were injured in the accident, but fortunately only one was sent to a local hospital; all of them were treated and released shortly. As the incident occurred, bystanders jumped the fence into the ride's pool and helped to right the boat; by the time Mrs. Murphy arrived, only minutes later, it was already being resolved by park safety forces. It was her responsibility to call her supervisors, including the park's General Manager, John Hildebrandt, and inform them of the incident. She made sure that the guests were removed from the ride and taken to the park's first aid center for treatment. Fortunately, incidents like these are rare. Otherwise, Mrs. Murphy spends a lot of time with the ride operations staff. Her department hires all of the seasonal ride operators, and she helps determine which rides to run or not to run based on the weather. Being in charge of all dry ride operations, Mrs. Murphy indirectly plays a major role in the guest experience at the park.

My final stop was Matt La Foccia's office. Mr. La Foccia handles admissions for the park; that also includes the toll booths on the causeway. Leading me out of the office, he directed me to his little car and we drove up to the front of the park. Cedar Point remodeled the entire entrance plaza this year, complete with a new entrance gate, ticket booths, season pass center, and guest services building. Mr. La Foccia led me through all of them, showing off new features designed to make traffic flow through the area as efficient as possible. Cedar Point has been playing catch-up when it comes to technology, but the new entrance plaza is designed to be cutting-edge to serve guests even better. Over a dozen ticket booths means shorter lines to get in the park, and the season pass center was redesigned to shrink its wait time for processing from over an hour on some days to only 15-20 minutes. Next, we drove out to the causeway. Here, he oversees the tollbooths and manages parking. Over Columbus Day weekend, the park was swarmed with guests and every spot on the peninsula was taken. At that point, Mr. La Foccia was forced to park guests out on the causeway itself; it was a crowding nightmare for the park, you can read more about it here. Mr. La Foccia says that since the incident, the park has revised its parking procedures so that this won't be an issue again in the future.

When I finished with Mr. La Foccia, he was kind enough to drive me around to the back of the park so I could head into town for a lunch break. I'll have another post soon highlighting my second afternoon with Planning & Design. Thanks for reading!



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