World of Preparation

Dozens of workers, both permanent and seasonal, put hundreds of hours into preparing Holiday World & Splashin' Safari in Santa Claus for today's opening day. The "coaster cats," a group of men who inspect the roller coasters every morning before the park opens, walked the length of The Legend roller coaster April 8.

Story by Jason Recker
Photos by Carolyn Van Houten

The line is familiar if not tiresome.

So, do you guys just take off from October until May?

There are direct ways of presenting the inquiry.

Do you work year-round?

Some people prod rather than pose.

Must be nice to have all winter off.

When you work for the world’s friendliest park, you aren’t eligible to snap off a wry response. Instead, you roll with the question posed by the unenlightened. All most of us see when we visit Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari is the polished product — the cordial, clean home of wholesome summertime levity. But our escape is somebody else’s duty.

The Spencer County park opens its gates for the 2014 season today and simultaneously closes the long road of preparation. For many of the full-time staffers clad in their yellow polo shirts, it’s relief from a pressurized process that began the day after the park closed last October. It’s a good job, yes. But it’s a year-round gig. Nobody took the winter off.

“I kind of had the perception that people weren’t nearly as busy when the park was closed,” admits Matt Eckert, the park president who’s worked there since 2000. “To say it was a little overwhelming would be an understatement. We’re like a city of sorts if you break down the components of what we do — retail, food and beverage, rides, a water park, entertainment. Those are all very unique and different business lines under one umbrella. There’s so many different hands in the pot to make sure all the ingredients are mixing up and making the final product what we want it to be.

“As we continue to grow, there’s no such thing as down time. ... The pressure is tremendous.”

Jeremy Gray, left, Dave Stogner, both of Owensboro, and Blake Harpenau of Santa Claus, all of the park's "coaster cats," inspected bolts along The Legend roller coaster April 8.

The immediacy of an upcoming season — even if it’s three or four months away — is omnipresent. The internal computer system includes, at the top of the screen, a down-to-the-second countdown to let employees know precisely how far they are from opening day. Obnoxious, some folks joke. But once the number sinks into double-digits, the ticking carries weight because there is no turning back. Though the crowd doesn’t thicken until the June and July vacation season, the stress is in the details.

One morning in March, Eckert exchanged a normal meeting of park directors for what he calls a punch list. He sent staff on a search for mistakes. He urged them to leave their area of expertise and welcomed all forms of nitpicking. The staff returned with several hundred notifications — paint chips in line queues, cracks in walkways, signs in need of updates, stains on wooden fences, shingles out of place.

“Details are what our guests see,” Eckert says.

Right down to the icing on pastries.

About 80 percent of the food Holiday World feeds its guests is ready-made and requires, if anything, only a brief layover in a warming device before being sold. The rest is more carefully crafted.

That’s why one Friday morning in April, a handful of college-age seasonal employees prepared for this season with a lesson on sweets. Two men, a pair of jitterbugs named Mark and Doug from Dawn Foods in Louisville, buzzed around a kitchen showing the rookies the right way to dab, spread and dollop.

“Who wants to play?” Mark asked, holding a tube of cream cheese in the air.

A trio stepped to the pan and ran a trail of the topping over a Danish.

“Oh my God, you guys are just going crazy!” Mark blurted.

He was merely having fun. While other jobs at an amusement park — ride safety, for instance — leave no margin for mistakes, the food and beverage teams are able to deviate from guidelines. They make 500 pizzas each morning. This year, they’ll make fudge in a renovated Mrs. Klaus’ Kitchen. They’ll also operate a bakery there, and on that morning in April, the idea was to pick a few ways to ice each baked product.

“We’ll tell you and show you and let you screw up,” Mark said. “We’re gonna screw up some of this.”

To document what they favor, food and beverage support manager Tammy Berg of Ferdinand snapped photos. One of Berg’s co-workers carried with her a notebook.

“Otherwise, it’s like the telephone game,” Berg said. “We’ll narrow down the decorations and develop some structure. We want some consistency. That helps eye appeal.”

Tammy Dilger of Ferdinand poured peanut butter fudge into a pan in Mrs. Claus' Kitchen on April 24. She said peanut butter was the best-selling flavor last year.

There is plenty of thought in the food.

Jason Martin is the director of food and beverage, and when officials decided to create a new eatery — it’s called Wildebeestro — they angled for something different. Martin spent three days in Indianapolis sampling seafood. He’s on a constant quest to find quality eats for prices that don’t set back the park — and in turn the guests — too much.

Martin, a 40-year-old Tell City native, planned to become a teacher but he’s never minded the veer in career. He learns by listening.

“Talk to the guests and talk to employees, and you’ll become a menu expert,” Martin said. “Everybody likes to eat. Eight of the 10 times we get a suggestion, the suggestion works.”

New at the park this year are healthier options such as wraps and salads as well as buffalo chicken pizza; all were requested by visitors or employees. Some foods don’t change. The pizzas remain popular. The homemade chicken and dumplings, cooked in a process that requires several days, are a hit. In Plymouth Rock Café, they’re often paired with the green beans that are, at least to one guest, savory enough to be served at a wedding. A bride-to-be once asked for the recipe and Martin and his staff obliged.

But poor counter service can mar a good meal.

That’s where Martin hands off to Joshua Polk, a peppy 32-year-old Kentucky native who, each spring, hires 2,100 seasonal employees. Polk is the director of human relations who must first ensure the park has sufficient help. To do that, Holiday World hosts three job fairs and operates a busing system that fetches and returns workers to Tell City, Evansville and Owensboro. High schoolers. College students. Retirees. All are in high demand.

So, too, is a smile.

Holiday World has long been lauded for repeatedly being named the world’s friendliest park ­— it’s also been voted the cleanest — and a significant chunk of Polk’s job is to make being amicable come naturally.

What time is it? Where’s the closest restroom? How long is the wait? Where can I get ice cream? Is my child tall enough to ride?

Holiday World is a breeding ground for questions.

Hosts and hostesses, as the park dubs its workers, must provide answers.

“I feel blessed that we live in an area where people have that southern Indiana hospitality,” said Eckert, who lives in Schnellville. “They’ve been brought up with ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘please.’”

The interview process is a 90-minute group discussion led by one facilitator and scouted by three Holiday World officials looking for eye contact, smiles, posture.

“A third of them eat it up. A third of them say they don’t think they can do it. A third of them wait and see,” Polk said of new hires and their duty to be happy.

“Then they work that first weekend and they see it modeled by our returning employees and say, ‘I guess it’s true.’ So it’s not like we’re taking people who aren’t friendly and telling them they have to be.”

There are rules to shepherd everyone. Hosts must shave every day. Hostesses cannot wear more than two earrings and both must be in the bottom lobe. All white shoes. White socks. Khaki shorts — no fraying or cargo pockets — with a black or brown belt. Watches are mandatory (the park is in Central time but is just six miles from the Eastern zone). Phones are banned. Have yours on and you’ll be hit with an eight-point penalty; exceed 10 and you’re fired. Employees who exceed expectations are rewarded with, among others, food, notes of commendation on their name badges and front-row parking.

Seasonal workers received a tour during orientation April 19.

On a Saturday in mid-April, about 500 seasonal hosts and hostesses met at the park for orientation. There was an hour dedicated to the proper way to engage guests — feel free to high-five, for instance. A sign on the wall inside the HR building, marked by giant shiny teeth, urged workers to “Smile! Let’s see those teeth!”

Polk prepared to relay the park’s cornerstones — safety, service, friendliness and cleanliness.
“Everything we do,” he said, “is about reinforcing those four things.”

Foremost among them is safety.

Those responsibilities rest with Tony Perkins. The director of maintenance has a three-pronged team — one for what they call the dry park (Holiday World’s rides), one for the water park and one specifically for the three wooden roller coasters. Their job includes the quirky — it takes 480 gallons of antifreeze to keep the toilets from icing up each winter — but the majority of the work is far more serious. It’s about keeping people on fast-moving machines out of harm’s way. Perkins, a 53-year-old Daviess County native who’s been on the job for six years, acknowledges comfort is fleeting.

“You do your job to the best of your ability and don’t leave anything for chance. And you pray a little because accidents happen. Things break,” he said. “You follow the manufacturer’s recommendation and sometimes a little more.”

In the days after the park closes in October, Perkins’ crews begin breaking down every ride. Every movable part is removed. Some are power-washed. Some are polished with plain old rags and buckets of soapy water.

Michael Stephens of Grandview, left, and Ben McNair of Huntingburg removed test dummies and prepared The Raven roller coaster April 23 for state inspectors to come the next day. The test dummies are used to test the roller coasters and weigh about 175 pounds when filled with water.

Smaller rides are stored under cover and gradually processed through the paint shop and maintenance building to be serviced as needed. Water rides are winterized and roller coaster tracks — the wood on the Raven, Legend and Voyage is eight layers thick — are checked for bumps and repaired. To gauge the ride’s flow, plastic dummies are filled with water and placed in the train; the park has 25 to 30 of the white mannequins that weigh 175 pounds when filled. A crew from Texas visits each year to help Holiday World’s eight-man group of self-dubbed “coaster cats.”

Reconstruction begins when the weather allows. This season, when winter’s rage crept into spring, the process required more patience than usual. The water park is filled beginning April 1 in a process that takes more than a month. Two weeks before opening day, the majority of the park’s rides weren’t yet reassembled.

A test dummy with a hand-drawn face sits in a car after riding The Raven roller coaster April 23.

Inspections carried into this week. State officials survey every curve, dip and dive and don’t stop there. Nuts. Bolts. Pins. Rails. They search for cracks and scan for wobbles.

“It’s stressful,” Perkins said. “They like to find something but normally it’s little, like a fence that needs dirt under it. ... But they’re not our enemy because they have the same goal we have: get people on the ride.”

Perkins’ team has never been flagged for a major infraction.

To ensure it stays that way, his guys attend weeklong seminars to hear from inspectors and ride manufacturers. The exit exam, which requires a passing grade, has a failure rate of better than 50 percent.

Rarely is the learning curve more demanding than when a new ride arrives. The Mayflower, a massive swinging ship that holds 60 riders per pilgrimage, arrived the morning of April 19. A 140-ton crane hoisted the vessel into place and a man from the Kansas-based company that built the ship was along to supervise the installment.

“Now, we have to learn smaller pieces,” Perkins said. “It’s wires, controls, boxes. Rides come with instructions. Their guy will go through the entire set of controls before he leaves.”

The mastery of which buttons to push and which levers to pull is mandatory. On a Saturday morning in the middle of April, Loran O’Bryan, a 22-year-old assistant manager from Huntingburg, carried with her a red binder as she led future hosts and hostesses through the web of instructions required to operate The Raven.

Maintenance workers Tom Hart, left, and Anthony VanCamp, both of Gentryville, looked up as the Mayflower was installed April 21.

The topics included severe weather, evacuations, cell phones, misbehaving guests, fire extinguisher locations, exit ramps and the proper order in which a four-man crew gives its thumbs-up sign to indicate the ride is ready to roll. Among the orders: Merely mime a high-five to riders because they could — intentionally or accidentally — yank you into the train with them. Also: Rather than reach into a guest’s personal space to check a seat belt, ask for an assist.

The Raven controls consist of six buttons, six lights, three key holes, two levers and one switch. There’s also a screen. The questions posed to the workers-in-training are open-ended.

What’s this? If this is blinking, what does that mean and what do I do? If I push this button, where will the ride stop?

The trainees, who must be 16 to operate rides, cycle through dry runs — the coaster moves without passengers. They do their best to mimic the real thing. One went so far as to say “excuse me” and “pardon me” as he checked safety belts on phantom riders. Shortly later, he sat on the wooden floor near the track to take a written exam. There’s also a one-on-one verbal exam.  

“A lot of times, it’s about getting them through the nerves of training dates or their first days,” said Tina Mowery, the director of rides. “Most of all, they’re told to watch their ride. We teach them to look at (guests) but you have to stay focused on your ride.”

There are but few people in the park not focused so acutely.

One is 29-year-old James Olliver, the director of development. He watched the arrival of the Mayflower, a project he’s been monitoring since he was hired in December, but was already thinking about 2015 and beyond. Holiday World owns 200 acres, of which about 110 are developed. He carried in a shirt pocket a notebook and two pens because “when you’re trying to make an amusement park this size come together for opening day, you don’t want to miss anything.”

Yet for the last few months, Olliver, who previously worked at a nuclear power plant, wasn’t fretting.

“I don’t sweat May 3,” he said.  “When you have the right preparation and the right people, you don’t worry too much.”

In a way, everyone at Holiday World is a little like Olliver. Once Christmas passes — oddly, in a town named Santa Claus, December is the slowest month — anxiety grips them and the countdown chews their patience; Eckert calls the mood “crispy” at times. But they’ve all been there and they know their deadline cannot be forgotten.

So when Eckert walked to the front gate this morning to welcome guest No. 1, he exhaled. He also carried with him a sense of pride, a certainty that Holiday World again accomplished the tasks necessary to serve as a haven for memories for the next six months.

“It’s exciting because you want to show off what we’ve been putting so much work into,” Eckert said. “We’re showing off new toys. There’s a lot of work that goes into opening those gates that very first day.”

Contact Jason Recker at jrecker@dcherald.com.




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