Waymon Morris and I sit on the bench-style conductor’s seat as the Carousel Gardens Amusement Park train pulls out of the station, into the dappled lawns and mossy shade of New Orlean City Park. The engine rattles crazily underneath us, like a piece of high-powered farm equipment or someone’s fixer-upper car that hasn’t yet been blessed with a muffler. Morris points to the timer on the rudimentary dashboard, which helps drivers know if they’re keeping pace with the train’s typical runtime, and pulls the shrill whistle, warning any wandering toddlers, errant ducks or distracted drivers of our approach on the 2-mile track. From the conductor’s perch, the whistle is so loud it could pop an eardrum, but literally everyone we pass — infants in Baby Bjorns, picnickers, a grandma out for a stroll with her Shih Tzus — smiles and waves.
“I don’t care how old you are,” Morris half-confides, over the chuff and rumble of the engine. “Everyone loves the train.”
As director of recreational services at the amusement park, Morris doesn’t always drive the train, but he has spent a lot of time thinking about it. One of the park’s busiest attractions, the train's popularity was almost its downfall. During high-traffic periods, such as the holiday festival Celebration in the Oaks, wait times to ride would bloat to two hours or more. Disgruntled patrons complained. They wanted to ride the train, but no one wants eat up all their park time waiting in line.
So Morris assigned a team member to watch the train station from opening to close one night, to try and understand the “pain point.” Together, they discovered the key issue: people were taking a long time figuring out where to sit. By revamping the queueing arrangement (when the train pulls into the station, people now stand in individual stalls which correspond to a train car), and adding a second train to run on the track, Morris was able to cut wait time at the train from two hours to 30 minutes. He also posted a park employee at the end of the line to forecast shortened wait times to incredulous (and subsequently pleased) passengers.
This kind of guest-centric solution can be credited to a long career considering the ins and outs (and ups and downs, and loops) of amusement parks. At age 16, Morris was one of the original employees of Six Flags’ Jazzland park in New Orleans East. Hired before the park opened, he was trained to operate what park insiders nicknamed the “S&S Towers,” or the Sonic Slam and Bayou Blaster.
He loved it — “It was almost like reliving my childhood in my teen years,” he says — but it wasn’t until the night he wrote a missing ride manual that he realized there could be more to the position. This document is a comprehensive operator’s manual required to run most rides in a theme park; if there’s no manual, the ride can’t be opened to the public.
A teenage Morris, frustrated with a still-shuttered ride months after the park opened, went home after work one day and drew up a full ride manual for the attraction.
“Every single button, every single sound, every single little smell and nuance to the ride, you know about it, because it should be in that manual,” Morris says. “[At that point I thought] it’s more than just [being] a teenager working a summer job, hitting the button. Maybe there’s a career in it.”
He worked at Jazzland until 2005, eventually rising to a position in the human resources department. After the park closed, he spent several years away from the business working in hotels. He was working in sales when, almost on a lark, picked up a weekend gig as a part-time ride safety trainer at Carousel Gardens. When a former park supervisor stepped down, Morris decided to bring his hospitality experience back to an amusement park setting.
Today he supervises a staff of long-term employees and some dedicated college students, many of whom come back to work at the park every chance they get on weekends and holidays. These employees chug glass after glass of red Gatorade to stave off the sweltering heat, endure crowds, host an endless parade of birthday parties (one of the park’s major revenue sources), wrangle sugar-hyped kids and more, all while creating a warm experience for patrons.
“It takes a special kind of person to be an amusement park ride operator. It’s not for everyone, and I respect that,” Morris says. “It’s not like a job at McDonald’s, where you can say ‘I really don’t want to be here’ … a ride operator doesn’t have a choice. We are very strict about safety and the guest experience. You’re either with that or you aren’t.”
Those of us who feel vague unease when a roller coaster harness clicks shut can be reassured: Morris says park employees are sort of obsessed with patron safety. When there’s a rare incident on an amusement ride somewhere else in the country, Carousel Gardens employees discuss it, examining the contributing factors (was the wind high that day? what did the safety checks say?). At the park, engineers arrive hours before each day of operations to run the rides, unoccupied, and perform mechanical checks. Later, the ride operators run them again, listening for unusual sounds, checking seatbelts and bars, and making sure surrounding leaves and Spanish moss won’t fall onto the track during a ride’s run.
“I’m sure [if] you speak to anyone in the amusement park business, we’re all kind of control freaks … that’s a large part of the job,” Morris says. "There’s always that ‘what if?’”
For the most part, amusement rides are incredibly safe (things that are statistically more likely to kill you: riding in cars, bee stings, choking on food), but Morris is exquisitely conscious of the responsibility the park has to its guests, and even the slightest question about safety can cause a ride shutdown. This past summer, rain and lightning have plagued the park: if radar shows a lightning strike within four miles of its walls, Morris says, the rides go down to make sure there’s no danger to park guests.
Before heading over to the train station, Morris and I check out the Ladybug, which is probably the closest thing to the park has to a true, grown-up roller coaster. Morris says the Ladybug was the highlight of his park visits a child, offering the experience of being afraid, followed by the relief of everything being okay. “It gave you the thrill, it was exciting, scary, all those different emotions,” he says.
Now we watch the ride operator as he prepares the little coaster for one of its test runs, the interconnected, empty cars smoothly sliding up the rides’ first incline. Morris shows me the dashboard for the ride, and explains some of its safeguards. During a run, the ride operator is confined to a stall so he or she can’t accidentally fall onto the tracks. Operators have to press a button near the cars' caboose to activate the ride, which forces them to walk past riders and check harnesses. The Ladybug doesn’t have this feature, but some rides have a pedal in the operator’s area. If the operator steps off the pedal, the ride instantly stops running.
The coaster’s empty cars zoom around a curve above our heads, throwing off a rush of wind.
“Just as I was a little boy at this very park, and rode the roller coaster and the carousel and the train, I remember that years and years later … hopefully we’re making fond memories for families,” Morris says.