This article originally appeared on VICE UK. Amusement parks are meant to be a source of fun and thrill-induced nausea—but of course, for many people, it's just another place of work. Arne* has been working in a theme park for a couple of months now, and he says there are actually some very dark sides to the job. He's a character performer, which means that he walks around the park dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle or Spongebob Squarepants, poses for photos with guests, dances in shows, and tries his best to spread general good cheer across the park.
But for many visitors, that's not enough. I spoke to Arne about the verbal and physical abuse he has to stomach from guests every day. Although it has become part of his job, that doesn't mean it's easy to get used to.
"In the few months that I've worked in this theme park, I've seen things I couldn't have imagined before. It's so weird—we're hired to help guests have a good time, but we're being called names all day long. "Asshole" and "son of a bitch" are the most innocent ones.
In the morning, at the start of each shift, our team meets backstage to find out who'll wear which costume that day and who will be an escort. The escorts are there to make sure nothing bad happens to the performers in costume. When the park opens, we head to the entrance, to welcome the guests in character. That's usually the first time of the day I'll hear something like, "Hey SpongeBob, you fucking prick!" shouted in my direction.
When something happens that parents don't agree with, they'll have no qualms insulting us in front of their young children. Recently, I was working as an escort at the spot in the park where performers get together every couple of hours to take pictures with the guests. After one kid had taken a picture, his mother approached me and told me she thought that the characters hadn't been nice enough to him. I told her that I would talk to them and that they'd be happy to take another picture with her son. That didn't satisfy her—standing next to the line of all these wide-eyed children waiting to have their picture taken, she leaned over the divide between the photo spot and the line, and shouted that one of the characters was an asshole and had a small dick.
I try to handle this stuff professionally, but it does get to me. Mostly because I just don't understand why people are like that. I know they probably don't mean to offend me personally—they just think that they can do whatever they want on their day out. But still, I don't get why people think it's OK to behave like that."
"There are two types of people who physically hurt the performers in our park. Those that get too excited and do it by accident—they don't mean harm, but they're just too rough with the costume or mask. Any kind of blow is a lot more painful when it lands on you through the costume. When people are aware that being too rough can really hurt, they're usually more careful. I still wonder, though, if people actually forget that there's a person in the costume.
Sadly, there are also those who'll intentionally hit us. I recently got down on my knees for a photo with a girl of about four years old, who was dressed in a costume herself. Then suddenly this teenager ran up behind me and kicked me in the ass—just because. Another time, during the last official photo session of the day—which can get pretty hectic with dozens of children and parents trying to get the most out of the last photo op—one lady just grabbed a performer by the armpit and threw him to the ground.
When you're in costume, you can't really do much against that kind of aggression. We can't break character or talk to the guests. All we can do is try to let the escorts know what's happened, but that can be difficult—you're not able to speak, and some costumes, like the Patrick Star one for example, don't even have arms or legs. When you're the escort for the day, it's impossible to see everything that's going on when the characters go into a crowd. Some guests can be very violent—groups of teens especially.
There's a haunted house in our theme park, and things got really bad there, recently. You're not allowed to take photos or videos, but these two girls and three guys ran through, and one girl was filming. One of our performers, while staying in character, asked the girl to put her phone away, but the girl hit the performer in the face and broke her nose.
If an incident is as bad as that, we do break character and go to the backstage area. The escort can try to catch the offender, but they're usually long gone. Whenever we do apprehend them, we ask them to come to guest services, and there we introduce this guest—this teenager who just punched SpongeBob in the left tooth or something—to the five foot one woman in the costume who took the hit. Usually, they don't know what to say after that."
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The Discomfort of the Costume
"It gets extremely hot inside of our costumes, and there's no air circulation. So after about half an hour of wearing it, each performer needs a half hour break. Every shift, we get out of our costume about five or six times. We take them off backstage to let them air out and change the sportswear we put on underneath several times a day, too.
The sportswear is washed overnight, and the costumes are disinfected after each use. Every now and then, they're professionally cleaned to combat the odor. That helps a little, but you can still always tell you're not the first one to wear it—which can be an especially unpleasant thought when it comes to the underclothes. It's very clear that quite a few people have been sweating like pigs in them before you did."
Thoughts of Revenge
"When you're constantly being harassed by guests, there's the risk that you'll eventually get fed up and hit back. This one time, a guest pushed past the line and when he was called on it, he made it clear that he didn't think he had to wait like everybody else. He whistled for one of my colleagues in costume to come over, like you would do with a dog. That drove my colleague over the edge, and he pushed the guest over. Not hard—you can't really hit anyone hard when you're in that suit—but hard enough for the guy to understand. Of course, it's absolutely not allowed to treat our guests like that, but honestly, I felt a little better that the message had been delivered to this guy like that.
Violence in the park usually goes one way—from our guests to us. Ride operators receive nasty comments and physical threats just for doing their job and enforcing park rules. There's not really any psychological support available to us—you can talk to a team leader if something really bothers you, but ultimately, it's just part of the job.
Honestly, I'm happy that our guests can't tell if there's a man or a woman in the costume—I'm pretty sure our performers would get sexually assaulted if some of our guests knew. Even without knowing, guests tend to put their hands in certain places on the costumes—often because they think it's a funny joke.
At the end of the day, this job has really changed the way I feel about the world—I've learned that you can't just innocently expect the best from people. The job can be draining mentally and physically, but I still really like doing it. Not because of the money—we earn minimum wage—but because so many great moments make up for the bad ones. Really, nothing beats making a child in a wheelchair laugh. But I really do wonder where all this negative energy in other guests comes from. I mean, it's an amusement park. Why are some people so hell-bent on not being amused?"
*Arne's name was changed to protect his privacy and his job. We didn't specify what theme park he works at for the same reason.