What I Learned Working Summers at an Amusement Park

Working at Hersheypark, a chocolate-themed amusement park in Pennsylvania, taught me to be a better liar, do drugs at work to make the day go by faster, and never take my job too seriously.

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20 May 2015, 3:30pm

Photo by the author

Shitty summer jobs are as much a rite of passage for teenagers as forehead acne and believing the people you're surrounded by will have any real meaning in your life after high school. (Sorry, kids. They just won't.) While most teens wind up earning minimum wage in restaurants or retail stores, a certain subset of teenagers get to experience the seedy, sad life of an amusement park employee.

Before indie movies like Adventureland brought the ennui, cruelty, and angst of carnival kids to the masses, I lived it, spending the summers of my 14th and 15th year on this planet running various carnival games at Hersheypark, "The Sweetest Place on Earth." Hersheypark was founded over a century ago by chocolate baron Milton S. Hershey as a wholesome place for his employees and their broods to gallivant about between factory shifts. What started as a baseball field, park, and merry-go-round in a suburb on the outskirts of Pennsylvania state capital Harrisburg, grew over the decades to a behemoth thrill-ride zone to give the Six Flags and Cedar Points of the world a run for their money.

Growing up in a small town adjacent to Hershey, Pennsylvania, Herseypark was the de facto "first job" for my peer group. The park was a large seasonal employer that hired those as young as 14, while most retail places in the area started at 16. They had a good dozen or so school districts of pint-sized worker bees to sort through, but they weren't too discerning in their hiring processes. If you applied and were able to make it through the entire interview without dropping any casual profanity, you were all but guaranteed a position working with your friends for the next three months.

I remember walking into the park my first day, sort of nervous, but mostly excited (primarily at the prospect of chatting up girls from all corners of the Northeastern United States). By the time I'd started at the park, gone were the turn-of-the-century picnicking chocolatiers. In their place were dumpy rust-belt families and throngs of rambunctious Jewish summer camp kids from Upstate New York. That bright-eyed, bushy-tailed kid walked into the park one June morning in 2000 and emerged a jaded, piece of shit man a few years later. The following are just a few examples of things I look back on and wonder how there weren't more arrests, and even more amazing, how there weren't any deaths.

Photo by Flickr user Michael Bentley

Your Uniform Shows Your Tribe

Any good monolithic entity will start breaking you down from day one with absurd and dehumanizing outfits. Hersheypark was no different. My first year there, I worked in the games department, which required an asymmetrical vertically striped polo shirt in grey, navy blue, and a putrid mustard yellow. Our choice of bottoms were limited to insanely starched, pleated navy slacks or shorts. At the end of each shift, I would turn in my soiled duds to the laundry department and get a new set to take home with me. On the one hand, it was nice to not have to wash my own work clothes. On the other, it meant another person had farted in these shorts yesterday. Fortunately, shoes were a relatively laissez faire issue. As long as you weren't in the food department, requiring tacky non-slip sneakers, footwear was the last bastion of individualism for us park-folk.

Besides distinguishing which department we worked in, our uniforms suggest an unspoken hierarchy within the park. The subculture of theme parks, below the dead-eyed smiles and pleasantries forced out of us by the brass, is tribal and cliquish, and the difference in our uniforms helped to galvanize that. The largest groups of employees/denizens are rides and food, followed by the slightly smaller classes of games, cleaning, and retail. There are some niche groups—like lockers, photography, and mascots—but they were small enough to not have any real status in the stratification of castes.

While the uniforms may have varied in tackiness, there was no getting around the hierarchy of jobs themselves. Even as teens, most of us knew that it would suck a hell of a lot more to spend your summer sweeping up sawdust-covered-vomit or flirting with heat stroke in a giant anthropomorphic Twizzlers costume than to stand in one spot for four hours operating a ride or serving corn dogs. This wasn't a prison, though, and you wouldn't catch any flak for fraternizing with those outside of your group. Nonetheless most employee divisions stuck to their own. These were the people they'd be spending more of their summer with than their best schoolmates, after all.

Up until mid-summer, my second year, when we switched to some dorky pinstriped Henley baseball tee, games people arguably had the worst uniforms. Others sections' looks were just drab and forgettable, ours was an assault on the eyes. Everyone seemed to agree that the photographers had it pretty great, however, with their smart, grey Kodak-branded polos and khakis they could bring from home (which meant they fit). Nowadays, I'd have enough latent hipster appreciation of irony to wear these uniforms and own them, but back then, I just felt itchier than a tweaker on an anthill and wanted to change back into my "cool" skateboarder clothes.

Photo by the author

Free Stuff Comes at a Price

One perk of making connections with the employees in other circles was that you could walk around the park like a king, mooching free shit from all your buddies in their own respective fiefdoms. My life changed the muggy summer day I learned that I could go to any food vendor stall and say the words "magic water" to whoever was at the till, only to receive a cold, bubbly Sprite for free. If I wanted some chicken tenders, all I'd need do was approach a girl at a stand that I knew from school and say I was "here to pick up that order for the Blue Team manager" or something else I'd pulled out of my ass. This prevented guests from getting wise, while also allowing me to gorge on unhealthy food in the park. These schemes worked if I was in my uniform or civilian clothes. And if a newer employee ever looked back at me with a nonplussed expression after I said the secret phrase, I just told them what the code meant. Grateful to now be in the exclusive club themselves, they would fulfill my request and perpetuate this cycle. In all likelihood, this very well may have been something that only a couple dozen others and I participated in but, at the time, I felt like Don Corleone receiving tribute oranges from street carts.

This was all kept out of earshot of managers of course. Kids learn at such a young age how to be duplicitous. And it was the most duplicitous of us that survived. These were the summers I really honed my lying skills, skills that would serve me well into my adult career.

On Motherboard: How Far Are You Flung When an Amusement Park Ride Goes Terribly Wrong?

But not everyone got away with giving out all that free shit. I remember one coworker was operating a little magnet fishing game aimed at toddlers. The parents dropped a good $30 or so and their progeny had yet to win even the base level prize. The adults regretfully informed him, "That's it, honey. Sorry," and the child, being a child, started bawling uncontrollably. My coworker grabbed one of the chintzy, bottom-tier, two cent toys and handed it to the parents. "Hey! Looks like you won after all!" The kid brightened up immediately, the relieved parents whispered a "thank you" to the kid behind the counter.

Pretty soon, he was called in to talk to management. Upon reviewing the security footage of that incident, that kid was fired for "theft of company property." Better to let a couple of guests walk away from a game feeling ripped off than giving a 16-year-old autonomy some leeway to make someone's experience at the park better. Seeing that scenario play out in such a karmically unjust way taught me to despise the uncompromising bureaucracy of middle management. Lesson learned: While it may suck to disappoint someone, you've got to look out for yourself above all others.

Photo by Flickr user Jeremy Thompson

There Are Always Ways to Game the System

It wasn't just sodas and keychain Pikachus that went unaccounted for. There were plenty of kids that pocketed cold hard cash as well, particularly in the games division. This was one area where there wasn't as predictable a daily income. So, while inventory could be relatively easily managed for merchandise or food, if a dollar came into a game, the player wasn't necessarily leaving with anything tangible after their attempt. For many an $8-an-hour employee, sweating away a whole summer day, this was far too tempting a doorway to not walk through. What do you expect when you put a bunch of 15-year-old kids in charge of all that money?

The main hustle went something like this: For each dollar a games employee was handed, they'd kick a little counter pedal at the baseboard of the booth and put the dollar in their apron after tendering whatever change. These pedals were the equivalent of a thumb-clicker attendance counter that bouncers use outside of clubs. The dollars kicked in would ideally match the dollars in the employees' aprons at the end of a shift. Cameras were on, but not always in the back of the booth, where bags of prize refills were stored. So, a thieving game operator would pantomime kicking this floor pedal five, ten, or 20 times in a row, then go back to the back to get a replacement of something and stuff a folded up dollar bill of value corresponding to the number of skipped clicks in their shoe. Most kids that participated in this sort of theft pocketed enough to get some food or a dime bag later, but the more brazen who had just worked cash cow games like the (non-regulation hoop) basketball challenge would sometimes walk out of the job with hundreds of dollars, as I saw first hand on numerous occasions.

This isn't to say that people weren't caught and prosecuted for this and other financial crimes, however. When someone suddenly didn't show up for work the next day, we all then found out why. There was a callousness to our response.

"Well, he obviously shouldn't have taken a wallet left by a guest at the game."

I remember one coworker dropping this line, not from a place of moral high ground, but as a seasoned grifter, aware that such a prize could've easily been a honeypot trap left by management, which, in this particular case, it had been. Another lesson learned: If a score looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Photo by the author

Work Is More Fun When You're High

Personally, I've never been one for getting high at work. Even just a puff of a joint would have me far too goofy to handle the unending parade of customer interactions ahead of me for that shift. Plus, when I worked at Hersheypark, I had only dabbled here and there with substances. Some of my coworkers, on the other hand, were giving Charlie Sheen a run for his money when it came to functioning addiction. It's a safe (if not cliché) assumption that you couldn't throw a cat in an amusement park without hitting a THC-infused employee, but there were at least two heroin addicts in the food departments who would prep meals during their shift and then run off to the restroom to snort a little more horse so they could drowsily slog through the rest of the time before break where they would nod off in the parking lot.

Then there were the older kids who brought coke out at the end of shifts. The cool kids with the coke (wisely) didn't offer any to the underclassmen, instead offering to share it with the 20-something girls imported from Eastern Europe under the guise of a "student program" but really just there to be exploited as cheap labor.

The reason for this—other than the obvious fact that teenage years are rife with drug experimentation—is that working at an amusement park is boring. The kids of my upper middle-class school district and Hersheypark had a little walking around money but no real culture, live music, or consumables on which to spend it, so naturally (and tragically for a few of my friends) some of them attempted to dull the pangs of hunger for more with drugs.

Photo by Flickr user Jeremy Thompson

Someone Has Fucked On Your Favorite Ride

In a lot of ways, working at the amusement park was like summer camp: We were hormonal teenagers in close proximity, and there was no way we weren't going to fool around. We had an intimate knowledge of where the cameras don't see, which lead to a number of pubescent trysts in whatever nooks and crannies the park afforded us. Personally, I can vouch for wooded pathways beneath the bridge that lead to the dolphin aquatheater, and an asbestos clouded storage shack—but these were just drops in the ocean of teenage secretions that covered the entire park.

It wasn't always just sex. This was at an age where kids are at their worst, and sometimes the sex was malicious conquest. I remember a couple of guys betting at a game on which of the female employees they could sleep with. The one picked a girl he thought would be a challenge for the other to bed and they agreed on a $10 stake. Later that week the boy who'd accepted the challenge returned from his lunch break with a beaming grin to inform his pal that he'd won the bet mere minutes before.

"OK, I'll give you another $10 to go tell her you fucked her for ten bucks."

And so they left the game to do just that. While we had to be at certain areas at certain times, there were enough breaks and after shift roams around the park built into one's day to allow for such dalliances.

Another sex game of sport for the guys of the park was preying upon guests. Girls there with their friends and family would be chatted up and later met up with, post-shift, somewhere in the park, where the employee would maybe finger them on a less popular ride, or go get a blowjob in the bushes or an aforementioned dark corner. They'd part ways as she left to go meet back up with her family that had brought her and, this being just before the proliferation of social media, they'd likely never see each other again. While consensual and (usually) age appropriate, it was scummy behavior nonetheless.

Photo by Flickr user Michael Bentley

None of It Really Matters

My favorite part of working at Hersheypark was knowing down to my marrow that it was only a temporary thing. That this was something so inconsequential to the rest of my life that I could (and did) treat it as a candy-bar-mascot-filled bacchanalia. We weren't going to end up like the "old" employees, in their early 20s, coming back for a fifth summer in a row.

This was a summer job that I could coast through with the smug confidence of a smart teen that had been told his whole life he's destined for success. This was a pre-recession throw-away job, a job that was to be one of many prescribed jobs up the ladder to middle class comfort. This was all before the harsh post-2008 world beat any idea of "guaranteed success" out of me. Before the post-college days when I was applying to this level of job again with a new sense of humility and a willingness to do whatever I needed to get by.

Hersheypark taught me not to take my job too seriously, and how to seek out the wrong sort of people while I worked there. Then, years after I'd left it, Hersheypark taught me to appreciate the job I had, and to seek out those I could rely on as opposed to just those with whom I could party with. On top of those broader ideas, however, I still have a touch of muscle memory left for the more skill-based carnival games I oversaw for weeks at a time. And keeping with the mercenary themes of this article, I've been known to use those skills for financial gains the rare occasion I find myself in a theme park or boardwalk setting. Like if I'd see a guy struggling with the revolving coil open-circuit wire game, I'd just walk up to the device next to him, win, and offer to sell him the prize for a reasonable $50.

I don't know if you'd call the little life lessons I learned from my theme park summers moralistic, but they were certainly pragmatic. Keep your head down, take what you can get (but not too much), and get the fuck out of there before it destroys you. Since those summers, I've worked a number of jobs in a number of different fields, and I've found the free "magic water" at each place. Whether it was something as trivial as dipping too heavily into office supplies or free snacks, or a bolder gambit of convincing an employer to give me a "now superfluous" MacBook Pro as I moved on to another job, I have had a long career of getting shit for free that likely took root all those summers ago. So thanks, Hersheypark. My years with you may have been sweaty and excruciating, but at least there's enough of a rose tint to my glasses to look back on you somewhat fondly. I wish I could say the same about your candy.

Follow Justin Caffier on Twitter.

Thumbnail via Flickr userStacy Arrington

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