This past weekend my wife and I went to Six Flags White Water, one of Georgia’s water parks. The last time we went (maybe six or seven years ago), we were pleasantly surprised to find the park had alot to offer so we were ready for a long overdue round two.
We got inside, grabbed a locker (powered by a surprisingly cool wristband system) and headed for watery fun. We knew it was the middle of the summer so we were prepared for crowds and lines, but…
The first ride we chose was an omen of things to come. For this particular water slide, riders had to wait in line at the bottom for a free inner tube, and as each rider came down they handed off their tube so the next person could go up. My wife and I chatted, watched people and sweated and thought, “This is a long line.” We started paying attention and realized that, while the ride had two slides, we only ever saw people coming down one of them and, when they did come, they came down very infrequently.
We finally made it to the front of the line, grabbed our tubes and headed up the stairs where we encountered another line, this one to get on the slide itself. As we inched forward we again thought, “This is a long line.” By now we had already figured out that they were only sending people down one slide, slowing operations down. What we hadn’t figured out was what the lifeguards were doing to ensure things moved even more slowly. On these types of attractions there is typically a red/green traffic light telling people when to go (take a seat, light turns green, person goes, next person takes a seat, etc.), but the lifeguards had decided it was better to make people wait two, sometimes three, cycles of red to green before sending them on their way. When the light turned green and a rider went down the slide, the lifeguard would wait for the next green light before allowing the next person in line to walk over and take a seat. After that, the person would wait for yet another green light before finally getting to go.
The ride itself was running at half capacity while the lifeguard was moving people at half speed (at best), meaning the ride was operating at 1/4 of its intended use, making the line four times longer than it needed to be.
It would be one thing if this kind of inefficiency was isolated to this one ride, but it was happening all over the park. We noticed almost every ride that was designed with double slides was only operating one of them and the lifeguards were barely making use of the one that was open.
The people working at White Water aren’t entirely to blame—it’s been a brutally hot summer and nothing drains you like the Georgia sun—but you still have to take some pride in your work and your role in providing a great experience for guests. I sat at the top of a slide for a long time waiting for the lifeguard to let me go when someone in the line mercifully asked, “Uh, shouldn’t he go?” The lifeguard turned her head over her shoulder and gave a little tweet on her whistle before staring back off into space.
The day was half gone and we had been on two rides. Both my wife and I sank into terrible attitude land, but as time wore on we realized we needed to find a way to get control of our moods. The park wasn’t going to get better, so we were going to have to get better on our own. We tried to waste a little time in the lazy river and the wave pool, giving our angry a much needed rest and hoped the crowds would thin out with the heat. They didn’t.
Time for lunch. On our first trip we brought some snacks in with us, which was fortunate because the food was terrible. We brought food again, but White Water security got out ahead of us by saying we had to leave any food in the car. My guess is people stopped buying the park’s food, so rather than address their own quality issues they decided to keep outside food out so people would have no choice but to grab $15 baskets of deep fried grease. The food hadn’t improved since our last visit and the service had kept the same pace. My wife had a slushie and nachos and I got a smoothie from a building with three people working behind the counter—one person to get the smoothie, one person to operate the cash register and one manager to watch the person at the cash register fail to operate the cash register.
Eventually we decided it was time to hit another ride and we found one that had both of its slides operating. The sun was hot and the line was long, but this one came with some entertainment. The lifeguard at the bottom of the ride was very intent on doing his job properly to the point of being a little silly, but I won’t take anything away from someone who is serious about their work. As each rider neared the splash pool the lifeguard would crouch, ready to spring into action should anyone have trouble with the current. We got to see him jump in three times: once for a man who couldn’t find his footing and twice for two very small kids (the kids weren’t having trouble, but they were very small so better to be safe). Again, he was serious about his responsibility which is a good thing. Eventually he was replaced by another lifeguard who got to dive in after a little kid, and eventually HE was replaced as well (shows how long the line was). The new replacement lifeguard was a girl that we had seen earlier in the day, but our spot in the line moved around the corner so we didn’t get a chance to see her save anyone.
We got to the top of the enclosed ride, sat down on opposite slides so we could race to the bottom, waited for the lifeguard’s signal and took off. I got to the bottom fairly quickly (the girl in front of me was still in the middle of the pool when I came splashing down) and turned to find my wife but she wasn’t in the pool next to me. I looked out behind the rail, wondering if she had gotten out very quickly, but she wasn’t there either. Then I turned back to the pool where I saw two people who hadn’t been there before—a man holding up my slumped over wife. She was noticeably in pain as she staggered and stumbled, barely able to make it out of the water, yet somehow the lifeguard (the girl who had replaced the second guy) was entirely uninterested.
I headed back into the water to find out what had happened, glaring up at the lifeguard who still hadn’t moved. Apparently the man had somehow run out of momentum and had come to a dead stop in the enclosed slide. My wife, who had plenty of momentum, slammed into the back of him in the pitch black tunnel, hurting his neck and severely twisting her ankle. The two came the rest of the way together with her in considerable pain. First aid showed up with radios and beeping noises and wheeled my wife back to their little building. The lifeguard, cool and collected, watched.
The guys in the first aid building were very attentive, assessing the situation and deciding on the proper course of action. As they took care of my wife and checked the vitals of the guy she hit (neck injuries are always taken seriously) they began putting together a plan to ride test the slide to make sure it was operating correctly. They wanted to know all about the lifeguard at the top of the slide and whether or not he followed proper procedure but, unfortunately, didn’t want to know anything about the stoic girl at the bottom.
Finally, with all the information gathered and all the stories told, the EMT who had wrapped my wife’s ankle wheeled her out of the building and onto a cart to drive us out to our car. This day had mercifully come to an end in a pretty bad way, but our EMT was very kind and genuinely cared that someone had been hurt in his park. Later that night it occurred to me that if my wife hadn’t hurt herself, we would have left Six Flags White Water thinking the entire park and was woefully inefficient and horribly mismanaged. Thanks to her, we were able to see a part that worked quite well.
I know that Six Flags is a ride company, not an experience company. They don’t create immersive environments and they don’t have little dolls singing happy songs all over the place. They buy new rides, they don’t fix old ones and they don’t concern themselves with process. Their business model has them trying to find the best possible cost to profit ratio meaning they can’t just pump money into an old attraction and they can’t go crazy with efficiency experts if there isn’t direct evidence that it will increase returns. This makes solid business sense. A company should figure out what it does best and fight every day to do it even better, and no one is better at letting old parks fall to pieces than Six Flags. They are not an experience company. Every once in a while, though, a company will step out of its comfort zone and try something new, something bold and daring. I feel they did that during our visit.
At the end if the day we had paid $32 per person to get in, $15 to park, $15 for a locker and $15-$20 for a slushie, a smoothie and a single serving of nachos, all for a few water slides and a busted ankle. While Six Flags White Water does not intend to create experiences for its guests, it certainly created an experience for my wife and I that we won’t be forgetting any time soon.