SACO – A group of about a dozen thrill seekers shuffled through the gate and took their seats on Dragon’s Descent at Funtown Splashtown USA.

It was my job then to go around, seat to seat, and make sure each harness was latched securely, and each safety belt was fastened securely.

“Securely” being the crucial word here. Because the riders were about to ascend 220 feet straight up in the air in those seats. (It’s the tallest vertical thrill ride in northern New England, I was told.)

Then, in the same seats, they would drop like a rock tossed from an airplane. A system of hydraulics would then bounce them back up the ride’s tower structure a couple of times before they finally came back to earth.

As I secured one of the safety belts, I fumbled a little bit before locking it in place. Then I moved over to the next seat, where a boy of about 11 or 12 was eyeing me with suspicion.

“Are you new here?” he asked.

“I am, but he’s keeping an eye on me,” I said, pointing to Peter Prinz, the ride operator I was shadowing at the Saco amusement park.

A few seats later, I got a completely different reaction from a rider.

“Please squeeze me in here as tightly as possible,” said a teenage girl, trying to smile.

“That’s as tight as it goes,” I told her.

In a few minutes the ride went up, and then, with a roar of hydraulics and simultaneous screaming, it came down. Safe and secure.

Prinz explained to me that all the buckling and fastening is double-checked. So he and I started checking buckles and latches on one side of the Dragon’s Descent tower and worked our way around. Another ride operator started checking buckles and latches on the other side. So eventually, we had cross-checked each others’ safety checks.

“We have a lot of cross-checks here, a lot of communication to make sure everyone is safe,” said Prinz, 60, a retired banker who lives in Old Orchard Beach.

So even before we checked buckles and straps, Prinz told me to look for lots of potential hazards among the fun-seeking crowds.

First, he told me to ask everyone to show their hands. Some young people might want to throw things from the heights. And some folks might just be clutching something — gum, change, a baseball card — and they could easily lose their grip in all the excitement, Prinz told me.

Then he told me to look for loose necklaces or straps, for flip-flops, for glasses, for anything that could fall off during the explosive ride. I found one boy, about 12 years old, with some slightly lopsided glasses, and asked him if he thought they were tight enough.

Being a glasses wearer myself since age 10, I know what kind of wear and tear a boy can put his glasses through.

“Oh no, these aren’t tight enough,” he said, quickly taking them off and handing them to me.

I put them in a plastic bin on the ground, where I had seen Prinz put cellphones and keys and other things he had taken from riders.

“Just don’t forget your glasses on the way out,” Prinz said to the boy.

The other double-checking I got to be part of was the actual operation of the ride — turning it on.

Standing under an umbrella about 20 feet from the tower, Prinz showed me a little control panel with two buttons — one to make the ride go and one to stop it. But the stop button is for emergencies only. And for my purposes as a job shadow who was just helping out, the stop button was off-limits.

“Whatever you do, don’t touch that button,” Prinz said.

But he did let me start the ride, first walking me through the process. He told me to look over at the other ride operator on the ground with us and watch for her to give us a thumbs-up, indicating she had done all her seat checks.

Then he told me to look up at a building near the ride where we could see another ride operator in a window.

That operator was at the computer controls of the ride. I gave her a thumbs-up, as Prinz told me to. She then activated what she needed to activate, and gave me a thumbs-up.

That was my signal to press the button.

Then, slowly, the ride started going up.

I felt like I had just pushed the liftoff button at Cape Canaveral.

The ride can’t begin until the operator on the ground and the operator up in the control room push their buttons, I was told.

For Prinz, part of the job is about his own love of rides, roller coasters specifically. In fact, he told me he had never ridden Dragon’s Descent. I couldn’t blame him.

In fact, I was very relieved when Funtown’s associate operations manager, Adam Morin, told me that ride operators weren’t required to ride an amusement before working on it.

“If we’re training somebody and they want to ride it, to see what it’s like, we encourage that,” said Morin. “But we don’t force anyone.”

Morin said that ride supervisors train every operator on every ride, and the supervisor will not leave until operators know what they’re doing.

Prinz said his favorite part of the job is chatting with people. Like most operators, he rotates to all the different rides in Funtown, so he gets to see lots of different people.

“Most everyone is in a good mood, so that makes it nice,” Prinz said.

At least, before they go on the ride they are.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]

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