The large ship before us swings with a frenzied rush, each swoosh accompanied by the screams of its passengers. All around, children and adults walk around with their cotton candy sticks and watermelon slushies as if a 360° rotating vessel is the most natural thing in the world.
We are standing near Pirate’s Revenge, one of the most popular rides at Sunway Lagoon in Subang Jaya, Selangor. It’s business as usual at the theme park, and a scene like this is what the staff sees daily.
However, something seems amiss. We hear a slightly alarming metallic groan as the thrilling ride begins to slow down.
“Do you hear that?” Sunway Lagoon general manager Sean Choo asks us. “Everyone is always worried whenever they hear that sound. But if I don’t hear it – I get very worried.”
As it turns out, the grating noise comes from the friction between the ride and a rubberised mechanism on the ground. Think of it as a giant brake, one fit for a colossal machine, that prevents a disaster from happening.
This is just one of the many interesting behind-the-scenes insights shared by Choo as he, along with assistant general manager M. Magendaran, take us on a tour around one of the country’s longest-running theme parks.
Up and running
Popular among locals and international visitors alike, Sunway Lagoon has been in business since 1992. It operates from 10am to 6pm daily.
But for many of the 500 ground staff, their day starts well before opening time and continues beyond closing hours. Some personnel can even be seen roaming the area as early as 7am to carry out their duties.
“The important thing that we do before we open the park is (to check for) the safety and security of our guests. The whole checklist for our rides is about safety and meeting standards, ” Choo discloses.
In fact, much of the park’s housekeeping starts the evening before.
“The rides are checked after the park is closed for the day to see if there is anything that needs to be attended to immediately or the next day, ” Magendaran offers, adding that all rides also undergo scheduled shutdowns for comprehensive maintenance.
The aforementioned are all-encompassing processes that involve engineers and service directors, as well as park managers and ride attendants. Some park technicians are even trained in high ropes to carry out maintenance works.
On the frontline at least, ride attendants play the pivotal role of doing the final safety checks.
Magendaran says it is their job to look out for potential safety hazards. These include watching out for passengers with long hair or those wearing loose scarves.
“These visitors, who may be unaware of the dangers posed, need to be reminded to put their hair up or keep their scarves as it can get tangled into the wheels of the ride, ” he asserts.
With a waterpark within its premise, the venue also has to take water hygiene seriously. Sand filters are employed and chlorine levels are consistently monitored throughout the day.
The safety and technical bits are just part of what keeps a theme park ticking. A big chunk of the experience comes down to fulfilling visitors’ expectations, says Choo.
“There are a few areas and one part is attraction selection, which is actually the easier part. We have all the big boys who invest in research and together with theme parks, come up with the latest attractions, ” he explains.
One of these “big boys” is the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA). Every year, the trade association holds the IAAPA Expo, a large exhibition where theme parks around the world converge and shop for new rides.
While attraction selection is easy, assembly is a different story.
“A roller coaster for instance can take nine months to a year to construct, ” Magendaran reveals. The design of the ride (whether single loop or double loop) also depends on a variety of factors: budget, land size and number of visitors.
And depending on where the ride is manufactured, it will be subjected to computer simulations – sometimes up to four million cycles!
“At the same time, the manufacturers will send the foundation drawings to the park where we will have to engage a local contractor to start digging up foundations and erecting columns for the tracks to be fitted into, ” Magendaran shares.
A ride’s life cycle is usually very long as they are made from durable materials and maintained regularly. In order to keep things fresh, the attractions are regularly reviewed and upgraded to get visitors to come back for more.
But keeping interest up proves to be challenging as people are more well-travelled these days and expect more thrills.
“In order to continue to stay ahead of the competition with other theme parks who have emerged over the years, we try to introduce a new attraction every two years, ” Magendaran says.
Among the iconic attractions added since Sunway Lagoon’s inception are the FlowRider, Waterplexx 5D and Vuvuzela.
Tips and trivia
Earlier this year, CNN reported that all major markets saw a 4% increase in theme park attendance in 2018. About 252 million people visited the world’s top 25 theme parks, up 3.3% from 2017.
This translates to longer queues at rides, especially popular ones. How does one avoid the crowd and beat long waiting times?
“Get an express pass, ” Choo immediately offers. But if you don’t want to spend more, do some research before visiting.
“Identify beforehand the rides that you really want to experience, which are usually the top 10 rides at the park, ” he says. Choo adds that diligent research would also reveal which rides are closed and which areas have fewer people.
Here’s a tip: The far corners of the park are relatively empty in the morning as many of the visitors convene in areas closer to the entrance. Thus, get a map and make your way to the far-flung corners first.
Visitors should also visit the park early to fully maximise their day. “Morning time is when visitors will be locating the lockers to keep their things and familiarise themselves with the park, ” Choo says.
This is also the reason why there are usually no stage shows and performances in the morning.
“If we do a lot of things in the morning, visitors are not focused.
That is why we do a lot of the entertainment part of our business after lunch, ” Choo offers.
For theme park employees, entertainment and business go hand-in-hand on a daily basis. Staff get complimentary access to the park with their family members.
“You need to be a creative person to work at a theme park. It’s a job that keeps your heart young, ” Choo concludes.
Gallery: Sunway Lagoon's behind-the-scenes in pictures
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