WILDWOOD — Shutting down an amusement pier for the season isn’t as simple as flipping a switch.
At Morey’s Piers, the operator of three piers and two water parks, the end of the summer season means the real work is just beginning.
“This is the busiest time of year for maintenance,” said Pat Smith, director of Attractions and Facilities Maintenance.
His staff of 56 includes 34 ride technicians, 10 carpenters and six painters, all tasked with maintaining the dozens of rides that carry the amusement piers’ estimated 1.5 million guests each year.
The process begins in August as the maintenance staff inspects the rides while the piers are still open to determine what work needs to be done.
It varies from ride to ride. The elephant cars on one of the children’s rides, for example, are taken apart once every three years.
The carousel was rehabilitated in 2012 and now can be wrapped in a heavy-duty tarp for the winter.
The surface on the raft rides at the water parks, meanwhile, is undergoing a $250,000 resurfacing.
“We’re always in some cycle of building and taking down,” said Jack Morey, executive vice president of Morey’s Piers.
Once the piers close, traditionally around Columbus Day, the disassembly work orders come out and rides such as the Great Nor’Easter, known around the piers as GNE, are taken apart.
The man-hours involved in disassembling the GNE, for instance, reach more than 700.
Those hours involve the process of removing, disassembling and transporting attractions to a warehouse and servicing the rides.
Both trains come off the tracks, Smith said, and several of the motors used to send the roller coaster and its riders hurtling down the tracks are removed as well.
This week, the 1,200-pound sprocket that is part of the Great White roller coaster was lifted by a crane and brought down for service.
Man-hours allotted to that ride come close to 900.
What determines which rides are disassembled and how often is a mix of manufacturer guidelines, regulatory requirements from the state and Morey’s own needs based on the piers’ proximity to daily doses of salt air.
“We live in a rust belt,” Morey said.
Smith said the damage done by exposure to the salt air adds to the cost of maintaining the rides.
“Being next to the ocean adds 8 to 10 percent to our budget,” Smith said.
Morey said the rides, as needed, are stripped down to the frame, wheels come off, spindles are examined, cables replaced.
Nondestructive testing is used to check for metal fatigue and basic wear and tear.
Morey said that at its peak, the company employs 1,600 people at the height of summer with about 125 year-round employees.
While the maintenance staff isn’t dealing directly with customers, Morey said their importance cannot be overestimated.
“It’s critical to have the right staff,” Morey said.
In fact, maintenance accounts for a third of the company’s annual budget, he said.
Many of the maintenance staff has been here for years. Smith, an engineer, has worked here three decades.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, so we have a long history of what works and what doesn’t work,” Smith said.
Morey worked a hula hoop game years ago when he started working for his family’s company and later went into the development end, but he said he wished he had been more involved in the front line in maintenance.
Now, all four of the family’s third generation — his children and brother Will’s children — must get that experience, he said, “if they ever want to work here.”
That means each of his sons will spend a year working in pier operations, the water parks, food and beverage, and maintenance in front-line positions.
Smith said the maintenance staff has grown with the piers; it had just 15 employees in 1983.
The increased staff is needed as the piers have added new, more complex attractions.
Today, some 3,800 man-hours alone are needed to disassemble Surfside Pier in North Wildwood.
The notion that the piers could simply shutter themselves until the next season rolled around was always a myth, Smith said.
“I always had friends ask what are you going to do in the winter,” Smith said. He would then explain that the rides, all on maintenance schedules, require care that extends well after the last visitor has packed up their beach bag and journeyed home.
Morey said that the shutdown operation also means another season is around the corner.
“Everyone’s attitude is different on Jan. 1. It’d be like we’ve crossed the 50-yard line and now we have to get open again,” he said.
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