As Bert and Ernie’s bouncer (official name: walk host), I was charged with managing crowds of parkgoers who are quick to tear up and melt down. I had to be assertive, sending people away at the end of the meet-and-greet with the “Sesame Street” characters, but also conciliatory, offering an apology and an alternative, such as Big Bird over at the 1-2-3 Smile With Me! location. Basically, I had to dash dreams, then build up new ones.
“Tell the people in line that the character needs to rest or have lunch — something kids can relate to,” said Kelly Adams, an assistant manager of entertainment who helps manage the character photo ops. Before sending me out for a trial run with Telly Monster, she warned, “Some people will be mean.”
Such are the occupational hazards of working at the Langhorne, Pa., kiddie theme park: crying youngsters, ill-tempered parents, unbearable heat, unflattering uniforms. Yet during the park’s May-October season, the 1,600 employees never seem to let their smiles turn upside down. Not to be overly sentimental, but a child’s giggle has amazing restorative powers.
“If you don’t like kids, it’s kind of hard to work here,” said Michelle Hunt, the park’s public relations manager and my boss for the day. “You need to be willing to overcome a tough day and be happy with your work.”
Sesame Place, open since 1980 and a licensee of Sesame Workshop, is stocked with the same characters who have engaged more children than Count Von Count could ever enumerate. When I first approached Hunt about the possibility of working a shift at the park, I’d hoped to inhabit the furry or feathery body of a Sesame Streeter, curious about life inside the giant puppets. I wasn’t picky: I’d be Big Bird, Grover, Murray Monster. Anyone really, except Elmo, whose falsetto voice feels like broken glass shards to my ears.
But that request was turned down: You need serious training to play a character. The performers have to know how to dance, act and emote (the figures never speak), plus possess extraordinary respiratory capabilities (the costumes are equipped with neither fans nor air conditioning nor misting stations). However, I was well suited for a number of other positions, including many that require the same skill set as babysitting. Basically, keep the kids — and by extension, the parents — happy and amused, even if you yourself want to cry.
“Who gets to wear the blue shirt and khakis?” I asked Hunt hopefull as we scanned the uniforms in the wardrobe room.
Supervisors, she responded, and directed me to the rack of ungainly black shorts. To complete the outfit, she handed me a black military-style belt and a polo shirt the color of processed American cheese. For an accessory, I placed my name tag opposite my heart. In this uniform, I was able to float between departments, sartorially fitting into merchandise, entertainment and operations. Typically, only the character actors change up their furs and felts. Justin Fortmeier, for instance, plays Telly Monster, Oscar and Cookie Monster. “It’s an awesome experience to feel like a celebrity every day,” said the recent college graduate as he peeled off his shaggy purple Telly suit.