At the Wild World theme park in Largo, one of the themes, according to a poster advertising employment, is that summer jobs there "are better than work." "Spend your summer smiling" is another.
Seventeen-year-old Anthony Ayers, a young lifeguard from Capitol Heights, takes both ideas so much to heart, says his mother, Loretta, that "sometimes I have to say to him, 'Don't you think you should take a day off?' "
"What I like about this place is, everybody's friendly," says Anthony, an outgoing, rising high school senior who sometimes puts in 10-hour days in the park's water sports area.
"When I came here I was all quiet and scared. But after a day, you fit right in, like a puzzle," he said.
For the second season of Wild World's operation, about 6,500 youths applied to become one of the 500 "ambassadors," as Wild World calls them, who are needed each day to run the rides, guard the swimmers, cook the hotdogs and sell the T-shirts in the 300-acre park off Central Avenue on Prince George's eastern edge.
According to Sherry Smith, an assistant director to the nonprofit corporation that runs the county's summer jobs program, about 20,000 county teen-agers, 10 percent of the workforce, searched for a job in the fiscal year ending this June 30. By the end of the summer, 1,000 of them will have found one at Wild World, the county's largest private employer of youth.
Wild World is particular about the youths it wants, managers say. "Your all-American, cheerleader, National Honor Society-type kids," said personnel manager Scott Waters. The tallness of that order notwithstanding, Waters says he has found them in great supply, the majority from surrounding subdivisions.
With cars to support and parochial school and college tuitions to save for, the students work nine- and 10-hour days, at least five days each week. They receive $3.35 an hour up to $3.90 an hour for supervisors, along with such perquisites as staff softball games, movies, passes and parties. Far from the hard Washington debates on structural unemployment and a transitional economy, their jobs give many of them confidence about themselves and optimism about their world.
"If the kids really want a job around here, there are jobs to work," said said 21-year old Amy Ryan, a public relations intern this year and a supervisor last year.
The employes undergo rigorous training and must follow a code of conduct as outlined in the 30-page "Ambassadors' Manual." Males must keep their hair above eyebrows and collars and off their chins, and may not wear earrings. No "extreme hairdos" are permitted for females, and "conservative use of makeup is necessary." In addition to other behavior rules, "there is to be no romance on park property," according to the 18-minute orientation film, which also provides such tips as how to handle irate customers.
A tap on the shoulder from general manager Gary Bennett, the young workers say, means dismissal. Bennett explains, "For 60 percent of them it's their first job. They get some responsibility. But my biggest concern has to be safety. That's why they say I walk heavy."
Occasionally, staffers say, they wish they did not have to be there. "Sometimes, when you're here at 10:30 and there are 12 places you'd rather be, you wish that you were off," says Gena Pitrof, an 18-year-old who commutes 50 minutes from home in Calvert County, "But I would not like to be aimless.
"It's necessary," she says with finality, "that we work."