in Checking In

Where I’ve worked: Carowinds

Carowinds. To a 16-year-old it was the ideal job: I spent a few hours a day serving guests and in exchange I could ride in my offtime all the roller coasters I could stomach. So what if I had to wear a silly-looking uniform, got paid the minimum wage of $3.35 an hour, and had to fill out an income tax return on that measly amount for both North Carolina and South Carolina because the park straddled the state lines, it sounded like a good deal to me!

The year was 1985: the Eighties were in full swing. We had lived in Charlotte for two years. Mom pointed out an ad in the paper for a Carowinds job fair and my brother and I interviewed. He got hired to work in a restaurant and I got hired as a photographer putting people’s pictures in magazine covers. We carpooled the long way out to Carowinds.

The official name of my workplace was the “Fotozine” (a concatination of “photograph” and “magazine,” see). It was in the “Plantation Square” shops near the front of the park (now called “Carowinds Plaza”), a few steps inside and to the left of the main gate. The shops inside the building all connected, allowing customers to roam from one thing to another. The smell of the funnelcake place roamed as well, tormenting me daily with the smell of fried dough. I still hold a grudge.

Inside a little ten by eight foot space was an old-timey style camera – hood and all – a counter with a cash register, some props underneath the counter and hung on the walls, and framed photographs of people on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Us Magazine, and others. In the back was a 4×6′ dark room with photo trays, chemicals, timer, clothesline and clothespins, and an electric film dryer machine. A hair dryer was also pressed into service when needed.

The camera was a rather simple device, taking an 8×10″ sheet of film. I believe I would select the template for the magazine cover and put it in with the film before I loaded it into the camera – once the customer was seated, that is. Then I would look under the hood to frame the customer’s face and push the bulb to snap the photo. All that was missing was the flash powder, it seemed.

There were two of us regulars who ran the place. I forget the guy’s name but his face is clear to me, even now. We had two managers – one was an assistant – who would come by regularly to check the register and see how business was going. Other than that we had no real guidance or sales goals. Or sales training, for that matter. It was all dumb luck. Of course, when someone would take their smiling mug out into the daylight and show it off, others would come running in to get theirs. Always it seemed the most modest line for our business would soon grow as people’s curiosity drew them in.

I remember a few weekends where things got very busy. I considered the darkroom to be the best place to work when it got busy. I’d have a handful of prints dripping from the clothesline and many more pumping through the drying machine. Because the camera directly exposed the print paper no enlarger was needed. Other than that, it was a full darkroom – with each print getting a timed bath in developer, stop bath, and fixer. I would often eat my (non-funnelcake) lunches by safe light and the distinctive aroma of photo chemicals.

We got 30 minutes for lunch and a discount on the park meals, meals which were pretty tasty, actually as long as they didn’t include funnelcakes. I couldn’t wander far in that time so I stuck around my area of the park. I’d go check out the WBCY broadcast booth, occasionally catching John Boy and Billy broadcasting there. Or I’d go over and chat up the girl at the candy stand near the Paladium. Or, I’d go play videogames in the large, barn-like arcade near the turkey-shoot game.

The barn was interesting not only for the video games (and Skee Ball girls), it was being renovated at the end with a recording studio, complete with carpeted booths, bright lights, and a sound board with more knobs than I’d ever seen. I knew it when I saw it that I’d be leaving the darkroom for those lights as soon as I could figure out how.