Theme parks are being flooded with applications from job seekers, as unemployed mortgage agents, sales clerks and construction workers who can't find work elsewhere seek temporary positions that often pay little more than minimum wage.
A job fair at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia last weekend drew 1,600 people -- in the rain. Universal Studios Hollywood took in more than 1,100 job applications on just one day last month.
Disneyland in Anaheim and Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park have received so many job applications that they put off plans to hold jobs fairs this year.
In the past, summer jobs at theme parks were often the path for teenagers and college students to get their first paycheck, doing such tasks as playing Goofy, Snow White and other costumed characters at Disneyland or running roller coasters at Magic Mountain.
But with the unemployment rate in California at 12.4%, the parks are now getting applications from people with years of work experience.
Dominick Muniz, 27, used to drive a forklift and work in construction. But this week, he showed up at Knott's Berry Farm's employment center in hopes of landing a temporary job that pays $320 to $380 a week. And he's not picky about what kind of job.
"I've got a family to feed," the Whittier man said as he filled out the forms. "I just want to get whatever comes along."
The new wave of theme park job seekers increasingly includes white-collar workers, such as office managers, loan processors, sales associates and restaurant managers, according to hiring supervisors at several parks. Being overqualified doesn't rule people out for getting hired, they said.
"We are getting a lot of people who, in a normal economy, would be considered overqualified," said Joe Selph, manager of staffing and training at Universal Studios Hollywood.
Not just for teens
The trend is playing out across the country.
"Last year, we started to see the numbers pick up, and they included people who are not the traditional theme park workers," said Colleen Mangone, a spokeswoman for the International Assn. of Amusement Parks and Attractions. "We are seeing more seniors, teachers and people with more experience."
Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio, one of the nation's most popular theme parks, drew nearly 30,000 applications last year to fill up to 4,500 positions and is on pace to receive just as many this year, said park spokesman Robin Innes.
"Traditionally, we get high school and college students," Innes said. "Now a lot more are experienced workers and some senior citizens."
In Southern California, which has been a trend setter for the modern theme park since Disneyland opened in 1955, the jobs are abundant and provide another avenue for the unemployed to find work.
Employment at the region's 35 theme parks and arcades, large and small, peaks at nearly 24,000 workers annually, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments.
"It helps the economy to have those jobs and to have the parks open year-round too," said Jim Futrell, a historian with the National Amusement Park Historical Assn.
But the vast majority of theme park jobs are temporary, filled during the peak tourist seasons: spring break, the whole summer and Halloween. Most of those jobs pay only slightly more than minimum wage, making them ideal for teenagers and college students.
Bran Danke, 31, a former pizza restaurant manager who has been out of work about a month, said the job market in Los Angeles is so weak that he had no choice but to apply for a temporary position at Universal Studios Hollywood. The park hopes to hire about 200 people this spring for such positions as cooks, food stand attendants and ticket sellers.
"I just need a job to get by until I can get a steady job," he said after an hourlong interview session at the park.
Claire Colby, 50, a former floral designer who has been out of work since June, said she applied for a temporary position at Knott's Berry Farm because she couldn't find work in her field.
"I'm looking for something to get me in the door," she said. "I have skills they could really use here."
Job fairs canceled
Both Knott's Berry Farm and Disneyland typically hold job fairs in the spring and early summer to hire workers for peak tourist seasons.
But both parks are forgoing plans for fairs this year because the flow of applicants is so strong.
Knott's Berry Farm said it is getting up to 300 job applications a week, easily enough to fill about 800 seasonal positions needed for the summer.
In addition, the turnover rate at the park has recently dropped significantly, a sign that employees are staying longer because they know it would be difficult to find a new job.
"That's unfortunate for the outside world, but for us in the park that's good," said Jaime Coria, the park's employment manager.
On the first day that Universal Studios Hollywood began to accept applications to fill 200 positions for spring break, the park received 1,100 applications.