Updated: Monday, September 4, 2017, 8:21 PM
OCEAN CITY, N.J. — Peering over her shoulder through aviator sunglasses, Emily Lemieux checked one last time to make sure her four customers were seated. She placed her right hand on a silver throttle.
And with that, the first train ride of the unofficial last day of summer was underway.
Thousands flocked to the beaches on a golden edition of Labor Day, giving a boost to businesses that suffered through rain earlier in the three-day weekend. Others made an early break for it, jamming the northbound Garden State Parkway before noon.
Lemieux, 17, is a local, watching them come and go for four summers now while working at Playland’s Castaway Cove, at 10th Street and the boardwalk. The first two years, the Egg Harbor Township teenager operated photo booths and arcade games. The last two, she has been on ride duty, with this summer often finding her as the “engineer” on the kiddie train, a shiny red locomotive that pulls two open-air passenger cars around a track at the pace of a slow walk.
It can be a drag to work while everyone else is having fun, she acknowledged — especially when her friends from Atlantic County Institute of Technology, from which she graduated in June, want to hit the beach.
Then again, she’s saving money for college, which starts Tuesday with an 8 a.m. history class at Atlantic Cape Community College. And she is outside.
“It is a fun environment,” she said. “It’s not like I’m in an office building all day.”
Hands like hers are the ones that dole out the frozen custard, slice the pizza, twirl the cotton candy, and push the start button for the bumper cars, so the crowds from Pennsylvania and New Jersey can forget about life’s cares for a while.
Some of these seasonal workers are New Jersey teens, like Lemieux. Others are older, including teachers seeking to supplement their school-year incomes.
A sizable percentage of the summer staff are from other countries, traveling here for several months under a type of visa called the J-1. The Trump administration recently proposed cutting back that visa program, drawing concern from employers who say there are never enough local applicants to fill all the spots. A key crunch time gets underway this week, during the “shoulder season” of September, when many American-born employees head back to school. (Lemieux is staying through the end, juggling her work hours with school.)
Statewide, employers hired 5,300 foreign J-1 workers in 2016, said Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association. She said most were in the hospitality industry, but she did not know how many were at the Shore.
At Castaway Cove, Lemieux has enjoyed working alongside employees from Bulgaria.
“Their English is really good, though their accent is pretty thick,” she said.
Lemieux and two dozen coworkers had reported for duty by 12:45 p.m., clad in lemon-yellow polo shirts. They gossiped, checked their phones for messages, and awaited final instructions from Brian S. Hartley, vice president at Castaway Cove.
Then they fanned out to their various assignments. This summer, Lemieux also has worked on the Gale Force, a new roller coaster that sends riders plummeting in a near-vertical drop.
The train costs three tickets to ride. The Gale Force is the most expensive attraction, at 14 tickets.
Individual tickets sell for $1, but the price goes down with volume, to as low as 57 cents if you buy a wad of 220 tickets for $125. That makes the Gale Force about $8 per ride on the low end. Or riders can buy a $10 pass for the light-blue coaster.
Lemieux has gotten to ride it free, such as when the park tests the coaster after a rain-induced shutdown. Good thing, as a regular ride would pretty much use up her hourly pay of $9.75.
Still, she is socking away the savings, with $1,400 in the bank at the moment, and is getting financial aid for school.
Saving for college is a big motivator up and down the boardwalk. On the tip jar at a nearby Rita’s Water Ice stand, hopeful employees wrote their respective colleges in felt-tipped pen: Penn State, Fordham, Ithaca, South Florida.
It is work, but it can be fun. And the customers are satisfied, for the most part.
Lemieux gets a lot of infants and toddlers, as the train is one of the few rides they can enjoy, provided they are with an adult.
“They’ll cry waiting for it to start,” Lemieux said. “But once it’s started, the babies are pretty calm.”
Nichole Irons of Delran took a strategic approach with daughter Avery, 4, surveying the landscape as Lemieux drove them around the track.
“We’re using the train to pick out our next ride,” Irons said.
Afterward, when asked if it was too fast, Avery shook her head. Too slow? Another shake.
Just right? Big smile.
At the helm of the locomotive, the engineer wore the same expression.
Read full story: Labor Day fun at the Shore: Meet a girl who makes it happen