TAMPA — Busch Gardens wants every guest to leave with great memories of their visit.
Lose a cell phone, wallet or favorite pair of sunglasses, and that fun experience fast becomes a headache.
Enter John Hale.
He's a security officer in charge of the park's lost and found. It's a full-time task that's more involved than just putting a bin at the front desk. He juggles thousands of items per year and often makes more than 150 phone calls a day trying to reunite people with stuff they left behind.
Busch Gardens' guest services handled lost and found until about two years ago, when the security department took over. Security director K.C. Newcomb said the task got too big. Everyone carries an expensive phone.
"When we added new coasters, especially Cheetah Hunt, it's a phone eater,'' he said. "In spite of our pleases and signage for guests not to take their stuff on rides, they still end up losing a lot of phones, car keys and sunglasses.''
Newcomb chose Hale for the job because of his background in law enforcement and retail. He worked as a police officer for a small city in southeastern Illinois and as a longtime manager for the former Dexter Shoe Co. in New Hampshire.
Hale, 71, moved to Florida about nine years ago to escape the snow and joined Busch Gardens' security team soon after. He works out of a tiny office near the front entrance packed floor-to-ceiling with things left at the park.
Few items surprise him. The wheelchairs and strollers? They were likely substituted for more expensive ones owned by the park. The leg boot brace? Someone probably took it off to ride the flume and forgot it.
Hale handles about 600 to 700 lost-item reports submitted by guests every month. Each yellow card lists a description and, sometimes, a tale of woe. Hale matches the lost item reports with things found in the park. For anyone who can't retrieve an item in person, he will mail it at no charge.
Yes, shipping to California, Brazil and even Dubai can get expensive, he says. But imagine the goodwill it creates.
Newcomb nominated Hale for the Bern Laxer Awards of Excellence given to employees in the hospitality and tourism industry. He and seven others received the honors at the 2012 National Tourism Week Luncheon in May.
Hale spoke with the Tampa Bay Times recently about the rewards of the job and the interesting finds, which included a plastic bag containing a phone, Busch Gardens Fun Card and $50 bill brought in during the interview.
What's the most commonly lost item?
Phones. On a really busy day, especially a Saturday or Sunday, it's not unusual to get 30 to 75 items, and out of those items you might have 25 or 30 phones. A lot of times I can go into a phone that's not passcode locked and go through the address book. Usually I'll try to call mom or dad or look in the favorites.
Do you get a lot of desperate callers?
They are all desperate. Everybody's emotional about their phone because their whole life is in their phone. I get calls sometimes four or five times a day from people asking if we've found their phone. Unfortunately, I tell them I can't do anything about it until I have a phone in my hand because I don't go out and do the searches. The people at the rides do. When they bring stuff in, then I can go to work.
What's the most interesting item you've found?
I've had a couple sets of false teeth brought in. We reunited one set that was lost on the Montu ride. The pair that we didn't reunite was found in the SheiKra area. The person was eating and he took his teeth out and covered them with a napkin. A seagull came by and grabbed the napkin and flew off with the teeth. As he flew off, it fell and one of the plates hit a guest in the head. Someone brought them to me in a plastic bag.
What about the other pair lost near the Montu rollercoaster?
The guy was just screaming and his teeth came out. (Laughs)
What do you with unclaimed items?
We give them to the police department and they donate them to the R.I.C.H. House (a safe haven for children and families). If it's clothing, shoes or hats that we can't reunite, they launder them and give them to underprivileged kids and other people who need it.
How do people react when you have found their lost item?
Some are really thrilled. They can't believe that we would do something like that for them. We get a lot of cards and letters. But a smile or a tear or a "thank you" is all it takes, and I get a lot of those. When it comes to little kids who lost a stuffed animal or sippy cup, I always try to keep two or three of each color so if they come in and lost a cup, I say, 'I know this is probably not yours, but if you take it home and wash it, you can have it.'' Or if they lost a little bear or monkey, I usually have some to give them.
What's your advice for keeping belongings secure?
We tell everyone to leave their valuables with a nonrider or in a locker. We get people all the time who try to take a picture on a ride with their phone and all of a sudden they scream and it goes flying. If you've got a $600 phone, 50 cents (for a locker) is a small price to pay.
Footnote: After the original interview, the Times called Hale back to ask if he had found the owner of the phone, Fun Card and $50 bill.
I found him that day.