What it takes to earn $70,000 per year painting roller coasters

Jason Prather, 32, grew up in Edgewood, Kentucky. He played every sport possible for his small high school: football, baseball, basketball. He helped do repairs on boats and cars for extra cash. 

When he graduated high school, Prather tried college but quickly returned home. While his friends continued their degrees, Prather began working for a credit card company calling borrowers behind on their payments, who were often irate on the phone — a job he remembers as “horrible.”

Later, Prather worked at a nearby wastewater treatment plant for eight years and earned roughly $90,000 per year. Despite the good pay, he left the job to work for his father selling electrical equipment, where he earned roughly $70,000 per year. One day, he realized he could ride a bike between all of the places he had lived and worked. 

“I never got to travel. I worked 15 minutes from home. I was home at all times and I got good perks, vacation and things of that nature, but I was complacent,” says Prather. “I stayed exactly where my hometown was. I wanted to see more, travel more, experience more.”

Today, Prather travels the country and around the world as a project foreman for a roller coaster painting company called Baynum Painting and he earns roughly $70,000 per year. 

Here’s why, and how, he changed tracks:

Getting the job

Prather was at a family barbeque when he first learned about painting roller coasters. His cousin worked at Baynum and told him to apply for a painting position. 

After having a difficult conversation with his dad about leaving the family business, Prather put in his application. Following a “typical” interview process, he began working as a general painter in 2019. 

“I started at the entry-level just like most people,” he says. “The training process to get this job was very hands-on. Most of the training happens in the field. We do have good retention of employees, so I learned most of my training from guys that have been doing this for 30, 40 years.”

He also earned several construction-related certificates from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, known as OSHA.

“We hold multiple certifications, everything from an OSHA 10, which is a typical construction type certification from OSHA, as well as safety training for lifts,” says Prather, describing the tall cherry-picker lifts the crew often uses to reach parts of the amusement rides. “I had the certifications for lifts and that led me to being on the job site, learning how to actually maneuver the lift around the job.”

After working as a general painter, Prather began to be recognized for his ability to coordinate and work well with crews. In 2021, he was promoted to the position of project foreman. 

“I’m in charge of getting the crew on-site and getting them up and rolling, as well as sourcing lifts as well as sourcing material paint sundries,” says Prather. “I’ve been in this position officially for about six months.”

As a project foreman, Prather earns $23 per hour when working in Kentucky, earns an additional 15% when he travels and earns overtime pay when he works more than 40 hours per week. 

So far, Prather has worked on amusement park attractions in over 20 states and has worked abroad in Japan and France. He has worked on rides at Universal Studios, Six Flags and on cruise ships. This year, Prather estimates that he has spent six months traveling and has worked roughly 1,500 hours of overtime. 

A day on the job

A typical day on the job is “all weather dependent,” says Prather. “As long as the day looks good and there’s no rain, no moisture, we like to start as early as we can. Usually, when the sun’s coming up, we’re already here in the process of working. And usually, we stay until the end of the day.”

Most days this means being on-site by 6:00 a.m. and ending work when the sun goes down.

On the first day of a project, the first task is to clean the amusements. 

“The way we begin these jobs, it all really depends on the difficulty of the project. Sometimes we have coasters that we have to walk to, sometimes we have to use ladders, but we mainly start with one process and that’s cleaning,” says Prather. “We pressure wash with 5,000 psi pressure washers, sometimes heated units. The heated units remove grease and build-up. Sometimes we do sandblasting as well, sometimes we grind rust.”

Next, Prather and his team work on priming the parts of the amusements that are susceptible to retaining water such as bare spots of metal and bolts. 

The final step is applying topcoats of paint, or in the case of water slides, special moisture-resistant compounds. 

Prather and his team use typical house brushes and rollers to paint these roller coasters and wear harnesses, hard hats and work boots. 

Getting to see the world

The work is often hard, but exciting, says Prather

“Sometimes you’re in a lift for 13, 14 hours a day,” he says. “I was never afraid of heights. I would say I’ve always respected heights … But I enjoy getting to climb up and go see roller coasters. It gets a little adrenaline junkie out of me.”

Prather also finds fulfillment in the cleaning and painting processes.

“The work itself is very satisfying,” he says. “You come in and see coasters and water slides that are in need of repair and being able to see the whole project start to finish, and see the color change and see all the patrons in the park actually looking up and pointing and taking photos of you doing your job, it’s quite satisfying because you’re making their day as well as earning a paycheck and making a life for yourself.”

And while he says traveling so much for work can make it difficult for him and his coworkers to have close relationships with their loved ones at home (Prather’s girlfriend is a speech-language pathologist for a Kentucky school district), he says he is grateful to have gotten to see the world outside of Kentucky thanks to his job. 

“The beauty is getting to go see things that I would have never got to see in the world,” says Prather. “I’ve gotten to see a lot of things that I would never get to experience or see on my own — visiting all the different continents, traveling around the world, going to foreign and different locations, as well as trying different foods and seeing different cultures. That plus the personal benefit of climbing up and knowing that I did something.”

Do you have a creative or nontraditional career path? We’d love to hear from you! Fill out this form to be considered for a future episode of “On the Job.”

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