A Star Tours Pilot Shares His Disneyland Stories

Written by Jeff Heimbuch. Posted in Disney, Disney Parks, Disneyland Resort, Features, From the Mouth of the Mouse

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Published on January 23, 2013 at 4:02 am with 20 Comments

In today’s From The Mouth Of The Mouse, we chat with Bob, who worked attractions in Tomorrowland at Disneyland! Though he dreams of one day becoming a Monorail Pilot, he was happy to share his stories of being a Pilot on another popular attraction…Star Tours!

Let’s hear what he has to say!


 

JEFF: So, tell me a little about how you started to work for Disney.

BOB: Growing up in Orange, CA, Disneyland was only a few miles away. So like so many other Southern California residents, I got an annual pass so I could go as much as I wanted. I got my first annual pass around 8 or 9 years old, and by the time I was 12, my parents would just drop me and a few friends off and we would spend the day in the park. Being Disney, my parents always felt it was a safe environment for me to be in, since I was unsupervised. You would think that after going once a week, every week, for 13 years would have got old. But for me, it was always fun, and it seemed like there was always something new to see or do. Around the age of 20, I was already working full time at a brokerage firm that paid me very well. However, being on the west coast but working east coast hours, I was off work at 2PM every day. This was fun for a while, but I began to get bored. So I decided I would get a second job. But I wanted a job where I would be doing something fun and at place I would enjoy going to work at.

The perfect choice was for me to work at Disneyland. I figured it would be easy work, and I would get to see behind the scenes of this place that I had been going to my whole life. I went down to TDA (Team Disney Anaheim) to apply, and was hired about a week later.

JEFF: Where did you work?

BOB: My job was in attractions in Tomorrowland. I was praying for Monorail work, but they only gave those jobs to people who worked full time and were already seasoned employees. I had my choice of working one of two attractions; Astro Orbiter or Star Tours. To me it was a no brainer…Star Tours it was. I ended up working there for a little under a year, and I loved every minute of it! I had to leave Disney because I was offered a promotion at my primary job which required me to work longer hours, and at that point I wouldn’t have been able to handle working both jobs. As much as I loved working at Disneyland, the pay was far better at my other job.

JEFF: So what was a typical day working in Tomorrowland attractions like for you?

BOB: My typical day at Disneyland was pretty much always the same. I would arrive at the cast member parking lot off Katella Ave about 30mins before my shift. Parking was never a problem, but the cast parking lot was about a mile away from Harbor Point (the cast member entrance), so everyone had to take a cramped little shuttle from our lot to Disneyland. After checking in, I had a relatively short walk to get to Star Tours, since Harbor Point was on the back side of Tomorrowland. Once I clocked in and my shift began, I would go to a computer to find out what my assignment was. Like most rides at Disneyland, cast members worked 15 minute shifts in different positions around the ride.

Star Tours positions were greeter, fast pass distribution, loader/unloader, exit, and tower. The reason they do this, was so that everyone got a chance to work every position of the ride, and also, in my opinion, to just make sure people didn’t get bored. After all, like most rides there, some positions were way better than others. My favorite was being in the tower, which wasn’t really a tower at all. It was a room that was sandwiched in-between the simulators, where a cast member would monitor the rides via closed circuit televisions. I was surprised how simple and rudimentary the security systems were. It was basically 4 different video monitors (one for each simulator), in black and white, with emergency stop buttons for each, and a telephone for calling for help or communicating with the Tomorrowland offices.

It was nice because the blue jumpsuits that the male cast members had to ware got pretty hot, and the tower had fans and AC. Plus you got to sit down, which when you’re on your feet for 8 hours, becomes a big perk. My other favorite position was what Disney called a loader, or as I called it, the Pilot. Even though each Starspeeder had its own built in rookie pilot, I was still the one who got to start and stop the ride. After the guests would gather in the queue, I would give my safety spiel, and then load the guests into the cabin. After doing a thorough seatbelt check, I would do one more spiel, check the loading ramps for debris (the ride wouldn’t start if there was anything on the loading or unloading ramps, even a tooth pick would prevent the ride from starting), and then send the guest off to the moon of Endor. Disney would give you things to say, but 99% of the cast members would make things up and have their own twist to put on the spiels. As long as we covered the safety basics, we were free to ad-lib whatever we wanted, provided it was family friendly.

JEFF: Was there anywhere in particular you’d like to spend your breaks?

BOB: Well, in the middle of every shift, cast members get a 30 minute break for a meal. Most of the time I packed a light lunch, but in the event I didn’t, I would eat at the cast member cafe directly behind Star Tours called the In-between. There I could buy pretty much whatever was served at the restaurants in the park, but at a much better price. Most days I would eat my meal in the Star Tours break room, which was tucked into the middle of the ride. Literally the entire ride was built around us, and the break area also doubled as the maintenance area for the ride. It was cozy and smelled like hydraulic fluid, but I liked it!

JEFF: Earlier, you mentioned you wanted to be a Monorail pilot. Is that progressing along at all?

BOB: Well, even before I had decided I was going to apply at Disneyland, I always had this dream of becoming a Monorail Pilot. This dream goes back to when I was about 8 years old and my first trip to Walt Disney World. I went with my family at the end of summer and stayed at the Grand Floridian Resort, which I was very excited about because the Monorail ran directly through the hotel and had its own station. Coming home from Epcot one night, my family and I got the opportunity to sit in the front of Monorail Yellow. It was piloted by a man who went by the name Big John. He was an older gentleman, probably in his mid to late sixties, but he was one of the nicest people I had ever met. I spent the whole time we were riding asking him questions; “How does this work?, What does this button do?” etc. And he answered all of them with a smile. It was that trip coming home from Epcot, that I realized, this is what I want to be someday. As we approached the Grand Floridian station, I asked my parents if I could ride once more around the giant Monorail loop around Bay Lake. They were tired and ready for dinner and a drink, but all I wanted to do was ride around. Big John chimed in and said, “He can ride up front with me, while you two have dinner. I’ll keep an eye on him.” My parents said okay, and I ended up riding around three more times before I finally got off. Just before getting off the Monorail, Big John gave me a card with my name written on it, that said “Honorary Walt Disney World Monorail Co-Pilot”.

Not only did it make my night, it made my entire trip. To this day I still have that card, and it’s in pristine condition. Looking back, it amazes me what he did. Big John went far out of his way to make sure I had an experience I would never forget, and trust me, I still remember it like it was yesterday. So when I applied to work at Disneyland, and was told that I would be in Tomorrowland attractions, the first thing that came to mind was becoming a Monorail Pilot.

JEFF: But you haven’t gotten there yet?

BOB: Not yet, no. Although, I did have an amazing experience that I will never forget. I made many friends while working at Disneyland. I had friends on almost every ride in Tomorrowland, which meant I got to see all of the inner workings of every ride, including the Monorail. One night after closing, which was around 1AM, I went over to the Monorail platform in Tomorrowland, located over by the Finding Nemo Submarine ride, to meet up with a friend of mine. After work, we would always go to In N’ Out Burger to have a late night snack. That night, he was asked to stay late to cover for a co-worker who had to leave early. His job that night was to pick up the remaining cast members from the Downtown Disney station and bring them back to Tomorrowland, and then park his monorail in the Roundhouse.

The Roundhouse as they called it, was neither round, nor was it a house. It was a big, green, square building, located on the back side of Fantasyland, adjacent to It’s a Small World, where all of the monorails could be parked, as well as the trains. It was a fascinating place to see. At night, when they performed all of the maintenance, it was common to see a full house. All of the monorails, I believe there were four at the time, were on the second level of the roundhouse, and all of the locomotive trains were on the lower level. Well that night, after I was informed that my friend had to work late, and that I would not be getting my double cheeseburger and chocolate shake, I had to find something to do. After all, I was his ride home. I was about to go to harbor point and grab a vending machine coffee, when my friend asked if I would like to tag along while he picked people up and then put his monorail away for the night in the roundhouse. Without hesitation, I said yes.

We climbed aboard his monorail and made our way to the Downtown Disney station. Right after we left the boundaries of Disneyland, he asked if I would like to sit in the captain’s seat and drive for a bit. Again, there was no hesitation, and we switched seats. He would tell me what to do, and what to press; when to slow down, and when to speed up. The whole experience only lasted a couple of minutes, because I couldn’t be seen driving the monorail when we pulled into the other station. But to a certain degree, it fulfilled my dream of Piloting a Disney Monorail. After picking up two cast members from the Downtown Disney station, we made our way back to the park. During our trip back, one of the more senior pilots jumped into the captain seat to as he said, “Show us what this baby can do.”

After we made our initial exit from the station, we rounded a steep corner slowly, and then came into a fairly straight section of track. We began to pick up what felt like a good amount of speed. Warning alarms inside the cockpit were going off, telling us that we were going too fast, but we were all reassured by the senior pilot that everything was alright. We ended up going top speed, which for a Disney Monorail is about 45mph, for about 20-30 seconds. However with the entire monorail shaking and vibrating around us like it was going to fall apart, it felt like much longer. We finally slowed down before making our way back inside the berm, and pulling back into the station. The other two cast members disembarked and we made our way to the switch beam, where the track would move to a track that led to the roundhouse. Very skillfully he parked the monorail, we hopped out, and I was given a tour of the roundhouse. It was definitely an experience I won’t soon forget. I plan on applying to work for Disney sometime this year, and am keeping my fingers crossed that Tomorrowland attractions is available again.

JEFF: Any times you can think of that you went out of your way to make a guest’s visit more magical?

BOB: When it comes to memorable experiences, I have many. Just as Big John went out of his way to give me a magical experience, I strived to do the same for the guests that I interacted with. One particular experience comes to mind, and it, to some extent, mirrors the same one that I had in Disneyworld. One evening during the winter, I was working the Pilot position for Star Tours. That particular night, we were shorthanded and our lead designated us positions, rather than the computer dictation which 15 minute spot we would rotate to.

A woman and her child, had waited about 20 minutes in line to ride, and were about to board the simulator I was working on. The child was a little boy, roughly around 9 or 10 years old, and wearing a San Diego Chargers hat. He had with him a plastic light saber which his mother had purchased for him earlier in the day, and you could tell he loved playing with it. They boarded the simulator just as everyone else had. I did my safety spiel, which instructs guest to place their belongings under their seat in a mesh netting to prevent them from getting loose in the cabin. The little boy put his light saber under his seat, and put his seat belt on. I checked my ramps and then sent the guests on their way. After the ride was over, I followed the guests out of the simulator to make sure the doors were clear to close, when I saw the woman kneeling down talking to the little boy in the hallway.

I noticed the little boy was crying, and I just figured that he became scared during the ride, because it can be pretty intense for someone that young. I walked up to them to ask if everything was okay, and noticed that the boys light saber was broken into pieces. Someone behind him had accidentally kicked it or stepped on it during the ride and broke it to the point that it couldn’t be repaired. The mom was trying to explain to him that she couldn’t afford another one, and you could just tell the boy was heartbroken. I asked them to wait in the exit queue for a minute and that I would be back.

I ran back to the break room to get my wallet, and then temporarily closed down my simulator. The exit for the ride empties into the Star Trader, which is a Star Wars themed shop. It’s the only place in the park to buy the light sabers, which aren’t cheap. I told them to follow me, and we all walked into the shop together. The little boy, who was still crying, began to play with all of the items in the shop. I grabbed a light saber off of one of the shelves and brought it up to the counter to ring it up. The lady behind the counter asked what I was doing, since I was still in my bright blue jumpsuit with my name tag on. I explained to her what happened and then she told me that she would be right back.

In my head I was thinking, I’m breaking protocol here and she’s getting her supervisor and I am going to get in trouble for being away from my attraction. Well to a point I was right, because she did get her supervisor. But it wasn’t to get me in trouble; it was to comp the light saber, so that nobody was out of pocket to replace it. The supervisor and I brought the new light saber over to the boy, and his eyes lit up like it was Christmas morning. His mother was on the brink of shedding tears, probably not believing that people would go so far out of their way to replace a toy.

Seeing the look on the boy’s face, and seeing him play with his new light saber was a heartwarming experience. As the boy continued to play in the shop, pretending to battle other guests, the mother began telling us how thankful she was for what we did. She then proceeded to tell us that the little boy had a rare form of cancer and was undergoing daily treatment at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, which was just down the street from Disneyland. She explained that as much as she wanted to buy him a new light saber, she couldn’t because the family had put all of their money into treatment for her child.

Their trip to Disneyland that day was a gift from the Doctors and staff at the hospital. I didn’t see it at first, but I began to realize why he was wearing a hat. It was because underneath he had lost all of his hair. He looked frail and thin and pale, but still was playing just as any other child his age would. The supervisor pulled the little boy aside and told him, go pick out your favorite thing in the store and bring it back to me. Since he already had his light saber, he ran directly to a Lego replica of the Millennium Falcon, which was another pricey item. But it didn’t matter; the supervisor told him it was his to keep. At that point his mother began crying, but they were joyful tears from seeing how happy her son was. The supervisor and myself said our goodbyes and exchanged hugs with the little boy and his mom, then we made our way back to the ride. The supervisor was going to explain why I was gone, just in case anyone made a stink about it. I went down to the break room and let out all of the emotions that I was trying so hard not to let out while speaking to the boy and his mom. But I couldn’t help myself, and I sat in the break room at Star Tours, sobbing uncontrollably. I have no idea what happened to that little boy; whether he’s okay or not. But I am happy that for at least one moment, I was able to bring him and his family some bit of happiness. I never did end up getting in trouble for abandoning my position.


Thanks for sharing with us, Bob!


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20 Comments

Comments for A Star Tours Pilot Shares His Disneyland Stories are now closed.

  1. The world is a daunting place at times, this was truly restorative to the heart and soul~Thank you for sharing.

  2. I’m a sucker for these tearjerker stories! Walt Disney would approve.

  3. Loved reading about your experiences with the monorails and especially the story about the boy and the light saber. Very touching and I’m still wiping the tears….

  4. Outstanding Interview!

    How I wish all Cast Members were like this @ the right opportunity (& how I wish more Supervisors could be understanding of the fact the “extra effort” from Cast Members towards Park Guests should be rewarded – & not punished!) ….

    Who wouldn’t want to Pilot the Monorail? (that, or work on the PeopleMover)

    C J

  5. Atta boy, Bob. Cryin over here!