An Insiders Journey to Disney's Animal Kingdom
by, 09-06-2011 at 02:26 PM
Hello, everyone! I'm Jeff Heimbuch, and welcome to the first installment of 'From the Mouth of the Mouse' at its new home, here on MiceChat.com! Every week, I will be sharing some of the great stories told to me by various employees of the Walt Disney Company.
Over the years, I've been lucky enough to talk with Cast Members working at all levels in the company: from the folks who clean up after-hours at the parks to some of Disney's top Imagineers!
These Cast Members have generously shared some of their personal memories and magical moments with me and have allowed me to share them with you. Each week, we'll be spotlighting a different Cast Member to give you more insight into some of your favorite attractions, resorts, and movies from all over the Walt Disney Company.
I always thought I was a big Disney buff, but I still managed to learn something new from virtually every single interview. You will, too!
Our first interview is with Cynthia, a former Cast Member at the Animal Kingdom, who shares some great stories and behind-the-scenes lore about two of the park's top attractions!
Jeff: From our correspondence before the interview, I can tell that you have a love of Disney (and rightfully so!). What, to you, makes the place so magical?
Cynthia: I grew up in New York. My mom was afraid to fly, so we braved a 26-hour Amtrak train ride down to Florida every year, even when they were having derailments left and right. I always ate better and slept better when I was at Disney. I have some of my best memories with my Uncle and my Grandfather there, both who are no longer with me. I got the chicken pox in Disney World, but I don't remember it ruining my trip - I remember Disney making the chicken pox tolerable.
After high school, we kind of skipped going for a few years. I didn't go back until my honeymoon in 2006. That was my husband's first trip to Disney, and he loved it. We were chosen as Grand Marshals in the parade and it was just as magical then as it was when I was 3 or 8 or 14! I loved it so much, but it had never really occurred to me to work there until our honeymoon.
We met a photographer at Disney who was "earning his ears" (the term for trainees) and I found myself telling him secrets about Disney World that he didn't even know. He said "Hey, you should work here!" And then a monster was born. Two years later, I moved to Florida, applied at Disney, and was hired part-time.
Jeff: How long did you work for Disney?
Cynthia: I started part-time at the beginning of March at Kali River Rapids. In April, I switched to full-time at Kilimanjaro Safari, but something there was making me sick. I couldn't breathe and I was having to go home a lot. I went on medical leave at the end of July and the doctors decided that it was a reaction to either the propane in the trucks or to the pesticides they were using. Either way, it was taking a very long time to get me transferred and I was running out of money in my savings. Rather than risk having to go back home, I quit Disney and got an office job, but only after making absolutely sure that I could come back. I'm able to re-apply after six months and so on April 11 you'll find me at Casting with that Disney smile back on my face.
Jeff: Did you just work at the Animal Kingdom? Aside from the River Rapids and the Safari, did you work anywhere else?
Cynthia: I only worked at those two places. I really enjoyed playing with the guests, and I got nominated for Best In Show at Safari in my first month there. Disney is tricky, though, because it's all about who you know and how long you've been with the company - not how great of a Cast Member you are. It's also unionized, which means that - in terms of promotions and raises - the happy, smiley person who loves her job gets treated the same way as the sourpuss who can't wait for a smoke break.
Interesting tidbit about the Safari, though! The break room there has a wall of Disney movies that we would watch constantly on breaks and such. The Lion King, A Goofy Movie, Aladdin, George of the Jungle, etc. And Cast Away?!? Yes, we had Cast Away, that boring, depressing Tom Hanks movie. Why on earth did we watch Cast Away, you ask? Because Wilson is in it! If you've ridden Safari, you know about Wilson Mutua, our 'airborne warden' on the radio.
Jeff: What were your responsibilities at the Rapids and the Safari?
Cynthia: Working in Attractions, you do every position there is at that particular attraction. At Kali, you had Fast Pass, height check, guide, checker, strollers, and so on. It was all about safety, mostly, and having fun. Not every Cast Member there was happy. In fact, a lot of them were very sour and angry. It was bringing me down! That's a big reason why I went to Safari, too. It was a completely different world over there as far as cast members go.
At Safari, they all knew every line to The Lion King and loved those cheesy scenes in George of the Jungle. They danced to Moulin Rouge and played Six Degrees with only Disney Movies. All the kinds of crazy things that I thought I was the only person in the world who did. Safari is very different than Kali, though, in that you are on the truck most of the day. You're lucky if you get a 'land' position.
Safari was very demanding. Those trucks are not on tracks. We would drive them from a huge parking lot behind the Tusker House all the way around the other side of the 'reserve' and onto the 'ride path'. It was almost a two-mile drive, and those trucks only go eight miles per hour, unless you get the Magic Bus.
Every morning, we would check-off six pages worth of things for the truck they assigned us that day and then drive it around the parking lot over pucks in the asphalt to get the Magic Bus. When you got it, The Who's Magic Bus would play and you could switch over to 20 mph. The music dies when you get close to the ride path, though.
And every single truck is different. There were 44 trucks in all. The wheelchair trucks are numbers 1-9; most of them are okay. Numbers 40-44 are super slow and you're lucky to get them up to 6 mph, but if you hit the gas juuuust right, you can get those babies up to 12 mph in that poacher scene. Everybody's favorites were 28 and 32 - we called those the Ferrari Safaris because whatever you told that truck to do, it would, and the microphones were nice and loud so you didn't have to scream your spiel for the guests to hear you.
Jeff: You mentioned Magic Bus when driving the safari trucks around. I know there is some sort of sensor or radio signal that is sent out to regulate the safari vehicle's top speeds when they are on and off the track, but it alerts Cast Members with that song? That's a pretty clever idea!
Cynthia: There are 'pucks' in the ground that activate certain things in the truck's computer system. The pucks are literally under the ground so I'm not entirely sure what one looks like. If you ever happen to be driving through Disney World, though, and you see what looks like a brightly colored Mickey head spray-painted on the road, that marks a puck. I could be wrong, but I think the Disney Transportation buses work off the same system. To the driver's right side, there is a control box. When you drive over the puck in the vehicle maintenance lot, it signals the Magic Bus song to play, and the 20 mph switch to work. You have to actually switch it over. When you get closer to the ride path, there is another puck that turns the music off, and if you don't switch it off before you get the path, an alarm will sound and you have to reset the truck by turning it off, pushing the reset button hidden in the "gear" strapped to it, and then turning it back on.
Throughout the ride, there are pucks in the ground that turn on Wilson. So when you first enter the reserve, you do your line "Attention, airborne warden! This is Simba One! Do you copy?". And then, going over the puck, Wilson comes on: "Simba One! This is Warden Wilson Mutua. Over!" and then there is a pause so you can react, and then it continues. If you go too quickly over the puck, or don't drive over it properly, it won't pick up and you have to make it up as you go along. When you miss a puck, we used to say that "Wilson is on vacation".
Jeff: Can you think of times when you went out of your way to make a guest's stay more magical?
Cynthia: I worked during the second Year of a Million Dreams and we were actually given assignments to make a Magical Moment. These were more prominent at Kali. There is so much story through the queue of that place. I'd pick a family outside, take them through each section of the queue, give them the story, and once we got close to the rafts, I took them backstage to see our 'cave' which was actually just a nice, air-conditioned room full of TV's that showed every part of the ride. Then we had the choice of getting on the ride with them on a private raft. I don't like drops, though - in fact, I hate Kali as a ride so I never went on it with them - but all Cast Members did those.
Most of my magic was worked off-the-clock. On breaks when everyone else went in the back to smoke or complain about their legs hurting or how they were stuck at height check for almost three hours, I would go into the park and chat with guests. I'd ask them where they were off to next, and I always stayed in character. At Safari, there is a hidden Mickey on the pavement outside the ride, and I would stand there and grab families and ask them if they knew about hidden Mickeys. If they didn't, I'd give them a chance to find this one and then show it to them. When coming in and going home, I always walked through the park rather than backstage so that I could play with the guests on my way out. Animal Kingdom, I believe, is the only park where Cast Members can do that.
In March at Kali River Rapids, we aren't busy because it's kind of cold. We get all the Canadians in shorts calling us Floridians in winter jackets crazy. (The feeling is mutual!) When the ride is quiet, we let the guests just stay on the raft. Our record is 47 times in a row without the people getting off. I wasn't there for it. But I did have a family of 11 who went around 11 times. The Kali rafts have 12 seats and every time the family went back around, they insisted that I ride with them. I could have, but it was cold and the sun was going down! Even they were shivering. Finally, after that 11th time, they got off, but before they left, every single one of them gave me a big wet hug! I went home freezing that night, but with the biggest grin ever.
Working at Kali was great because we could really play with the guests. When someone asked "Do you get wet on this ride?" my answer always would be "Only on Mondays" (or whatever day it had happened to be). Or if they were putting on ponchos in the line, it would be "Sorry, Ma'am, no ponchos are allowed between 1 and 3 in the afternoons". I was always kidding, of course, and they knew it, but some played along. My favorite was when we weren't busy and people wearing ponchos asked if they could go around again. I'd say yes, but only if they took off the ponchos. Nine times out of 10 they would!
I honestly couldn't tell you every individual story because I made it a point to do something special for someone every single day. Most of the time it was just something really simple. One thing does stand out in my mind, and I didn't even do it...
I was training at Safari and was at the point in the line where we take the strollers from the guests. The line was stopped, and there was a little girl crying. She was probably about 5 or 6. The Cast Member there asked what was wrong and she hid her face. Her mother told us that she was upset because she had messed up her face paint and had to have it washed off. The Cast Member told her that we made him take his face paint off too and that he was a zebra that morning! He told her they could cry together, and actually poked himself in the eye until a tear came out! That got the girl's attention! She had one of those 'mister fans', and he then asked her to spray his face to make even more tears. The little girl was so happy and laughing afterwards. He completely turned her day around just by taking a couple minutes to make her laugh. That's the kind of magic we make every day, and it sticks out in my mind.
Jeff: Did you have any bad experiences while at Disney, either with a co-worker, upper management, or a guest?
Cynthia: I got along with most everybody at Safari except the managers. It's not that we didn't get along, but the managers have their little club of 'Tuesday night drinking buddies' that I couldn't partake in because I'm married. So I wasn't on the top of their list for handouts. My only real problem there was the day I was having trouble breathing and nearly passed out. They put me in the coordinator's office, and then left me alone for what seemed like a really long time. Call me crazy, but if someone is having a hard time breathing, and is feeling dizzy, you probably don't want to leave them by themselves. It was actually another Cast Member that found me and got a different manager to call the EMTs for me.
As far as guests go, you get the occasional angry ones, especially when you tell them their kid is too short to ride, or it may be 12:00 on their watch, but as far as Fast Passes are concerned, we go by Mickey's watch. But nothing really stands out in my mind. For every unhappy guest, there are three happy ones and at least two ecstatic ones!
Jeff: I completely agree about them leaving you alone. I'm actually very surprised that they left you alone for that long when you were having those kinds of problems. Do you think it was just oversight on their part and them not really thinking it through?
Cynthia: A lot of the coordinators at Safari were young, and there is so much going on. There are at least 35 trucks on the ride path at any one time, and there are two docks about 5 feet above the ground full of guests that they were surveying when they put me in that office. Honestly, I think it was just stupidity and a lack of common sense. Although at that point, all of the managers there were pretty angry at me because a lot of them were not good at coordinating breaks and trucks. There were many days when a 15 minute break turned into an hour because when you go on break at Safari, you sign into the computer which lets the managers know what time you started. Then it's up to them to call you to get a new assignment around the time your break is finished. When I was calling from the truck with a problem, that would mess up their whole plan, and I often got penalized for it.
Jeff: Any practical jokes you and your co-workers may have played on each other?
Cynthia: Not really practical jokes, per se, but I do have a funny story! When Safari first opened, they were going for what we call the 'Bambi Effect'. There was a story behind the ride about Big Red, the elephant mother, and Little Red, her baby. They were caught by poachers! You may remember this if you rode it back in the day but it's changed a lot.
Originally, there was an animatronic truck that whizzed past in the poacher scene and a life-size dead elephant lying in the grass. A Cast Member with a rifle would be standing next to the truck with Little Red and with two other Cast Members dressed as poachers. This did not go over well with guests. It was too much happening, and all they remembered was that giant dead elephant. So Disney took it out and put it backstage. They got into trouble at one point because a plane flying over saw the fake dead elephant lying in a parking lot somewhere and reported that Disney was abusing its animals. After that, the prop was, no kidding, eBAYed for over $3000!
So now we just have the animatronic truck, the baby elephant, and the three Cast Members. One day, we got to the poacher scene, and there are the Cast Members as they should be: one warden with a gun and two poachers with their hands up. The second time we came around, the poachers had the gun, and the warden had his hands up. The third time we came around, the warden had the gun, but the poachers were lying dead on the ground. The Cast Members were all with the College Program, and their programs ended early, so they were having some fun! After that, just the warden was put out there with the gun, and the story became that the poachers had run away.
After 9/11, the gun was taken out completely. The animatronic truck has long been 101 (which means it doesn't work). They also took out the story of Little Red.
We also have our own animal facts. For instance, did you know that if you can catch a cheetah, you gain its speed? If you can lift a 5000 pound hippo above your head, it will burst into candy and eating the candy will make you immortal? If you eat a 60-pound Thompson's Gazelle in one sitting, you can become invisible for up to 6 days. Things like that! There is also the rumor of the Bongosaurus. The Bongosaurus was born on the day that I had my final training assessment. One of the trucks had leaked some fluid into some of the water in the forest and one of the Bongos (African antelopes) drank it. It was harmless, of course, but the Bongo is said to have mutated into the powerful Bongosaurus which stands 50 feet tall, has a wingspan of 8000-9000 feet, and breathes fire...
Jeff: Did you share these facts with guests? They are pretty funny!
Cynthia: We did not share our silly animal facts with guests. The real facts confused them enough! I had one little girl, cutest thing, who when we were passing a Black Rhino on the Safari said "Look Mommy! It's a...dinosaur!". I made it a point to say "Black Rhino" about 80 times, but she was still insistent that she had seen a dinosaur. It was adorable.
Jeff: Not that things at Disney aren't safe, but it seems like the Safari may be one of the places where problems may arise! Any injuries ever occur on the job, Cast Member or guest?
Cynthia: Not that I'm aware of. I did have a White Rhino charge my truck once, but he veered off at the last second. Invigorating, though!!
Thanks for sharing with us Cynthia! And thank you to all my new readers for checking in - please come back each week to hear more of the magic directly 'From the Mouth of the Mouse'!
If you are, or know, a Cast Member who would like to share some of their stories and possibly be featured right here on MiceChat, please email me at [email protected]. I'd love to hear from you!
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