Tour the Backlot with Megan!
by, 01-31-2012 at 05:20 AM
Hello, and welcome to this week's 'From The Mouth Of The Mouse!'
Each week, we spotlight a different Cast Member story to give you more insight into some of your favorite attractions, resorts, and movies from all over the Walt Disney Company.
This week, we talk to Megan, who worked on the Studio Backlot Tour during her time in the College Program. She's got a lot of great stories about her time there, and shares with us some neat tidbits about the attraction BEFORE it became almost completely automated.
And now, here's Megan!
JEFF: Tell me a little bit about how you got into the College Program to begin with! What made you want to work there?
MEGAN: My dad, who used to be a great artist, grew up loving Disney movies and the animation it took to create them. When he began visiting Walt Disney World, he couldn't stop. I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, which is an 8-hour drive to Orlando, so it was fairly easy to get there. From the time I was a one year old (I'm 26 now), my family went to Walt Disney World at LEAST once a year during our Mardi Gras holiday.
We would spend the entire week there, and sometimes a week and a half. As we got older, we started taking frequent short trips in between our annual big trip. My brother, sister, and I all caught his love of Disney.
I always thought it would be cool to work at Walt Disney World, if only to see behind the scenes of everything! It also seemed like it would be fun to help create the "magic" for families visiting that I had been experiencing for years. I learned about the college program early on just by talking to Cast Members about where they came from. They told me all about it and how fun it was. I remember thinking how much fun working and living in Disney would be. It had to be the best job ever!
I started college in 2003 and it wasn't long after that I started researching the program. I had decided, however, that I would wait until I was 21 because I wanted to be able to "drink around the world" and have fun in Pleasure Island. I also wanted to do the program in the fall so I could enjoy all the holidays there. So, the fall semester of my senior year of college it was! I was planning on going to law school after college, so I considered this adventure my "last hurrah!"
JEFF: How about the application process? Did you want to work at the Backlot Tour?
MEGAN: In the application/interview process for the college program, we were able to provide our list of preferred roles, but we weren't guaranteed to get a job in any of them. I always knew I wanted to work a ride for some reason, so Operations was my first choice. I think I put merchandise and recreation as my second and third choices. I found out before I left for Orlando that I would be doing operations, and I was ecstatic!! It was fun trying to think of all the different rides I may be working, because of course, they wouldn’t tell you until you got there.
At registration, I learned I would be in the Disney-MGM Studios (it will never be DHS to me), but nothing else. Later that day, someone called me and asked me whether I would be comfortable working at a ride with a long script, a short script, or no script. After being told the options for my area (Backlot Tour (BLT), Honey I Shrunk the Kids Playground (HISK to us), Lights, Motors, Action (LMA), among others), I opted for the long script, knowing that I would then work at the BLT. Basically, I got to choose the ride I wanted to work out of the Backlands. I was surprised to have the option, as I was told by many others in the area that nobody asked them what they wanted to do.
JEFF: What were your basic responsibilities for working on the Backlot Tour? Can you give me an overview of what a typical day was like?
MEGAN: I need to clarify that I worked BLT "shuttles." This was separate from BLT tank (the special effects show). Many were trained at both, however, I never was. If I had an "opening" shift (one that starts about an hour before the park opens), I had to help in the opening duties. Those included getting water and ice for the water dispenser, testing out the canyon, sweeping the load and unload areas, getting shuttles pulled into where they needed to be, and so on. Oddly enough, I did not have too many opening shifts for some reason. Closing shifts were a little less involved and typically just involved tidying everything up and parking the shuttles.
The shift rotations operated as such: 1) spiel, 2) drive, 3) position on the dock somewhere, and 4) break. The only time it would vary if it was an odd day where we were under- or over-staffed and someone would have to rotate between dock positions and not drive. Each shuttle was assigned one of these rotations. Typically, the first shuttle going out was the dispatch shuttle, i.e., you'd spiel, drive, dispatch, then break - all using the same shuttle. The second shuttle would be the front load shuttle, the third would be the unload shuttle. Therefore, there were ALWAYS those positions (barring some horrible circumstance where we only had enough staffing for two shuttles...those were hectic days). Other positions included backload and wheelchair.
The number of shuttles depended on 1) how big the crowds were, and 2) how many cast members were available at the time. We usually started out with 3 shuttles and it would increase during the day once the crowds got bigger. We usually only got up to 5 shuttles during the holidays. The spieling position is pretty much self-explanatory. We had to memorize a 15-20 minute script and then present it to the crowd. Of course, the ride is now automated, which really kills the whole attraction, in my opinion. Anyway, after that, you would then move to be a driver for the next tour. Then you’d be bumped to the dock position. I actually really enjoyed working the dock, especially on a medium crowd day. It was nice to interact with guests.
The dispatch position does exactly what its name implies - dispatch. As dispatcher, you're the core of the operation. You tell shuttles when to leave and you are the responsible Cast Member for any disasters that might arise. You also have to pick up the slack in helping load guests who are in wheelchairs. It sounds easy, but that position really made me nervous at first. It's not as easy as it sounds to dispatch shuttles. Your timing has to be exact; otherwise, you'll either have a shuttle stuck behind the canyon or in the final turnaround loop for a while. You could also cause some crashes for shuttles coming out of the costuming tunnel which had to cross the initial takeoff path for the next shuttle. Oddly enough, five shuttle days were the easiest because as soon as the shuttle was loaded, you sent it out. On 3-4 shuttle days you had to keep an eye on the time clock and carefully plan the timing. The differences in the drivers' speeds also could impact the efficiency of your operation. However, once I became comfortable in it, I actually enjoyed dispatching the most because that's where you used your brain the most. Unfortunately, the cast members with seniority also preferred dispatch and were always assigned dispatch by the coordinator. So it was not too often I got to work dispatch.
As a front-loader, you loaded the first three cars and the backloader loaded the last three cars (if you had a backloader). I enjoyed this position because it was sort of like putting a puzzle together. The rows could accommodate up to five people (depending on size). If we had a family of five, they automatically all went into one row. However, we would only load 4 people if they are two different groups (i.e., we would not put a group of 3 and 2 together...unless it was a really busy day!). Sometimes it could get hectic if you didn't have a backloader because guests could start getting backed up or would wander where they weren't supposed to. Loading was definitely an art and you had to be sure to speak LOUDLY and CLEARLY.
The unload position was easy, but also boring. All you do is wait for the shuttle to come in, and direct the guests where to exit. You then make sure all the rows are clean and that no guests left anything. This is where the rotation happens. The cast member from break would come and "bump" the spieler to driver, the driver would go to the dock, and the dock cast member would go to break. The wheelchair position was responsible for getting the wheelchairs and motorized chairs (we called them ECVs) down to unload before the guests returned. Often times, other positions would help in this duty if there were a particularly large number of wheelchairs. This could be a fun time, as we often "raced" the ECVs down to unload. The Disney ECVs were the slowest by far, so you would always lose if you had to move one of those. It was fun to see how fast you could get non-Disney ECVs to go. Don't worry, we didn't do this in front of the guests! It was only when the dock was cleared.
JEFF: Were there any changes you can think of when you were working on the tour?
MEGAN: Definitely. They have changed out many of the props (which was necessary as some were, and still are, falling apart). They have also changed from having a live spieler to an automated spiel. I rode it recently since the automated spiel was added...it's quite boring in my opinion. What was great about the BLT was many of the cast members fancied themselves performers. Many were talented singers, actors, and/or artists. The attraction just sort of lent itself to those sorts of characters. It made every day so much more fun. Therefore, every tour was a little different with those guys.
I stuck to the script most of the time, but many of them had their own "versions." We weren't technically supposed to do that and could get in trouble, but I think it made the ride a lot more fun and interesting, as well as more "magical." As long as the cast members were not saying anything inappropriate, I think veering off script should be encouraged, if it's funny. You can hear the spiel in the cab of the shuttles as you are driving and sometimes a particular spieler would crack me up! I'd be laughing alone in the cab. I, on the other hand, was not so funny. I tried to crack jokes a few times and they did not go over well! Nobody laughed. Therefore, I typically stuck to the script almost exactly. I'm not one of the performer types, so I needed to stick to what I knew. It was great for my speaking skills, though. Speaking to 300 people every hour really cuts down on your public speaking nerves.
JEFF: You told me before the interview about how you guys did a lot of different things to entertain yourselves. What did you do on your days off?
MEGAN: What didn't we do?! One of the most wonderful things about doing the college program was that, on your days off, your biggest problem was "oh man, what park do I go to today??" I had a couple of buddies who thoroughly enjoyed "playing in the parks," so I visited the parks a LOT. Not all CP cast members took advantage of being so close to WDW, but I did not want to regret a minute of it. There were probably only 2-3 days in the entire semester that I did not go to a park at some point. While there, I bought an annual pass to Universal Studios, so I went there several times, as well. Since my "weekend" was usually in the middle of the week during September, it was great to park hop because the crowds were so light!
Lucky for me, Pleasure Island was still hopping, so we spent a lot of time in the Adventurer's Club (Kungaloosh!). I really miss it. We also went to Halloween Horror Nights several times. We went so many times that I stopped screaming when a zombie or chainsaw killer would try to scare me (that was an accomplishment for me!).
One of my favorite past-times was resort pool-hopping. One of my buddies and I would often go around to different hotels and try out all the different pools. One time we did a "polar plunge" when it was freezing outside at the Wilderness Lodge. That same friend was my favorite park-hopping buddy. Once, he and I were determined to go underground at MK so we just tried to find our way down there. We did...and we got caught because we were clearly lost! You're not supposed to go backstage at any park unless you're there to work. Luckily they did not throw us out. Of course, we went backstage at Epcot and MGM all the time, There were some perks to being a cast member!
JEFF: You also told me a little about shuttle wrecks. Tell me a little more about that!
MEGAN: There were many, many wrecks! Most of the time, new drivers just scrape a curb or door. However, I do remember one incident where a door was pretty much destroyed and partially ripped off. Once you got the hang of driving those big shuttles, they were pretty easy to drive, actually. But it is definitely tough at first. Some of the loops are very tight and you had to turn the wheel at just the right moment in order to not hit something! It could get a little scary!
JEFF: As a Cast Member, you told me you took quite a few backstage tours as well. Where did you go?
MEGAN: I had the great opportunity to take private tours of the Great Movie Ride and Spaceship Earth. You could sign up online for these tours (I tried to do Haunted Mansion, but that one is apparently really popular and I could never get in). The tour guides for GMR were GREAT! I remember they called it the "Great Movie Stride." It was so fun! We just basically walked the route and learned all kinds of neat facts about various characters and scenes. We even got to take pictures with some of the animatronics. I also got to walk on the yellow brick road! The Spaceship Earth tour was also interesting. We got to walk alongside the track which was cool. I remember being so out of breath! There were a ton of stairs!
JEFF: So, why do you feel like the Backlot Tour was the greatest ride to work on as a College Program Cast Member?
MEGAN: I know guests usually don't enjoy the BLT a lot, but it truly was the best ride to work as a front line cast member (other than maybe guest relations). BLT is only operational during daylight hours, so we never had to work crazy hours during the holidays or for Extra Magic Hours. It also was less mundane than working, say, Fantasyland rides. We got to spiel and drive a big shuttle! It was also great to work there thanks to all the great coworkers I had. I know a lot of CP cast members who didn't have a good job or had bad coworkers or roommates.Thanks, Megan, for chatting with me!
However, I was lucky enough to have a great job, great coworkers, and great roommates! I couldn't have asked for a better situation. BLT tends to attract and keep more animated people. We had singers, dancers, actors, etc. So it was always interesting. We were all very, VERY different, and perhaps wouldn't have been friends in a normal setting. However, we all got along great and enjoyed each other's company. Many of us hung out after work and on our "weekends." Anyways, BLT will always be so special to me. I know it is dying a slow death, but it is a remnant of what the park used to be about – making movies! You used to actually see TV shows and movies being filmed. I have been trying to find home videos of the old BLT. It used to be over an hour long when it first opened. Now it has been whittled down to 15-20 minutes, which is sad.
I miss working there and being a cast member every single day. My friend and I say that we get "homesick" because Disney really is home for us. I had never been so happy and stress-free as I was when I was there on the CP. I cannot think about my time there without smiling. Unfortunately, I also get really sad too, because I’m not there right now!
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