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Theme park cast member stories: When nature calls....

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Published: April 26, 2009 at 10:53 PM
This weekend, many of my former co-workers from Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom West Attractions held a reunion in Florida. (Magic Kingdom West attractions are the rides and shows in Adventureland, Frontierland and Liberty Square, including Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, Big Thunder Mountain and Haunted Mansion, among many others.)

Living on the "other" coast, near Los Angeles, I wasn't able to make the party, though I am enjoying the many pictures posted to Facebook. There was much reminiscing, I'm told, about "101"s, Disney's code for an attraction out of order. In that spirit, I thought I'd offer up a downtime story of mine own here this week. Let's see what other stories mine might elicit. ;-)

The first attraction I worked when I started in MK West was the Country Bear Jamboree, or, as Disney attraction cast members know it, "Bear Band."

Bear Band, in 1990

Bear Band required very little skill to operate, which is why it was a popular first attraction for new hires. There were three positions in the rotation when I worked there:

  • Greeter: Opened and close queue loops to keep the line off the street. Keep the strollers straight. This position was dropped when the show had no line. Greeter was usually a good position in which to flirt with girls (or guys, depending upon your gender and sexual orientation). But Bear Band's ridiculously cheesy costumes made that impossible here. Seriously, I think that shirt/pants combo was once a "Garanimal." (Google it, post Gen-Xers.)
  • Turnstiles: Close the turnstiles when the preshow area fills. Give the preshow spiel. Open the doors to the theater. Close the doors when the preshow area is empty. Reopen the turnstiles. Repeat.
  • Theater: Direct everyone to "please slide all the way down to the end of the row, moving down to the last available space." Hit the button to start the show. Give the show spiel. After the show, spiel everyone out. Repeat.

    Actually, there was a fourth position, making change at the Shooting Gallery, but every time we could, we froze some loner there so we wouldn't have to deal with people complaining about the aim on those lame infrared "rifles."

    Theater was fun, the first dozen or so times you saw the show. By the time you'd seen the "Country Bear Vacation Howdown" for the 500th time, the 18-minute show cycle became a Kafkaesque experience. Your mind was forced to wander, simply to remain sane: How many times this show will people take flash pictures, despite my telling them not to do so? Should I teach myself French? If I kill myself now, will I simply reawaken when the next show begins? Do you think I can get a date with Andie MacDowell?

    Ultimately, you lived for the downtimes. You cherished any malfunction that broke the monotony, and introduced some variance into the shift. (That, or Thunder having a no-show and calling you over there to cover.)

    My favorite? Well, you need to know that Bear Band is a totally mechanical show, with hydraulics pushing, twisting, turning, raising and lowering each of the bears. The "host," Henry, appears on three turntables, sharing the each space with another character, on the other side of the turntable. For his first appearance in the show, Henry appears stage left, seated alone, wearing a green "Camp Grizzly" t-shirt and a pair of khaki shorts.

    Henry bends forward at the waist when he laughs, controlled by a hydraulic line that runs up his core. And this day, that line sprung a leak, spewing hydraulic fluid at a point just below the bear's waist.

    Right through his khaki shorts.

    That's right, Henry was wetting himself.

    Being a good, show-conscious Disney cast member, I threw the switch to stop the show, apologized to the crowd and asked them to exit the theater. Not that anyone heard me over the laughter from the audience. It took me a good five minutes to break up the queue of people who'd gathered in front of Henry's turntable, to get their photo taken with the incontinent bear.

    After I'd cleared the theater and we'd called maintenance to repair the show, there was the usual downtime paperwork to be done. And neither my lead nor I could resist the temptation, in the section where we were to describe the reason for the downtime, to write:

    "Henry peed his pants."

    Former theme park employees, please share your silliest downtime stories, in the comments.

    For more stories about working at Walt Disney World, please visit our "Stories from a Theme Park Insider" page!

    Readers' Opinions

    From Wok Creative on April 27, 2009 at 12:26 AM
    Not silly, but a great memory...
    I worked at Disneyland in the early '80s, doing dishes for the Plaza Inn (and Inn Between behind it). One night, our dish machine broke down and we had to use the one across the street at Plaza Pavilion, which was also doing their own. Long story (and night) made short, we finished somewhere around 5 in the morning. Walking back to my locker, I crossed Main Street, and stood there all alone for a few minutes, lights on and blinking at all store fronts, just enjoying being the only one on Main Street.

    silly - some smart aleck dropping a whole stack of plates on the floor when an orientation tour group was coming through the kitchen - wasteful, but always got a big laugh

    From Diane Graebner on April 27, 2009 at 7:19 AM
    I was working at Muppet Vision 3*D at DHS (then Disney MGM Studios). We had the same rotation, although we had a few extra positions dealing with 3D glasses. I came in to work one day, and was hanging out in Sweetums' greenroom (at the time we were permitted to hang out with them if they invited). On the wall of the greenroom was a plastic tupperware container with one of the stuffed animal toys of Bean Bunny stuffed into it. The whole thing was duct taped to the wall with a note "In case of Emergency, Break Glass!" Puzzled, I asked why Bean was taped to the wall. One of the other cast members told me this story:

    Like the bears, all of the animatronic figures in Muppets ran on hydrolic fluid. It seems that upon entering the theatre for the show, a guest had noticed that something had dripped on them. The cast member in the theatre position looked at the guest's clothing, and realized it was hydrolic fluid that had stained the shirt. Looking at the carpet, it was quickly determined that Bean Bunny, who appeared in the box seats over the entrance door, was the culprit. Being a good cast member, they had called the show 101 and emptied the theatre. Maintenance was called out.

    It took only 5 minutes, and maintenance cleared the show to reopen. That seemed like a short time, but if it was a minor leak, the cast could understand how it could be patched long enough to get through the day. They reopened. The show began, and progressed to the finale.

    Now, for those who haven't seen the Muppet show at Disney, here's a brief rundown. Bean Bunny runs away because he isn't allowed to help with the show. He appears in the box as an Audio Animatronic (AA) after leaving the screen. Sweetums is dispatched by Kermit to help find Bean. He exits the screen and reappears in front of the screen bigger than life. Waving his flashlight around, he suddenly "finds" Bean in the box. "There he is!"

    Except he wasn't there! In their infinite wisdom, the maintenance guys had simply removed the AA figure to take it back to their workshop, leaving nothing in its place. When Sweetums delivered his pre-recorded line, shining his flashlight up into the box, there was no bunny up there. Sweetums stomped off stage, the theatre cast member called the show 101, again, and emptied the theatre. In those days we took the "Show" part of our creed seriously, and a missing or damaged AA was cause to evacuate.

    Maintenance was called again, and it was explained that we couldn't do the show without the bunny. They agreed to come back out to the attraction, and another five minutes later declared them operational.

    Reluctantly, the cast loaded the theatre and started the show. Tentatively, Sweetums made his appearance. "Bunny?! Where are you Bunny?" The curtain to the box opened dramatically, and Sweetums shone his flashlight up into the darkness. "There he is!"

    And there he was! Maintenance had gone over to the Stage One store, which sold Muppet related items, and had requisitioned a stuffed Bean Bunny toy. They had then stuck a ruler into Bean's, um, posterior, and designating one poor maintenance guy (low man on the totem pole I'm guessing) as puppeteer, having him lying on the floor of the box. When the curtain opened, Bean Bunny popped up out of the box, a rather unanimated stick puppet!

    Sweetums threw a tantrum, storming off stage. The attraction was called 101 yet again until the real Bean Bunny could be repaired and returned. And the stick puppet was duct taped to the wall inside of someone's lunch container -- just in case!

    From Eric Malone on April 27, 2009 at 8:59 AM
    Hilarious stuff so far. I'm looking forward to seeing what else you guys have!
    From Robert Niles on April 27, 2009 at 3:05 PM
    *Great* story, Diane.

    For the record, my personal best worst was 11 consecutive shows in theater, when that was the last position in the rotation, and three people in front of me got bumped out for the end of their shift or transfers to other locations. The s---fit I pitched after that did lead, in part, to Bear Band flipping the order of the rotation so that theater would be first and greeter last, making it harder to forget when someone was frozen at the back of the rotation.

    Two more Bear Band stories. I was working there the morning of my college graduation (I skipped the ceremony and had left campus to fly down to Orlando two weeks earlier) and the CM working turnstiles spieled everyone in pre-show to wish me a happy graduation. Totally freaked me out I realized what she had done.

    Finally, my all-time favorite geek moment at Disney World was sitting next to George Lucas for a Bear Band show. I made a bump go around me so I could stay there for that whole show.

    From Diane Graebner on April 28, 2009 at 6:19 AM
    Thanks Robert! Since we're dueling AA stories, I have another one. This time, I was actually there.

    In addition to Bean Bunny, the theatre box on the other side of the screen had AA figures of Statler and Waldorf, who heckled throughout the show. They were always "on stage," making subtle movements as they watched the show along with the audience. I was in rotation in the theatre. I looked up, and watched as Statler (or was it Waldorf?) slowly slid off his chair and disappeared into the box!

    The show was nearly over, and by the time I could have emergency stopped it the show would have been done anyway, so we let it run through but didn't load the next preshow. We called maintenance.

    For their part, maintenance did not remove Waldorf (or was it Statler?) but repaired him in place.

    "We're good to go!" they declared.

    I loaded the preshow. For the opening Cast Member spiel, I was actually under the box, where I couldn't see the two old guys. I did my spiel, accompanied by appreciative laughter from the audience at the antics of our old geezers above me. I walked back to the bench in the back of the theatre where we were permitted to sit during the show.

    Statler and Waldorf's movements are subtle and gentle when they aren't speaking. There's a bit of time where they're just casually moving their heads a bit as they watch. Then Fozzie Bear comes on screen and they become very animated, heckling him.

    Except, only one of them was very animated. Statler (or was it Waldorf?) had developed a severe nervous tic! He could only move a few inches, couldn't raise his arm, and was basically having a seizure in the box.

    Again, it was decided it wasn't bad enough to call the show completely 101, or to evacuate since he was delivering his lines ok. I watched the poor old guy nearly have a heart attack every time he spoke, or tried to move, but let the show run out.

    Again, we emptied the theatre but didn't load the preshow. Again, maintenance was waiting in the wings. Oops, they declared. It seems they'd forgotten which way Waldorf (or was it Statler?) moved, and had duct taped him, yes duct taped him, backwards. A simple reversal of the duct tape from one side to another and he was good as new!

    Of course, this caused great peals of laughter from the cast members every time Statler and Waldorf delivered their last lines.

    "Does this mean we get to leave?"

    "We can't you old fool, we're bolted to the seats!"

    Later in the evening, and I'm back in the theatre again. I'm sitting on my bench watching the two geezers closely for signs of trouble. I realize that Statler (or was it Waldorf?) is a few inches shorter than he was before. He delivers his lines, but his arm is now caught in the curtain, and he's slowly sagging forward. Thinking to myself that we need to keep the gin away from the two old guys, we call it in again. Duct tape, it seems, only works for so long on AA figures who move rather aggressively. We spent the rest of the night calling maintenance to replace duct tape every time Waldorf (or was it Statler? I never COULD remember which was which!) would get "drunk" and start to slip out of his chair!

    Oh, and although I never sat next to George Lucas in a show, I did sit next to Michael Crawford (Broadway's Phantom of the Opera). I let George Lucas into the theatre for a showing of Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Musical Adventure though. Does that count?

    From 64.140.238.130 on April 28, 2009 at 10:58 AM
    love these comments...please keep them coming

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