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Theme park cast member stories: Sometimes, Mother Nature runs the show

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Published: June 15, 2009 at 10:27 AM

Every Monday (Tuesdays in holiday weeks), Theme Park Insider editor Robert Niles shares one of his stories from working as a cast member at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. If you have ever worked at a theme park and have a story you'd like to share in this weekly feature, e-mail Robert.

The people who design and build theme parks create powerful immersive environments. The scale of engineering involved can be immense. The apparent "ground level" of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, for example, is actually the second story of a massive complex, built upon a series of "tunnels" that were built at the actual level of the ground. Earth was excavated from what became the Seven Seas Lagoon, piled around the tunnels, and the Magic Kingdom built on top of that.

We often joked at the Magic Kingdom that the tallest mountain in Florida was Disney's Big Thunder Mountain, a fake peak built by Disney's contractors. (This was before Splash Mountain, so that might be the joke now.) Regardless, starting from when you board the ferry at the Transportation and Ticket Center and sail across the Seven Seas Lagoon, all the way through your day in the Magic Kingdom, whether you take a boat around the Rivers of America or ascend Big Thunder, every body of water you see and every landscape you cross will be 100-percent, completely, totally man-made.

But from time to time, Mother Nature reminds cast members they cannot completely dismiss her will. The afternoon thunderstorms provide one example. We often found others working the rafts at Tom Sawyer's Island.

TSI rarely failed to open at its designated time each morning, when I worked there. The rafts typically opened an hour after the park, partly because it wasn't exactly the most popular attraction in the Magic Kingdom, but mostly because no work could be done on the island, to stock the restaurant or do any required maintenance work, until the sun came up. Unlike every other location in the park, the island had no artificial street light, which is why the island closes at dusk. With no artificial lights for the third shift, work had to wait until sun-up, so we waited until 10 am to open the island to guests.

The lead still showed up at 7:30, though, as he or she would be needed to ferry some of the maintenance and food workers across the river. Custodial had a Jon boat that they used to take trash off the island, but everyone else relied on the rafts. I arrived for my lead shift several minutes early one morning, carrying the box of doughnuts and the morning paper that I used as bait to ensure both that my morning crew would be on time, and that supervisors would drop in, when I could confront them with the list of show quality repairs that I wanted approved.

But this morning, as I turned the corner onto the TSI mainland dock, I immediately knew that this wouldn't be a normal morning at TSI.

Not with a very large alligator - and her kids - sunning themselves on the dock.

I froze and hid the doughnuts behind my back (I have no idea whether gators like doughnuts, and had no inclination to find out). Slowly, I backed up, and walked the long way around the TSI cabin, so I could get into the office from the queue exit.

I called animal control.

"Um, we've got three alligators on the Tom Sawyer's Island raft dock. Could you send someone down?"

"On the island or the mainland?"

"Mainland."

"Oooookay."

While I waited for animal control to show up, I called the opening supervisor. No need for doughnuts today, I figured I'd soon have every suit in the Magic Kingdom on my dock regardless.

Well, not actually on the dock, but near it. Okay, a respectable distance away. But they'd be looking at the dock.

Within five minutes, I was hosting a little morning get-together for two animal control guys, two attractions supervisors, the area manager, and a merchandise supervisor who walked over to see what the fuss was about.

One of the attractions sups turned to one of the animal control guys.

"So, how soon can you move those alligators so that we can open?"

The animal control guys exploded with laughter.

"Sorry, we don't move gators. They get to stay as loooong as they want."

The attractions supervisors looked a bit queasy.

"You want to know when you'll be open?" the other animal control guy asked, as he nodded toward the attractions supervisors. "Go on down and ask the gator!"

So when the park opened that morning, Tom Sawyer's Island became Disney's Gatorland, and the raft drivers became crowd control, managing the flow of guests who lined up along the riverside walkway to gawk at Mrs. Gator and her young-'uns. Around 10:15, the gators had had enough, slipped into the water and swam away.

We waited another 20 minutes before we opened the ride. Just in case the gators decided to come back.

Because, you know, sometimes Mother Nature runs the show.

Readers' Opinions

From Gareth H on June 15, 2009 at 10:38 AM
I remember seeing a Gator there a few years back, and it got a large audience. People were throwing hotdogs in, popcorn, Soda(???).

It was pretty fun.

A staff member actually came over and talked to me and said it had been there for years, they'd even named it, although I've forgotten the name.

Shows that Gators are everywhere in Florida, even Disney.

From Robert Niles on June 15, 2009 at 3:31 PM
I drove past gators in mid-river a few times while working the rafts (usually early mornings, before the river traffic got too heavy). More often than not, guests who noticed them assumed that they were animatronic, a la Jungle Cruise. If they were headed to the mainland, I might speak up and correct them, but if they were headed to the island, I never did.

No need for trouble.

From Raymond Sydowski on June 15, 2009 at 6:46 PM
I think Everest is now the highest mountain in Florida.

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