Theme park cast member stories: Picking the audience volunteers
Written by Robert Niles
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.Tweet
My trip last week to Universal Studios Hollywood reminded me of the first time I was selected as an "audience volunteer" at a theme park.
It was on the Universal Studio Tour, which in the early 1970s pretty much was the entire show at Universal Studios Hollywood. In those days, folks would get off the tram at various sound stages, where they would walk in to see the demonstrations.
One was the set for a Rice-a-Roni "commercial." This set-up provided the excuse to show visitors how a green screen worked. A San Francisco cable car stood in front of the screen, and tour guides picked a young couple and a couple of kids from the audience to play the script.
A freckle-faced six-year-old, I was picked to be one of the kids.
I don't remember doing much, just riding on the car, which shimmied a little on the fake track. The little girl and I didn't have lines, but were there to look cute for some gag that the grown-ups might have found funny but that sailed far over my six-year-old head.
All I knew was that I got to have a couple hundred people watch me and I got my face up on a big TV screen. Fresh off my triumphant performance as Mickey Mouse on the Romper Room Halloween Special the fall before, I welcomed the chance to get back on TV again. So I was seriously unhappy when my parents broke it too me after the show that my work would not be on TV after all, that it was simply a stunt for the tour.
Anyway, that kicked off my streak of being picked as an audience volunteer every time I visited a Universal theme park. I lived across the street from Universal Studios Florida when it opened in 1990, and visited frequently using my annual pass. (The fact that Universal was giving a free one-day ticket to AP holders each day they visited during that first summer definitely encouraged my visits. I was giving away Universal tickets as wedding presents to my friends for years.)
A couple times I pulled a rope, dropping foam at other visitors in Earthquake. But my go-to role was as Mother in USF's Alfred Hitchcock show. The first six times I visited the show, I was pulled out of the queue and taken backstage, where a Universal employee helped me into the Mother dress and wig.
I had no idea why what I was doing was funny, because I never got to see the show. Finally, on my seventh visit, I declined the chance to play Mother, and chatted up the attendant who'd asked.
As I suspected, as a skinny 5-foot-9 guy, I was the right size to fit in the Mother dress. Plus, I'd always worn white tennis shoes to the park, which was the other requirement. I watched the show that time, finally understanding the gag, then when I came back a month later, I was ready to give Mother another go.
But they didn't pick me. The streak was dead. Some guy with a mustache played Mother instead. Curious, I asked an employee if they'd changed their criteria. After a bit, he fessed up that they'd had. Why?
They'd been picking too many Disney cast members (like myself, then) to play the part and wanted to get more tourists instead. At the time, mustaches were a violation of the Disney dress code, so... bingo, now "Mother" had to be rockin' a 'stache.
I haven't been picked as an audience volunteer at a theme park since.
I'd love to hear your stories about "volunteering" in theme park shows, or, for folks who work in the parks, about how you picked people from the audience, as well.
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