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Theme park cast member stories: Picking the audience volunteers

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Published: June 22, 2009 at 9:46 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.

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.

Readers' Opinions

From TH Creative on June 22, 2009 at 10:06 AM
I have performed at both Disney Hollywood Studios (Indiana Jones) and (I am VERY PROUD to say) I appeared on stage at The Adventurer's Club.

Please Note: Emailed requests for autographs will be denied. Thank you for understanding.

From Jack Curley on June 22, 2009 at 10:56 AM
Back in 2004 or 2005, a friend and I took a trip to Orlando the week after President's Day. The parks were DEAD that week, and it seemed like everyone we met was Canadian. It turns out that it was Canadian Spring Break or "reading week".
We hit Epcot the first day, but were unable to make it there for opening. I had read up on the way to make the most of your Disney trip, so we ran to Mission Space to get our fast passes. But there was no line, so we got on. Then we went to Test Track, to get Fast Passes, but there was no line. This happened for everything we wanted to go on. After a few hours we had done everything we wanted to do in the park, and decided to take the ferry over to Disney MGM (now Hollywood) Studios.
We didn't hit any lines there, either. We were discussing how incredible it was that there were no lines when we got to the Studio Backlot Tour. There is always a large stream of people coming out of there, and this day was no exception.
Just as I was saying, "I guess this is our first line of the day," a cast member came out of a door right next to us and said, "We need to more people for the next show!" I turned to her and said "WE'RE two people!" and we were on.
We played deckhands, and got to ham it up and fall over each other. The only bad part was that you don't get to see your own performance, and when they let us out to watch the next show, two older gentleman played our part, and they didn't move the entire time.
It was still a great time, and the best Disney vacation ever. No lines all week!
From William Clark on June 22, 2009 at 11:05 AM
These cast member stories are my very favorite feature of Theme Park Insider. They add so much color and humor and depth as well as insight to the park experience. Thanks! :)
From Tony Duda on June 22, 2009 at 12:15 PM
About 2 years ago I was at Busch Gardens Tampa and was watching the American Beat show at the Desert Grill. I was sitting close to the stage (always a dangerous place) and was picked to go on stage where the "Cher" character sang to me while the other performers covered me with the "Sonny" costume. Luckily I had my digital camera turned on at my table and I have a grainy movie of my stage debut.
From Mitchell Botwin on June 22, 2009 at 12:32 PM
I always seem to be picked, or the people with me get chosen. The Indiana Jones Stunt Show at Disney Hollywood Studios was my favorite. I was an average height bald man with a full red beard, so I was always chosen as the Marilyn Monroe look-a-like. My son got to ride the bee in the Honey I Shrunk the Kids show. Always get picked by the street performers. Have a great story about that for another time.
From 205.188.116.67 on June 22, 2009 at 1:13 PM
The closest I ever came to being a "volunteer" was at Busch Gardens Tampa's Howl-O-Scream 2008. They had a show called Fiends at the Stanleyville Theater with Dr. Freakenstein, Igor and the scantily clad naughty nurses. At the finale the cast dances to Monster Mash and the nurses come out into the audience to each pull a guy up on stage to dance with them. One came over to me and took my left hand to bring me up but... my wife was holding my right hand and shaking her head no.
That was my only shot at being a volunteer.
From 64.136.26.225 on June 22, 2009 at 1:33 PM
I remember my first visit to USF, and was really nervous about "riding the movies" when they made attractions out of movies where things go horribly wrong. I was 6 at the time and didn't know much about the park, so I really wasn't looking forward to being part of a real Earthquake inside a train that splits apart and tosses poor innocent people off it based off what I saw on the commercials. So here I am in the first preshow room of EQ and when it was time to pick volunteers, my mom proudly rose my hand in the air, nearly lifting me off my feet. Unfortunately for me at the time, I got picked for a part. It was to pull the rope which tossed the fake rocks and rubble onto the shoppers in the mall scene. Ever since then, I've been one of the first volunteers for any show, especially EQ. I even remember when I got tired of seeing Beetlejuice whenever we went, I'd ask if I can head over to EQ, volunteer to do something, ride it, and come back in time for the finale. I've been a grip countless times, a shopper, a sailor, and the stuntman several times. And yes, I did rock a 'stash/goatee combo!
From 66.215.73.207 on June 22, 2009 at 4:06 PM
Like Jack Curley, my wife and I were also selected to be deckhands for the DHS studio tour. We were on our Honeymoon, and decided to spend it at Disney World since I worked for Disney at the time and my discount allowed us to go all out for not much money. It was early May and not too crowded. We went on the tour late in the day, and were the first people to get in line after the previous group had moved on. Since we were the only two people in line and were wearing "Just Married" buttons it was pretty much guaranteed we'd be picked. Oh man we had a great time hamming it up, hugging each other for dear life and running all over the deck. We couldn't believe it when they told us they didn't tape it. (Disney, pass up an opportunity to sell a souvenir video? Madness!) They were apologetic and agreed that it seemed like an oversight. They let us stay on to watch the next show, but the next batch wasn't nearly as active and comedic as we pictured ourselves to be. Still one of the best memories from that trip.
From Anthony Murphy on June 22, 2009 at 7:22 PM
I too was an Indy Extra, but not with TH!

I was literally screaming and jumping up and down!

I got to be on Who Wants to be a Millionare Play it! In High School and its because I answered questions, but thats not that exciting.


BTW, I got to leave with 10 Pins, a Hat, and a Golf Shirt (32,000 points)

From Eric Malone on June 23, 2009 at 7:05 AM
Time for a downer!

I've never been volunteered to do anything at any park I've ever been to. Sad, I know.

From Tim Odom on June 23, 2009 at 7:33 AM
Another audience volunteer for Indiana Jones in DHS here. Was a few years back, went down there with the whole family. It really surprised me when I got picked, never got anything like that before. They had me do that fun 'stand on one leg, leaning over with your arms spread out' pose, which I think goes to the planted cast member now.

I was just disappointed I did not get the death scene. I would have hammed that up all the way, but nope, my acting debut must wait.

From Ray Schroeder on June 23, 2009 at 10:34 AM
I also got to play Mother at USH. It was a lot of fun and I wasn't a Disney Cast member. I also got to ride a Mardi Gras float at USF. That was great, we wore costumes with masks and got to throw beads into the crowd along the parade route. I was pulled on stage for a song and dance number at a New Years Eve Dinner/Show at Disney World back in the 80's. Finally, I was on stage twice with Penn and Teller, once on Broadway, and once in Vegas, that was way cool. I must have that look.
From Elizabeth Gray on June 23, 2009 at 1:10 PM
When I was younger Universal Studio Hollywood use to have a show where you could particpate in a Airplane disaster "movie". It was 1984 and I had broken a piece of my right wrist and it was in a cast. My family thought that I should try to partcipate in the show. That year they changed the show to a comedy thing involving a bank heist, and ended with a pie fight between the Blues Brother and the Keystone Cops. Oh Well, I tried anyway. My family got their early and the guy comes on stage and start asking for volunteers. They wanted someone my age and heigth for a bit and I raised my hand high. He actually looked at me and seemed about to call on me when he pulled MY YOUNGER SISTER on stage and she got to be in the show. I was sure the reason he did not pick me was because of my cast.

A couple of years later, my family attended the same show again. I raised my hand high and they picked my sister AGAIN! LOL

From Joshua Counsil on June 24, 2009 at 11:32 AM
My buddy gave the best Indy performance I've ever seen. During the segment where the extras act like a crowd, he pick-pocketed one of the other extras. During his death scene, he took 6 shots before going down, then painfully pulled himself up again to keep fighting. The host didn't know what to do with him. Luckily, the sound effects crew was on top of their game and continued to "fire shots" after my friend got up, which finally brought him down for good.
From Mostly Anonymous on June 24, 2009 at 1:12 PM
My big star performance was at the Lion King Show at Animal Kingdom. The cast members went to each section of the audience to get a volunteer (to make animal noises).

The man in front of our section asked for volunteers, and no one raised their hand. So he asked again, I put my hand up, and got picked.

As the show started, I discovered that every other volunteer was an adorable little kid.

Boy, did I feel out of place!

From Mark Kausch on June 26, 2009 at 6:58 AM
Since I live on the West Coast, I got picked at...Epcot on our one and only visit. I was picked at the German restaurant when they did the stage shows. I was the oompa band leader, complete with the leiderhosen and baton (I got to keep the baton). Being dressed and undressed by those cute girls was kinda fun.

I also got picked for a part at Frontierland at Disneyland as a charactor in the streetainment.

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