Theme park cast member stories: When VIPs go MIA

May 17, 2009, 11:14 PM · If you spend enough time at a major theme park like those at Walt Disney World, you're going to meet some celebrities. As I wrote a couple weeks back, I once watched a showing of the Country Bear Jamboree next to George Lucas at the Magic Kingdom. I made change for Dustin Hoffman at the Shootin' Arcade, loaded Michael Jackson and his entourage onto a boat at Pirates of the Caribbean, and watched a young Alexa Ray Joel play with a couple fellow cast members while her dad, Billy, and his band rode Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

But my favorite celebrity story appeals to the political science major in me. One late night at Pirates, about an hour before close, I was working as the lead, hanging out in tower talking about who knows what. (Tower is the position up above the loading docks where a cast member dispatches the boats into the attraction and watched the cameras that monitor the ride. Don't worry, I've got plenty of um, interesting, security camera stories for future posts.)

The cast member working load calls me on the intercom: "Um, there's a VIP hostess here who's looking for the VIP corridor."

At Pirates, like at many other attractions, we had a VIP, or "back door," entrance through which tour guides could bring through celebrities and other individuals whom Disney management allowed to bypass the regular queue. But rarely did VIP tours come through after 10pm. And when they did, the tour host usually knew better than to bother with the VIP entrance. If there's no one in the regular queue, what's the point of skipping it?

I suspect that Mindy McClueless, though, had been told to take her charges through the VIP entrance, so, dadgum it, that's what she was going to do.

If only she had known where it was.

So I walked down the steps to the queue and met the hostess, figuring that I'd just direct them to go ahead and get into one of the empty boats we were cycling through the ride. But as soon as I got to her, I found that wasn't going to work.

"Hi, I'm Robert," I said to her, noticing that something important was missing from the scene. "Uh... so where's your VIP?"

"Oh, he got tired of walking. So he's sitting on a bench back in the queue."

Now, I never trained as a VIP host, but I'm pretty sure that the one thing you weren't supposed to do was leave your VIP in a public area while you wandered off. So I started, briskly, walking up the queue.

"Perhaps we should find him then," I said to her, doing my Disney best to avoid adding, "you idiot."

We turned three corners, and there, sitting with his wife in the middle of an empty Pirates of the Caribbean queue was Jacques Chirac, the then-mayor of Paris and former prime minister of France, whom I knew from my poli sci classes at Northwestern was tipped by many to be the next President of France (which he did become in 1995).

Jacques Chirac"Bonjour, Monsieur Chirac," I said to him, having no idea if this was appropriate - either diplomatically or grammatically. But, hey, the guy ran a NATO country and was sitting in my queue. I figured it rude not to suck up and say hi.

He stood up to shake my hand, responding in French, so I had to fess up.

"Uh, that's all the French I know. Sorry. Would you like to follow me onto the ride?"

Ignoring Mindy McClueless, I swept my arm toward the passageway, in the direction of the loading platform, and started walking. The Chiracs followed, with Mindy trailing. The Chiracs chatted between themselves, in French, a conversation that I imagined went something like:

"Ah, I am so impressed by this intelligent young man! What an excellent leader he will be someday!"

But, probably, went something more like:

"Who the hell are Mickey and Minnie McClueless here, and why does it take both of them to get us on a friggin' empty amusement park ride? EuroDisney is so going to blow, by the way."

In the comments, please share your favorite personal encounter with a celebrity in a theme park.

For more of my adventures working at Walt Disney World, please check out my book, "Stories from a Theme Park Insider."

Replies (15)

May 18, 2009 at 7:01 AM

I worked as a cast member at Kilimanjaro Safari's and I remember working at the "unloading dock" area of safari's and Dennis Quaid and his kid stepped off the truck. Dennis Quaid had a sneer on his face and didn't look too happy but his kid was bouncing off the walls and looked like he had a great time. Hmm, I wonder if it was the kid or the ride that made him snarl? :)

May 18, 2009 at 9:32 AM

Really, if you can't live in California, the best places to go in the world to meet celebrities are most definitely theme parks. I've met more than a few in my time going to WDW and Universal/Islands.

May 18, 2009 at 10:38 AM

I worked at WDW a few years ago at splash mountain, I was lucky enough to meet Travis Barker and his kids and mom one day and he is honestly the nicest guy I have ever met. He talked to all the teenages coming up to ask him questions and came to me to get his picture sent over to his hotel. Totally down to earth and really nice.
I also met Scotty Pippen and couldn't wait to talk to him, he too was really nice he was there with his kids and took a great picture he looked like a kid on the ride it was great.

May 18, 2009 at 11:21 AM

Great story Robert. Keep 'em coming. I have never worked at a theme park or ran into any celebs but is funny to be out of town and run into someone you know from another state that just ended up being there same time as you. I have had that happened a few times.

May 18, 2009 at 11:42 AM

The celebrity who impressed the most cast members when I worked in the Magic Kingdom was Wil Wheaton, now known as a blogger and Twitterer, but then known for his role on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Totally cool with the cast and... went through the line on his own, with no VIP host. Yeah, fans recognized him, but he just thanked them for the notice and chatted 'em up for a moment. Very cool.

May 18, 2009 at 12:53 PM

May 2, 1991 - BTTF-The Ride opening. As per edict, I kept a low profile and clear of the planned VIP route. The P&D production staff had the honors of the escorted tour and tales of the triumphs and trials. Two of our Hollywood guests were shown the state-of-the-art technologies behind the scenes, where some of us 'blue shirts' were posted to mind the store. The rules of not speaking unless spoken to kept my attention on the blinky lights and monitors. Both of our VIP guests were filled with questions about the computerized wonders in the room. When several details escaped their escort, I found myself being quizzed. While I may have responded with engineering Greek, my listeners stood and listened intently. I don't know how well they understood my techno-babble. I was treated to words of appreciation for all of us who had been part of such cool project. Tom Wilson exhibited not one iota of Biff's brash character. And Mary Steenburgen, in casual attire appropriate for Florida climate, did not evoke an image of the quiet, Victorian reserve of Clara Clayton-Brown. Tom Wilson was more than personable in his humble admittance of mechanical inexperience. Meanwhile, Ms. Steenburgen enjoyed discussing the minority status of women in the Hollywood hierarchy and its analogy to the engineering arts. For a few minutes that day, I had the great pleasure of just chatting with 2 successful colleagues in the entertainment world.

May 18, 2009 at 1:27 PM

I had a chance encounter w/ Gary Busey when I worked at SFoT years ago. Gary was a nice guy but a total nut when it came to the crowds, this was post head-injury mind you. We had to escort him out as he stayed after-hours and had a "old time" photo made of him and his son jake. I also hung out with Fred Schneider from The B-52s and shot some hoops as well.

May 18, 2009 at 5:27 PM

I also encountered Wil Wheaton, but at Disneyland. He was with some college buddies taking pictures of us (the cast members) for a college newspaper or something. This was during the heyday of Next Generation.
I told my co-workers who he was (they hadn't watched Star Trek, so I used "Stand By Me"). When he came back through, one of my co-workers asked him if he was Wil Wheaton and he insisted he was not, but I know it was.
I also saw, but from a distance then Vice President George HW Bush at DL also. He was there on a campaign stop appearing in an Olympics parade. The Secret Service were EVERYWHERE. They swept through Main Street with bomb sniffing dogs hours before he showed up and there were guys in the backstage on Main Street with M16s and we heard people walking on the roof all day.

May 18, 2009 at 5:37 PM

In the 3 years I have worked for Disney I have met a couple. 2 of these celebraties I actually met in the bathroom! While working at the Tower I met Mario Lopez and then a few weeks later I met Steven Tyler. I dont know but apparently our blatters work on the same time system!

I loaded the whole cast of High School Musical Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel,Corbin Bleu, and Monique Coleman.

I had an appearance on the View and met Rosie O'Donnell, and another talk show host Montel Williams. Montel was a little weird because I had to clean the elevator while he watched so that he was sure he wouldnt get hit with something, get sick or whatnot!

My brother who is also is a cast member is VIP trained and has been in the position for some years now. He is especially trained in "high priority" people and has been a tour guide for heads of state, kings and quenns, prince's and princess' and many many more!

May 18, 2009 at 6:03 PM

I've never worked at a theme park, but I did wait on a few celebrities as a waitress. I waited on Katie Holmes, but before Tom Cruise - she was engaged to Chris Klein at the time. She ordered a glass of wine, and I still kick myself for not carding her, just for the fun of it! :)

And I've also waited on Jamie Farr. Let me tell you, the nose is bigger in person than on TV! :) But a very nice and personable guy.

May 18, 2009 at 6:39 PM

While it may not have been a theme park environment, per se, this happened at a science fiction/fantasy convention, and it did involve a celebrity so I think I'll tell it.

I had been recruited, back in the late 80's, to run the audio/visual department for a small convention (Unicon) in Concord (California). The guest-of-honor that year was Peter Davison, who some of you may recognize as one of the actors who played the lead role in the British sci-fi series "Dr. Who."

Peter also had one other wildly popular TV show to his credit: Specifically, the role of Tristan on "All Creatures Great and Small." It was this that gave me The Idea. ;-)

When the time came for Peter's main panel event, essentially a get-together and Q & A in the big ballroom at the hotel, I was (of course) running the sound for it personally, along with a close friend of mine. In came Peter, to an extended round of very enthusiastic applause.

As he started to sit down, I cut loose with the sound effect of a very deep-voiced cow, mooing, from the CD full of sound effects I had cued up mere seconds before.

The effect was priceless! Peter froze with his rear just halfway down to the chair, only his eyes flipping back and forth -- and then the entire room just about died laughing, which segued into another round of applause.

Peter, being the great sport he is, appreciated the joke as much as anyone, and later made explicit reference to one of his other roles where, he insisted, he was very "unlike Tristan, who spent most of his time with his arm up the rear of a cow..."

To this day, I wish someone had been standing by with a camera. That would truly have been a "Kodak Moment" (or "Kodiak," if you happen to live in Alaska). ;-)

Keep the peace(es).

May 18, 2009 at 7:00 PM

I remember once checking in Chris Rock at the Grand Floridian. He was laid back type person. I also have checked in and even seen the Disney Tattoo guy at the parks (saw him at DHS). Some people on here must know who I talking about.

My sister used to work at Epcot in the 80's and she said that Michael Jackson and his crew had the WHOLE Park to themselves after closing.

May 19, 2009 at 9:29 AM

Never really worked at the theme parks but during one of my trips me and my mom were in an elevator at disneyquest and shared that same elevator with Roger Clemmens. By far a silent guy me and my mother knew who he was but wouldnt talk to him being that we are avid mets fans and he just beat us in the world series lol.

May 20, 2009 at 1:23 AM

A bit off-subject but :
On our first visit to EPCOT in Feb 1996 we met John Goodman who was filming with Roseanne at the Parks. Really nice guy.
During the day we saw Roseanne filming..........she had people in hysterics. Naturally funny lady not just when scripted.
Later that day we ended up, by chance, standing next to the film crew and some of the cast for the firework display.
By the time we returned home those episodes were being shown on TV in the UK and we still have copies of them.

May 20, 2009 at 1:50 PM

When I was in college at UCF I worked at Halloween Horror Nights at Universal. I saw tons of people (lots of wrestlers who I had no idea who they were at the time, but now probably would since my husband loves wrestling)(Triple H was one of them), but who really sticks out is Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears (when they were together). They came in the back entrance (as all the famous people did), and were actually quite nice and took time to speak to cast members. When they got the house I was working in, they requested the house be cleared before they went in (the request was granted), and they went through with their bodyguards and continued on. Since that was the era of the boy bands I ended up seeing lots of the various members of the bands. Most of them were quite nice,and some just wanted to be left alone.

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