When I was nineteen, I came to a painful realization: I was boring and I was living a boring life. I was a freshman at the local community college, had a part-time job at my town’s library, and had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. One day, while sitting at the library’s front desk during a particularly slow stretch, I sat up and thought, “Screw this, I want to work at Disneyland.”
Earlier that year, I had taken a weekend trip to the park with my best friend. We randomly struck up a conversation with an employee (according to the Disney lexicon, the proper term is “cast member”) and learned that the Disney College Program would provide students with full-time jobs, housing, and special programs during the summer. We read up on the program, drove about two hours to CSU: Sacramento’s campus to sit through an information session and subsequent interview, and suddenly found ourselves with summer jobs.
I had no idea what I was getting into, but I didn’t really care – I was excited to be moving out of the San Francisco Bay Area. I drove down to Orange County at 6 AM the morning after I’d finished my last exam, found myself put up in a decent apartment complex about fifteen minutes away from the park, and became an Attractions Host (read: ride operator) on the Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes. I was hesitant about the assignment, but it turned out that being an Attractions Host was perfect because every day was a different experience.
The first – and biggest – lesson about Disneyland is that there’s no such thing as “an average day” when you work at the park. There are just too many people that walk through those gates; too many weird, neurotic variables. It wasn’t uncommon to have a great discussion with wonderful people and then immediately be confronted with a person or situation so crazy that it felt like it came from a sitcom.
One of the more memorable experiences took place during my first week of training when I was roped into a half-hour of crowd control while Big Thunder Railroad was shut down. It started when an obese woman went on the attraction, which was no big deal at first. However, when the train came back to the loading area, it turned out this lady was so overweight that she couldn’t get herself out of the seat even with assistance from other cast members. The entire train had to be brought backstage (read: out of public view) and the woman had to be lifted out by the crane normally reserved for moving cars.
That same day, I ran into a kindly old man walking with some buxom young women and provided them with directions to the nearest bathroom. It was only after I’d sent them on their way that I realized I’d just spoken to Hugh Hefner and a couple of his girlfriends.
Later, I talked to my trainer about all the craziness that had taken place. Before starting at Disneyland, the highlight of my workday had been getting to shelve science fiction books and hoping to find something new. The past few hours had been absurd.
“Are things always this crazy?” I asked her.
She casually waved this question away between salad bites: “Nah, it’s Tuesday. Things’ll really pick up on Friday night.”
She wasn’t kidding. Each day was totally different, but the summer weekends were insane thanks to the sheer size of the crowds; if there were less than 70,000 people in the park on a Saturday, it was considered a slow day. The Canoes received only a small portion of these crowds, but we probably had more fun with the guests than any other Attraction Hosts in the park.
If you’ve never been to Disneyland, the Canoes are kind of an anomaly amongst all the other attractions because they’ve remained largely unchanged since opening in 1956. Basically, you load twenty guests into a heavy, flat-bottomed canoe and row them around the Rivers of America while telling terrible jokes. The extra weight and flat bottoms means that the boats are pretty much impossible to tip over, but it also makes them a bitch to row at any reasonable speed. If the guests didn’t paddle, it was a really long trip.
It wasn’t uncommon to have lines of people waiting ten to fifteen minutes for a boat to come in, which meant that those of us working the dock were saddled with the task of keeping them entertained in the summer heat. If you worked The Canoes, you were either good with people or you learned to be good with them very quickly.
The Canoes were a massive learning experience because, unlike the other attractions, they were manually powered and there wasn’t a script to stick to. I learned how to steer a canoe, how to placate angry guests, which behind-the-scenes shortcuts would get me where in the park, as well slew of bad jokes (“If you get some water splashed on you, just let it dry and you can peel it off like a Fruit Roll-Up; don’t eat it, though, this week’s flavor is duck.”)
Being a part of Disneyland’s workforce meant that I became privy to a lot of information about the park that wasn’t common knowledge. I learned that while Hidden Mickeys (Disney’s Mickey Mouse logo, camouflaged into decorations) are scattered across every attraction, Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin in Toon Town also has a Hidden Playboy Bunny (and, as I learned on a walking tour, Jessica Rabbit’s chest was disturbingly squishy). Oh, and the secret underground tunnels that you hear about? Totally real, though there are only two that run beneath the park.
Summer flew by. Before I knew it, August had arrived and it was time to return to school. On one of my last days, I realized that I’d just lived through the summer everyone hopes to have: Not only had I had a job that I’d genuinely loved, but I’d come away with at least a decade’s worth of stories. Over the course of a few short months, I’d managed to leave my boring life behind and transform into someone a lot more interesting.
I returned the next year hoping to repeat that first perfect summer, but things were different. Following the 9/11 attacks, tourism was down and paranoia was up. On top of that, the park’s budget had been slashed across the board, which meant that the College Program was gone. The job became progressively less fun; by the time that second year was over, I was ready to move on and never look back.
But I did go back. I still do, about once a year, because the place got under my skin and became a part of me. I visit to see the friends who work there even now, to ride the Canoes, and to remember how lucky I am to have been a part of that place … even if it was only for a little while.
Mike Thompson still knows the first three verses of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” because he’s just that cool.