Hello, and welcome to this week's 'From The Mouth Of The Mouse!'
Each week, we spotlight a different Cast Member story to give you more insight into some of your favorite attractions, resorts, and movies from all over the Walt Disney Company.
Before we jump into today's interview, I just wanted to remind everyone that I'll be down at Walt Disney World next week, from November 26th through December 2nd. I'd love to meet some of you guys if you're around! I'll be attending the Weekly Walt Disney World Meet (which is usually hosted by fellow MiceChat columnist Kevin Yee, but he won't be around this week), and also hosting a From The Mouth Of The Mouse Fantasmic viewing. If you're around and want to join, please do! If not, you're welcome to live vicariously through me (as I often do when others are down at WDW and I'm not!) by following my Twitter and Facebook.
Anyway, now on with the show!
Speaking with me today is Sarah, a former employee of Epcot and Animal Kingdom. Much like everyone else I've spoken with thus far, she has some fantastic behind-the-scenes stories. Trust me when I say you will never look at Test Track the same way ever again!
So... here's Sarah!
JEFF: What did you do when you worked for Disney?
SARAH: During my four years at Disney between 2000 and 2004, I worked at Epcot's Test Track and Wonders of Life (when it was still open), then I was transferred to Animal Kingdom's Island Mercantile and Creature Comforts.
Between the two parks, I worked for both merchandise and attractions. My father worked at several of the hotels for ten years. So, my family has been involved with Disney for my whole life.
Sadly, I worked there when September 11th happened and it was a turning point for Disney World as a whole.
JEFF: I miss the Wonders of Life Pavilion! Did you spend a lot of time there, or were you mostly at Test Track?
SARAH: I mainly worked at the Test Track attraction, but I floated around that side of Future World. I worked at Well And Goods, the shop inside of Wonders of Life. It was a small shop, but it got some business when people came out of Body Wars and the Goofy show.
The shop closed when Wonders of Life lost MetLife as its sponsor. The only thing that they kept open was Body Wars, until they closed the whole pavilion down.
JEFF: Were you upset when they closed it down? I know there was a lot of uproar in the Disney fan community when they did, and I know a lot of Cast Members had a special attachment to that place.
SARAH: I can't say I was overly upset by it. I enjoyed working at Well And Goods because I got more time to talk to people, but it became boring at times.
One of my fondest memories of Wonder of Life is from when I was a kid and I first tried the bicycles. After I got off the bike, I couldn't walk and it made my family laugh!
(Jeff's Note: Sarah is talking about the Wonder Cycles - stationary bicycles with an attached television that would take you on a short tour of various locations.)
Well And Goods was a great place to just get out of the heat, but there was something that told me that their Wonder Cycles wouldn't last. It was the last 'ride' Disney built for Wonders of Life and it didn't seem to get the attention that many of the other attractions got. There was a rumor that when MetLife pulled out as the sponsor, another company would pick it up, but it never happened.
JEFF: The pavilion opens for special events and overflow sometimes. Have you been there since it closed down?
SARAH: Yes, I was there during a Flower and Garden Show. They opened the building for special events like guest speakers and information sessions.
It was very strange. Everything that used to be on the walls was gone, including the Body Wars sign. You could still see where everything had been from the wear and tear on the walls, though. It was a little upsetting to see something that I grew up with and worked in looking so unkempt.
I did hear a rumor while I was up there during Christmas that Disney might be tearing down the pavilion and building another ride in its place.
JEFF: Let's talk about Test Track. What did you do there?
SARAH: Well, my main job was the merchandise location at the exit of the building, but there were many times when I helped in the attraction upstairs. My main responsibilities were running the cash registers, the photo computer that took the pictures, and stocking the shelves. When I worked the attraction, I helped load and unload people, walk the track in case of a problem, and help out in the tower control room.
It was definitely my favorite place to work! Even though I had a few problems there, it was the best because of the ride itself.
When it rained, there was always a show outside. You see, that ride is a huge lightning conductor and when lightning struck the track, it was amazing. You can actually watch the electricity travel around the track. One time, we all stood outside in a thunderstorm and watched lightning hit the track right in front of us. We watched it travel the track, and then there was a boom. The lightning had destroyed the circuit breakers! The ride was down for a week.
I also enjoyed Test Track because it is one of the best rides at Epcot and all the celebrities come through. I met Hulk Hogan, Gloria Estefan, Michael Jackson, Michael J Fox, and others. Some of them were real stuck up but most were awesome!
JEFF: Wow, that's amazing! I've never heard that about the lightning before, but it definitely makes sense. While I'm sure it looked awesome, that just seems incredibly dangerous. Were there any safety protocols, aside from shutting the ride down, to handle such events? It just seems like a big liability to me!
SARAH: It is really awesome, but yes, you're right, it is very dangerous.
In the operations room tower, there is a weather station from which we could see for 5 miles around the ride. If there was any sign of lightning anywhere within radius, we were supposed to shut down the ride. We then had to walk the track, getting everyone out of the cars and leading them to the exit. If any of the cars were on the 45 degree turn, we tried to get them through because it was very difficult to pull people out of there. If not, we pushed the car with the people in it to the station.
After the ride was cleared, the Cast Members would need to clear away from the track until the weather improved. Then it was a manager, usually the Future World manager, who made the call to reopen the ride.
JEFF: After the lightning destroyed the circuit breakers, was anything done to help prevent that from happening again? It seems like a costly fix to do every time it's struck by lightning!
SARAH: Unfortunately, nothing could protect the circuit breakers. They're about 10 feet tall at the back of the building. Most of the time, only one or two would break due to the lightning, but that one time it blew them all because of the force of the lightning strike.
It's very costly to repair the circuit breakers and a real headache for our mechanics, but there was nothing else we could do. We didn't design it. The track is a huge lightning conductor, even with the lightning rod on the roof.
JEFF: I know Test Track is one of the most technologically involved rides at Disney. Did you receive any special training to qualify you to work there and keep the ride running?
SARAH: Yes, but it was mostly safety training, such as when you could walk on the track and when you couldn't.
Working the merchandise shop was a walk in the park compared to what you needed to do on the attraction. It was very dangerous to walk anywhere on the track while there was power in the bust bar that runs under the track. If we needed to shut down the ride because of lightning, we had to shut down all power to the track.
Most of the ride itself is computer operated. We just had to push a few buttons here and there to get things to work. But sometimes, making the three computers that run everything agree with each other was more of a pain than anything else. One controlled the cars, one controlled the track, and one controlled the safety procedures. They never reached consensus on some operations.
JEFF: How did it differ working for attractions as opposed to merchandise? Did you prefer one over the other?
SARAH: You know, I think I prefer merchandise to attractions, even though attractions were a lot more fun. When I worked attractions, I met some of the meanest people there were on this planet. Test Track was one of those rides that broke down a lot and when it did, we had to stand outside and tell everyone it wasn't working.JEFF: I have to tell you - for some reason, Creature Comforts is my favorite shop at Animal Kingdom. What sort of responsibilities did you have working in merchandise there?
I hated that, because people were really nasty when the ride wasn't working.
At least in merchandise, I could just shrug my shoulders and pretend I didn't know what was wrong. I liked walking the track when I was in attractions, but in some ways, dealing with the nasty people was not worth it.
SARAH: I liked Creature Comforts, too. My main location was at Island Mercantile, but I preferred Creature Comforts. I started out as a regular cashier when I was transferred to Animal Kingdom after the September 11th attack, but after a few weeks I was promoted to stock clerk. I loved that because I just stocked the merchandise on the shelves and fixed up the stock rooms.
I floated between Creature Comforts and Island Mercantile.
When I worked at Creature Comforts, I stocked their shop and the merchandise carts in Camp Minnie Mickey. I remember I always asked to work with Creature Comforts because I got to drive a golf cart from the Creature Comforts stockroom to the back of Camp Minnie Mickey. It was a lot of fun. And I got to walk around and talk to different people from different places. I basically ran my own schedule, just making sure that everyone had their breaks on time and their areas were fully stocked. I even helped out with the Character Greeters in Camp Minnie Mickey.
JEFF: Camp Minnie Mickey is a sore spot for a lot of Disney fans because it represents a project that was never finished (the Beastly Kingdom). Did you ever come across any 'beastly' remnants while working there?
SARAH: I know all about the mythical animals that were supposed to be there, and I was asked about them plenty of times. In a way, Disney bit off more than they could chew when they announced that portion of Animal Kingdom. Looking back on it later, they played it off as just part of the park's logo and nothing more. Sadly, there were remnants of almost everything that they were planning on putting in but never did.
JEFF: In an earlier conversation we had before this interview, you mentioned that you worked Christmas Day for four years in a row - that's crazy!
SARAH: Yes. I worked Christmas Day all four years. It was a little upsetting to miss out on Christmas, but it was fun at the same time. I got to make someone else's Christmas Day a wonderful experience in turn.
I worked two Christmas Days at Epcot and two at Animal Kingdom. In Epcot, there was the normal Christmas tree and the archway lightings. There was nothing really that different for it being Christmas Day. Epcot was normally packed!
In Animal Kingdom, everything was completely different. Animal Kingdom normally closes at sundown because the keepers have to put the animals away for the night. So, I didn't have to stay until 10:00 PM like I did at Epcot. I normally got off around 6:00 PM, even on Christmas Day. There wasn't really much in the way of Christmas going on at Animal Kingdom.
JEFF: You mentioned earlier that 9/11 was a turning point for Disney. Can you elaborate?
SARAH: Well, I remember waking up that morning to my mom calling and telling me to look at the TV. I was supposed to go into work at Test Track around 2:00 PM, but I called and found out that every single Park, attraction, and even Downtown Disney was closed. Nothing opened at Disney World.
Within a month, all of the international students and exchange Cast Members here on work visas were sent back. We lost about 25 percent of our workforce, so most of us had to pull double shifts, work lots of overtime, or else work alone.
For example, in the Test Track shop, there would only be me and someone at Photos, whereas normally there would be four or five of us. Then, after the New Year, many of us were transferred to different locations. I had friends who went to Magic Kingdom while I went to Animal Kingdom. It was done to help pick up the workload. It took about a year before many of the international Cast Members were allowed back.
JEFF: Were there times when you went out of your way to make a guest's stay more magical?
SARAH: Yes, several times! When I worked at Test Track, if any of the kids told me about their birthdays, I would be able to use a Magical Moment to take them on the ride and give them a free picture. I went on with them and we made silly faces for the camera.
At Well And Goods in Wonders of Life, I remember a little girl coming off Body Wars really upset, crying her eyes out. When her mom asked for tissues, I went to talk to my supervisor, then wrote off a name medallion as 'damaged' and gave it to the little girl with her name on it (and some tissues, too). It made her and her mother really happy.
At Animal Kingdom, when I was a stock clerk, I was able to be a parade monitor, one of those people who stand around to make sure people don't cross the taped lines. I remember always putting on some kind of show for the people. I would bring a bunch of kids into the center of the walkway to sing and dance. I even gave out Fast Pass cards to kids as I walked up and down my section.
JEFF: Any practical jokes you and your co-workers may have played on each other?
SARAH: No one played any jokes on me, but while at Test Track, we did have a fellow Cast Member who was a stickler for the rules and always liked to correct us whenever he saw us doing something wrong (in his mind, at least).
One night, after the ride closed, he was closing his cash register. When he wasn't looking, I took his Palm Pilot, which he was completely attached to, and had one of our taller fellow Cast Members hide it on top of one of the cranes in the room. We just sat around for an hour, watching him try to find it. It wasn't until around 11:00 PM when he finally asked me where we put it because he knew I was behind it. After that, he lightened up a bit, and we became good friends!
JEFF: Any injuries ever occur on the job, Cast Members or guests?
SARAH: Sadly, yes. More than I can list.
One injury that always comes to mind happened at Test Track. I was upstairs in the control room watching the weather radar. We had lightning reports from the Magic Kingdom and wanted to make sure it wasn't coming our way. We got a 101 call, which meant there was a problem with the ride, and shut down all the power. Like I said before, in order to walk the track, there had to be to no power, otherwise it was extremely dangerous.
We walked the track and found a little girl covered in blood. She had gotten out of her car when it was stopped to allow us to help a handicapped woman into a car ahead at the loading station. The little girl's mother wasn't paying attention when the girl got out! She cut up her legs and her sides on the track. We had to call the police. I remember the mother was arrested for child neglect and the little girl went to the hospital.
JEFF: Do you have a favorite attraction in general?
SARAH: I don't have just one! I have a bunch of favorite rides in each park. In Magic Kingdom, the Haunted Mansion is one of my favorites. In Epcot, it's Test Track and Living Seas. In MGM (I know its call Hollywood Studios now, but I still call it that), my favorite is Star Tours and the Indiana Jones Show. I know Star Tours is closed while they build a new one and I can't wait to see it! In Animal Kingdom, I like Dinosaur and the Kilimanjaro Safari.
JEFF: You told me you just came back from another trip to Disney this past Christmas. What makes the place so magical to you?
SARAH: It's not easy to explain why Disney World has been so magical to me for all these years. I have been going to Disney World since I was five years old and if I had to think about what made it so magical for me, it is the experience itself.
I was able to experience a fantasy where princesses, pirates, ghosts, and so on, became real. It was also a place where my family and I had some of our most wonderful times together.
One such time was my 16th birthday. Instead of having a party with a bunch of girlfriends like most girls, we went to Disney. We were standing in line at Living with the Land in Epcot, and my mom told the Cast Member loading the boats that it was my birthday. He had me sit at the front of the boat with the Cast Member Tour Guide.
(Jeff's Note: Before it became fully automated, a Cast Member used to sit in the boat with you and tell you all about the agricultural wonders of The Land pavilion.)
He had everyone on the boat sing to me. I was really embarrassed and happy at the same time. I could see my mom and sister in the last row, laughing their heads off. I even got to help the Cast Member give the tour since I had been on it so many times.
When it was over and we got off, the Cast Member at the controls gave me a Magical Moments card with a picture of the castle on it and the signatures of all of the Cast Members who worked on the ride. He also gave me a cupcake with a candle in it. I started crying, I was so happy. That is only one of so many memories that make Disney World so magical to me.
Thanks for sharing with us, Sarah!
And thank you for reading! Don't forget come back each week to hear more of the magic directly From the Mouth of the Mouse.
We're having a 'From the Mouth of The Mouse' meet-up to see FANTASMIC on Sunday, November 27th at 6:30PM! For more information, check out the Facebook Event for it!
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And finally, a lot of folks who followed me over here from my old stomping grounds have been asking if the Podcast will return anytime soon...and the answer is yes! I have a few lined up that need to be edited, so look for them in the coming weeks. And if you're new to the column, and would like to catch up, you can download them by visiting it's iTunes page right here!
If you are, or know, a Cast Member who would like to share some of their stories and possibly be featured right here on MiceChat, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to hear from you!
Jeff also writes a MiceChat column titled The 626. We invite you to check it out!
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