When R.J. and Suzanne Ogren "remember the magic" of Walt Disney World, they're not remembering their trips to the most magical place on earth, they're remembering their jobs: Suzanne as a character performer, R.J. as an artist. Their backstage stories are like none you've ever read before.
How do the ghosts, pirates, bears, presidents, jungle animals, and all the other audio-animatronic figures in the Magic Kingdom look as flawless today as they did when the park first opened, in 1971? Disney employs an on-site team of artists to inspect and repair every figure equipped with motion and sound, in every attraction, as well as all of the sets, murals, and props.
R.J. Ogren joined the Magic Kingdom's mischievous, prank-playing team of artists in the 1970s. He survived nearly drowning in the Jungle Cruise; an oil-spewing, country-singing bear in Country Bear Jamboree; runaway ghosts in Haunted Mansion; and many other close encounters of the magical kind, armed only with his paint brushes, scrapers, and black-light paint.
Along with his wife, Suzannne, who worked as a character performer and later in the Entertainment Department of the Magic Kingdom, R.J. counts his time spent as a Walt Disney World cast member as some of the best years of his life.
His and Suzanne's stories are sure to make you laugh, such as the time R.J. discovered Lincoln's monkey paw in the Hall of Presidents, and maybe even shed a tear. With a foreword by legendary Diamond Horseshoe Revue performer Bev Bergeron!
Chapter 1: Then and Now
Chapter 2: I Want to Be a Mouseketeer
Chapter 3: A Mouse, a Duck, and Walt
Chapter 4: Anatomy of a Parade
Chapter 5: It's a Witch!
Chapter 6: Zoo Crew Reunion Reminiscing
Chapter 7: "You Look Wan"
Chapter 8: Jimmy's Stories
Chapter 9: The Dapper Dans
Chapter 10: Other Characters' Stories
Chapter 11: "Stop Smiling!"
Chapter 12: A Special Writing Assignment
Chapter 13: A Tenner
Chapter 14: Around the World, Again and Again
Chapter 15: A Tiger, a Drummer, and a Chicken
Chapter 16: Disney Magic on Our 25th
Chapter 17: Hidden Gifts
Chapter 18: Last Night of the Electrical Light Parade
Chapter 19: "You Killed It!"
Chapter 20: Cross-Utilization Duty
Chapter 21: The Diamond Horseshoe Revue
Chapter 22: Deserving of Accolades
Chapter 23: Into Neverland
Chapter 24: Dignity in the Hall of Presidents
Chapter 25: "These Guys Are Tall!"
Chapter 26: Treehouse, Tiki Birds, and Targets
Chapter 27: Where's the Water Spout?
Chapter 28: Country Bears at Christmas
Chapter 29: Crying on the Audience
Chapter 30: Ghost Host Acting
Chapter 31: Hitchhiking with Marc's Ghosts
Chapter 32: Dawn's Stories
Chapter 33: Sean's Stories
Chapter 34: This Isn't The End
R.J. asked me to write four words for his latest book about the early years of Walt Disney World. I gave a lot of thought to this and there is no way that I could write just four words about the Ogrens’ new book. It would take a whole lot more than that.
It was a long time ago that I first met Randy—that is what I knew him as way back in the early 1970s. I had pioneered the opening of television shows across the nation, but quit it when I ended up as the head writer and playing one of the leads in a children’s Saturday morning show on CBS-TV and also making three trips with the USO to Vietnam, then rushing back to begin my adventure with Walt Disney.
Wally Boag and Walt Disney put the show together that I started in at Disneyland, the Golden Horseshoe Revue. Wally talked me into joining him in the new location in Orlando with the Diamond Horseshoe Revue. After three years, Wally called Florida quits and returned to Disneyland. I was made the director of the Diamond Horseshoe Revue and that was when I met Suzanne and Randy. That meeting became regular—over and over, they could be found in the audience of our Western revue show. I got to know them as they lived miles from the theme park, but commuted every day to work the jobs of their dreams.
In 1977, I asked Randy if he would like to take on some artwork for a book I started writing when I was a teenager and traveling with one of the few remaining tent theaters. He agreed and I handed him a pile of scribbled drawings that I wanted made a lot bettter. In only a few days, we were in business. The book, Willard the Wizard, was a success, and a few years later I was contacted by the Smithsonian Institute asking permission to use the information and the drawings from the book for their 1983 tribute to American tent theater.
Randy did not stop with the Disney and Smithsonian successes; he went on to other theme park projects, and Suzanne joined him in writing about their early adventures in Walt Disney World for Theme Park Press in a book called Together in the Dream.
But their many adventures would not fit into one book; it would take another. Join with me in reading about Walt Disney’s magic land that Randy and Suzanne for a time called home.
Suzanne & R.J. Ogren are former Walt Disney World cast members who worked in a variety of roles at the Magic Kingdom during the 1970s and 1980s. They currently reside near Chicago, Illinois, where they pursue various creative endeavors.
The audio-animatronic figures in Walt Disney World attractions always look their best because Disney employs full-time artists to keep them that way. The artists are also responsible for locating animatronic imperfections and malfunctions, by walking through attractions prior to park opening. Even the Wicked Witch gets the occasional spa treatment.
No mask! Rats!”
The witch just stared at me with her weird eyes.
“I don’t suppose you have a mask up your sleeve?”
I shook my head and chuckled. “Ha. I am now talking to a fiberglass, animated, six-foot-tall witch.” I laughed. “Come to think of it…I now talk to all the figures in all the attractions.” The witch didn’t say anything…which is good.
Maybe I should be in therapy.
I was standing next to the Wicked Witch in Snow White’s Scary Adventure, just outside the open door into the Seven Dwarfs’ cottage. Her hand was extended toward me, holding a bright red apple.
Everything in this ultraviolet-light attraction was painted with black light paint. All the paint had to be applied under black light. I had just refinished painting the witch’s face and hand, and the apple. Next, I turned my artistic skills to the matter of her black, hooded cloak.
Made by the Costume Department, located in the tunnels below the Magic Kingdom, the cloak was of a heavy, dark material. In order to make it visible in the black light, I needed to highlight the folds. Imagine drapes in a room in your own house. The outer folds are highlighted while the in-between recessed folds are dark.
I had to carefully spray the outer folds to highlight them, while not spraying the dark areas. The light blue spray paint I used, in a pressurized can, was stronger than regular spray paints. In fact, it was toxic. Hence…masks.
These masks were of a heavy-duty material, with replaceable filters. I had forgotten to bring one with me. I didn’t have time to go back to our studio, located behind the Small World attraction. The Magic Kingdom was going to open in a half-hour.
The Operations Department needed all the figures running before opening in order for them to check that everything was working properly. I had requested that they be turned off so that I could paint and spray. However, I did need the air conditioning on, to clear the air of the spray paint.
I made a decision. Wacky. But a decision.
I shook the can of black light spray, took a very deep breath, held it, and sprayed away.
Almost out of breath! Not done spraying witch’s cloak!
I ran into the next scene of the attraction. Breathe! Ah! Fresh air! I waited about thirty seconds, took another deep breath, held it, and ran back to the witch. A cloudy mist still hovered in the air. I ran into it and sprayed the last of the folds. Done.
Air! I need air! I ran again.
Safe. Breathe. Whew!
I walked toward the end of the attraction, near the guest unload area. I told the cast member host that I had finished painting and that she could start the animatronics.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“You seem to be out of breath. Were you running?”
“Yes,” I said, then added, “no mask.”
She looked at me like I was crazy. “What?”
I explained to her what I had just done.
She laughed. “You are crazy!”
“True,” I said, smiling, as I walked away. I turned back to her. “Almost forgot. Don’t go back by the witch at the cottage door for about five minutes. Let the air clear.”
I always thoroughly enjoyed working in UV lighting, with the black light paints and effects. Each morning, with my fellow artists, Lee, Tom, and Jayne, we would split up, and, in the two hours before the park opened, we’d check the attractions in all the lands, looking for repairs needed on the figures, sets, props, and murals.
We were sometimes able to do quick repairs to skins, or do small paint touch-ups. If a figure or prop required more extensive work, we would notify Audio-Animatronic Maintenance and they would pull the figure that night and bring it to our studio. In addition, we were always looking for ways to improve the look of an attraction.
The four of us would return to our studio shortly before the park opened. While guests waited for the rope stanchions to be dropped, allowing them inside, the four of us would take a morning break in the tunnel commissary to enjoy coffee, rolls, and fun conversation.
Continued in "Remembering the Magic"!
One day, Mr. Lincoln wasn't ready for his close-up in the Hall of Presidents. R.J. had just minutes to triage Lincoln before the next performance began.
The figure stood with a proud demeanor. As I walked toward him, I noticed more ducks taking up residence in the Rivers of America. A mother duck swam by with eight ducklings close behind.
I was in Frontierland. That proud figure was a Native American who had some chips and paint-worn areas. The Florida sun was hard on him, and paint chips were usually caused by guests touching the figure when they took photos with him. I made a mental note to have Maintenance bring him to our studio so that I could repaint him. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d repainted him, and I’d also redone his “twin,” who stood on Main Street, U.S.A.
It was summer when the Indian canoes, paddled by guests under the guidance of two Frontierland cast members, would be out on the Rivers of America by midday, gliding around Tom Sawyer Island. But, with the park not yet open, my interest was in the big raft tied up to the dock near Pecos Bill Café. This area would soon be much busier, because Big Thunder Mountain was under construction.
I climbed onto the raft, started the engine, and after untying the rope from its mooring, I put the raft in gear and steered across the river to the dock on Tom Sawyer Island. I bet Tom Sawyer would have loved having a motorized raft.
It was always lovely and calm early in the morning on the island. All alone, I made my way into the fort, to a small room on its left side. I heard “him” before I saw him. Lying on his back, sleeping on a pile of cloth food bags was an audio-animatronic man, his eyes closed, his chest and stomach rising and falling to match his breathing sounds.
I looked through the door window at him before unlocking the door and stepping into the small room. He was the only “figure” on the island, and only once did I have to clean his face and repaint him. Since guests couldn’t reach him through the tiny window, he remained in pretty good shape, although an occasional guest would toss something at him—usually food, condiment packets, or drinks. We spent years trying to get the Foods division to stop using the packets of ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise; they were a constant source of damage to all the attractions.
Today, the sleeping guy looked good. I locked the door and decided to take an alternate route back to the dock; an early morning stroll through the woods. I walked over the bobbing barrel bridge before returning to the raft, and back to the “mainland.”
I wanted to check out the construction at Big Thunder Mountain, which was scheduled to open in September 1979. I was looking forward to working on all the figures in this attraction, and equally excited about riding the mine train, a fast, roller-coaster experience, with lots of hills, drops, and curves. It was fun to wander around in there, and imagine what the finished product would look like. Of course, I had to wear a hard hat.
Five minutes after leaving Big Thunder, I was staring up at Abraham Lincoln. Impressive. Tall. I looked around the stage at all the male figures standing onstage in the Hall of Presidents. I thought to myself: ‘These guys are tall; well, most of them, anyway.’
Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln was created by Disney Imagineers for the 1964–1965 World’s Fair. The Carousel of Progress also made its debut there. Guests at the World’s Fair were astounded by Mr. Lincoln, as he stood up and spoke to the audience. Both attractions were moved to Disneyland, in California, when the World’s Fair closed.
As Walt Disney World attractions were being conceived, the Imagineers took Mr. Lincoln a bit further…actually, a lot further. They created a show where all the U.S. presidents would be onstage with the talking Lincoln, accompanied by George Washington, who would stand and introduce Lincoln. Beginning with Bill Clinton’s term in office, the attraction was modified so that the sitting president introduced Mr. Lincoln.
Whenever a new president is elected, Disney artists and Imagineers immediately begin work to complete a figure representing that president onstage, which is installed within a few months of inauguration.
Walking slowly across the huge stage, I checked each president for signs of hydraulic leaks on the skin, or skin shrinkage that is caused by prolonged contact with the oil. It was almost intimidating to be onstage with the presidents. I mean…these guys are tall! I was six feet tall then (yeah, then; I’ve now “matured” and lost an inch) and it was still intimidating because, as I checked their faces, I was looking up.
For this attraction, Disney Imagineers did extensive research on all the presidents, for accuracy in height, size, and looks. Some are seated, so it’s difficult to tell their height, but trust me, it’s correct. There are a few short presidents; John Adams being one.
I finally made my way to the last president I had to inspect: Abraham Lincoln. “Uh, oh,” I said out loud. He was the figure who exhibited the most action, and right then, he had a very shiny face. I pushed on the skin. Not bad. I could clean off the oil, have Audio-Animatronic Maintenance check him for leaks, and then paint new color onto his face, if needed. Yay! I get to work on Lincoln!
I leaned over to get my art supplies from the bag that I had set down on the stage, near Lincoln’s figure. As I straightened up, I glanced at Lincoln’s hands. “Oh, wow!” was my loud reaction. “What did you do to your hand, sir?” He didn’t answer.
Lincoln’s right hand was shriveled. It looked like a monkey’s paw, and I couldn’t believe Maintenance hadn’t told us about this. The problem was caused by a persistent oil leak that had caused the hand to stiffen and shrink. Lincoln gestures with his hands. This had to look weird, even frightening, to guests able to see it from the front rows.
I left my supplies, dashed off the stage, out the doors, and back to our studio. Jayne was in Tomorrowland with our Pargo cart, and the Hall of Presidents wasn’t that far from our trailer, so I had walked. I crashed through the door and ran to the shelves that held body parts.
“You all right?” Lee asked, as he came over to see what I was up to.
“Monkey paw,” was my reply, as I rummaged through right-hand skins.
“I know.” After that back-and-forth exchange, I ran out the studio door, going full speed. Lee was right behind me.
“Have you got everything you need?” he asked, as he caught up with me.
“Yes!” I answered, as we both ran toward the Hall of Presidents.
Lee said, “Park opening is in a half-hour.”
“I know, but this is really bad.”
“Well, we can have Operations delay the opening if we have to.”
As we ran inside the theatre, we almost knocked over an Operations cast member, and, as we continued our rush toward the stage, he asked, “What’s going on?”
“Monkey paw!” I yelled.
“What’s a monkey paw?”
We kept moving, and when we reached Lincoln, we knelt down to pull his coat and shirt sleeve out of our way.
“Oh, that’s just wrong!” said the cast member, when he saw the shriveled and darkened hand. We learned he was a lead at the attraction. “What are you going to do?”
“Give him a hand,” I said, laughing. I was tempted to start applauding as well, but seeing the concerned look on the lead’s face, I decided the joke would be lost on him.
“Yes,” answered Lee.
I was already cutting off the stiff, tough skin on the monkey paw. It was going to take longer to get the old skin off than to put the new one on.
“But, we’re near opening…“ the lead said.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get it done,” Lee assured him.
The lead just walked away. We could tell he was skeptical.
As I struggled with the skin, Lee prepped the new hand so we could get it on over the audio-animatronic controls and actuators. His hand had a full range of motion, and the fingers moved individually.
Finally I had the old skin off. I put the new skin on the hand, melted it together, then trimmed and smoothed around the fingers. Meanwhile, Lee mixed the skin colors. To an observer, we probably appeared to be methodical, but my heart was racing, and Lee’s probably was, too. We took pride in making sure attractions looked good and opened on time.
A voice from the back of the theatre called out, “Ten minutes to park open.” It was an Operations supervisor, who walked down to the front of the stage. “How are you doing?”
Lee, who had started painting the hand, replied, “We’ll make it.”
I mixed a little red into some of the skin color so that Lee could quickly blend it into Lincoln’s knuckles. While he did that, I mixed a little brown into more of the skin color. When Lee finished painting the knuckles, he handed me his paint cups and brushes. I gave him a small detail brush and the brown mix I’d prepared. I cleaned his brushes while he began painting lines on the knuckles.
“Not dark enough,” he said.
The supervisor called to us from the back of the theatre, “How long?”
“Two minutes,” Lee answered as I handed him the brown paint, so he could mix a bit more in his cup. He applied the paint as I began to pack up my supplies.
“Done!” Lee announced. He put his brush and cup inside a rag, to be cleaned when we returned to the studio. The supervisor made a call on her radio and the main curtain on the stage began to lower as we climbed off the stage and walked out of the theatre. We could see guests starting to come across the Liberty Square bridge.
“Close,” said Lee.
“That was…fun.” Pause. “Let’s get coffee…and breathe again.”
We took a much longer coffee break that morning.
Continued in "Remembering the Magic"!