A rogue Imagineer enlists a former Jungle Cruise skipper in his mad scheme to track down the name tags of former Disneyland cast members. Encoded within those name tags: the technology for "audio-eugenics", the creation of perfect bio-engineered cast members who never tire and never age.
One of Walt Disney's engineering marvels was audio-animatronics: lifelike figures capable of movement and speech that populate such iconic attractions as Pirates of the Caribbean, "it's a small world", and Hall of Presidents. But for all their realism, they're still just machines.
What if the technology could be taken even further. From audio-animatronics to audio-eugenics, a synthesis of machine and human DNA, in the pursuit of an even more immersive theme park, where the cast members are happy around the clock, and where each cast member is not chosen for but rather designed with the "Disney Look". Perfect Jungle Cruise skippers, perfect Haunted Mansion butlers, perfect everyone, everywhere, and no one draws a paycheck.
Whether this great, big, bio-mechanical tomorrow will happen is in the hands of Dave, a former Jungle Cruise skipper, whose hit list of cast members takes him across the country, and through the decades, from the 1960s to the present.
Treasure of the Ten Tags is more than just an action-adventure with a Disney twist; it's also a behind-the-scenes look at Disneyland, seen through the eyes of cast members employed as characters, ride operators, street sweepers, parking lot attendants, and even can-can dancers at the Golden Horseshoe Revue.
Have a magical day! We insist...
Chapter 1: Dave: The Jungle Cruise Skipper
Chapter 2: The Operative
Chapter 3: From the Journal of Andrés Xavier
Chapter 4: Isadora: The Tour Guide
Chapter 5: Dave and Isadora in Iowa City
Chapter 6: From the Journal of Leon Xavier
Chapter 7: Sid: The Sweeper
Chapter 8: Dave and Sid in San Francisco
Chapter 9: Project Fountain
Chapter 10: Nekkah: The Can-Can Dancer
Chapter 11: Dave and Nekkah in Palm Springs
Chapter 12: The Fountain of Youth
Chapter 13: Ethan: The Parking Lot Attendant
Chapter 14: Dave and Ethan in Beverly Farms
Chapter 15: Yolanda: The Ride Operator
Chapter 16: Dave and Yolanda in Portland
Chapter 17: Dave, Leon, and Alejandro in Beverly Hills
Chapter 18: Naquan: The Submarine Pilot
Chapter 19: Dave and Naquan in Hope
Chapter 20: Dao: The Character
Chapter 21: Dave and Dao in Disneyland
Chapter 22: Dave's Final Dilemma
Andrea McGann Keech was born in southern California and visited Disneyland often, ever since it opened in 1955. She fulfilled a life-long dream of working at the park and became a bilingual tour guide and VIP hostess during college holidays from 1969 through 1972, experiences described in her first book, The Cream of the Crop: Tour Guide Tales from Disneyland’s Golden Years (Theme Park Press, 2016).
She and husband Ron met at Occidental College in 1969 and were married in San Francisco in 1970. Ron graduated from the University of California at San Francisco Medical School, and Andrea finished college at the University of San Francisco. They lived in Portland, Oregon, for six years and then moved to Iowa City where he was a professor of medicine and surgeon in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Iowa for twenty-two years until his death in 2007. Their children, Elizabeth and Robert, made them incredibly proud and happy parents. Liz is an attorney, and Rob is a dentist.
Andrea taught students in English and Spanish in grades K-12 during teaching career. She was a member of the National Assessment of Educational Progress Committee that established writing standards, 2011–2018, for students in grades 1–12. She has written for a variety of national educational journals and presented often at teaching conferences, but the most gratifying aspect of her work, by far, was seeing her students succeed.
Andrea lives in Iowa City with Shadow and Sunny, two wild and crazy standard poodles. Her most fulfilling role post-retirement is that of playing Mary Poppins to beloved grandchildren Katherine and Drew. This year, we are delighted to welcome Baby William to the family.
A long way from the Jungle Cruise, Dave may still get the point, in the end...
It’s practically pitch dark, it’s broiling hot, and it’s getting increasingly difficult to breathe; I haven’t had anything to eat or drink since early this morning, so I’m not exactly thinking straight any more—not that I have in a very long time, not since July 17, 1970. That’s the day this entire wild goose chase began, or maybe I should call it what it really is, a wild tag chase. You know the kind of tags I mean, those name tags worn by all the Disneyland employees from the top execs right down to the guy who sweeps up after the horses pulling trolleys on Main Street, the one pushing a Disney Sanitation Department can full of horse manure. With every decade that has gone by between 1970 and today, that’s what this assignment turned into…a real load of horse manure.
Don’t get me wrong. The job has compensated me well, exceedingly well, but even so, it’s something I wish I had never agreed to undertake. The danger has vastly outweighed the gold, and if you know anything at all about gold, you know it’s very, very heavy. A single bar of it weighs more than twenty-seven pounds. That means a bar of gold these days is valued at more than half-a-million dollars. I’ve got nine of them deposited in a numbered Swiss account, one every four years or thereabouts since 1970. Today was supposed to be the day I’d make it an even ten. Five million dollars in gold, and that’s not counting the million in cash I’ve been paid for “miscellaneous” expenses. Not bad for a high school history teacher, is it?
I wore a tag, too. We all did. You work for the Mouse, you wear a name tag. It comes with the territory. When you put it on for the first time, you know you’ve become part of the House That Walt Built. It defines you, just like the uniform you wear, although at Disney they aren’t called uniforms, they’re called costumes. At Disneyland, people you don’t even know call you by your first name, even the company bigwigs, and you’re expected to call them by their first names, too. It was something Walt insisted on, and it’s a tradition that continues to this day.
The thing about those name tags, though, is that no one wants to turn them in when they leave the company. Everyone holds onto their name tag forever, at least everyone but a couple of congenital rule followers too scared of their own shadows to bend the regs a bit. (What? Think the Mice Squad’s gonna come looking for a fifty-cent missing name tag twenty or thirty years later?) That’s also a tradition that continues to this day, albeit one definitely not part of accepted company policy. No, you’re told in every one of the many wardrobe bulletins you receive at Disney University, the company orientation and training program, that ALL PARTS OF THE COSTUME MUST BE TURNED IN when you leave. That’s exactly the way it’s written, too—all caps. No shades of gray in the Mouse House. Turn it in or be charged for “losing” it.
Well, practically every former cast member I’ve ever met, anyone worth their salt at any rate, still has their old Disney name tag stashed away somewhere for safekeeping long after they’ve gone on to became doctors or lawyers or bankers or history teachers—like me. Name tags—that was the basis of my exceedingly strange assignment. Find ten missing name tags (it turned out to be the microchips hidden behind the tags, not the tags themselves, that mattered) and bring them back to Disneyland. I agreed to become “the Operative” for Leon Xavier, wildly successful Disney Imagineer. When this all began, it sounded so exciting, so dashing, so Bond, James Bond. I was naïve, of course, but show me someone who isn’t when he’s twenty-two.
Initially, I wasn’t even told the reason why the microchips needed to be found and recovered. I was kept in the dark. Funny, when my assignment started, I never thought “the dark” would be quite this literal. Disney is a lot like the military in that respect. You follow orders and you don’t ask questions, just like in that poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” It’s about a doomed regiment of British cavalry during the Crimean War. You probably heard it back in school. Remember the part that goes like this?
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Yeah, nobody remembers that last line correctly. People always think it’s “…do or die...” In other words, we’ll try really hard, and we’ll either accomplish our goal or we’ll die in the attempt. Nope, it’s actually “do and die,” which is a whole ‘nother ball game. Those poor bastards were doomed from the get-go. “Someone had blundered,” the poet wrote, and because of that mistake, the light brigade was riding straight into “the valley of Death.”
Had I done the same thing, had I blundered? I never thought my life would depend on locating ten of those little plastic name tags and the former cast members who had taken them, people who had scattered across the United States like leaves tossed in the wind...leaves that took their name tags with them when they left the park.
I had been assigned to my dream job that year, the summer of ‘67. I was a skipper on the Jungle Cruise, the best gig in the park. It was shaping up to be the coolest summer of my life. I was eighteen years old, and Disneyland was my personal playground! It just doesn’t get any better than that for a college kid who thought he had the world by the tail. They say that fate is actually comprised of every little decision we make throughout our lives. If I’d only known then what this assignment would become, I would never have said “okay” when my supervisor approached me in the summer of 1970 with the words, “Management wants to talk to you.” What was I supposed to say, “No”?
That’s how I came to be propped up against this fake stone wall inside Sleeping Beauty Castle on the hottest day of the summer, July 17, 2015, exactly forty-five years after I got that fateful tap on the shoulder from by my boss. My hands and feet are tied with nylon rope to the point where I can hardly feel them any more, I’m surrounded by hundreds of feral cats (what, you didn’t know the castle is full of them?), and if my old friend Ernie, or Ariana, my darling granddaughter, and that idiot boyfriend of hers don’t find me pretty soon, the treasure of the ten tags will be gone forever. Come to think of it, so will I.
Continued in "Treasure of the Ten Tags"!
As with all good adventure stories, it all started one day on the Jungle Cruise...
‘Man, I look sharp,’ I thought, craning my neck to get a better look at myself in the big mirror in the men’s locker room. ‘Really sharp!’ I pulled the brim of my safari hat down a little over my eyes, grinned broadly, and winked at the dashing guy looking back. I wore an official name tag pinned to my shirt pocket, a white oval backed in red with a tiny silver castle at the top. My name was inscribed, and believe me, DAVE had never looked so good. That made the ensemble official. I wasn’t dressing up for some dumb costume party. This was an actual job, one coveted by thousands of southern California college kids, and my name tag proved it. Not only did I get a job at Disneyland, I landed the best job in the park.
Sure, I’d been to Disneyland about a million times in my life, ever since it was built when I was seven. We were lucky. My family lives in Anaheim, and the park was built practically in our own backyard. Every one of those times I’d visited, of course, I rode the Jungle Boats, or Jungle Cruise as the attraction is technically known. I remember very clearly when the old jungle wasn’t nearly so lush. In fact, when I was a little kid, it looked downright barren. Things were spindly, sparse, and kind of weedy-looking in some spots. Now, it really did look just like the tropical jungle it was intended to resemble, giant fake orchids that “receive their nutrients and water from the air” and all. The great thing about Disneyland is that management doesn’t rest on its laurels. Walt Disney wanted everything to change and evolve, not just stay the same. The big guy said so himself: “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.”
In 1962, the park spent seven million dollars just fixing up Adventureland, and it was barely seven years old by then. The whole park had only cost seventeen million dollars to build in 1955. They put in that really extensive bathing pool of the Indian elephants where you almost get squirted and have to lean in toward the center of the boat. That was the year the elephant god, Ganesha, and the “ruins of ancient Cambodia” were constructed. The very next year they separated and repositioned the pair of African elephants on the banks of the Nile. On nighttime cruises, some of the skippers will shine a flashlight on one of them and say, “These big guys can move really fast!” Then, they’d immediately shine their light on the opposite bank of the river to show the other elephant and say, “See? Super fast!”
Know how to tell the difference between Asian and African elephants? The ears of each species look like a map of where they’re from. Asian elephants have small, point-down ears that look like India. African elephants have much larger ears that resemble the big continent of Africa. Check out an old Tarzan movie some time, the black-and-white ones starring Johnny Weissmuller. You’ll see a bunch of Asian elephants wearing what look like huge plastic bags over their ears. Asian elephants are a lot tamer, easier to train, and far more manageable, so those are the ones they used in the films. Wardrobe just fixed up their ears to make them look like their larger African cousins. Tarzan probably didn’t even notice. He was too busy checking out Jane.
Disney designers also got rid of some pretty lame, I mean tame, charging rhinos and a couple of worn-out old lions that had been roaring and snarling in place since 1955. Three years ago, in 1964, they added some great new scenes. Now, the cruise includes a trapped safari climbing a tree, the one where the skipper says, “He’ll get the point in the end,” as the rhino’s horn keeps aiming for the bottom guy’s derrière. There’s also an enormous African veldt tableau with lions and zebras and lions eating zebras. Those additions look seriously classy and polish up the attraction’s image. I’d seen every change over the past eleven years. Each one was better than the one before.
I wasn’t going to be a passenger any more on one of the boats traveling “down the tropical rivers of the world,” not this time. This summer, I was going to be a skipper piloting my own boat! The summer of 1967 was already looking amazing, and this was just the first day.
“Quit looking at yourself, moron! You’ll shatter the glass.” It was Ernie, a short kid I recognized from classes at the University of Disneyland. He wore a pair of thick, black-framed glasses and the far less dashing, wildly patterned, tropical shirt of a server at the Tiki Juice Bar, whatever “tiki juice” was supposed to be. “Who do you think you are, anyway, Biggo-Ego?”
“Who the heck is that?” I asked, genuinely curious. I thought I knew all the Disney characters.
Ernie was smart. Every time one of our instructors at good old University of Disneyland asked our class a question, Ernie was always that kid frantically waving his hand back and forth like he was marooned on a desert island trying to flag down a rescue helicopter. He knew every answer, sometimes before our instructors even managed to get the question out of their mouths.
“Not what, who. Biggo Ego was one of the ideas rejected as a name for one of the seven dwarfs,” he told me off-handedly. “Get it? Big ego? Full of himself? Kind of like you?” He punched me playfully on the shoulder. “Other rejected names included Awful, Burpy, Dumpy, Flabby, Gabby…”
“Okay, okay,” I cut him off. He could go on like that forever—and he often did, in class.
“There were more than forty-five potential names,” he continued as if I hadn’t even said a word. “As you know, Dave, only seven made the final cut.”
“Yeah, I know, I know. Happy, Sneezy, Doc, Bashful, Sleepy, Grumpy, and Ernie…I mean Dopey!” I joked. I was proud I could come up with all seven of them off the top of my head.
“That’s so funny I forget to laugh. Sappy, Snappy, Shifty, Snoopy…” he continued, barely taking a breath.
“Hey, wait a minute. Isn’t the last one Charlie Brown’s dog?”
“Wrong animator, but you’re correct. Charles Shultz, when he was just a boy from Petaluma, had a very intelligent dog, a pointer, in fact, and not a beagle…”
“Where’s the button you hit to shut this guy up?” Tom asked me in mock seriousness, slamming his wardrobe locker shut and walking over to where we were standing. He made a big show of carefully examining Ernie’s back as if he were looking for the “off” switch. “‘Cuz if he doesn’t shut up, I’m gonna have to hit something to shut him up—like his mouth, maybe.” Tom smiled, but there was no warmth in it.
Ernie blinked rapidly behind the thick lenses of his glasses. He wisely shut up.
Tom was another skipper, but not a new-hire like me. This was his third summer working here. He had all of the swagger and confidence of a Jungle Cruise veteran and wore his dapper uniform like he was born in it. I was still adjusting to how it felt, and let me tell you, it felt pretty darned good. Tom looked so completely at ease. He probably never practiced winking at himself in the mirror, either.
“C’mon, kid,” Tom said giving my back a firm shove, “let’s get going. You can be a lot of things around this place, but one of them is definitely not late.”
“Yeah, got it. You coming, Ernie?” We were heading the same way, after all.
“Sure thing!” He looked happy to have been included, like maybe it didn’t happen often.
Tom looked right though Ernie like he wasn’t even there. That was my first lesson in what it meant to be a member of the Disneyland “caste” system. Some people felt they were better than others, just because of the costume they wore and the job they performed. Skippers had a lot of status, which was great, but it didn’t mean you had to act like a jerk.
What can I say? I liked the smart little guy, and I admired his vast knowledge of everything Disney. Maybe he wasn’t a smooth operator like Tom, and he certainly wasn’t in the same universe in the looks department, but he was a nice guy. He’s the kind of loyal kid you know you could count on when things got tough. If the metaphorical (or actual) boat were sinking, Tom would no doubt say it was every man for himself—right before he grabbed the last life preserver.
Two tall guys dressed like skippers and one little guy who might have been our younger, bookworm brother walked through the Cast Members Only door and across the still-wet pavement of Main Street. The crew who work maintenance at night wash it down thoroughly before they go home. Keeps it fresh. Everything looked brand new, as good as it had on the first day the park opened. Maybe even better. That first disastrous day, known forever after as Black Sunday to the cast members who survived it, had been plagued with a variety of mishaps and melting pavement, not enough rest rooms and too many guests, and managers and employees who had absolutely no idea what to do or what to expect.
There was a decade’s worth of hard-earned experience under the ever-expanding Disney belt now. The tencennial celebration, Disneyland’s tenth birthday, had come two years ago in July. It was celebrated on the television program Disneyland by Walt and the first Disneyland Ambassador, Julie Rhiems. Julie was a former tour guide. Walt Disney personally selected her for the first ambassador position. That’s when we heard more details about a new attraction on the horizon, the Haunted Mansion. Man, I can’t wait for that one! “999 happy haunts” will take up residence, Walt told Julie. Construction began on the mansion in 1962. Should be open any time now. It’s already been five years, after all.
The meaning of “tencennial” had to be painstakingly re-explained every time that cumbersome, committee-concocted term was trotted out, which was actually pretty funny. People were lucky if they knew what a centennial was, a one hundredth anniversary, let alone the made-up meaning of the fictional tencennial. There was a time, during those early years, when no one was actually sure if Disneyland would even survive to celebrate its tenth birthday. Now, the park seemed here to stay, a permanent part of American culture. Most people couldn’t imagine a world without it, especially people like me who lived in Anaheim, California. It sure put our little town on the map.
“This is where I leave you, gentlemen,” Ernie said, veering over to the as-yet-shuttered Tiki bar. It was just across the little bridge leading to Adventureland, the first of the four original “lands” of the park. New Orleans Square, all three acres of it, is set to open next month. It’s going to rule. At the University of Disneyland, we found out that it cost eighteen million dollars, more than the whole park did twelve years ago. The Tiki Juice Bar was on the right. The hut was thatched with palm fronds. Rattan panels were outlined in lacquered lengths of rustic bamboo.
“Hmmh,” grunted Tom, concomitantly.
“See you later, man,” I said with a wave. “Hey, good luck today.”
Ernie’s training period wouldn’t be nearly as extensive or difficult as mine. It wouldn’t be nearly as much fun, either. He’d be serving “Tiki juice,” aka Dole pineapple juice, and making change for thirsty guests in a couple of hours. Dole was also the sponsor of the groundbreaking Enchanted Tiki Room just across the walkway from where Ernie would be working.
The Tiki Room was the attraction that brought the breakthrough technology known as audio-animatronics to Disneyland. It was a game-changer. Take a look at Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln over on Main Street and you can see how far the process had come—and how fast. The realistic-looking president is light years beyond those squawking, talking parrots. That leap took just ten months. José and his feathered friends debuted at the Tiki Room in June 1963. By April 1964, Lincoln was rising from his chair to speak at the New York World’s Fair. The Imagineers, Disney-speak for imaginative engineers with maybe a little Mouseketeer thrown in, were scary good.
Meanwhile, I still had a whole spiel to learn and would need to practice my timing and delivery. Those guys on the boats were hilarious. It wasn’t the jokes so much as the way they sold them with lots of attitude and off-the-cuff sarcasm. I’d be making many trips riding along with experienced skippers like Tom, about half of whom were full time. Some had started working here back in 1955. I wouldn’t have a cruise of my own for at least a week, but I could hardly wait to get behind the wheel of a boat like the Nile Princess or the Irrawaddy Woman. There were lots of new skippers like me hired at the start of every summer season. A bunch of the college guys who had worked here seasonally for four years had just graduated from college and wouldn’t be returning. New positions opened up, but they were filled almost immediately. Summer jobs anywhere in 1967 were hard to come by, and summer jobs at Disneyland were a hundred times harder to come by.
This morning, we’d be given more on-the-job training, lots of talk, and very little action. In addition to cracking jokes and driving the boats, which were on a track but could still manage to derail, we’d be trained to take tickets, help load and unload passengers safely, and work at the entrance turnstile. Because the hairpin turns at Schweitzer Falls and the Hippo Pool created a wake that would cause the rear of the boats to lift up, they would occasionally come off the submerged track. We were taught to be extremely careful navigating those bends. In the course of a day, we’d be doing all of those tasks and more, our supervisor informed us.
Some attractions were cool and comfortable. Not ours. California in early June can be chilly and foggy in the mornings and evenings, but later on in the summer it would get hot, and this attraction was entirely outdoors. No air conditioning in the jungle. None of us cared. This job was the most fun by far in the whole park. You hear of guys who work in lots of other areas trying to get behind the wheel of a jungle boat, but you never hear of a Jungle Cruise skipper asking to transfer somewhere else. Just doesn’t happen—unless maybe it’s to management.
“They told you to stay on script, right?” Tom asked me during a break.
“No one does, buddy. I mean no one. You gotta make it your own, dude, or you’ll go crazy. Nobody can say the exact same thing twenty times a day and not crack under the pressure. We’re not robots, for cryin’ out loud. Just keep it clean,” he warned. “Say anything the least bit off-color—that’ll get you fired quicker than you can punch a time card.”
“From what I hear, lots of things’ll get you fired,” I said.
“True, very true, but just be smart about it. Some stuff is overlooked. Don’t even think about letting your hair grow too long, though. Leave that to the Beatles and the Stones. Mid-ear, man.”
“Yeah, I heard all about that at the U of D.”
“Lorelei, wait up!” Tom called. His head swiveled away from me. “Hey, Lorelei!” he called out to a passing tour guide as she walked past, trailed by about twenty attentive tourists wearing red triangular paper tags attached by little loops of string. Her long, blonde braid was bobbing from side to side under her navy blue, velvet riding cap, and she held up a leather riding crop so her guests could see her in the crush of people. Her crop, too, had a little red tag hanging from the loop at the end.
“See you late-ah, Tohm,” she called, over her shoulder, not even breaking stride. She did flash him a sweet, dimpled smile. Lots of the guides were international, and she sounded German.
“Okay. Count on it,” he yelled. “This place is one big dating game,” he told me, his head swiveling back to face me once the enchanting Lorelei had vanished from view, “and I intend to be Bachelor Number One. Besides, it’s never to early to find a hot date for the Banana Ball.”
“Huh? What’s that?”
“Nobody’s told you about it? Best bash of the year, man. Bitchin’ party, seriously boss. It’s at the end of the summer, thrown by the skippers.” He was warming to the subject.
“Aren’t we supposed to take the next boat out?” I asked him, not wanting to interrupt his train of thought, which was obviously a lot more interesting than taking out yet another boatload of tourists. “Bitchin’” was a much-used adjective for anything awesome back in 1967. So was “boss,” short for bossa nova, which was a dance.
“Ah, yeah, you’re right. Let’s go!”
All of a sudden, he was all business. The smile he flashed at the waiting line of guests was as wide and friendly as the one Lorelei received moments before. He hopped lightly into the little boat and confidently took the wheel as the previous skipper stepped onto the loading dock. Not long ago, he’d been looking for a switch to flip on Ernie’s back. Now, he seemed to have flipped a switch on his own. He was like a different guy altogether.
“How’s it going, Larry?” Tom asked the departing skipper, not really expecting a reply.
Larry raised and then lowered his chin very slightly in acknowledgment. Too cool.
“Folks, please listen carefully to the boat loaders. They used to work in a sardine factory—until they got canned. They didn’t mind too much, though. They worked for scale.”
A few people chuckled politely. Most of the kids didn’t get it, but the adults did.
“Oh, folks, I wouldn’t sit on that cushion in the very back of the boat if I were you. It’s actually a whoopee cushion.”
The kids were listening now. They knew exactly what a whoopee cushion was.
Tom blew an extensively drawn-out, rude, loud, flatulent noise into the microphone as the people in the rear sat down. They had nowhere else to sit, after all, but on that cushion.
“How embarrassing—for you,” he said, shaking his head at them in mock sympathy.
That got a much bigger laugh.
When the Jungle Cruise first started more than ten years ago, everything was done strictly ship-shape and Bristol fashion. No jokes, no playing around, no light-hearted banter from the intrepid crew members. The whole attraction was very serious and earnest, sort of documentary style. Those were the years when the Disney studio was cranking out nature flicks, starting with Seal Island in 1948. The African Lion came out in 1955, same year the park opened. The oft-repeated story goes that Walt overheard a mother telling her son they didn’t need to go on the Jungle Cruise attraction again. After all, they had ridden it last year, so what more was there to see?
It was one of those legendary lightbulb-above-the-head moments. Walt wanted people to be able to experience something new, something fresh, every time they rode. The jokes would keep things light and funny. They could always be updated and refreshed. Hey, while we’re at it, let’s add something new around the bend, change things up a little, et voilà! Who cares if we’ve already seen it? You never knew exactly what you’d see—or hear—the next time around.
We learned jokes to tell people waiting in line to keep their minds off the fact that they were waiting in line. This was one of my favorites, and I’d heard it every time I rode this attraction: “Folks, your attention, please. Would the party that lost the roll of fifty twenty dollar bills, wrapped in a red rubber band, please report to the turnstile. We’ve got great news for you. (Pause) We found your red rubber band.” That one never failed to get a laugh. Here’s another one guaranteed to keep the line moving: “Your attention, please, everybody. We do not allow cutting in line here at the Jungle Cruise. Anyone caught with a pair of scissors will be asked to leave.” There’s a microphone at the end of the line, and the guy standing there was expected to not only take those short, pale green E-tickets but to deliver jokes the whole time, too.
We were supposed to maintain the illusion that this was an actual, dangerous cruise, but it had to be done in a humorous way. You didn’t want to scare anyone. Tom had already started, and he hadn’t even gotten to the spiel yet.
“I get paid for the number of people I take out—not the number I bring back!” he ominously told the passengers filing into the Ganges Gal. “Get cozy, everybody. Don’t worry if it’s crowded now; (pause) there’ll be lots of room on the way back.” He advised our passengers as we pulled slowly away from the loading dock, “Everyone turn around and wave good-bye to the folks back on the dock. (Pause) They may never see you again.” It wasn’t what he said that made it funny, it was the way he said it. Lots of drama, pregnant pauses, emphasis, and mock-seriousness. People laughed. This was going to be a good group. Not all boatloads appreciated the exaggerated humor as much as this one.
“See those crocodiles over there? We have trained them to stay perfectly still so you can take better pictures. Do you know the difference between crocodiles and alligators? (Pause) The crocodiles are made of plastic and the alligators are made of fiberglass.” Lots of laughs followed that one. “You know the crocs are always looking for a hand out, but you’d better be careful. I had a typing teacher on board last week, and she didn’t listen to me. (Pause) Now she’s teaching shorthand.”
As our little boat rode the rails down the murky waters of the world, we’d always see a few ducks paddling around. They told us at the University of Disneyland that people asked the strangest questions. They were so accustomed to things being artificial here that they thought everything was. They’d ask questions like, “Is the water real?” No, they were perfectly serious! Most of the skippers added a couple of jokes along these lines: “Just so you know, all of the animals at the World Famous Jungle Cruise are real. Except for the ducks. They are mounted on rails, just like the boats,” Tom announced, proving my point. The younger kids, of course, bought it completely, but the adults chuckled appreciatively.
Unfortunately, that tendency to think you’re in some kind of magical safety cocoon led to serious injuries. People assumed the natural laws of physics didn’t apply inside the berm, the tall dirt-and-grass partition dividing Disneyland from the outside world. There were always some minor mishaps, which is to be expected in a place with as many distractions as this, but there had also been a couple of serious injuries and even deaths. No one publicized those, naturally, but genuine dangers existed, especially if you (or someone you were with) didn’t follow the rules.
Three years ago, a teenager from Long Beach got hurt after he stood up on the Matterhorn Bobsleds and fell. Some say it happened because his seat belt restraint was unlatched by his friend. Three days later, the poor kid died. It was the first time something like that had happened, but it made everyone realize that even if the attractions are as safe as they can make them, nowhere is entirely without danger—not even Disneyland.
Just last June, a nineteen-year-old guy tried to get into the park by climbing up on the monorail track. It was on a Grad Nite, an all-night party a lot of the local high schools have here in the park to celebrate the end of high school. A security guard tried to warn him, told him to get off the rail, but he was hit by one of the trains. He tried to lie down on the track at the last minute, not realizing there wasn’t enough clearance. That one’ll give you nightmares! So even if we joked about the dangers waiting for our passengers out there in the jungle, there really were dangers—just not from stuff like that giant python hanging down over in the Cambodian ruins.
I still got a kick out of the bathing pool of the elephants. I couldn’t take notes as I rode and observed, but I tried to remember some of Tom’s best jokes. “And look at all the elephants out here today! This comes as a complete surprise to me cause I had no idea these guys were going to be here. If you want to take pictures go ahead—all the elephants have their trunks on.” If it were an election year, he later told me, there’d be Republican jokes. A guy might come up with something clever, and by the end of the day, everyone else would be repeating it.
There was always humor to be derived from our doing the same thing over and over again. Some people seemed to think this was all new to us, too. “And just ahead, you’ll notice a war party getting ready for a raid. That’s something you don’t see everyday, (pause) but I do.” Tom was selling this trip. It was hard to believe he’d been doing this for three summers. He kept it fresh and funny, and the guests rewarded him appropriately with groans or guffaws.
“And now, we’re approaching the beautiful Schweitzer Falls, named after that famous African explorer, Dr. Albert Falls.” On our way back, there was a big buildup. Skipper Tom made it sound if we were going to see something incredible. Finally, he revealed what that was—the back side of water. “That’s correct, folks, this is the backside of Schweitzer Falls, named for the backside of the famous explorer, Dr. Albert Falls.” That was the only part of the trip that was really cool, temperature-wise. The water churned up lots of mist, and it was shady against the wet rock wall behind the falls. You could always count on briefly cooling off.
After about twelve minutes, Ganges Gal was approaching the dock once again. Here came the same old jokes I’d heard so many times before, but somehow Tom injected life into those, too. “There’s old Trader Sam, head salesman of the area. Business has been shrinking lately, so this week only, Sam’s offering a two-for-one special: two of his for one of yours!” Sam held up several realistic-looking shrunken heads by the hair. You could buy replicas like them at the Adventureland trading post. “Now, folks, we’ve come to the most dangerous part of our journey—the return to civilization and those scary California freeways. Talk about a jungle!”
He had one final joke, again referring to the fact that this was a job, after all, and one he’d be doing all day. “Well, folks, I hope you all enjoyed your trip through the jungle. I had such a good time I’m going to go again (pause) and again, and again, and again...” Tom’s voice faded away. People left the boat still laughing. He had them right in the palm of his hand from the time they stepped aboard until they were carefully helped off at the end by two guys positioned at the bow and stern. Several people thanked him for the “great trip” and a few even spontaneously applauded. He smiled at them, waved back, and took an exaggerated bow, sweeping the safari hat off his head. Maybe I was wrong about this guy. He might be confident, maybe even overly confident, but he was cashing a paycheck every week and giving Disneyland guests the best possible experience he possibly could. No doubt about it. I could learn a lot from Tom.
As a kid about ten years old walked away from the boat with the rest of his family, he turned to grin over his shoulder at Tom and me just for a second. Didn’t seem very long ago that I was that wide-eyed kid, dreaming of the day I could finally go to work at the Happiest Place on Earth. Time sure passes quickly—blink, and it’s gone. Yep, this summer was going to be sweet!
Continued in "Treasure of the Ten Tags"!