‘Walt Disney’ vs. Themed Entertainment

Themed Entertainment is an art. In my opinion it is the greatest, most challenging of human art forms for two reasons:

First, it is the one form of communication that has the capacity to embrace all the other art forms – painting, sculpture, film & video, architecture, music, dance, writing, acting – all of these and all the rest. It presents them in glorious, harmonious concert where each one inspires and supports the rest to tell a unified story.

And second, its ultimate expression exists solely within the personal experience of the audience. The result of the craft of theme is the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual changes it creates within the observer – or, more accurately, the participant. The Audience is the Medium.

The Themed Environment is a synthesis of elements that has a specific effect on the guest. As such it has always existed in its primitive form. Historically speaking, while no one before Disney may have had the particular idea of sculpting a themed show, there have always been merchants and visionaries who have, for their own purpose, created presentations with a specific focus; that focus would lead them to carve out the nascent themed environment.

In the early 1900s visitors to the three major attractions of Coney Island, New York witnessed the perfect, living example of the evolution of ‘theme park’. First came ‘Steeplechase’, an amusement park which featured many ingenious mechanical rides; purely physical experiences.

‘Luna Park’ came next; Luna being shorthand for ‘lunacy’. Here, the individual ride often told a particular story, like the ‘Chicago Fire’ or ‘A Trip to the Moon’. The rides may have been themed individually, but the park as a whole was a mish-mash without a unifying atmosphere. Guests were slammed from one new reality to the next. Lunacy, indeed.

Finally, Dreamland was created. Here the rides and shows with their individual stories were united in an architectural setting straight out of the Arabian Nights. Though it was a cacophony of towers, monuments and extreme gingerbread the whole of Dreamland was a perfect unified setting for all these varied stories and adventures.

Walt Disney’s genius was his drive to improve and refine whatever he touched. Even his very early personal artwork reflects this. The young Walter had two styles of drawing, a highly caricatured style which reflected the contemporary art he would have seen, and a more photographic style, one that almost presages the use of rotoscope in his own later films. The young artist was striving to capture life in his art and thus couldn’t be pinned down to just one style.

Whether it was in animated shorts or features or nature documentaries or travelogues or popular film or sound reproduction or amusement parks, every field Walt turned his hand to was improved by his influence and the contributions made by artists and technicians under his leadership.

Walt’s ability to build a better – and more family-friendly – amusement place was most influenced by the fact that the people he used were storytellers. And since Walt and Company were most adept at telling stories through film and animation they created environments that were, quite naturally, themed.

Their work since the fifties has revolutionized the amusement field and – if not actually invented – defined and perfected the themed environment. That’s the good news.

The not-so-good news is that – as a result of its close association with the Disney style – the Art of Theme has for decades been synonymous with childish entertainment and simplistic storytelling.

Not to say that what Disney has created has been solely childish and simplistic. The Disney Company has brought to their parks a level of technical sophistication and artistic accomplishment unmatched in history.

But the image of the theme park as a Disneyfied construct has (until recently) stifled the further evolution of the form. The attractions at Coney Island were based on current events and the great literature of the time. Disney attractions (with exceptions) are based on Disney films. Is it any wonder that the casual observer thinks of Disneyland as a place to take the kids?

But salvation is at hand. Many of the Imagineers who have worked within the Disney Company for the past 50+ years have now struck out on their own to explore the form on their terms. They have carried on the revolution that Walt started in 1955, even as they continue to admire and study the creations of the contemporary Disney Imagineers. And Disney itself continues to put its toe in the water, testing and exploring new ways to push the envelope as far as they dare within their own corporate style.

The Art of Themed Entertainment is just beginning to evolve. It is an exciting time to be wearing a nametag.

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Writing Great Themed Shows 2


To a Guest the only thing more precious than their money is their time. They have only so long before the park closes (or the children implode) and there are (hopefully) so many rides and shows to choose from; if they invest part of their day in your efforts, you’d better provide something that starts ‘paying off’ in a hurry.

There are a great many ways we waste the Guests’ time; some have become second nature. The most obvious is the show opener that begs for an unearned enthusiastic response. “Are you having fun today?” The Guests respond with some cheers. “Oh, come on! I said, ARE YOU HAVING FUN TODAY?!” Repeat until the show director has beaten the crowd into ‘enthusiasm’. If this happened once a day it would be one thing, but the Guest spending a week in Orlando gets this in every show at every attraction for seven days.

The worst offender I’ve seen is a certain piracy-themed dinner show that divides the crowd into four teams before the ‘Big Competition’. The show host asks each group, “How will you cheer for your champion? And how will you boo the other side?” He proceeds to make the rounds of each section with these questions multiple times, back and forth, round and round… apparently deaf to the fact that the standing, enthusiastic cheers he got the first time around are dwindling to apathetic sighs; and all this before anybody has done anything worth cheering for. By the time the competition begins, the crowd has been effectively drained of any enthusiasm whatsoever.

You can bet that the first time this was performed the actor made the rounds of the room once, and the crowd’s response was fine. But the actor reacts to the high of the noise and the cheers and his position and then one day he goes around a second time. It’s like a drug… and the performer goes on chasing that high over a long run and the bit gets longer and who is there to call him on it? At moments like this I can often spot someone from the ranks of management standing off to one side, similarly pleased with the moment and not giving too much thought to what the Guest may be experiencing. Moments like this must be watched for and controlled throughout the long run of a show.

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Involving the Guest in the show is a wonderful thing if that involvement comes naturally (and if the show doesn’t come screeching to a halt for those who aren’t taking part in the bit). Otherwise it can be viewed as a terrific waste of time.

At Fort Liberty we had four points of direct Guest interaction built into the evening. Each was clearly connected to the attraction theme and advanced the story being told.

In the first, the waiter deputized the man nearest the aisle to supervise food distribution for the table. Born of necessity, it also served to cast him in a role in the cavalry theme and promoted similar interaction among the Guests at his table. At the end of the evening he was cheered by his tablemates and presented with a grandly executed certificate for ‘Honorable Service’.

Our next participation moment came after a medley of country/western love songs when the band broke into a spirited instrumental. Cavalry Soldiers are a naturally rowdy bunch. Combine that idea with a family attraction… a young, healthy wait staff… beer & wine service… and the men of Fort Liberty had no trouble finding partners eager to fill the aisles or take the stage to dance with their waiter. This involved only the women (generally the family member most willing to participate), built quickly and ended before it became tiresome; and it planted the seed for what would follow.

Main Course service started with a medley of Western Themes from TV & the Movies. After the food had been distributed and everyone had a chance to eat a bit, the Fort Commander would put the call out for New Recruits. The wait staff would encourage small children to step onstage for inspection and close-order drill; no one would be coerced (at least not by our staff). The bit was long enough to draw the kids in… the inspection process was built for comic interaction with the Commander, thus keeping those without a kid onstage entertained… and the drill made for a nice photo opportunity for the parents. It also, I noticed, gave the parents a nice breather to have the kids onstage and away from the table for a while; they could eat and drink in peace.

Having had the women and children onstage in featured roles made it easier then to drag the Daddies up for the show finale, a comic recreation of Custer’s Last Stand. Every man got a cavalry uniform and no one had to portray the Indians, since we had a family of real American Natives in the show. It also helped that this was toward the end of the evening when the beer & wine had loosened up the ‘troops’.

In this way, everyone that wanted to had a chance to shine, everyone got to see their family members onstage and pictures were taken (and shared with the folks back home) that showed us off to advantage, properly publicizing the attraction.

Meanwhile, back on the high seas — the piratical dinner show finished with a massive attack on the pirate ship, using all the men in the audience as mutineers and all the children as British troops, thus clearing the house of all but the women. The sheer numbers of people involved meant that no one had a chance to shine… and at the show’s climactic moment almost the entire audience was onstage where they couldn’t see what was happening. Meanwhile, management patted themselves on the back for getting such a large part of the audience ‘involved’.

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Another way we waste the Guests’ time is by repeating ourselves. When creating material for a franchised character there is a strong tendency to repeat dialogue and bits of business that the Guests have already seen spoken or enacted by the original.

The reasoning is, “The Guest expects to see the bit,” and that’s true enough; but that kind of thinking stifles creativity and takes the audience – and the actor — out of the moment, turning what could be an exciting, original encounter into an exercise in nostalgia. It’s better to think, “The Guest expects the behavior,” and build something new on the bones of the original.

Stage adaptations of film material, particularly based on animated films, are everywhere nowadays… and some wonderful work is being done there. Guests love to hear the songs they love and parents enjoy taking their kids to see their favorite characters live and on stage.

One drawback is the inherent invitation to compare performances. A singing teapot in a movie, brilliantly animated, becomes a dancing crate onstage, spectacular effects are replaced with flats & mylar and the limitations of the live venue are emphasized, if not for the children then for their parents (whom we are supposed to be just as dedicated to enchanting).

It can’t hurt to keep in mind that these characters have a life beyond the original tale; they surely have other tales to tell, tales they’d love to share and better suited to the strengths of the current medium – thus building on prior friendship and deepening the experience for everyone.

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Recently a performer’s skill at playing improvisational games has become the standard by which potential cast members and guides are judged. While improv skills and comfort in spontaneous performing are a good thing, this has led to certain places where the games themselves have been substituted for original show content.

For an audience looking to be personally involved in the story being told, improv games are a great way to waste time. They take all the focus off of the Guests’ experience and put it on the performers’ cleverness and skill.

It falls to the writer to keep the focus on the Guests’ Point of View. Each beat of the new show should provide more information, advance the plot or deepen the characters – thus encouraging the audience to invest themselves further in the experience. Any moment that can be perceived as ‘marking time’ or ‘treading water’ becomes a waste of time when the Guest is left waiting for the next remarkable moment to come along.

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Writing Great Themed Shows 1

One of my earliest Disney memories is the Character Shows at Carnation Plaza Gardens, what I call the ‘Where’s Mickey?’ shows because they all seemed to have the same plot: all The Gang is here, except – Where’s Mickey?! Then they’d scatter to look for him, leaving Goofy, then Donald, then Chip & Dale to do their specialties. Mickey would arrive in time to join everybody for the finale.

(With the 70s along came women’s lib and ‘Where’s Mickey?’ was replaced by the ‘Where’s Minnie?’ show; finally in the eighties, Mr. Eisner put his hand in everywhere and we saw the advent of the ‘Where’s Roger Rabbit?’ show.)

Of course the Golden Horseshoe Revue at Disneyland was my favorite show in the Park for decades, but ‘Show Me America’ in 1970 really opened my eyes to what could be accomplished on a theme park stage; a book show with a full, live orchestra, Broadway-caliber talent and a script that told an original, coherent story.

The Dapper Dans and the Main Street Maniacs always surprised and charmed, and in the 90s Disney-MGM’s Dick Tracy Show was a landmark; not only for its production values but for being a show based on a Disney film that dared to not recycle the same plot as the movie!

At the other end of the scale, EPCOT’s ‘Splashtacular’, left me hot, sore and confused (When our hero Mickey asked the villain what it was she was after all she’d tell him was, “None of your business!”). Disneyland’s ambitious ‘Snow White’ Live!’ seemed a beautifully-produced-but-wasted opportunity to involve us in the story we all knew and adored, and the less said about ‘Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration’ the better.

When theme parks dream big great things happen… about 50% of the time (Remember that the ‘Twilight Zone Tower of Terror” opened the same day as ‘Food Rocks’!). But looking back on the broad scope of live entertainment I’ve enjoyed (and the ones I’ve endured) a few elements stand out that the successful shows had in common. I call them the ‘5 Keys to Creating Great Themed Entertainment’, and I’d like to share them with you (and any Future Showmen who might be looking in):

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Many years ago I visited the Six Flags park in Atlanta where I waited in a long, hot line for their Jungle Cruise attraction. I was giving serious thought to leaving the line to find some shade and a cold drink, but every boat that returned from its trip was filled with cheering, clapping Guests who obviously had the time of their lives on the ride, so I hung around.

When I finally embarked on my jungle adventure I found the ride was a long, uneventful bore. The highlight of the whole experience was the moment just before ride’s end when our skipper announced, “When we come around this corner, be sure to cheer and applaud so the folks in line will think this is a great ride!” I would be tempted to condemn the park for lying to me about the quality of the attraction, but they never advertised the ride as being any good (even if that was my hope). All they really promised was that at the end I’d be happy… demonstrably so. And so I was, as I happily-but-cruelly perpetuated the gag.

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What is show is called, how it’s advertised and – yes – the other Guests’ reactions constitute a promise to the Guest. We create certain expectations and if those expectations aren’t met, if we haven’t kept our promise, that’s bad show.

When Disneyland’s ‘Enchanted Tiki Room’ opened in 1963, it was a perfect example of a show keeping the promise of its name. It was indeed an enchanted room filled with tikis.

On the other hand, in Walt Disney World’s ‘Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management’ all the ‘New Management’ did was complain about the original show. The title ‘Under New Management’ carries the promise of improvements – a change for the better. None was forthcoming. So not only was the promise broken, but those of us who knew and loved the original were confronted only with audio-animatronic assaults on Walt Disney’s ground-breaking classic attraction.

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When we were creating the Blues Brothers Show for Universal Studios Florida, our first version consisted entirely of the boys at stand mics singing next to the Bluesmobile. It was the Blues Brothers and it was a show. Promise fulfilled? Not nearly.

Even if the Guests were only expecting to hear a few songs, we are a theme park where we are supposed to put you in the movies. By promising to deliver the Blues Brothers in such an environment we have raised expectations. It now falls to us to create within the Guests a sensation of being in the movie WITH the Blues Boys.

Now look at the movie. John Landis’ film is a series of relatively average situations that Jake & Elwood come into and violently change. They’re single-minded, egotistical, delusional, disrespectful, rude and funny. They have a profound effect on those around them — offending, insulting, amusing, inspiring and ultimately moving average folks to dance in the streets.

Now look again at the Guests. They’ve seen the movie (Some executive-types will tell you the Guests haven’t seen the movie, don’t know the characters and, in fact, don’t know ANYTHING… When they tell you that simply ask them, “Then why are they attending the show?” That shuts them up). They know these characters and they are there in anticipation of seeing the same kind of behavior and feeling the same deviant delight in their hijinks they felt in the movie theater.

Now look at the two previous paragraphs. See it? There’s the treatment for the Blues Brothers Show. Everything you need to include to fulfill the Guests’ expectations is listed right there.

Instead of announcing “The Blues Brothers!” and starting the medley… we create a situation, something that involves the Guests’ presence. We set up a premise: a need, an adversary and a crisis situation.

A lone saxophone is heard and a young man (Willie) rounds the corner in cook’s garb, playing for his own enjoyment. His wife (Mabel) meets him at the apartment door and they perform a song for the crowd (‘Stand by Me’). Willie tells Mabel he’s got a date to play a gig in Chicago with Jake and Elwood, but she refuses to let him go…

THEN sneak in the music (‘Peter Gunn Theme’). If you’ve done this right, the Guests will turn as one and smile, cause the Bluesmobile will just be rounding the corner. The Blues Brothers hop out of the car and introduce themselves to Mabel.

So now they start singing, right? Wrong. Park Management might tell you they should start singing and even some of the Guests might be ready for a song, but we’re on a Mission from God; we’re building an emotional moment that will exceed expectations and engage the Guests in a way that a Vegas act never can.

Now there’s a scene. The Blues Brothers plead for Willie’s release, Mabel self-righteously objects and Jake proceeds to work his magic: whining, conniving, pleading and pouting while Elwood stands by, stoically backing up everything his brother says.

NOW there’s a song… from Mabel. Wait — WHAT? Why aren’t the Blues singing?! Because we’re still building that moment.

Remember the scene with Aretha Franklin in the diner when she sings ‘Think’ to her husband, Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy, backed up by three diner patrons? There’s a magic moment in that song that we’re going to recapture; it’s the moment when Jake and Elwood are suddenly up off their stools and dancing along to the number. It’s funny because a) it’s unexpected, b) they’re deadly serious and c) it’s wonderfully choreographed, shot and edited. So (while we’re using a different song and a different situation) we’re going to borrow that bit while pushing the scene forward with Mabel’s song.

A note on ‘difference’ – I changed the song to help the audience see the moment through new eyes. I don’t even use an Aretha Franklin song here; I borrow an ‘angry attitude’ song from The Wiz (‘No Bad News’) that conveys the same message as the original scene. This keeps the audience with us in the moment as opposed to thinking back to and making comparisons with the original.

After the adversary sings with the Boys as back-up dancers the scene continues — there’s a desperate come-to-Jesus moment and finally Jake & Elwood have to prove themselves. The vamp for ‘Soul Man’ begins… and now the Guests aren’t just ready, they’re primed. The songs we were going to throw at them now have a purpose, an emotional context… in essence, we’ve placed the Guests within the framework of the movie. And when at the end Jake invites the Guests to join the cast in a street dance there won’t have to be any, “Aw, come on!” whining from the stage. The Guests will jump in and line up and rock the street because, after all, aren’t we all in this movie together?

We promised the Blues Brothers. We have delivered on that promise.

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Nomenclature is one of our most powerful tools in creating magic. What we call the show forms a pact with the audience, setting up expectations. While in the Park the Guest has a million decisions to make, and to an unfamiliar visitor using a map or guide book those decisions are made based on nomenclature: When choosing between ‘Space Mountain’ and ‘Dumbo, the Flying Elephant’, which seems a better investment of my limited time and effort?

‘The Blues Brothers Show’ promises a certain experience. By carefully analyzing, anticipating and exceeding expectations we can keep that promise. It’s always easier to identify bad nomenclature after the fact. Any Guest filing out of the studio after USF’s first Christmas Event knew for a fact that ‘Universal’s Super Santa-Tastic Extravaganza’ was bad nomenclature; it made a promise NO ONE could hope to keep (The blame for this kind of misjudgment lies not only with the originator of such blather, but with the manager who approved it and believed the Guests wouldn’t ultimately be disappointed by it).

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Keeping your promise to the Guest is the biggest reason to see that a show or attraction is properly maintained. Repeat visitors, especially, expect to see the same show they saw before with all the effects and elements operational.

Every attraction has a ‘Moment of Maximum Anticipation’; it’s that feeling the Guest has before the show actually begins, before they’ve even entered the venue, when they’re relying on you to keep the promise made by the show’s name and premise. They are still free to believe the seats will be comfortable with a good view of the stage, the show will be funny or dramatic or nostalgic, everyone in their group will be enchanted and they’ll leave happy that they invested in the experience.

From the moment they step inside, the process of tearing into that anticipation begins: The seats are metal benches instead of comfortable recliners, the view is obstructed by the man in front of them with a child on his shoulders, the animation is out-of-synch or broken, the jokes are poor, the climax is disappointing or the rest of the family are sorry they came.

Some things we can’t help; and some folks will always have unreasonable expectations. But the quality of the writing and the maintenance of the show are things we can and should make a priority.

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One more note: Shows evolve. Walls are hit, limits reset, budgets cut. These influences will inevitably affect the final product. And since the craft of themed entertainment is Dealing Creatively with Operational Reality, it is the responsibility of the producer to continually check the work-in-progress to make sure the result can deliver on its promise. If changes dictate, adjust your nomenclature and promotional content to match what your Guest is actually going to get.

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56 – So Long, Skippy

My last project at Universal is particularly satisfying.

A 2-page memo from Jay Stein outlines his idea for the grand opening of the long-delayed Jaws attraction. The company has invested in the building of a ferocious-looking Jaws Truck that Jay wants to attack the audience and press at the dedication event. The (need creative) question is, how do we set this up without tipping the gag? I really like the idea because it is truly out-of-the-box thinking on Jay’s part, avoiding all the Jaws clichés while focusing on the one thing everyone wants from the franchise – a good scare.

Jay’s not asking for a treatment from me, though. He’s called a property-wide board meeting in the big room up in the admin building… and the only two people he’s invited from Entertainment are me and Skip. Skip comes by my office to pick me up for the walk to the meeting. As we walk I get the feeling he can’t understand why I’m being summoned to such an important gathering; especially when we’re halfway there and he casually says, “Why would they ask you to come to this thing?”

“Gee, I guess Jay wants me there.”

“Oh.” We make the rest of the trip in silence.

The seats around the huge meeting table are almost filled. Skip goes to the right, I to the left and we wind up directly across from each other. The room continues to fill until it’s standing room only all the way around the perimeter. After a long delay Jay finally arrives, takes his seat at the head of the table, turns to look right at me and asks, “Ron, what did you think of my idea?”

Before answering, did I take a moment to turn and relish the baffled expression on Skip’s face? You bet your ass. That’s the part that was ‘particularly satisfying’. As for the event itself, I wouldn’t be around to see it.

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As preparations get under way for the Jaws event, the company holds a big awards dinner for the actors to convince them that they’re loved and appreciated; and it works. The union is voted out. After having listened to the actors’ case for the union I don’t quite believe it, but it’s not my call.

Having defeated the union, Skip is now free to take off on a two-week vacation. But before he steps off property he has one last bit o’ business to take care of. He walks into my office and shuts the door, sitting down across from me. “Ron, I’m afraid we no longer have any work for a writer. I have to let you go.”

I don’t blink. “You’ve got plenty of work for a writer, you’re just giving it to everyone else except the guy with the track record and the job title.” We stare at each other. “Thanks for stopping by.” Skip gets up and heads straight to his car and off property for two weeks. I guess he’s just bright enough to know how this is going to go over with the rest of the company.

All my old workmates are shocked and depressed, no one more so than my look-alikes. We hold an old fashioned Irish wake in Finnegan’s Pub and I clean out my desk and split. Moving on.

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I take my severance pay and buy my first personal PC.

When I was made a full-time writer at USF I had been using a typewriter and resisted learning to use a computer as long as possible. Now I sign online for the first time on Prodigy Classic and find a community of nationwide Disney Fans; a new family.

I wish I could find something online these days as much fun as the Prodigy Disnoids. We have online mad tea parties, costume parties, improvisational story sessions and glorious trivia tournaments. The toughest trivia is conducted by a young man named Josh Young for two hours on alternate Sunday nights. After a year and a half Josh retires and I get to take over the show and have a ball creating challenging and entertaining quizzes for my online friends.

Meanwhile freelance gigs keep popping up… voice-over work, shows for Orlando Civic Theater and other local production companies and the occasional odd job for Disney.

Back when I was Dreamfinding I had spotted a job listing in the WDW Employee newsletter looking for an experienced video editor. I immediately thought of my old Universal Tour Guide friend Jeff Palmer and rang him up, only to find he was already on the other line to Disney discussing the job in question.

In the years that followed, Jeff rose to the position of senior editor with Disney’s post production facility and helped direct many projects for the Company… even winning the Emmy for his work on the WDW Christmas Day broadcasts. By the time I leave Universal Jeff’s created his own Orlando production company and he brings me in on the odd freelance job. We had worked together on the Chuck E. Cheese shows and now we collaborate on preshow videos for the ‘Doug Live!’ show for Disney-MGM Studios and the WDW 25th Anniversary Press Event in Orlando Arena.

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Another old friend with his own production company is puppeteer Steve Hansen.

Steve has married a wonderful woman from Alberta, Canada. She had grown up in the small town of Canmore at the entrance to Canadian Rockies National Park. On a visit with his new wife, Steve decides to move up there and start his own company producing events and convention entertainment.

Canmore is located next to Banff, a major ski resort and convention town, founded in the late 1800s by the General Manager of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, William Cornelius Van Horne. As he was carving a path through the Canadian Rockies for the CPR, Van Horne discovered a natural hot springs at Banff, and decided this would be an excellent tourist attraction to promote the railroad. He built the Banff Springs Resort, first of the Canadian Historic Hotels, and went on to build a reputation as the Teddy Roosevelt of Canada.

When Steve started making the rounds of the hotels in the area he came to the Banff Springs Resort and was intrigued by a statue of its founder, W.C. Van Horne. In his first meeting with the Hotel Manager, he presented his credentials and they discussed ways that Steve might be of service. As they were wrapping up their meeting, Steve added, “By the way… That statue of Mr. Van Horne? I know that guy. I can have him up here working for you if you’re interested.”

W.C. Van Horne

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55 – What I Got for Christmas

On the second Santa-tastic day, I walk into the studio to see the Extravaganza.

First, a stroll down Hollywood Boulevard. Much had been made in the meeting of the light designs that would enhance the facades along the Park’s main thoroughfare. “Each building will receive its own treatment of decorative Christmas lights,” was the claim, “that will light up in sequence leading the eye down the street to the moment we light up the studio Christmas tree.” At the big moment, though, the lights all came on at once and were so small and dim they made no impression. The Osborne’s had nothing to fear…

Then I turn toward Amity Harbor to see Julie’s craft village. As I enter the area there is a large, lovely banner proclaiming, ‘Winterfest’. I pass by the carnival games and spot one booth selling handmade crafts, and wonder, ‘Isn’t there going to be a craft-making activity for the Guests?’ I needn’t have worried.

In the still-unused Jaws queue line there is a chance for kids to make their own Christmas tree ornament! Six big banquet tables have been set up, uncovered, in a circle. Within that circle stand three USF employees in their street clothes, each one supervising a plain cardboard box. One box is filled with red pipe cleaners, one box is filled with white pipe cleaners and one box is filled with green pipe cleaners. As a child approaches they are given one pipe cleaner of each color and shown how to twist them into a candy cane-shaped ornament.

And that is the extent of USF’s Winterfest Craft Village. Moral: If you promise, “Oh, we’ll have some crap,” you will probably wind up providing crap.

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Finally I cross the lagoon to Central Park to witness Santa’s Departure.

An immense crane has been erected directly behind the Back to the Future show building. The top of the crane leans in close to the backside and peeks just a few feet over the top. From the crane a pair of cables stretches down the front of the building and out across the lagoon to the wharf at the foot of Lombard’s Landing where the cables disappear into a makeshift garage placed facing the water’s edge.

As the sun finally goes down, Guests are addressed over the Park-wide P.A. System by the voice of a Walter Cronkite sound-alike. I had figured since Walter was the voice of NASA on TV, it only made sense to start the show with him. I hadn’t figured on the unique Park P.A. system that sent sound bouncing back and forth across the lagoon and between the buildings, making everything unintelligible.

Then Walter throws it over to Christmas Mission Control, from which Santa’s elves will control the launch. Now I thought everyone who had ever heard chipmunks sing knew: when you do elf voices you drop your pitch, speak slowly and clearly, then speed up your playback. I was wrong. Neither the show director nor the sound technician whose voice was used knew to speak slowly and clearly, so the elf voices were unintelligible long before they were broadcast.

Then the magic moment. From across the lagoon a Super-Trouper Spotlight illuminates the garage doors as they swing open… and out flies Santa!

Santa is sitting in a small sleigh being ‘pulled’ by two plastic translucent reindeer (of the type you’d find on your neighbor’s lawn illuminated from within by a light bulb). As Santa cracks his whip and waves at the Guests (which at this point are still on either side of him) the cable arrangement pulls him out over the water and up toward the top of Back to the Future – v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y.

The Guests are mesmerized! The children can’t believe that they’re seeing Santa in his flying sleigh; the adults can’t believe that poor man is sitting on that tiny seat, strung between two cables and inching his way to the top of that building (and I can’t believe I had anything to do with put him there; suddenly I don’t feel so bad about sticking Goofy out in those woods waiting for a train).

Santa whips and waves and waves and whips for what-seems-like forever until he finally reaches the end of his cable far above the crowds. When the spotlight that has been tracking him finally goes out the sleigh is pointing heavenward at a 45 degree angle flush up against the top of the crane and the ride building. And that’s the show.

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The next day a sign goes up on my office door: ‘Learn to Punt.’

No matter how brilliant your original idea may be – and Santa’s departure was a great idea (the proof lies in the fact that Skip’s team bought it in spite of the fact that it came from me) – if you can’t pull it off, change the idea to suit what is possible.

Perhaps a pre-landed sleigh and static reindeer on top of Mel’s! Kids could be escorted up stairs to the roof to be interviewed while Santa is on the job. Perhaps Santa arrives doing a slide-for-life from the top of that crane! Perhaps Santa’s Sleigh is portrayed bent and broken in Kong’s grasp in the ride (this is, after all, Universal… the same people who brought you Nazarman’s Chainsaw Massacre)!

The point is if you’re going to invest the time and money and effort (and most precious of all, your Guests’ credulity) in an idea, make sure it’s going to work out the way you plan. If not, change plans!

# # # # #

The show is over at 9:30 pm; the Studio closes at midnight. See the problem?

Strolling through the Studio that night, I – and every other paying Guest – stop every so often to turn toward Back to the Future to check. Yep… he’s still there. That poor actor is still sitting waaaay up there on that cold, cold night… staring into the skies and trying to be as invisible as possible. And he’s going to stay up there for three hours.

And that’s what put the ‘Super’ in USF’s ‘Super Santa-Tastic Extravaganza’!

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48 – Part-Time Manager, Full-Time Fan

The night before Universal Florida opens is damp and misty. The Park is getting it’s final going over. Since all the attractions are either indoors or behind the scenes whatever desperation is going on (and there is plenty) is hidden from view.

Terry Wines and I have finally been given our own single office in a small trailer near the Park entrance, the same trailer that houses all the character costumes, dressing rooms and break area. The Celebs and Animateds are slammed together for the time being, but everyone seems to be handling the situation pretty well.

I cannot remember ever feeling so excited, so fulfilled. I’m living a dream beyond my dreams. Whatever goals I may have had for performing, I’m now directing and creating through others, passing on what I’ve learned and watching as people I love take what I share to the next level.

I have managed to acquire a Pargo electric cart from operations and decide to take a celebratory ride through the Park. I’ve never had the use of a vehicle inside any park, and I’m beaming as I speed through the deserted Studio for no good reason at all.

# # # # #

Over the next few months my people manage to surprise me and delight our Guests with their creative growth and initiative. Everybody steps up and, as I had originally asked, I’m put in the position of being a simple fan of their work.

Jamie McKenna locates a Model A Ford of the type used in the old Hal Roach films. He wires the car for sound and finds recordings of the background music from the Laurel & Hardy short films, so when The Boys drive by the Guests hear the appropriate tunes coming out of the car.

Jamie and Michael Andrew find some overalls and buckets of white wash and spend hours in the Amity Harbor area, painting an old rowboat that had been set there as decoration. Guests wandering by see Laurel & Hardy eating lunch when they aren’t covering the boat – and each other – in the messy white paint.

Finally, Jamie manages to construct a piano crate so they can recreate L&H’s Academy Award Winning routine from ‘The Music Box’. The crate has tiny casters set into the bottom so they can push it along the street… it weighs practically nothing so it can fall on Jamie without killing him… and the interior features a brilliant construct of bungee cords and strips, so when the crate falls over it sounds like the piano inside has been utterly destroyed.

We hire a tiny marching band under the leadership of Tony Aleguas. Since we don’t have marching band costumes – and since the guys are kind of young and disorganized – we dress them in leftover costumes and lab coats from the (as yet unopened) Back to the Future Ride. Since there’s only eight or nine of them, I suggest they don’t try to march in formation but rather travel in a swarm that can move freely in and out of the crowds. And how do they repay me for this genius stroke? Every time they spot me in the Park whatever song they’re playing immediately segues into ‘Baby Elephant Walk’. Thanks, Tony…

Anyone playing Marilyn Monroe has a hard time with the crowds… especially since we’re an attraction that sells alcohol to its Guests. We wind up pulling a chauffeur/escort out of the Animated Character ranks and putting her in a huge silver convertible that can drive her around the studio (and away from any uncomfortable situations).

Since our Marilyns are so talented, I create a show around the character to alternate with the Blues Brothers on Brownstone Street. Our Universal Band drives up to her apartment to pick up Marilyn for a group date, which leads into a medley of Marilyn’s signature songs that ends with her sitting on the back of the car as they drive away playing ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’. For something so hastily thrown together, the show is a surprising hit.

Walking toward the front gate one morning I see a crowd gathered around a table at the cafe. I break through the crowd to find two beautiful ladies in the middle of a game of cards with the Marx Brothers. It’s like a scene straight out of ‘Animal Crackers’ except that the material is original and it’s happening spontaneously to our Guests.

Another time I’m walking down Hollywood Boulevard after hours reading the star’s names in the sidewalk. Tucked between John Forsythe and Janet Leigh there’s a blank square – that isn’t blank anymore. A big star has been drawn in chalk and inside that, in a childish scrawl, it reads ‘Jake & Elwood’.

The next morning when Keith and Dan report for work I call them into my office. “Gentlemen, that stunt with the star on the sidewalk is brilliant. Go wash it off.”

Dan is puzzled. “Why?”

“Because you have to do it again. It isn’t funny if it’s written, it’s only funny if Guests see you sneak up and write it.”

# # # # #

Two side effects of my job: 1) I find myself looking at everyone I meet and trying to figure out who they look like, and 2) folks are always auditioning for me, trying to get into the look-alike program.

When I’m conducting auditions, I try to make the experience as positive and as much fun as possible. After my awful experience at the USF cattle call I decide to pattern my auditions after Disney’s format, making the whole thing more like a ‘look-alike workshop’ than a typical audition. Finding the perfect performer for this kind of job is rare, so I work with people to see if they can be trained (or at least show them what work they might do on their own so they’re better prepared for the next round of auditions).

Instead of isolating the auditioners I keep the group together in the room, so everyone has a chance to watch the process, act as an audience and encourage each other. The important thing is for me to be pleasant-but-honest; this helps to establish my credibility.

Folks often show up with an idea of who they can portray. I start by giving them a realistic assessment of whether they’re physically right for the part while emphasizing that physical resemblance is only part of the job. I then share what insight I have into the celebrity they’ve chosen and the challenges it presents to the performer. If it’s a character we have the rights to, I encourage them to keep working and to try again another time.

With this approach I have remarkable success creating a fun atmosphere and building goodwill for both Universal and the look-alike program.

# # # # #

My Pal Dave Jackson and his buddy carry on an enthusiastic campaign to get cast as Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton from The Honeymooners. I love their work and think they’d fit beautifully in our New York area, possibly alternating days with Laurel & Hardy. Trouble is Universal doesn’t have the rights to those characters so my efforts to get them hired go nowhere.

We do, however, get the rights to Lucy Ricardo. We cast Melissa Radley, one of our ladies from the Entertainment Department, to play Lucy and I start casting about for a good Ethel Mertz for her to work with. It seems obvious to me that if I can get Lucy and Ethel on the street, there’s a lot we can do to sweep the Guests up in their shenanigans.

But it’s not to be. While this is going on, I try a new barber shop around the corner from the studio. The second I see the guy cutting my hair I start thinking, ‘He looks like someone, but who?’ Adrian Israel is the barber’s name…

So Universal’s Lucy has found her Desi and Ethel is forever out of the picture. And, like many of the people I started in this business, he’s made a pretty good living as a celebrity look-alike!

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47 – Universal Florida Pre-Opening Daze

The months before opening USF are a muddy, wild time.

My first job is to scout prices and availability of lights, cameras, generators and filming equipment for our phony film crew. Since I know absolutely nothing about film shoots and since this is as far from the kind of creative work I had been hired for, I am immediately resentful. This is the first big test of boss Neil Miller’s patience with me; he passes with flying colors.

I can’t believe that we were going to waste manpower and money setting up a phony film shoot on our backlot. Surely no intelligent human being is going to stand in the Florida heat and watch a bunch of technicians killing time waiting for a shoot that will never happen (I don’t know that, 5 miles south of us, Disney is pulling the same dirty trick on their Guests). But every time I raise the issue with Neil he smiles, listens patiently, and sends me out to another equipment rental firm.

# # # # #

USF is my first experience with the ‘electric leash’ – the hand-held shortwave radio – and I enjoy the prestige for a while. It can also be a source of amusement.

When the E.T. Adventure ride first comes online it is a popular practice to hop on for a trip to see the show and get out of the heat. Problems arise, though, with folks who keep their radio in their hip pocket. Sitting on the bicycle/ride vehicle, their backside would key the radio, so everyone in the Park has to listen to the entire ride soundtrack until they disembark (I didn’t mind as much as most, as I had provided dialogue for one of the cops: “They’ve got E.T.!”).

One day as storm clouds gather Security sends out a call that we will be experiencing a ‘Code 10-13’. My limited knowledge of radio codes leaves me scratching my head, and I’m just naïve enough to call back on the radio for all to hear, “What’s a ‘Code 10-13’?”

With his typical blend of patient amusement and exasperation Neil’s voice comes back: “Ron, it’s a musical starring Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor.” So enlightened, I hasten back to the office just ahead of the rain… singin’ all the way.

# # # # #

The Silver Stars Restaurant is Universal’s attempt at a high-end sit down restaurant; upscale menu, wine list, waiters in white shirts and black bow ties. To give the crew some practical experience the restaurant issues a limited number of meal comps to those of us in the administration building. I secured five of these comps: one each for me and a lovely young assistant stage manager and one each for Groucho, Harpo and Chico. I tell the boys they are to arrive in costume and in character (Ain’t I a stinker?)

I and my date arrive early and secure a booth on the far side of the room. Shortly thereafter The Marx Brothers enter, all proper manners. They present their invites and are escorted to a booth by the door. Orders are taken and drinks are delivered… and then, as they wait for their food, the boys strike.

Harpo makes himself at home eating the condiments at an adjoining table. Chico picks two attractive-looking diners to charm and Groucho starts to tango between tables with an agreeable female Guest. The other employees are watching this with smiles and laughs all around. Everyone is enjoying this first glimpse of what my characters can bring to the Park.

Everyone except the Assistant Manager, that is. He watches for a moment, then stalks backstage; a moment later he returns along with the Manager who is doing his best impression of Franklin Pangborn. The manager sends his assistant back into the kitchen and I tell my date, “I’m about to get a call on the radio.”

Sure enough, a minute later: “Entertainment 4, the Marxes have to leave Silver Stars immediately.” I respond in the affirmative then raise my voice to be heard over the laughter. “Oh, boys!”

As if in a film buff’s dream, The Marx Brothers drop what they’re doing and race across the room to line up in front of my table. Chico says, “Yeah, Boss?

Putting on my best managerial airs, I tell them, “Gentlemen, we have been invited to leave. However I think it would be terribly rude if you were to go without shaking hands with every person in the building.”

Groucho, Harpo & Chico spontaneously salute and scatter, warmly shaking the hand of every Guest at every table. I found out later that they dashed into the kitchen to shake hands with the kitchen staff and each one hugged the managers before dashing out the front door. I and my date left shortly thereafter.

At our next gathering I let my people know that they are all to steer clear of Silver Stars in the future. Eventually they are welcomed into every other Universal eatery. They can get free fries anytime they come to play in Mel’s Diner, and the Blues Brothers are invited to feed each other free shrimp when they drop by Lombard’s Landing. But no one goes in or near Silver Stars Restaurant.

Roughly a year later at a park-wide manager’s meeting people are remarking on the success of our look-alike program. The manager of Silver Stars asks why the Celebs don’t come into his location. I think it was Danny who got tell him, “Because you told them to leave.”

# # # # #

Coming out of a writing session in my Hollywood Boulevard hallway/office I stumble onto a spontaneous party just outside of Mel’s Drive-In. Folks are gathered to bid farewell to Richard Crane who has built much of USF (and all of Womphopper’s); as Richard is a friend I invite myself to join in. That’s where I am reunited with the President of MCA Attractions and my old Womphopper’s Boss, Jay Stein.

To say that Jay was surprised to see me pop up on the east coast would be a gross understatement. I explain that I was hired to oversee the celebrity look-alikes, and that I’m available for any writing chores. “Uh-huh,“ Jay says. “So if I ask you to write me a fucking speech… ?”

“I’ll write you a fucking speech.” It’s like we’ve never been apart.

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