I figure that over the last 20 years, I’ve interviewed more than 800 Disneyland and Disney World cast members and collected untold-thousands of anecdotes. The most controversial seem to come from the security guards. The most “out-of-character” from the characters. The most unique from the ride operators. And, among those, the most outrageous from the Jungle Cruise skippers.
The ranks of jungle boat captains always includes an assortment of cards and cut-ups, your wittier, sillier, and more daring cast members. And they’re one of the few groups of cast members who are allowed, within reason, to carry on with their nonsense in front of the guests—spirited deep into a densely-forested, safely away from the eyes and ears of management.
Over the years, countless skippers have moonlighted as stand-up comics and actors. So it came as no surprise when, a few years ago, a group of current and former “skips” began organized a Skipper Stand-Up comedy night once every few months, about 10 minutes from the Happiest Place on Earth. Their next show is this Sunday, April 6, 2008, and I can’t wait.
So, in the meantime, I asked a few of the regular performers to share a few tales from their days inside the Jungle.
Joey Hurley spent four years in the Jungle, commandeering an estimated 20,000 excursions, receiving more than 300 guest compliments, and attracting a collection of groupies who would congregate at the ride exit so they could be sure to ride his boat. He has since resurfaced at another lagoon at the opposite end of the park. And, with occasionally wheelchair-bound partner Trevor Kelly, has produced such hysterical videos as “The Five Myths of Disneyland,” “The Year of Extremely Reasonable Dreams,” and a series for DontClickThat.com.
As Hurley recalls…
I was giving a tour one day and we were passing the dancing native scene. A child yelled out, “Look, Mom! Indians!” The mother corrected the child by saying, “No, honey, Native Americans.”
* * *
One of my favorite skippers was giving a tour at the end of the night as the last boat to go out. When the boat slowly drifted into dock, he was nowhere to be seen. A guest on board next to the throttle parked the boat and all of the guests disembarked. We were searching everywhere for the missing skipper. We looked in all of the boat's compartments and couldn’t find him. He was gone.
About 20 minutes later, the skipper showed up. He casually walked up to us at the shipping office, and we were floored! We couldn’t figure out where he came from! Apparently he had borrowed a guest’s coat and hat and blended in as one of the 45 disembarking guests. No one even noticed him as we helped him out of the boat by the elbow. It was dark, I guess.
* * *
I was working the unload position at the Jungle Cruise where there is just the river and the dock and a big jungle. A guest came up to me and asked, “Is this where I parked my car?”
* * *
It was a busy summer day and the top queue was filled up. Apparently a guest dropped his hat over the top railing, and it landed on the canopy that covers the dock. He went to grab his hat and tumbled over the rail, bounced on the canopy, and dropped straight into the river water with an almighty splash. He was about 11 inches away from cracking his head on a jungle boat that was docked close by.
* * *
Bertha, the main elephant in the elephant bathing pool, once got a rip in the rubber skin on her side. Our Lead told us, “No jokes about Bertha’s rip.” Of course, we thought of dozens—“side-splitting humor,” “Our jokes are a cut-up”—you get the picture. So, our Lead made us go on Safari (that’s when we run through the jungle as boats are going around and try to stay out of guest’s view so not to ruin the magic.) Yeah, right. The first thing I did was straddle a crocodile and as a boat passed, did my best Crocodile Hunter impression to the guests: “Crikey! Look at this one, beautiful!”
* * *
Sometimes we would do “Tag-Team” Skipper where one skipper would start a spiel and then the other one would take over for him halfway through the jungle, or they would trade off jokes. It was never funny, but we had a good time. One time, a skipper was pretending he was just an average guest and he had some water with him. Every punch line, the skipper would do a spit-take, spraying water from his mouth. The guest sitting next to him was not happy.
* * *
One of our skippers used to do that scary quote from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: “There’s no earthly way of knowing/Which direction we are going…” After a trip of doing this, an angry mom approached him and said, “I just spent the last 45 minutes in line telling my kid this was not like the boat from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory!!”
* * *
The loading position is where a skipper can tell how the boat is going to be. If the guests are responsive or not listening or non-English speaking, it is then that the skipper decides how he is going to do his trip. If the guests don’t care and are not paying attention, we do what’s called the “National Geographic Tour.” This is when we say every educational line in the script and not a single joke. When we have a group of non-English speaking tourists, we get a little break; we don’t have to spiel the normal spiel—we can do the “Pop Tart Tour,” where you only say the word “Pop Tart” over and over, or the “PB & J Spiel,” where you describe in great detail how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and it takes a whole trip to do it.
* * *
If you heckle a skipper too much, he or she may retaliate by stopping the boat and embarrassing you or taking the cell phone you are talking loudly on and end the conversation: “Hi, this is Skipper Joey. Your friend is on a ride right now. He will call you back, bye.”
David Marley, now a tenured professor at Vanguard University, is the mastermind behind the Skipper Stand-Up shows. During his years in the Jungle, he earned the nickname “Dr. Skipper.”
As he tells it…
I was working Jungle Cruise when the Lead called me over. He introduced me to a guest who wanted to propose to his girlfriend on the Jungle Cruise, specifically at the famous “backside of water.” The Lead suggested that I be the skipper to take them since I was the only married guy on the dock that day, so I wouldn’t be afraid to do it. I talked with the guest for a bit, and we worked out how I would stop the boat and give him the mic. The guest went his way, and for the next three hours I thought nothing of it.
Then 5:00 rolled around, the time that the soon-to-be-fiancé was supposed to show up. I began to get a little nervous. Then it was 5:15, and still nobody, and I was getting more nervous. Finally at 5:25, as I left the dock on another voyage through the Jungle, I saw the guest and his girlfriend walk up through the exit.
I don’t remember much about the trip that I took before the one with the proposal, but I would like to apologize to all the guests that were on that particular boat. I became a nervous wreck for the entire voyage. When I got to the backside of water, I actually practiced what I was going to do with my next boat. I let the boat coast, dropped the mic, and said quietly to myself, “Yeah, that’ll work.” Then I realized that I had an entire boatload of guests staring at me.
I returned to the dock and we loaded the guest and his girlfriend at the exit. Luckily, she didn’t know the ride well enough to notice that we broke procedure and loaded her on the opposite side of the boat. I also made sure that there was room for me to sit down, on the side of the steering wheel where the throttle is. She didn’t notice a thing. Off we went.
The trip went great, the boat was into my humor, then I went into my plan. I was driving past the natives at full speed, then I told a joke that I knew was going to bomb. When it did, I killed the throttle, and told the guests that if they didn’t think I was funny, maybe they should try it sometime. As the boat came to a stop beneath the waterfall, I tossed the mic to my guest, and sat down. The boat laughed. The guest took the mic and stood up. The boat laughed some more. When he began to talk, people laughed until they realized what he was saying. As he began to tell his girlfriend how much he loved her, these four high-school girls in the back began to cry. The fiancé said yes (how could she not?) and all of the guests stood up and applauded. I finished the voyage by making fun of the newly engaged couple once I learned that they were from Las Vegas. As we approached the dock, my Lead was there with two Mickey-ear hats—one for the bride to be and one for the groom. The entire boat was an emotional wreck, the teen girls ran up and hugged the happy couple. And I was exhausted.
* * *
For these next stories, it is important to remember that while working at Jungle Cruise is a dream come true for most of us, it can also become tedious, and we constantly look for new ways to break things up a bit.
I have worked at Jungle Cruise twice, about seven years apart, and in both instances there were secret code words and even hand signals for skippers to point out the cute girls to their fellow skippers. The usual process was that if a skipper spotted an attractive woman, he would flash the signal and direct the skipper’s attention with a slight nod of the head. If no one was looking, the skipper would combine the hand sign with the phrase. The phrase itself varied from time to time. Back in the late 1990s, cute girls were called “Helga.” You could hear one skip tell another that their Aunt Helga called and knew what he meant. Sometimes if a skip was working the queue or was in the shipping office, he would find other ways to point out the cute ones. You might have heard a skip discuss a certain part of the queue, or mention one of the two queues that are created by the turnstile. This can be a way to ID a cute girl, too. They might say, “Everyone in the right-hand queue, please watch your hands.” Hands being a code word for... for... well, watch Monty Python & the Holy Grail and you will know.
As a married man, I very rarely took part in these activities. One night, however, I was standing on the dock, talking to the Lead, when he flashed the cute girl sign and pointed towards the exit. He happened to have pointed out my wife, who was stopping by to visit. He was horrified when I told him who she was, but I saw it as a compliment. I did warn him never to do it again.
Besides cute girls the other Jungle Cruise obsession was people with mullets, the still inexplicably popular hairstyle. I say “people” with mullets, since unfortunately this hairstyle is not limited to men. At Disneyland we had a variety of official code words. We took this to our love of mullets when one skipper created the call “Code M.” If someone saw a particularly nice mullet, they would call out “Code M,” and we could check it out. As sad as it sounds, mullets became a popular topic of conversation. We would discuss their length, styling and the types of people that had them. We found the mullet not only spanned genders, but nationalities.
Eventually one skipper decided to play “touch the mullet” and awarded points to skippers who managed, one way or another, to touch a guests mullet. The preferred way of doing this was to volunteer to be in a photo with a guest. Then you can just put your arm around them and touch their mullet. That was worth 5 points!
Now an English teacher, David Levy also spent four years toiling in the Jungle. During his stint in khakis, he was dubbed “The Meanest Skipper in the Jungle” by Marley.
As Levy remembers it, he earned the nickname…
…after a series of “mean” comments I kept making. The one that tipped Marley was when a guy dropped his new digital camera on the dock where it shattered, spraying bits and pieces everywhere. Without missing a beat, I said, over the boat’s P.A. system: “Sir, you should read the manual. That’s not recommended for that brand of camera.” Then I throttled out of there. Marley jumped in my boat, laughing with tears in his eyes, and dubbed me “The Meanest Skipper in the Jungle.” It was a title I held until I left. I passed it to The World Famous Andrew, along with my patented leather hat.
* * *
It was shortly after the rehab adding the water blast effect to the gorilla camp. We were coming up from a down time and cycling the boats through the jungle. I was following too close behind one of the boats. The first entrance blast was fine, but I completely forgot about the exit blast (the second blast after the boat has already safely made it past the gun-toting gorillas). I looked down, and the water was starting to bubble right beneath the bow of my boat. I screamed and, with the throttle still ahead full, ran towards the back of the boat. You really don’t know how much water is being blasted upward in that scene until it lands on you. I was soaked down to my drawers and there were at least 2 inches of water in the bottom of the boat. I was so stunned that all I kept saying was, “That’s a lot of water. That’s a lot of water.” I made it back to the dock and the lead threw a fit. He asked if I had anything to say for myself, to which I replied, very calmly, “That’s a lot of water.”
* * *
I was out on what we like to call Safari and exploring the top of Schweitzer Falls. I was out near the edge, when I heard a boat coming and I couldn’t get hidden fast enough. I froze where I was, posed like a tree, and prayed that no one would notice me. The skipper noticed (seeing as she was the only one not actually looking at the jungle, having seen it a thousand times), and she mouthed a candid “What the hell?” at me. I almost started laughing, but kept my cool until a little girl in the back of the boat looked up and yelled out, “Hey!” I bolted up the slope and got to safety without anyone else noticing. Later, at the dock. the skipper who had been driving the boat told me the little girl told her parents she saw a man in the wilderness, but her parents didn’t believe her. They asked the skipper, who replied that the jungle is a wild place and it was most likely a wild native looking to capture little girls. The kid believed her.
* * *
I could write an entire book about the “interesting” moments, many of which I've shared with my fellow skips at the park. However, I’ve decided to share something far better than that—an event I’ve shared only on my last boat until now.
When I was new to the Jungle, maybe three months in, I was told to hold it up at No Man’s Land (the area we load VIPs and guest with special needs). I stood nonchalantly at the wheel expecting someone who needed a little more time entering the boat or maybe a celebrity. Instead, a little girl and her mother entered the boat and, at first glance, I didn’t see why they had been loaded ahead of the other guests. It took about 30 seconds to realize the little girl was blind. I kind of panicked. It wasn’t that I was put off by the kid at all—it was the fact that I had no idea how to bring the experience of the Jungle Cruise to this little girl. To buy a little more time, I started chatting with her. She was maybe 6 or 7 and heartbreakingly adorable. She revealed that the Jungle Cruise was her absolute favorite ride at Disneyland (yeah, thanks for the pressure, kid) and she was so glad she got to go on it before they headed home. Well, with guests on board, a “Hit it!” from the loaders, and still no idea how to handle the situation—a situation they don't really prepare you for at good ol' Disney U—I set off.
I immediately abandoned any directions. In other words, instead of saying, “Over there, we see such and such” or “Look at that! It’s a whatchamacallit!” I decided to be far more specific. “Wow, look to the right of the boat, everyone!” If the little girl was having trouble (keep in mind, she had total sight loss), I’d gently tap her on the shoulder and point her in the right direction. I don’t know why it was important to me that she knew where things were. Perhaps I figured it would help her later relive it in her mind the way I’m still fond of doing. In any event, she smiled each time I helped her out.
Next came the animals. Though I was cracking the requisite jokes, I focused on something I had never thought to mention: touch. I described the rough skin of the rhino; the long, curling trunk of the elephants; the soft fur of the lions; and the slippery, slimy skin of the hippos. I’m a writer, so it wasn’t difficult to find the words, but trying to fit it all in while still trying to entertain the rest of the crew? Nearly impossible. In fact, a number of the guests commented that the Jungle just wasn’t what it used to be as they exited. It started to get to me. I knew why I had done it, why I’d given such a sub-par trip, but it still didn’t feel so good knowing that I had ruined the ride for so many people for the sake of one little girl.
Ah, but that was before that little girl stood up with her mom. Her mother was crying, which confused me at first. She mouthed, “Thank you,” and I wasn’t even sure why. The little girl, beaming from ear to ear, looked at me and said the words I remember perfectly today: “Thanks. The Jungle never looked so good!” And with that, she gave me an unapologetic hug, turned to her mom, and together they left. I never saw them again, but I treasure the memory of helping a little girl see the Jungle more than any other experience I’ve had at Disneyland.
If that’s not proof that magic exists at Disneyland, specifically at the Jungle Cruise, I don’t know what to tell you.
See Joey Hurley, Trevor Kelly, David Levy, David Marley, and five other current and former Jungle Cruise skippers take the stage Sunday April 6 at 7 p.m. at the Maverick Theater in Fullerton. Tickets are just $10 a pop (that’s less than the price of three Disneyland churros!). Tickets and more info are available at SkipperStandUp.com.
Tip: The Orange County Register ran a front-page article last weekend on the event, so expect a quick sell-out. If demand warrants, a second show may be added. See you there!
(Send an email to David Koenig)
David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.
After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999) (All titles published by Bonaventure Press).
He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.