Voices of the Disney Theme Parksby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
We take so many things for granted at the Disney theme parks.
Having done some professional voiceover work in my life (including the off camera narrator for Disney's syndicated television show Secrets of the Animal Kingdom, as well as the voice of seven different germs for an American Medical Association traveling puppet show in Southern California, among other credits), I am extremely appreciative of the talented voices that enhance my Disney park experiences.
When I think about voices at the Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resorts, I immediately think about Jack F. Wagner, the younger brother of Roger Wagner, music director of the world famous Roger Wagner Chorale.
Although Jack Wagner had done some freelance work for Disney, including narration for Christmas parades over the years, he officially began his Disney career (eventually earning him a Disney Legends award) in July 1970.
One of his earliest contributions (for which I don't think he gets enough recognition) was creating the individual background music loops for the various lands at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
Soon afterward, he found himself doing regular announcing work for the parks utilizing the skills he had learned in many years of radio work.
The Walt Disney Company completely outfitted Jack's house in Southern California with sophisticated audio recording apparatus wired directly to the sound studio at Disneyland.
If Disneyland was to close early that day for weather or there was a last-minute special event announcement needed, Wagner could create a new recording in his own sound booth at home to be played in the park within minutes.
That was a pretty innovative concept at the time.
He recorded announcements welcoming guests to the park, talking about ticket prices, special programming, events, and attraction spiels.
His authoritative, comforting voice is well remembered for in-park announcements ("Ladies and gentlemen, in just five minutes…", "We direct your eyes to the sky over Cinderella Castle…"), voicing more than 20 different Disney characters in various Disney on Ice arena shows as well as theme park shows, doing voice-over for television programs (50 Disney Sunday movies, seven Super Bowl half-time shows), commercials and audio-visual presentations, and, most famously, the monorail spiel at both parks for two decades.
His synthesized voice was used for the opening announcement for the Main Street Electrical Parade.
He was forced into retirement in 1991 because of vocal cord surgery (but occasionally still did short announcements for Disneyland), and died of a heart attack in June 1995, although some of his work continued to run in the parks for years after his passing.
You can hear some out-of-the-ordinary recordings by Wagner (especially his blooper reel).
Certainly, Wagner deserves a column or two just about him and his many Disney contributions. However, two other voices familiar to Disney park fans are just as obscure to many Disney fans.
Pierre "Pete" Renoudet (sometimes spelled "Renaday" in later years so his last name would be pronounced correctly) has provided some amazing work for Disney over the decades.
He started working at the Disney Studio as a messenger, but spent the majority of his time working in the art props department. He spent some of his time performing with the Disney Studio in-house theater group known as the Disney Players.
One of his performances was in a production of the play The Happiest Millionaire that was personally requested by Walt Disney.
Renoudet appeared in small acting roles in several Disney live action films in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Lt. Robin Crusoe U.S.N., (1966), The Love Bug (1968), The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), The Barefoot Executive (1971), and The Million Dollar Duck (1971), among several others including some non-Disney productions.
"I stayed at the studio for many years because one didn't stop me from doing the other," Renoudet explained to Disney Musicologist Greg Ehrbar about how he juggled his regular job with his performing responsibilities. "They let me come and go and never stopped me."
In 1969, he stepped in to perform the role of the Ghost Host of Disney's Haunted Mansion for the Disneyland record "The Story and Song From the Haunted Mansion" when Paul Frees had asked for too much money to reprise his role. On the record, a thunderstorm forces two teens, Mike and Karen (voiced by a young Ron Howard and Disneyland record storyteller Robie Lester), to seek refuge in a haunted house.
Renoudet not only found work on Disney records but in the parks themselves.
Most notably, he is the voice of Henry the Bear in the Country Bear Jamboree and all the variations of that show over the decades. He considers it his favorite voice work. He was originally only supposed to do the demonstration track for the attraction but everyone fell in love with his interpretation of Henry.
For the original show, he also provided the voice of Max the Deer on the wall but, in later years, his voice was replaced by an Imagineer who wanted to do the part.
He could be heard as the captain in the Flight to the Moon attraction (not the original Rocket to the Moon attraction as is mistakenly stated elsewhere on the Internet), as well as Third Officer Collins, "the tour guide for your flight" in the Mission to Mars attraction that replaced it in 1975. From 1994-2009, he was the announcer for Walt Disney World's Tomorrowland Transit Authority as the PeopleMover glided along its overhead track.
He was also the voice of the captain of the Columbia sailing ship that circled the Rivers of America at Disneyland and when pirates took up residence on Tom Sawyer Island, he was called in again to re-record the voice of the captain.
He was also the voice of Mark Twain on Disneyland's Mark Twain Riverboat (where he used Hal Holbrook's legendary stage performance as reference) and was the announcer at the Main Street Train Station proclaiming "Your attention please…"
He narrated The Walt Disney Story film and now narrates the pre-show film for Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland. At Walt Disney World, he performed the voice of President Abraham Lincoln in the Hall of Presidents from 1993-2008. (Actor Royal Dano was the original voice of Lincoln when the attraction opened in 1971. Renoudet replaced him when a rehab was done in 1993. After another rehab of the attraction in 2008, Imagineering located outtakes and other clips of Dano's recordings for the currently running version.)
However, it was at Walt Disney World where Renoudet really made an impact, not only in the Country Bear Jamboree, but as the voice of Captain Nemo in the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage attraction from 1971 until its closing in 1994. Many guests thought it was actor James Mason (who played the role in the Disney live-action film) guiding them through the depths but it was just Pete.
In Epcot's Horizons attraction, Renoudet was the model for the black-bearded Audio-Animatronics father and appeared on the videophone, as well. However, another voice actor, Bob Holt, had already recorded the soundtrack so Renoudet on the videophone simply mimed the words.
Impressively, these were not the only voice work of Renoudet for the parks. He also served as the narrator for Disneyland Park's Adventures of Winnie the Pooh attraction, was the voice of the Huntsman in the Magic Kingdom's Snow White's Scary Adventures (1994-2012) and was Comchatman in the extinct Disneyland attraction Adventure Thru Inner Space.
He met his wife, Florence, while working at the Disney Studios. She had graduated from Joliet Junior College in 1957 and moved to California where she began a 35-year career in the Music Department of Walt Disney Studios. She was executive secretary to Robert Jackman and, later, Jay Lawton. She died on February 18, 2011.
Disney Historian Scott Wolf has done two brief interviews with Renoudet. but someone really needs to sit down and do a lengthy interview with him right now about his rich Disney career. Are you listening, Didier Ghez?
While it may seem that Renoudet did the majority of the voices in the Disney parks, there was another voice actor who is equally prominent and whose work still entertains guests today years after his death at the age of 91 in May 2005.
"Open the Fantasyland Castle in the name of the children of the world," commanded the deep bass voice of a knight on horseback in front of Disneyland's castle on the live broadcast documenting the opening of Disneyland on the ABC network on July 17,1955.
It never occurred to me to question who provided that voice for that historic Disney moment until I recently confirmed while doing some research on another topic that it was done by Disney Legend Thurl Ravenscroft.
For most people, and certainly the most prominent credit in all his obituaries, was that he had done the growling voice of Tony the Tiger for Kellogg's Frosted Flakes ("They're Grrrr—eat!") for over 50 years (beginning in 1952).
Others may remember him for singing the memorable song "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" in the classic Christmas cartoon.
For me, it was his many and varied contributions to Disney animation and the theme parks that really stand out despite his many other achievements in records and radio.
Ravenscroft's earliest work for Disney was singing as part of the vocal group The Sportsmen on the demo for the song "Honest John" that was cut from the final version of the animated feature Pinocchio (1940). They also sang in the Disney cartoon Nifty Nineties (1941) with Mickey Mouse in a turn-of-the-century setting.
As part of The Mellomen quartet, Ravenscroft also sang in several Disney animated shorts including Trick or Treat (1952), Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953), and Noah's Ark (1959). Thurl was the voice of the famous oversized lumberjack in Paul Bunyan (1958).
In the Disney animated features, Thurl was part of the chorus in Cinderella (1950) as well as specifically providing the voice for one of the singing mice in "The Work Song", was one of the singing card painters in Alice in Wonderland (1951), was one of the singing dogs in the pound in Lady and the Tramp (1955), and was the voice of the bass-playing Russian cat in The Aristocats (1970) besides many, many more Disney animated credits.
He also performed (often as a narrator as well as a singer) on dozens of Disney records (which sometimes could not use the original talent from the film) including singing the role of Barnaby on Babes in Toyland, Eeyore on Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, and singing "The Headless Horseman" on Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
He narrated albums including Nikki, Wild Dog of the North, Island at the Top of the World and Pirates of the Carribbean. On the Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room album on Side Two, he acts as a guide on the Jungle Cruise attraction.
At the personal request of Walt Disney, The Mellomen recorded an album of barbershop quartet songs titled Meet Me Down on Main Street that was sold at Disneyland for many years.
Ravenscroft's first onscreen Disney appearance was for the Disneyland television show on February 16, 1955, in an episode called "Cavalcade of Songs." Part of the show is devoted to the making of Lady and the Tramp, and features The Mellomen performing as the Pound Hounds.
The Mellomen sang the theme songs for Davy Crockett, Zorro, and Mickey Mouse Club serials like the Hardy Boys.
Those contributions would have been more than enough to earn Ravenscroft his Disney Legends award in 1995.
However, it was at the Disney theme parks that Ravenscroft's voice has been enjoyed by thousands of guests every day for decades.
Ravenscroft was the original on-board narrator on both the Disneyland Railroad and Walt Disney Railroad from their openings to around the year 2000 as the engine chugged its way around both magic kingdoms.
He was the original voice of the First Mate on the Mark Twain Steamboat beginning in 1955 for nearly 45 years. Thurl was the original narrator on Disneyland's Submarine Voyage (1959-1998).
As part of The Mellomen, he can be heard in Peter Pan's Flight singing "You Can Fly" and in Alice in Wonderland singing "Painting the Roses Red." The Mellomen were also heard on the extinct Disneyland attraction Adventure Thru Inner Space (1967-1986) singing the Sherman Brothers' song "Miracles to Molecules".
Ravenscroft's voice can be heard singing on the early voyages of Disneyland's Sailing Ship Columbia beginning in 1958.
Fortunately, there are several major attractions at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World today that continue to feature the voice of Thurl Ravenscroft.
The Enchanted Tiki Room has undergone changes at both parks over the decades. The voice of Fritz the German parrot was performed by Thurl Ravenscroft when the attraction first opened at both parks and is still heard there today after the latest rehabs. The Mellomen, including Ravenscroft, are part of the chorus on the song "The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room".
At Disneyland, he is also the voice of Tangarora, the tree of life in the preshow waiting area.
At Walt Disney World, when the Tropical Serenade was renamed "The Enchanted Tiki Room, Under New Management." Thurl (Fritz), Wally Boag (Jose), and Fulton Burley (Michael) all came back to the studio in 1997 to reprise their roles as the parrot hosts for the new show. Ernie Newton (Pierre) had died and was replaced by Jerry Orbach, whose French accent as Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast (1991) had charmed audiences.
"They changed (the attraction) but they wanted to use the same cast," remembered Ravenscroft shortly before his death when talking with pop culture historian Mark Arnold. "I was Fritz, the German parrot. And they called the four of us back but one of us had passed away. It was the French parrot. We got somebody else, but it was fun. Everybody in the studio came to see us perform. It was so wonderful."
Thurl can be heard in many different locations in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. He is part of the group that sings "Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a Pirate's Life for Me." He is the voice of the drunken pirate leaning on a lamppost who is also singing along.
In the trio of minstrels, Ravenscroft is the accordion player but, drawing on his experience from Lady and the Tramp, he is also the dog who is sitting nearby "singing/howling" along with the trio.
In the Haunted Mansion, Thurl is singing the iconic "Grim Grinning Ghosts." He is one of the singing busts, the one most often mistaken for Walt Disney. He is the second bust from the left that has broken off its base. The others in the group are Chuck Schroeder, Bob Wright, Jay Meyer, and Vern Rowe.
In Country Bear Jamboree (both the original Florida version and the later California version), Ravenscroft is the voice of Buff, the buffalo head on the wall.
"Walt Disney was a wonderful man. I knew Walt personally through my work there, and it was a real treat. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he knew how it should be done. He was a charming, wonderful, warm man. I loved him," said Ravenscroft whose nearly 65 years worth of voice work for the Disney Company has brought joy and magic to several generations.
Renoudet and Ravenscroft are just two of the many talented voice performers whose work enhances the Disney park experience, but their efforts are so seamless that they are often ignored by the guests.