The Disney Crew: A Remembrance

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

“Be Smart. Don’t Start. Say No. Gotta Go.”

For thousands of third graders in Central Florida, as well as Anaheim, Calif., those words changed their lives and the lives of their friends. They hollered those words back repeatedly to the colorful puppets animating on top of a 6-foot-plus wall (tall enough so the puppeteers behind the wall didn’t have to crouch as they thrust their arms high in the air to give life to those lively pieces of colored cloth and foam).

The Disney Crew was a puppet show using Muppet-like human puppet characters, catchy tunes and student participation to help children understand the dangers of substance abuse.

The show debuted in Orlando in 1991 sponsored by Walt Disney World Community Relations. It was so successful that Disneyland launched a similar version in September 1998 traveling to Orange County elementary schools although at the dawn of the new century The Disney Crew became a forgotten part of Disney history.

The puppets included Justin (a sports hero with a crewcut), Gizmo (a computer geek), Rowdy (a skateboarding dude), Bad (a black-jacketed rebel with a Fonzie-like pompadour hairstyle), Caitlin (a cheerleader), Ashley (a rich Valley girl), Tiva (an ethnic singer), and Jane (a brainy type who wears glasses). These young characters learned the dangers of drugs and other addictions to substances like alcohol, cocaine, ”huffing” (inhalants), LSD, pot, and nicotine.

These dangers were also portrayed by puppets including Rocko who was a skeleton with a rock like face representing cocaine and Mary Wana who literally had a pot head filled with marijuana leaves. Of course, nicotine was an anthropomorphic cigarette with glasses and a goatee (trying to look cool) and alcohol was a fat bottle with a bloated face and a bottle cap as a hat. Each addiction danger had its own tuneful song to reinforce the message.

The show was very much in keeping with Walt Disney’s philosophy that the best educational projects included entertainment and humor. It was fast paced with lots of lively songs that pointed out the dangers without preaching or patronizing. The young characters were always likable and cared for each other and were obviously selected stereotypes to tap into the wide demographic of the young children in the audience. It was a show that entertained young minds but was not embarrassing for adults.

In Orlando, the crew went to close to 250 elementary schools in five different counties doing the show for primarily third-graders who were already frighteningly well versed in drugs. The Disney performers loaded up at 6:30 a.m. each weekday in the parking lot behind Disney University.

There was a van for the five performers, one facilitator and one very versatile and talented tech person who drove. An enclosed trailer for the set and puppets were hitched to the van. All of the pieces were cleverly disassembled in huge rolling trunks so that they could be moved down a ramp quickly into a performing area and unpacked and put together.

The reason for the early morning beginning was that the first show was usually scheduled for 9 a.m. and it could be quite a drive to a school in a different county and there had to be time allotted to find a parking place, the contact person at the school, and the location for the show, as well as time to set up the puppet stage, lighting, and sound equipment either on a cafeteria stage or a cramped space in a classroom. This will all sound very familiar to those performers who tour the school circuit offering everything from storytelling to Shakespeare.

The show ran approximately 35 minutes with the facilitator doing another 20 minutes or so to introduce the show and answer questions at the end, emphasize how bad drugs are, summarize some of the main points from the show and to direct discussion from the audience.

Sometimes that facilitator was a Disney Ambassador, although the crew often preferred a different facilitator who wasn’t as “dry” or politically correct in the interactions with the students. The puppets performed to a prerecorded and preapproved soundtrack so they were not allowed to talk to the kids after the show, which was why a facilitator was needed.

There were also related items distributed to the children including a colorful (green and purple) 16-page Funbook with games and activities (crossword puzzle, connect the dots, word search, mazes, interviews with the characters, etc.) related to the presentation, rulers, stickers, buttons and more. These items were boxed up and carried in the van and given to the contact person at each school. Interestingly, these items never carried a Disney copyright.

The introduction to the“Totally New! Totally Awesome! Totally Terrific! The Disney Crew Fun! Book” gives some insight into how Disney intended this presentation to be utilized.

“Dear Parents,

“Today at school your child was treated to an entertaining show about the importance of substance-abuse prevention—‘The Disney Crew’.

“Walt Disney World Company is proud to be the sponsor of this puppet show that stars so many characters that your sons and daughters can relate and listen to. Ask your youngster about Dude, Caitlin, Bad, Jane, Justin, Ashley, Gizmo and Tiva and how they were tempted by drugs such as marijuana, alcohol, crack, LSD, inhalants and tobacco. Then ask about the “Say No, Gotta Go!” message. We all hope this message will carry our children through the dangerous adolescent years when peer pressure must be met head-on with a drug-free education foundation.

“Your child also received this funbook to reinforce the message of today’s show. We encourage you to review it with your child and ask him or her to share what was learned.

“Finally, we hope that your child saw beyond the colorful characters and heard a warning more powerful than the upbeat, lively songs. As parents and educators, we are all in this together. A drug-free future and the health of our next generation is a great responsibility. Walt Disney World Co. is thankful for the opportunity to play our part toward a cleaner, brighter tomorrow by bringing ‘The Disney Crew’ to your school.”

The puppets looked very much as if they had been created in the Jim Henson workshop and in fact, Henson was much admired by the young puppeteers and some of them had even been trained by Henson personnel. It is more difficult that you might imagine to have a puppet lip sync correctly to a prerecorded track and yet still move in a way to create the illusion of life.

If you ever audition, remember that you shouldn’t just open and close your hand to form words so it looks like a duck quacking. In the world of the Muppets, watch closely and see that the puppeter will just open and close the lower jaw and use the upper lips to accent a word.

While I suspect that some of the young puppeteers might not have followed the examples of their puppet alter egos when it came to certain substances on their days off, I will say I never them ever under the influence of anything (other than occasional lack of sleep) on the days they were performing. Even those who smoked, never smoked in the van nor at the school where they were performing, less an impressionable young child find a discarded cigarette butt or the lingering aroma of nicotine near the area where the show was performed and had presented the hazards of nicotine.

The performers in the show often worked in other puppet themed shows on property including the Legend of the Lion King at the Magic Kingdom and the Voyage of The Little Mermaid show at the then-Disney MGM Studios. The performing cast rotated each day (although there were some “regulars” who always seemed to be there more often) and since every puppeteer was trained on all the characters, it was interesting to see how they brought their own little personal quirks to whatever characters they were doing at the performance.

Some of those puppeteers were so talented that they were able to make repairs to the puppets, sometimes in the middle of a performance.

Occasionally hospital visits were included but generally, it was not the show itself but an opportunity for some of the performers with character training to suit up as Disney fur characters to interact with the children patients. At hospitals, it was also important to make the distinction between drugs and medicine or else the kids would say “no” to the medicine the doctors and nurses were trying to give them.

After the first performance, the set which had a huge wall and a backdrop to suggest a school had to be struck and everything packed up and driven to the afternoon performance with usually a stop at a fast food location for a quick lunch. After the afternoon performance, it was back to the Disney University parking lot and for some of the performers, another shift at a Disney park show. Of course, they would not perform over summer vacation or other various school vacations when school was not in session.

I worked with the Disney Crew a couple of days a week for a few months and was constantly impressed with their professionalism, energy and talent. It was hard work and sometimes emotionally draining as when at the end of one performance a little girl broke into uncontrollable tears because she was afraid her mother was going to die because she smoked or the third graders who, from their questions, demonstrated that they knew more about drugs and their effects than the show addressed thanks to family members and their experiences.

There was no manager hovering over the group for each show and yet, I never once saw the young cast abuse that freedom, even though it might have been tempting. Being a good decade older than everyone else in the van except for the tech, I was expecting some shenanigans from the young entertainment performers but that was never the case. They took the job very seriously and saved the hi-jinks for off hours.

As you might imagine, the evaluations handed out at each school always came back consistently outstanding in all areas and I saw teachers eagerly greet the cast when they arrived since they had seen the show in previous years.

Unfortunately, when it came time for budget cuts many years ago, the Disney Crew was easy to eliminat, especially since it didn’t generate revenue and that it wasn’t well known. Despite its success, there was no champion to come to its rescue. Officially, the Disney Company claimed the still popular and effective show had run its course and the Disney Company would be devoting its resources not to update and refurbish the show but use the funds elsewhere.

The puppets and equipment were sold off cheaply and quickly just as years later, animation equipment at Disney Feature Animation Florida was sold off quietly when that department closed. It was almost as if someone wanted to make certain that no one could ever revive that department without a massive amount of capital and effort. The performers all found work elsewhere in Disney entertainment.

Even today, if you use any Internet search engine, you will find no information on this wonderful experience, no video, and no personal memories from the cast. While I never saw the Disneyland version, it was rumored they had a special air-conditioned bus designed especially for the performers and equipment.

Even though I don’t have as much information as I would like to write this article, I wanted to make sure that The Disney Crew finally received some Internet recognition. It truly was a hidden treasure at Walt Disney World and truly it has been missed by those who knew of it.

“We’re the Disney Crew. That’s right. It’s me and you. And what you’ve learned is true. It will help you through… the things that come your way. Yay! Each and ev’ry day. We’re the Disney Crew!”—From the theme song “The Disney Crew" (Words by Forrest Bahruth and Music by Gregory Smith)