Working on the Jungle Cruise in the 1970’s
Terry Speicher: Theme park designer with ITEC Productions and a former Walt Disney World Jungle Cruise Skipper from the opening days of Walt Disney World.
Interviewer: Tell us about how you got started at Jungle, and how long you were there.
TS: OK. It was a very cold winter in Indiana, around December, 1972. Eastern Airlines was advertising on the Larry Lujack Show out of Chicago, with the slogan, “If You Had Wings,” and all kinds of hype about Disney, ending with clips about Disney World, Mickey Mouse, and warm Florida. I couldn’t resist. I’d had enough of gray skies and wet snow. I took $500 and my old Corvair, kissed my folks goodbye, and drove down: I was going to work for Disney. What I didn’t know was how many other people had the same idea. There were 30,000 applicants for 7,000 jobs when the park opened, and this was only a year later. I was lucky enough to be hired and assigned to Main Street Adventureland, where Ed Beaver took one look at the three guys with me and said, “Trains.” Then he took one look at me and said “Jungle Cruise.” I still have no idea why, but I was given a script and told to go home and memorize it by the following Monday (this was Friday). I’d never memorized any script before, and I was nervous, but I learned how to give the spiel, and then the fraternity experience began. I found the Jungle to be more than an ordinary job and the people who worked there more than ordinary people. Most of them were overqualified for these positions, and they provided a certain camaraderie and humor akin to what you see on M*A*S*H. You’d get on the boat, where the previous captain would tell you he’d loaded the gun (a real Smith and Wesson .38) for you as a courtesy. You’d get to the hippo pool and fire, and the first two shots would go click, click. On the third shot, an unbelievable ka-boom would resound–he would have double loaded one of the blanks for you. In those days, each captain would work out his own interpretation of the script, including me. There was an ongoing war (and probably still is) between the official script and the one that was actually delivered once the boat was ten feet away from the dock.I stayed at Disney for 4 1/2 years, of which I probably spent a year and a half on the Jungle. I wound up as lead on the Jungle at several different times, worked as opening lead at “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and was also a lead on Main Street. During rehab, I had the pleasure of replacing the hair on the animals in the veldt.
Interviewer: Do you have any favorite Jungle Stories or memories?
TS: We used to go into the rock rooms to cool off. We had “borrowed” a special key, but that became a slightly risky enterprise. One day the landscaping crew obligingly left a set of pruning shears behind when they went to lunch. Jerry Starcher (“Stump,” for short) and I decided it was high time the Jungle Cruise had more than a dock box for comfort, especially for the leads. We went into the room in the queuing area and used the nippers to cut through the AC ductwork, added a leftover grille, and voila! the Jungle Cruise office was born. (I tended to make offices wherever I went. Eventually I created a lunch area on the catwalk above the lagoon at Pirates. They never could prove I’d relocated the WDW bandroom’s water-cooler/refrigerator to the Pirates tower, as all identifying markings had somehow disappeared.) The very best early Jungle Cruise exploit I remember (though I wasn’t involved myself) was about a captain who intentionally disabled his gun so it wouldn’t fire. After he pointed it at a hippo and it went “click” several times, he put a rubber knife between his teeth, jumped overboard, stabbed the hippo, swam to shore, jumped back on the boat in the shrine, changed shirts (he’d stashed one under the bow), received a standing ovation at the end of the cruise, and would have gotten away with it except for the congratulatory cards and letters that poured into Operations two weeks later, including photographs. Unfortunately, he was fired. (He had set the whole thing up so that a plain-clothes Jungle Cruise captain was on board, so the safety of the guests was never in question.) But my favorite memory of the Jungle Cruise involves a father with a little kid on a very hot, extremely hot July afternoon. This guy was shuffling along in the queue with the kid on his shoulders, and whenever he got really hot he’d lift the kid up in the air. Each time he did this, he’d hear a “thwacketa-thwacketa-thwacketa” sound and look around to see where it was coming from. It took about three times for him to realize that he was sticking the kid’s head into one of the ceiling fans. The kid was too surprised even to cry.
Interviewer: What are you doing now?
TS: That, of course, was all many years ago. In the intervening time, I’ve raised a family, opened and run my own electronics company, gotten a pilot’s license, traveled, and recently come full circle working for the entertainment industry, as an engineer for a company that builds ride and electronics systems for Disney and Universal. Strange how once it gets into your blood, it seems to stay there. My experiences on the Jungle made an extrovert out of an introvert and provided me with an extremely pleasant memory. On subsequent visits to the park with my family, I’ve noticed that things on the Jungle Cruise seem to be somewhat subdued by comparison.
Interviewer: You submitted a photo featuring you and Julie Nixon – tell us about that experience.
TS: As I turned the corner after Trader Sam, I saw every Disney dignitary who was anybody was standing on the dock, along with half a dozen secret service men and a gaggle of tongue-tied Girl Scouts who were there to provide a PR photo op. Somewhere in the middle of this mass of people was Julie Nixon Eisenhower. At the time, Nixon was still the president, and I’d voted for him, I regret to say, so this was a pretty big deal. It isn’t often that you get to give a “command performance.” Julie, the secret service guys, the girl scouts, and the “ambassador” tour guide were our only guests on that voyage–the people who’d been waiting on the dock were shuffled into permanent wait mode until the hubbub died down. The secret service were on the back of the boat and all over the dock, and, although I didn’t think about it until afterwards, I suppose there was a dangerous moment when I brandished the gun and shot the hippo (in those days we used real Smith and Wesson 38s, just blanks, of course.) You can bet their guns didn’t have blanks in them.
It wasn’t all that exciting because we got lots of celebrities, as you probably did as well, working on the Jungle. I was actually more impressed with the armed guards than with the president’s daughter (I was also more interested in the tour guide.) Just as a side note, on another occasion, when I was working at Pirates, Cliff Robertson damned near got me fired–he called to tell my supervisor what a great job I’d done the previous day of giving him a “behind-the-scenes” (very abbreviated, but he didn’t know that) tour of Pirates, which of course I wasn’t supposed to do. All my time at Disney, both on the Cruise and in Main Street/Adventureland, convinced me that even “important” people were just people, and to this day I use the skills I learned there every day.