Thursday, November 29, 2012

That Old Sinking Feeling: JC Memories

Daveland Reader Ken has pulled through a third time, with a very entertaining tale about the Jungle Cruise. Let the adventure begin!

The Jungle Cruise at Disneyland has become a well known institution over the decades. The antics of the skippers are legendary, and sometime infamous (you can take your pick). I’ve heard that today’s management has toned things down. Probably with the inclusion of female skippers now in the ranks, it’s become more homogenized, less of that “frat” party environment it once was and that many repeat guests had come to expect.

My time on the JC was in the 70s. I’d like to think of that as a ‘golden period’ of the attraction. Those who worked as skippers seemed ready to further the cause of the fraternity by upping the frivolity, the devil-may-care-spiels, pushing the envelope and most of the time getting away with it. Management would look the other way on lesser infractions and deviations from the spiel and other actions too numerous to mention. I’ve seen recollections from some that I worked with of the period published in the Mouse Tales series.

But so far, there’s been nothing said about the day the skiff sunk under Schweitzer Falls.

Funny what time can do to one’s memory. Exact times and dates for some things can be immediately recalled. And yet other memories, the visions of which remain clear, the date just blurs.

I believe it was 1975. A sunny and (fortunately warm) Sunday afternoon. The JC had recently re-opened after its annual maintenance rehab. Problems could be expected to happen with the start-up and on this particular day they did.

I was working load position when we heard 3 shots out in the Jungle, a mechanical breakdown. Back then there were no special loud blanks for breakdowns like today; all our blanks were of a sufficient charge to be heard. And that’s why we were instructed to shoot the hippos between the bow cleats and not closer to the guests in the front of the boat.

We would first wait for a period until we heard the two shots meaning “all cleared”, but none came. And as there were no further boats passing Trader Sam and arriving at the dock, we knew we were “101,” aka shut-down.

Note: Here's a photo of an early skiff, from May 1959:

The option to reach the troubled boat normally was for a mechanic, along with a skipper taking the controls of the skiff, a small 2-3 person boat tied in a corner of the lagoon with outboard motor, out into the Jungle. That afternoon, the lead told me I’d be that skipper, thinking that I had been trained in the use of the skiff. I hadn’t, but hey, it looked like fun when I saw others doing it, so why not me? I figured it would be simple enough.

So into the skiff I went. Trying as hard as I might, I never got the outboard to start, pulling the starter rope many times, manually choked and not choked. Since the JC had been down for rehab for a number of weeks, it’s likely the motor hadn’t been run in a long time. Perhaps the gas in the tank was old and was mixed with water from condensation. After a few minutes the mechanic came aboard, told me to move away, made a few tweaks to the settings, pulled the cord, and the motor started-up, no problem.
The mechanic took us through the Jungle, past a few boats, by the elephant 'squirter,' along the Falls, and up to the opening of the hippo pool where the stalled boat and passengers sat. Within a few minutes, the boat was running and the mechanic told me to follow behind in case it stalled again and I would have to push the boat through the attraction into the dock.

And so we moved forward slowly. Me, controlling the outboard behind in the skiff, with other boats following. That is until we approached the “backside of water”…Schweitzer Falls.

The troubled boat continued under the ledge and past the Falls. But as I slowed the throttle on the skiff, the motor died. Not to worry, I’ll just pull the cord to restart it. Sure! I can’t recall the number of tries, but it wouldn’t start and the skiff began to drift into the Falls. It’s one thing to be on a JC boat under the Falls’ ledge. It’s another in a small skiff heading directly toward the water itself. I tried frantically to restart the motor, but to no avail. A few feet from entering the Falls, it was time for “Plan B”.

The skiff contained a paddle for emergencies like this. So grab the paddle I did. But unknown to anyone…or perhaps as a prank placed by someone earlier…the paddle had a crack in it between the handle and the base of the blade. With my first stroke, the paddle separated and floated away. With just the handle in my hand being of no value, I tossed it overboard. By then, the Falls were now hitting the front portion of the skiff…there was no escape.

Sensing my impending doom, and hearing the boatload of guests and skipper behind me in near hysteric laughter, I decided to milk it. Hey, I’m going down one way or another. So I grab my straw hat and start bailing. After a few tries the water is falling on my head. I stand up, put my hat on my heart, give a salute and down I go.

All I remember is skimming the surface to stay afloat, with the broken paddle nearby. The boat of guests behind me tilting on its side as EVERONE is attempting to take a picture of this new feature of the attraction…a floating CM. The skipper (Jim Snowden) laughing so hard, he was bent over on the floor and all I could hear was laughter over the speakers and seeing coil of the mike he was holding. I later learned that the mechanic on the forward boat saw the entire event and broadcast it on the security channel..the message going out throughout the park that the skiff had sunk.

Somehow, soaking wet, I was able to climb aboard Jim’s boat and sat on the bow, taking over the mike and completing his spiel as we sped to the dock. The entire dock crew applauding as we came along side. They knew they were going to get a few hours off as the skiff needed to be found and refloated.

It was a long walk to wardrobe for a change of clothes. For several days thereafter, and attempting to keep a low profile, I would hear other CMs talking about the ‘guy who sank in the JC.' There was no reprimand…I had plenty of witnesses.

To this day I wonder why some guest in Jim’s boat didn’t send us a copy of their photos. Talk about making memories for our visitors. They certainly got more than they imagined for the price of admission.

And perhaps I am the only one who has been involved in two sinkings, the other being the canoes.

BTW, about a year later, I was instructed to man the skiff on another breakdown. I was in shock to be asked. New foreman. This time, it went without a hitch. But when I reached Schweitzer Falls, the pumps had been shut down. Maybe Maintenance knew I was coming.

Anyone out there have photos of this Jungle mishap?

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K. Martinez said...

Thanks for sharing your experience Ken and thanks for posting the story Dave. It made my day. Hilarious!

Rich T. said...

One of the all-time best Disneyland memoirs I've ever read! Thank you! :)

SundayNight said...

So funny Ken, and I loved the way you did the comedy thing as you were going down - making a long wait for the guests into a once in a lifetime Disneyland experience. Bravo!

Alan Lutz said...

Great memory. What a picture, indeed. FYI, we do NOT have louder blanks now for such events. All ammo is the same at JC. There may have been a period of time since he worked and now when they had louder ones but not currently.