The Nile Princess
Ever heard the urban legend about the girl that was killed at Disneyland, crushed between two moving walls on the America Sings attraction?
Sadly, it’s not a legend. It really happened. There have been several folks that have died at Disneyland, and I almost joined them in ignominy. My story of near-legend status involves an aptly named deadhead.
I was a ride operator at Disneyland for two years, working on Big Thunder, the Tiki Room, the Mark Twain, Columbia and the Jungle Cruise.
You may remember the Jungle Cruise as a 15-minute boat trip past scenes of animatronic animals, with a wannabe comedian on the mike.
What was working at Disneyland like? It was equal parts amazing and soul-crushing. I watched a gymnast dressed like Tinkerbell fly down a zip line and crash into two burly guys, who had to park themselves at the end of the line and hold a mattress upright to break her fall. Amazing.
But I also got to see Tinkerbell do her thing Every Damn Night. The first three times is hilarious. The next 30 is soul-crushing.
In other words, the bloom comes off the rose pretty damn fast. It’s the Happiest Place on Earth. Right up until the moment you have to corral a brainless group of tourists.
So, the dirty little secret about Disneyland employees is that we enjoyed the job the most when we had the park to ourselves.
But to be honest, the Jungle Cruise was awesome. Besides the Army, where else do you get to see 18-year-olds paid to play with guns.
Spoiler alert! Jungle Cruise boats are on an underwater rail.
And the rail is just a big circle. The boats are in a single-file line, in other words. You fill up with passengers, take off from one end of the dock, loop around, and drop your passengers off at the other end.
The system is all very elegantly timed, if you stop and think about it. Disney engineers are actually really good at their jobs. There’s a maximum of 10 boats on the rail, with only three or four at the dock taking on or dropping off passengers at any given time. The other boats are out on the ride itself, spaced out by the inherent timing of the system, and the physical design of the ride itself, which hides other boats from view (as one boat enters the Hippo Pool, for example, the previous boat has *just* exited seconds before, and is now out of sight, aroound a corner). When everything is done right, there’s an illusion of being alone in the jungle.
But it doesn’t always go right. No plan survives contact with the enemy.
Guests are sand in the well-oiled Jungle Cruise machine. Guests want things like “service” and “convenience” and “entertainment in exchange for their entrance fee.”
Which brings me to the deadhead.
If you’re a bus driver or in the airline industry, you might know the non-Jerry Garcia meaning of the term “deadhead” — a trip without any passengers, or any commercial vehicle trip designed to merely get the vehicle itself to the right place at the right time. Just move the vehicle from Point A to Point B so you can actually use it for its intended purpose.
In our case, the boats are on a rail, like I mentioned. You can’t change lanes. Slower vehicles can’t move right. If Grandma Okie insists on stopping for pictures with her little Okie grandkids and can’t remember which button is the shutter, the 30 guests in the boat behind her just have to wait. And as the ride operator with the microphone, let’s just say it’s Evening at the Improv, and I’m fresh out of material.
Deadheads are a means of addressing spacing problems like Grandma Okie who won’t get off the boat. You just send a ride operator out alone in his boat, which frees up space at the dock for other boats to disembark passengers.
For the ride’s lead, the manager, it’s a black mark. You’re not serving guests fast enough, and somehow this is your fault.
For the ride operator, though, a deadhead is 15 minutes of blissful silence. It’s just you, the boat and the fake animals. Nobody asking you where the bathrooms are. Nobody asking you when the 9 o’clock parade starts. Just you and your 18-year-old non-thoughts.
One typical night, I’m sent on a typical deadhead. I try to hide my giddiness and zoom off into the jungle, which because of crafty landscaping and nearly 50 years of the best horticulturalists around, is pitch black if I leave the boat’s lights off, which I do.
Now, I still have to drive the boat. Well, I mean, I’m not steering. But I have to operate the throttle. And I still have to play the game, so to speak — I have to keep the proper spacing, so I’m not ruining the illusion of boats being alone in the jungle.
In my case, I was actually standing on the prow of the boat, working the throttle with my foot, looking backward. I was trying to gauge how far back the next boat was.
Yes, that’s right. I’m driving the boat forward but looking backward. I’m 6-foot-4, which means, standing on the prow, I’m about three feet taller than that smokestack.
I’m about to have my appointment with the Grim Reaper.
You see, I forgot about the archway.
I’m not going fast — maybe 5 miles per hour. But it sure is a surprise when the archway slams into the back of my head. The boat keeps moving forward, and the archway pushes me down onto the boat canopy and SCRAAAAPES my head as the boat passes beneath.
It was all over in a second. I was so disoriented, I nearly fell out of the boat. Which really would have been the highlight of some tourist’s visit. As it was, my hat was knocked into the water, and it took me a minute to fish it out of the drink.
My mind raced the rest of the deadhead. What if I had been killed? Well, my corpse may have fallen overboard. The boat would’ve kept sailing without me. And remember, it’s pitch black and the water is dyed a deep river green. They’d think I just jumped out somewhere and walked off the job. It’d be days before anyone found my body.
But what if I didn’t fall overboard, though? The boat would’ve still made it all the way back to the dock via the rail. That would’ve been an interesting sight. “Oh, look, here comes Frank. Hey, Frank, whatcha doing there, buddy? Taking a nap?”
Creepy just to think about it. I like to think I’d have figured out a way to get some payback.
From the grave.