Disney Parks Jungle Cruise skippers on ride, The Rock, the film and their legacy

Jungle Cruise is due to set sail in cinemas and on Disney Plus this Friday, as the studio’s hoped-for big summer blockbuster, and Disney has pulled out all the stops in its quest for success by hiring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Emily Blunt as its leads and, once again, basing a film on a beloved Disney Parks attraction.

Pirates of the Caribbean was Disney’s first jackpot hit in 2003 when it came to adapting one of its popular rides for the big screen. Spawning a massive franchise that netted over $4.5billion (£3.2bn), it doesn’t take a genius to work out what Disney’s hopes are for Jungle Cruise.

Jungle Cruise was an opening day attraction at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, in 1955. Since then it has also been an opening day attraction at Orlando’s Magic Kingdom park in Walt Disney World in 1971, and has since navigated its way over to both Tokyo Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland.

However, what Jungle Cruise has as a theme park attraction that Pirates of the Caribbean did not is skippers, and these cast members (as Disney calls its employees) are a very special part of the attraction – as one former employee puts it, ‘you ARE the brand’. And this skipper ‘legacy’ is one that Dwayne Johnson will be facing head on in his role as Captain Frank ‘Skipper’ Wolff. It doesn’t matter how much the film may diverge from the ride, this is a comparison that Disney Parks enthusiasts around the world will not be able to help themselves from making.

The skipper role as the narrator, tour guide and joker in chief on the Jungle Cruise ride is one of the overwhelming reasons it has maintained its popularity through its 66-year history. As Lowell Doringo, 42, who worked at the Magic Kingdom version in 2002 before a 15-year career with Disney, acknowledged to Metro.co.uk: ‘If you don’t deliver, you might hear people get off the boat saying, “The person last time was so much better”, and so there’s a little bit of that angst and the expectation that can come with it.’

Angst aside, Jungle Cruise skippers past and present identify the role as ‘life changing’ and ‘a childhood dream come true’, and several sat down to speak exclusively with us.

David ‘Dr Skipper’ Marley, 54, a former Disneyland skipper and historian who has since written books from interviews with the attraction’s skippers, recalled: ‘My sister took me to Disneyland when I was seven and I don’t remember anything from the day, but I remember meeting a Jungle Cruise skipper and I remember getting ready to go on a boat and telling my sister, “When I grow up I’m going to be a Jungle Cruise skipper”, and it was always one of my life goals.’

‘That was the most fun job I’ve ever had.’

Madison Mantas, who applied for a full-time role at Walt Disney World in 2019, managed to land her Jungle Cruise gig ‘with a little finagling’ by talking to co-ordinators and trainers to get recommendations.

‘I don’t know how long I cried,’ she revealed, after hearing her efforts had paid off.

As Jungle Cruise skipper Andrew Uchenick, 36, who worked on the ride in Magic Kingdom 2006, puts it: ‘I think being a Jungle Cruise skipper was one of the most sought-after roles there!’

All the previous skippers spoken to agree it’s a very popular job, but why is that?

‘Jungle Cruise skipper was the most fun job I’ve ever had, and if it paid more, I’d still be doing it! How could you possibly have anything to complain about when your job is to hang out on a boat all day, and tell awful jokes about animatronic animals?’, continued Andrew.

Commenting on Disney’s reputation for sincerity and the utmost importance it places on preserving ‘the magic’, Dan Valero Fletcher, 35, a Disneyland skipper from 2007 to 2010, pointed out: ‘The Jungle Cruise skippers are the only ones who get to crack wise and be a little above it – shining a light on things – “‘Isn’t this whole thing kinda weird? These are robot animals!”’

‘It was definitely seen as the premier place to work,’ remembered his fellow Disneyland-er David, ‘so you definitely had bragging rights if you were a skipper.’

Greg Hurlman, 43, a seasonal skipper at Magic Kingdom throughout college until 2000, agreed.

‘If people found out you were a Jungle Cruise skipper, you were automatically given those social points. You were kind of expected to be the person who could be funny on demand at all times. Then, it was fine, but I would imagine it would probably get old after a while.’

It was the same with visitors to the park too, as Greg claimed that the only person with perhaps ‘more caché’ than a skipper would be ‘someone playing Cinderella, or someone like that!’

He remembered: ‘Every now and then a kid would come up with their autograph book that they have for the characters, and so there are people out in the world that have their autograph book like: Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Cinderella, Ariel and then ‘Greg Hurlman, World Famous Jungle Cruise Skipper’.’

As far as the Jungle Cruise skipper script goes, all recall that there is a certain amount of latitude given to skippers to come up with their own material, providing they start from ‘the OG’ (operating guide), and anything new respects Disney’s family-friendly reputation.

Melissa, 24, is a current skipper at The Jungle Cruise in Magic Kingdom and shared: ‘The script is sort of like a menu, with many options for each show scene. So every skipper has their own flair and array of jokes.’

Skippers from a few years back remember it being more relaxed than now, with Greg claiming that as long as it was ‘at worse PG’ and there were no complaints, ‘management didn’t care’.

‘I’ve heard, since then, management cares a whole lot more now!’

David goes further: ‘Skippers are the most important part of that ride and management spends most of their time trying to stop skippers from doing things. They’d be very happy if it was just robots doing the exact same script every time – they would be thrilled with that. And Walt didn’t want it that way.’

The skippers know that, when it comes to the ride’s fans, there are certain jokes where inclusion is pretty much non-negotiable, including the famous (but nonsensical) ‘back side of water’ line, which has already popped up in the film’s first trailer.

‘Guests who love the Jungle Cruise will be really disappointed if you don’t point out Schweizer Falls, the Back Side of Water, the croc named Ginger who snaps and so on,’ said Andrew.

Madison, however, would ‘always try to make it a little different’ and sometimes bravely diverged from the ‘back side of water’ line, taking advantage of the boat passing by a noisy waterfall and pretending to give away a crucial FastPass (a system for Disney guests to skip the queue) tip that gets drowned out.

What – crucially – do the skippers think about the imminent Jungle Cruise movie? All, almost without fail, use the word ‘excited’.

‘I am SO excited for the movie’, exclaimed Melissa, as she shared that her and her colleagues are ‘all hoping for some homages to classic jokes, as well as looking forward to seeing some tie-ins from the stories our attraction is based on’.

Greg has already thought of the merchandise, however, he is less keen on the idea of the Jungle Cruise film spawning a franchise.

‘One thing I’ve said to a couple of friends is that I’m looking forward to having an action figure for my summer job in college, which is not something you normally get to have,’ he said.

‘I’ll be glad if it is able to stand up as a movie well on its own, and I’m not looking to have seven more like Pirates of the Caribbean was, but I’m hoping it gets a much better reception than Haunted Mansion did.’

Although Dan is open to the idea of a ‘Marvel-esque cinematic universe’ that explores the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, a fictional organisation that ties together various attractions at the Disney theme parks, including Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, water park Typhoon Lagoon and Hong Kong Disneyland’s Mystic Manor, he is also not keen on a Jungle Cruise sequel or possible attraction tie-ins.

‘The worst thing, of course, would be if it does really, really well, they make five or six of them and then they have to go add a Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson animatronic to the ride.’

This specific concern is echoed by other skippers, and Madison, who was initially ‘sceptical’ about the film and described herself as ‘such a purist’ explained: ‘I really just wanted it to have every single thing to do with the ride. I was also kind of worried that maybe now we’re going to have a Rock and Emily Blunt animatronic. What’s this going to do for the ride?’

David mused on that point too and theorised: ‘If the movie does really well, we’re afraid they’re going to add stuff in. One skipper who still works at the parks told me, “Our only hope is that this movie does fantastically, or it bombs because either one is going to be good for comedy. Anything in the middle – who cares?’’’

He was also a little more on the fence about the upcoming movie and confessed to feeling ‘really nervous’.

‘I keep telling myself Disney held onto it because it’s good – but if it’s really good then they’re going to want to change the Jungle Cruise maybe in a way I won’t like. But if it bombs, then that would be bad. So I just sit here and get stressy about it, no matter what,’ he joked.

As older attractions, The Jungle Cruise in both Disneyland and Walt Disney World have recently received updates that, in Disney’s words, ‘reflect and value the diversity of the world around us’ as they move away from problematic representations of vague ‘native’ characters and Trader Sam, originally a shrunken-head salesman. These haven’t phased past skippers at all, two of whom have already visited the parks since the changes were made and one with a trip already planned.

‘I am 1000% okay with Disney changing rides to change with social norms changing,’ said Greg. ‘It’s a ride – get over yourselves if you’re upset about it. The fact that Jungle Cruise hadn’t changed a bit since I was working there is kind of insane to me.’

Skipper Melissa, who is currently working with these new changes to the ride and its storyline is also delighted and called the updates ‘amazing’.

‘It’s also been exciting to be part of the skipper group to roll out the new jokes and stories, and really see which new points resonate with our guests.’

Onto Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson who, like it or not (and whether he gets an animatronic or not), will be scrutinised by all of Disney’s Jungle Cruise skippers, no matter how loosely he represents them. For the movie, his costume is inspired by Humphrey Bogart’s from The African Queen, itself a major inspiration for the ride, alongside Walt Disney’s Oscar-winning True-Life Adventure documentaries.

Positive about his casting, David quipped: ‘I think all skippers think they look like that even though none of us do – not even close! But I think he’s got some good comedic timing, better than he gets credit for and I think that will help.’

‘The only thing with The Rock is sometimes he finds a character and it works and sometimes you’re watching The Rock as The Rock, doing whatever he’s doing,’ mused Greg. ‘So we’ll see.’

Lowell echoed that sentiment: ‘Is he going to be a skipper or is he going to be The Rock as a skipper? That always gets in my head. But if someone is going to play me in a movie, hey, I’ll take The Rock!’

‘I hope he is The Rock who is willing to make fun of himself, like in Tooth Fairy,’ added Dan.

Throughout the interviews, the skippers all mention the ‘legacy’ of the role and the ‘family’ of their community, with a few sharing the popular phrase: ‘Once a skipper, always a skipper.’

Lowell, who has not led a cruise (or expedition, I should say) for the best part of 20 years, had all seven of his fellow Disney College Program skippers at his wedding five years ago, and has stayed in touch with them via Zoom and online games throughout the pandemic. Now a senior learning and development manager, he shared that he still starts off most talks he gives with the fact he was a Jungle Cruise skipper.

How about his jokes and narration on the ride?

He laughed: ‘I don’t know where chemistry and geometry went, but the Jungle Cruise script? That’s ingrained [in my head]. That will never go away, ever!’

The Jungle Cruise is out in cinemas and on Disney Plus with Premier Access on Friday July 30.

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