Interview with 20Ker Steev RamsDel
I was a 20K cast member (1976-1977) and have many great memories. I was a bit too young to really appreciate the attraction way back then. But, I did enjoy my time there, and tried to make each journey a memorable experience for my guests.
In fact, I received an "I Have An Idea" award for a suggestion that made a small change in the show sequence. The original 20K show sequencing had the bubbles and "whooshing" sounds before the call to "Take her back up to 80 fathoms!". I would manually delay the sound and animation effects tapes so that the sounds and sights enhanced the idea of changing depth. I submitted it as an employee suggestion and some WED imagineers came out, had me take them on a trip (no guests) and show them. They liked it and made the adjustments so that it was part of the automatic triggers from then on.
I'm also probably one of the very few who ever crashed a Nautilus!
It was during the Kissimmee Cup competition during spring break of 1977. [See and original Kissimmee Cup victory certificate and other supporting documents on the Behind the Scenes photos page] As with most accidents, it took a particular combination of circumstances for this to happen.
Principle among these, was an overload at rear dock requiring the boarding ramp to be lowered back down so that a few guests could be taken off. In addition, I was a little derelict in my duties, as was the cast member at Rear Dock Control. I was unable to stop my sub in time. Fortunately, when my sub plowed into the sub at rear dock, there were no serious injuries to people, although the nose bridge on the front of the docked sub was severely damaged.
To explain how all the elements came together to make such a mishap occur, let me start by saying - as other 20K'ers have pointed out - that taking the journey "20,000 leagues under the sea", over and over and over, could become quite tedious.
To keep from literally falling asleep at the wheel, I loved to add little touches to the show. And I especially liked to flirt with the young girls whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Now, as you probably know, there were switches on the control panel in the sail for turning on and off the red and white interior lights above the passengers (red during the cruise, white for loading and unloading). I discovered that you could position the switches between "OFF" and "ON" and have no lights, complete darkness. This little trick really added power to the effects during the battle to get free of the giant squid. The blue-white flashes of the electrical charges were even more dramatic as they splashed throughout the darkened sub.
But, I took things even further - when it served my purposes. If I was a bit bored or trying to score points with a particular guest, I would include my own ad lib to the show.
It wasn't difficult to pull-off due to the gullibility of many of the guests. We used to have a saying that there was an invisible bin next to each turnstile at the entrance to the park. As people came in, they would reach up and pull out their brains and drop them into the bin!
Once people began their stroll down Main Street, they would put their trust in us completely. They wanted to believe in magic and fantasy and adventure, and would go along with almost anything they were told. So, who was I to let them down?
On board my Nautilus, it was my habit to drop in little bits of humor to the spiels that we were required to give:
"Please no smoking, eating, drinking, flash photography, or dancing in the aisles. And, most importantly, please do not open the windows."
"Please gather up all your personal belongings, take small children by the hand - or by the ear, whichever is the closest - watch your step and head - look up, look down, look up, look down - as you exit through the forward hatch."
You can imagine how many people searched for the window latches, pulled on each others ears, and bobbed their heads up and down as they exited! (More on that later.)
So, here's how my special show would begin. (It worked best during the slower times, and when mine was the lead boat of the pack.) As we were leaving the dock, I would bend down and say hello to the targeted guest and get their name. The trip narration would not start again for a few moments (until we reached the first trigger point in the lagoon) so I would take that opportunity to say something like, "Sorry to interrupt, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, but I've just been informed that today is Laura's birthday. Everyone please wish Laura a very happy birthday. She's the beautiful young woman right up here in the red t-shirt."
Of course, it was never anyone's birthday, and they'd act all embarrassed and mad, but you could tell that they loved being singled out and getting the attention.
Then, I would speed up the journey a little, advancing the tapes. I was careful to maintain the show quality, while also putting some distance between me and the sub following me. By the time we reached the climatic battle scene, I had the extra time needed to bring the sub to a full stop - right at the point when we were in the clutches of the giant squid.
Remember that the sub was dark, with only the flashes of light. So, when the guests heard Mr. Baxter say, "All ahead, aye. (short pause) She won't answer the helm!" And then the Captain's reply, "Emergency maneuver! All engines, standby to surface! Surface!" I would stop the tapes, key the intercom and say quickly and in an excited voice, "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, we can't break free! But, don't worry, Laura will save us. She's outside the sub right now fighting off that beast, all by herself! Hold on..... One moment............ Yes! I think she's done it! We're free!!"
I'd put the throttle in full forward and we'd resume the standard show. There would be cheers and applause - along with affected protest from my victim, as the guests heard, "Surface! Surface! Surface! (A stream of bubbles indicates the surfacing procedure and then when they clear away, the "surface" light is streaming through once again) We've reached Vulcania, sir."
BTW, the waterfall at the exit to the caverns was one of the many ingenious ideas that went into making this ride so special. The waterfall was nice to look at. It's soothing effect on guests waiting in line was helpful. It concealed the catwalks and non-show aspects inside the caverns. And, the water cascading over the sub helped create the sense of surfacing from the deep.
Throughout my service as a member of Captain Nemo's crew, I went through this little extra scene now and then, without major mishap. Until that one day.
I knew that because of the competition, we were rushing the entire process and it was not a good time to pull any stunts. But, when I saw her, I was in love - or at least, lust!
It was around mid-day, the park had reached capacity and we were running nine boats - three loading and unloading at the docks, three entering the caverns, and three approaching the exit of the caverns. Mine was the lead boat of one of the packs.
I went through my opening routine with this beautiful young blonde girl (I later found out that she was vacationing from upstate New York) and she was responding very well. So, I decided to push my luck. I hurried along, stopped at the battle scene, made Julie the heroine, and charged full speed out of the caverns.
Now, during the ad-libbed scene, I had heard the "Rear Dock Clear" announcement over the two-way radio. And coming through the waterfalls, I could see the green light on the pole at the end of rear dock. But, then things went wrong.
Because the competition with Jungle Cruise was based on processing the most passengers, the loaders were trying to make sure that each boat was filled to capacity with 40 guests on board. I don't know if there was a broken seat, or a miscount, or a parent that decided not to hold a little one on their lap, or what, but the boat at the rear dock had too many people.
So, the boat couldn't leave. The Rear Dock Control cast member turned the control light from green to red, then went to help with the unloading. Procedure also called for him to use his radio to advise the first boat of the pack coming in (mine) of the change in status. Of course, when interviewed afterwards, he said that he did make the radio transmission, but honestly, nothing was said over the radio.
As for me, I did not see the light changed to red because I was too busy talking and flirting with my newest fling. By the time I glanced up and saw the scene before me, it was too late.
Those submarines were very heavy and once they got moving it took a while for them to stop. All I could do was call over the radio to tell the other sub driver to tell the people on his sub to brace for impact. I put the throttle in full reverse and told everyone below me to hold on!
The collision severely rocked both boats and pushed the sub in front of us into the loading ramp, causing significant damage. Luckily, as mentioned earlier, no one was hurt. And only a verbal reprimand due to the extenuating circumstances, including the unsanctioned competition with Jungle Cruise! And I did get her room number - but that's another story!
It certainly was an experience that I won't forget any time soon. In fact, here's a short poem posted on Poets.com that I wrote to capture and remember the event:
An Accident With Tourists
To all the old 20K-ers everywhere - may your waters be smooth!
A thousand times 'round the Seven Seas Lagoon,
Over and over to Captain Nemo's jaunty tune.
With passengers from all over the world,
Especially, the girls with hair softly curled.
I, the helmsman, on a Disney World excursion,
Happy to have another pleasant diversion.
No matter we're running nine boats up,
Vying with Jungle Cruise for the Kissimmee Cup.
With the charms of my special guest I'm occupied,
Thus, the dock's flashing red light goes unspied.
"Hold on!" I announce. We're gonna crash,
Into the moored Nautilus we solidly smash!
Oh, the perils when one chooses to flirt,
Though in the end, no one was hurt.
It's not everyday you see a damaged sub,
But you'll never stop love, and there's the rub.
How did you get selected to work on 20K?
One thing that surprised my naive mind, was that in talking with other cast members, I found out that there was a classification system in use when applicants applied for an unskilled position at Walt Disney World - based on appearance. Good-looking people could work "on stage". People that were more beauty-challenged, were assigned "back stage" jobs. Can you imagine what the night sweepers looked like? They could have filled-in at the Haunted Mansion!
Any troublemakers on board?
Most of us were very young and full of spit and vinegar. There were times when things happened. The job had a certain amount of monotony to it, so we found ways to keep ourselves entertained. As others have mentioned, we were always on the look-out for the babes, or 914s (20Ker radio code for a hot girl).
And one of the best things to do was to pull tricks on each other, like the water and the antennae through the ear flap kind of stuff.
One day, I pulled the "Happy Birthday" routine on my unloader. He couldn't deny it or explain it to 40 people passing by wishing him a very "Happy Birthday", but he was determined to pay me back. Later in the day, by letting others bump around his place in the rotation, he was the one driving while I was the unloader.
As people came out, I noticed something amiss right away. They all looked angry, disgusted about something. I tried to provide the customary, "Thank you for visiting. Have a great day!" But, everyone was glowering at me and unresponsive. It was obvious that whatever they had been told had made me out to be a very bad person.
After the last guest passed by, murmuring something like, "You should be ashamed of yourself, young man!" I went straight to the ear hole and demanded to know what he had told them. He said, "Oh, nothing. I just gave them the good news that you were once again going to be a new father. And this time there was even a possibility that you would marry the sweet girl!"
Well, he'd got me good. So, the only thing to do was to get him even worse. I had to wait a few days for the opportunity to come up, but when it did, I was ready.
Pulling into the dock, I gave the standard spiel and then added, "And ladies in gentlemen, boys and girls, as you exit the submarine today, you will be assisted by one of Walt Disney World's latest audioanimatronic wonders! Now, his name tag says, Tom, but we love him so much, that we affectionately refer to him as our dock dummy! Please do me a favor and give him a wave or a salute to let him know that his work is appreciated, and be sure to call out a big, "Hi, Dock Dummy!!" as you exit through the forward hatch!
Picture forty guests, lots of kids, waving, saluting and yelling out "Hi, Dock Dummy!!"
He gave up after that one and never tried to get me back.
Did subs ever collide?
Serious collisions like the one described above were very rare. But, minor bumps were common. The policy during my time at 20K, required all bumps to be reported, but that almost never happened. Sometimes, one crew member would buy another lunch as a thank you for not making out a report. One reason it occurred so often was that the subs were slow to get going, and even slower to stop. There were red, yellow, and green lights in the tail fins to indicate if the sub ahead had the throttle in forward, neutral or reverse. It was a bit unnerving to come blasting around a bend only to see a sub ahead with a red light on!
If I got bumped from behind or bumped the sub in front, I would usually key the intercom and say something like, "Nothing to worry about folks - just a humpback whale passing by a little close."
Did you get a kick out of seeing kids and adults enjoy the ride?
They say when you get old, you get young. Generally, the younger the guest, or the older the guest, the more they enjoyed the ride.
Parents and teenagers were not always as impressed. Except during grad nights. With much fewer people in the park, the subs often were not full, even empty at times. 20K was almost as popular as The Haunted Mansion for teenagers looking for a semi-private and darkened place for some fooling around.
I do remember one elderly lady, in particular. I was at the front dock unload station and when she emerged, I could see that she was quite excited, almost frightened. "Oh, my good Lord!" she exclaimed. I asked, "Are you OK, mam?" She said, "I did not know we were going down under the ocean!"
I tried and tried to explain that it was an illusion and that she had been perfectly safe, just a few feet below the surface all the time, but she was resolute.
"Don't try to fool me, young man! I know what I saw!"
I conceded the debate, and said, "Well, you're safe and dry now, mam." Then, gave her a knowing wink, and said, "I hope you continue to have a wonderful time here at the Magic Kingdom."
Many people feel 20K was the best ride at Disney world. Why do you feel the ride had such an impact?
I think one of the big factors at 20K, as with the park as a whole, was the perfect blend of reality with fantasy. So much attention to detail created a world offering fantastic experiences that were almost real.
Did anyone ever fall in?
I saw it happen once by accident during my stint. And once, not by accident. The swan dive off the top of the caverns is a true story. I know it happened at least once.
Back then, the minimum wage was only $2.30 per hour. Disney started unskilled laborers at $2.60 per hour. A lot of cast members did not see a long term career with Disney in their future. And the feeling was generally mutual. There was a widely-held belief that Disney management planned for a 18-month turnover for most of its employees. After a year or so, the magic would begin to wear off, the smiles would be less permanent, and it would be better "show" to bring in new blood.
So, there were disgruntled workers, talks of newer, stronger unions, and so forth. And sometimes things got out of hand, tempers flared, and someone would quit or be fired. Such an incident occurred one day when I was working the intermediate dock. I could hear raised voices come from the cave (crews quarters) then saw a crew member storm out to the docks and throw his hat into the middle of the lagoon. The lead came out, saw the thrown hat, and began calling for assistance on his radio. The crew member knew it was the end and became more angry. He said, "Don't worry, I'll get the hat."
Then he jumped onto the back of a sub as it was leaving the docks. The crowd in the queue area gasped. The rest of us crew members were shocked. The now most certainly fired crew member, was smiling and waving as the boat continued through the lagoon. In fact, he did a little dance, then pulled off his shirt and threw it into the water. A few people in the queue, teenagers mostly, cheered him on.
So, he continued to undress and throw articles of clothing into the lagoon, until just before entering the caverns he was left with his plain white boxers and a white undershirt!
After a few minutes, two supervisors showed up and there was a lot of talking on the radios. Then the best part happened. Someone in the crowd called out, "Look! He's up there!" Sure enough, there he was, standing proud on top of the caverns, in just his underwear!
After looking around and waving to everyone, he came to attention, gave a big salute and then did a fairly nice swan dive right into the lagoon! (I'd have scored him an 8.5!) When he surfaced, he began to swim toward the side of the lagoon - where they have since put the Trident statue. He was laughing and waving back at us. Then, just before he reached the shoreline, we saw a half dozen security and management types emerge from the foliage, waiting to greet him.
I never heard what happened to him, but we talked about that incident for weeks.
Were the 20Kers a tighter knit group than other ride crews?
As I mentioned earlier, I was young and a bit naive about some things back then. And, as implied earlier, the romantic pickings were sweet and many. There were more female cast members "on stage" at Disney World than males. And tons of girls were there on vacation. It would take a whole book of Penthouse articles to cover all the stuff that went on!
In any case, one of the girls I was dating worked one of those mobile ice cream carts, usually in Tomorrowland. One day, we were eating lunch together in the underground main cafeteria and she said something about my working at 20K that surprised me. She said that she was glad that I was not gay!
I, of course, asked her why she would think that I was. And she explained that she had heard that since no women were allowed to work at 20K, she had heard that the gay guys would ask to be assigned there! Now, I assume that many of the 20K'ers reading this may get all up in arms, but I'm just passing along a true experience.
As I remember, her comment was not really a big deal to me, and was quickly forgotten as we made plans for a later rendezvous.
Any more funny stories or pranks?
I didn't hang out with the other 20K guys very much, but I do remember some of us got together one day and caused some mischief. Three of us were off-duty and had changed into street clothes. We met up with another group of about six guys and girls that worked at various other attractions. We had planned to ride some rides and just hang out in the park.
At one point, we were sitting around some tables near Snow White's Adventures, and you know how someone suggests something off-hand, and then someone adds to it, and then before you know it, it becomes something you're actually going to do? We were joking about how gullible guests were and the idea for a little practical joke was formed.
We noticed that over at the Pinocchio Village Haus restaurant, there was a large tree in a planter near the corner of a wall that came out a little into the street. It was perfect for our purposes. We very casually walked over and formed a line that went from the wall next to the planter, around the planter and started down the street a little ways. Sure enough, other people walking along stopped and got in our line! Yes, some people hesitated, checked it out a little more, and moved on. But before too long, there was a line of about 50 people stretched out into the street, going back toward It's A Small World!
The nine of us then just acted like we were tired of waiting and strolled away. At a safe distance, we were almost dying with laughter as we watched one after another of these poor folks walk forward, come around the planter and see a blank wall! They'd look all around for some door or some point for the line to be there, then shake their heads and continue on, clueless and brainless!
Any non-20K, Disney anecdotes to share?
Well, there was the night of the Great Sneak-In.
One of the fringe benefits as a cast member, was that you could bring in to the park up to three other people each day. Well one night my brother, his friend and I, and our dates had the idea to go to the park, but it was already after 8 pm. And, since I was the only cast member, two of us would have to pay. It didn't seem worth the money, so we decided to sneak in.
We all got in my '78 Grand Prix (this was during a short term employment during 1980) and drove to the park and took the entrance to go to the Contemporary Hotel. We drove past the entrance to the Contemporary, continuing on to the intersection where if you turned left, you'd go toward the Polynesian Hotel. We went straight, which put us on the service road that led along the east side of the Magic Kingdom. There was a thin line of trees on our left and an open field on our right. We timed it so that no other traffic was nearby, then doused the headlights and turned off the road into the field. We bumped along blindly for about a hundred yards until we stopped near another tree line that ran along the shore of Bay Lake.
We then began to work our way back toward the road on foot. Whenever a car would come along, we'd drop down to the ground. We were laughing and joking, but it felt like we were on a some kind of commando mission! We began to shush each other more and more as we went along. We crossed the road undetected and began to work our way along, hiding in the bushes and behind the trees whenever a car would pass. A couple of security patrol cars went by, but they didn't see us.
At this point, it became like a war game. We spread out, then signalled each other when it was clear to run forward to the next hiding spot. In a short time, we came to an open area where a small service road crossed over a canal and led into the back side of Space Mountain. It was gated and there was fencing on either side that led down to the water and extended out into the canal about six feet.
We decided to cling to the fencing and work around the end, just above the water. The girls were really great about the whole thing. My date was even wearing short heels. She just took them off and did it barefoot! Gotta love those Southern women!
Well, we did it. We made it across, then walked up and over the hill and down into the area between Space Mountain and Grand Prix Raceway. We tried to watch out for any signs of security or employees, but no one noticed us or paid any attention. It was summer and the park was open late and the crowds had thinned out. So we started hitting the rides and had a good time.
Of course we finished up by going again and again on Space Mountain. I was feeling a little giddy with our success, so after one ride, I ran ahead and out of view of the others. Then, as they came down the moving walkway and passed the little future scenes, they didn't notice that I had jumped over the rail and was sitting there, motionless, as if I was watching the space age TV and belonged there. I peeked out of the corner of my right eye and saw that there were some other people just behind them. I waited until everyone was right behind me then jumped up, pointed at the TV and yelled, "Did you see that?!!" Scared them all half-to-death!
It was great fun and we felt invincible. Just to be on the safe side, though, we opted not to try to go back the way that we came. Instead we walked out of the Magic Kingdom main entrance, and then down the street as if we were walking to the Contemporary. No one bothered us and we thought we had achieved complete success on our mission - until we saw the security vehicles, lights flashing, parked next to my car.
We gave the coppers our best B.S. story - that we had just stopped there to "talk" with our girlfriends, and then decided to go for a little walk and just look around. They weren't buying it, but they had no proof of us doing anything wrong, so they warned us not to park there again and let us go.
Anything else to tell?
The night the Daytona Beach lifeguards got so drunk and rowdy at River Country a squad of Orange County sheriffs had to be called in to assist Disney Security with throwing them out.
The after-hours, naked slide parties at River Country. I swear! I was there! It really happened! Thank you, Darlene, wherever you are!
The girl I knew who worked at a certain little refreshment stand next to 20K, and had a foolproof method of increasing her monetary compensation - to the tune of about $100 per day. That was a lot of money back then. And she never got caught for that. Instead, she got busted shoplifting at the Main Street Emporium. Tsk, Tsk! Such a naughty girl!
The night I got to be Dale at the Fort Wilderness Campground Campfire Sing-A-Long, got a little too animated and accidentally knocked a middle-aged woman over one of the benches.
The Sunday before Thanksgiving when I led the Fort Wilderness hourlies to victory over management in the first "Turkey Bowl" flag football game. Ah, sweet youth, when thine legs run fast!
And my favorite memory of all: At the end of one of the grad nights, in the wee hours of the morning, a supervisor asked me to do her a favor and take some paperwork up to one of the offices behind the storefronts on Main Street. It was about 4am. The last of the young revellers had left, as had nearly all of the employees. I walked through Cinderella's Castle, around the circle and started down Main Street. Then I stopped. I listened. Nothing. I looked around. Nothing. I was alone. On Main Street, in the Magic Kingdom at Disney World. I looked up at the spotlights still shining on the castle, then looked down the street toward the main entrance... and I realized that this was a unique experience. Of all the millions and millions of people who came to Disney World, how many could ever stand there, in the middle of Main Street and be completely alone? For just that moment, I was able to imagine that the whole place was mine all mine!
And as long as I'm 'fessin-up, I suppose I should admit a little bit more. I did receive some other awards, particularly one for naming Discovery Island.
I left 20K in the summer of 1977, to be a lifeguard at River Country. I saw a notice in the Eyes & Ears employee newsletter, of a competition to find a new name for Treasure Island in Bay Lake. Guests were sometimes disappointed not to find any significant resemblance to the movie on the island, which was mostly just an aviary and nature trails.
Actually, I submitted more than simply a name suggestion. River Country typically reached capacity within one hour of opening in the morning, so I suggested a second water playground be developed on the island. I also suggested another dinner show. I called it the Fire Festival and it featured an active volcano, open-air, terraced dinning and the "original rock band" (audioanimatronic stone musicians).
Finally, I included the outline for a new feature film of the same name to help promote the new attraction. For my efforts, I received a plaque, two tickets to the Pioneer Hall Dinner Show, and an invitation to meet with an artist at WED Imagineering.
Unfortunately, management was in a state of flux at the time and though the name was used, the rest of my proposal was put on a shelf.
However, while I had the ear of and Imagineer, I asked if I could pitch a much bigger idea. At the time, EPCOT was still on the drawing board and there were other areas of the property set aside for as yet unspecified developments. I proposed a project that would have been bigger - not in size, but in scope - than all of the Disney parks combined!
It took about three hours to explain everything. At the end, the imagineer suggested that I prepare a presentation, and then schedule a meeting to present the concept to all of the WED department heads.
Because the concept was related to Space Exploration, they asked my opinion of the Space Pavilion being considered for EPCOT's Future World. Ray Bradburry was serving as the consultant for this and I probably should have been more respectful. I was young and a bit too cocky. After looking things over, I said that their plans were not much better than the crappy Mission to Mars in Tomorrowland. (Ouch!)
Again, I was unhappy with the commitment of upper management at the time to uphold the Disney tradition for quality and attention to detail. Without Walt, the company became more and more focused on bean counting. I was concerned that they would not spend the enormous amount of money required to do the project right. So, I never asked for the follow-up meeting with WED.
BTW, the Mission Space Pavilion is not even in the same galaxy as my Starblaser One. Rather, it is just what I expected from what has become a corporate-based company.
Now, in 1989, about 12 years after I submitted the concepts related to Discovery Island, they opened Typhoon Lagoon. I went to see it in 1993, and then sent a letter to Disney Studios asking if they had any interest in a screenplay for Typhoon Lagoon, based on the concept that I had submitted in 1977 for Discovery Island.
To my great surprise, I got a call from Mike Roberts, VP of Production. He said that he and Jeffrey (Katzenberg, now of Dreamworks SKG - Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen) would like to see my screenplay! I said great, of course. I did not tell him that I had not written it. (!!) I only had a treatment with the general idea. Instead, thinking fast, I asked if I could have a little time to polish it and bring it up-to-date. He agreed, thank goodness.
I spent the next week writing a full-blown, live-action film for Disney! It had music, romance, comedy, and adventure on the high seas. And, featured a unique idea for an undiscovered island in modern times. It was geared for a G or PG-rating and had a happy ending, of course.
I sent it in and waited, holding my breath for about a week. Mike called back and was complimentary about the script itself, but said that they would have to pass. He explained that they do only about six live action films per year, and they get about 10,000 scripts!
Mike sent back a letter with the screenplay and note at the bottom that reads, "Best of luck with it!"
I was disappointed. But, I remain hopeful that it will be made, someday.