Here’s another fantastic interview with a new Bulldawg and former Disney Cast Member. John has been a big supporter of the blog (Thanks John!!) from day one and actually was the very first person on campus to contact me after I put the word out. I don’t think I can say enough good things about him.
Tell us about yourself:
My name’s John Cropp. I’m 34 and from Athens, GA by way of New Smyrna Beach, FL by way of Fairfield, CT.
Where are you currently working?
I am a supervisor in the Campus Eateries Retail Operations department of UGA Food Services. I drive a van around campus from the Joe Frank Harris Commons to the little convenience stores to open, close, or otherwise make sure that they have everything they need to serve the staff and students.
How did you end up in Athens?
The plan has always been to go back to school once my detour to Disney was over, but I have found that it gets harder and harder to go back the further out you get. When my wife and I were looking for places to move to soon after we got married, we visited my brother in Athens and fell in love with it. He’d moved here a year or two earlier after visiting his friends who had moved here a year or two before that. The common denominator is New Smyrna Beach, Fla where about a dozen or so current Athenians lived at one point. (Ed’s Note: I dig Athens too!)
What’s your favorite Disney park?
The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World
What’s your favorite Disney ride?
Toy Story Mania
What’s your favorite Disney food or treat?
The chocolate chip cookies from the Main Street Bake Shop in the Magic Kingdom. (Ed’s Note: Did you know Disney pumps in the smell of cookies and popcorn on Main Street? It’s true. It’s on the internet.)
What’s your favorite Disney souvenir?
Vinylmation Figures. The only one that I have gotten so far looks like a baseball. My wife and I stayed at the Home Run Hotel part of All Star Sports the last time we were down and that seemed like an appropriate momento from the trip.
What’s your favorite Disney movie?
The Lion King
Did you ever see a celebrity in the parks?
I saw Barry Bonds pin trading in front of the Liberty Tree Tavern in the Magic Kingdom.
How long did you work at Disney?
Five years, from 1998 until 2003.
Why did you begin working for Disney?
My friend and I went on a whim to an audition at a dance studio on Port Orange, FL where they taught us dance steps, some animation techniques, and some puppeteering techniques and then they ran us through some songs or scenarios and picked their favorites. “Love Shack” was the song that we had to lip-sync to with our hands which was great because I knew it very well and really went overboard on Fred’s parts. I’m pretty sure that I was picked for my willingness to look foolish in front of complete strangers!
Tell us about your job:
I was a puppeteer at the ‘Legend of the Lion King’ show at the Magic Kingdom and Character Performer across the parks. I worked in the Magic Kingdom mostly. The puppets for the Legend of the Lion King show were life sized mechanical puppets that we either wore as harnesses with the puppet above us controlled by hand mechanisms below or were mounted onto carts and pushed around while operated from below. Cub Simba and Cub Nala were harnesses while Adult Simba and Pumba were on carts. There were also mounted puppets in the prom which was on a large hydraulic lift that doubled as Pride Rock and the romantic scene for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
There were seven puppeteer tracks (or roles) and a Rafiki for each show. I did two of the roles and “monkey” (not at the same time) over my four years there. Both of my tracks were relatively easy so it was learning the “monkey” role that sort of kept me at the show full-time.
Outside of ‘Legend of the Lion King’, I was “friends with” Tigger, Eeyore, Geppetto, Br’er Fox, and the Tweedles pretty regularly. Typically, we had a five-day-a-week bid for each season (we were able to pick our schedules based on seniority) and then they’d schedule another day when necessary and that day could pretty much be anywhere in the park (or elsewhere if another park was real short), at anytime, doing anyone in your height range. When the schedules came down from the office (every Tuesday if I remember right), it was a bit like Christmas!
Why did you leave Disney?
After ‘Legend of the Lion King’ closed in early 2002, I was offered a full-time floor manager position at the Virgin Megastore Orlando in Downtown Disney where I had already been working at as a part-time cashier. After about a year of picking up shifts as an seasonal cast member, I ended up letting my status run out sometime in 2004.
Tell us your favorite memory of working there:
There are so many… probably my favorite memory was New Years Eve 1998 when our manager took all of the late cast performers up on to the roof of the Fantasyland Theater to watch the fireworks. It was very exciting at the time, but looking back I remember that everyone up on the roof that night became pretty close over the next couple of years and we are all still in touch.
Also, I’m a huge Glasgow Rangers fan and would often leave work to watch afternoon European Cup games at the Fox and Hounds in Kissimmee. In order to make room in my schedule to do this, I would trade shows with other performers so that I could do two or three shows in a row, get a five hour break to go to the game, do another two or three shows, and go home. In return for trading shows with me, I would go up to the “Inbetween Room” (in between the pre-show stage and main show stage of the Fantasyland Theater), go down some steps, down a hallway, pop out of the door at the back of the bench area in Liberty Square (which is a single door that looks like a double door), and get the performer a delicious chocolate chip cookie from the snack shop (cookies were referred to as “crack” in the greenroom… as testament to their deliciousness and addictive qualities :-)). It was always easy to get someone to trade shows the second time than it was the first!
I still can’t believe that I had a job that enabled me to leave work and watch soccer games on the clock! In the time before cell phones, you were required to be in place for the show but were free to do whatever between shows and since there was no way to contact anyone once they left the green room, you could be in the cafeteria, on Space Mountain, or on the moon and it was all the same.
Share a really bad day at Disney:
The hardest day I had at Disney was performing as a very animated character at Animal Kingdom on a very hot day. There isn’t a breeze at AK because of the vegetation and I wasn’t able to do much more than stand and sign after about ten minutes of the twenty minute sets. It was probably the only time that I felt like I wasn’t physically able to do my job. Thankfully, the skies opened up during my lunch break and we were sent home early (and paid for the rest of the shift!).
Where did you live while in Orlando?
Mostly at Cagan Crossings in Clermont. It was very cheap and the the tenants tended to stay for several years so it was a bit quieter than other apartment complexes.
Tell us a funny work story:
That’s a tough one, too… Cub Simba lip syncing the pre-recorded ‘Due to technical difficulties…’ announcement while sitting on top of Pride Rock at the beginning of a ‘Legend of the Lion King’ show. That was the late great Javier Cruz messing around after a show had been downed due to something mechanical breaking. Management wasn’t happy about it but we all still laugh about it whenever it comes up.
Javier “Jefe” Cruz was one of the most entertaining people that I met at Disney. He worked at LoLK, but would pick up shifts everywhere all week so everyone at the Magic Kingdom knew him. Once a week, he’d come into the greenroom (our breakroom) with a group of newly hired cast members that he met in the tunnel or cafeteria and announce “Jefe Traditions Tour!” and he’d give them a backstage tour of the show. During rehearsals, he’d pull pranks to keep us in good spirits during the late nights. His most popular stunt was running though the pit with his shirt spinning above him. This happened once every set of rehearsals and always when everyone was at their lowest level of patience and energy. He also had catchphrases like “CHICKEN LITTLE!” and “I HATE CHOO!” which he would yell into or out of the breakroom whenever there was a little bit of tension just to lighten the mood.
He usually did track b which started the show on Pride Rock as Cub Simba. Mufasa and Simba rise up so that Mufasa can tell Simba that the kingdom will soon be his which starts he Circle of Life theme of the show. Whenever something broke before or during the show, it would be downed and an automated announcement would play which said something like, “Ladies and gentlemen, due to technical difficulties, this performance of Legend of the Lion King has been delayed/canceled.” As puppeteers, we were instructed to keep the puppets lifelike but not to break character. Well, this time, Pride Rock had risen and Simba and Mufasa were waiting for their lines to play when the announcement played instead. Where Simba should have said, “WOW!” He said, “Ladies and gentlemen…” The stage manager’s mouths dropped and the rest of the cast lost it. It was the funniest of the funny things Javier did in his time at LoLK.
Javier died a year or two after LoLK closed. He was in costume, entertaining fellow parade performers before the start of a parade when he ended up in the wrong place and was pulled under a float. He died doing what he loved to do and what everyone loved about him. Where he could have been standing still, saving his energy, he was instead lifting the spirits of those around him.
Tells us something no one knows about Disney:
That most of the cast members really do enjoy their jobs as much as it looks! The pay’s not great, the hours can be long, and the guests can be tough, but pretty much everyone there is there because they love it.
Would you go back?
If there was a way to commute from Athens, Ga to Walt Disney World in less than an hour, absolutely.
What, if anything, did you learn from Disney:
The idea that every one of the cast of thousands makes a difference every single day and it’s the little details that can make the big picture so great.
Are you still in contact with Disney co-workers?
How did you share the Disney magic in the Parks?
Just by knowing my role, staying in character, and paying attention to every single guest. A day can be made in a moment.
If you could change anything about Disney, what would it be?
Personally, I would have liked for them to have relaxed the facial hair ban while I was there.
Are you glad you worked there?
Anything else you’d like to share?
“You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.” – Walt Disney