home > columns > cast member experience > Steve Simmons - Canoe Races
 Steve Simmons

Someone, way back when, came up with this brilliant idea to bring together the employees at the beginning of each summer by having canoe races around Tom Sawyer's Island. Here are a few memories of my first (and only) canoe race.

Again a reminder that I am going back to memories of 1969 and 1970 here. I will try not to enhance anything and remember it as it really was. I had just been hired on (I believe that these are scheduled just after Disney increases it's CM staff for the summer) when the word got out that they were organizing the canoe races. Basically all you had to do was find 10 people in your work area that wanted to get together as a team. This team would meet several times a week for several weeks; prior to DL opening every morning for practice runs around Tom Sawyer's Island. Then on a given day, your team was timed to see how fast you could go around the island. The team with the fastest time wins. To this day I still don't know what the winners got (obviously we didn't win!). Sounds simple enough, right?

The initial meeting was held in the Indian Village at the dance arena. For you youngun's, that is where Bear Country (or Critter Country) is now. Check out those vintage Wonderful World of Color shows of Disneyland and perhaps you'll even see some of the Indians performing their "war dances". Anyway, I digress…There we were, at the crack of dawn listening to someone from Disney University (i.e. human resources) give us the "rules" for the competition. Everyone was to get together teams of 10 men, or the ladies team was 9 ladies with one of the canoe CM's provided to steer (I guess they figured that the girls couldn't steer one of these canoes and all of us guys can! Well….we'll show them!). We were informed that the time trials would be each morning from 6 a.m. until about 7:30 with each team having about 30 minutes on the water to practice. Then on a given day we would be provided with a time for our team to show up to be "timed" for one lap around the island. Next we were told that we could go out and get team t-shirts but if we did we were not to wear the t-shirts in the park during normal operating hours. Why you ask? Well, it's because of the team names that teams were known to give themselves. Some examples of team names that were given? Well there was the team of girls from Entertainment who called themselves the "9 Little Oarers"… or the team of girls from Merchandising on Main Street who called themselves the "Ladies of the Street". There was the guy's team of ice cream vendors who created t-shirts that had a composite picture of an ice cream bar and a topless girl - their team name? Why Topless Bars, of course! I won't even print what the team I was on was known as….just remember that I was in janitorial. However we did try to honor one of our supervisors at the time, who's nickname was the Buzzard (for the way that he could be found standing behind some bush or trash can watching over us like a buzzard), by having a buzzard on the back of the t-shirts.

My most vivid memory of DL is the first day I attended a practice. We had one of those early times of about 6:30 a.m. to show up. I remember walking across the hub all alone. I stopped right in front of the castle and turned to look down an empty Main Street and my thoughts came to that one photo of Walt standing in front of the castle. I had always wondered what it would be like to have Disneyland "all to yourself" and at that moment that was how I felt. It was truly a rush! Well, off to Frontierland. I met up with the rest of my team and it was then I began to learn just what exactly the canoe races were all about - partying! It turned out that most everyone who attended the races held "all nighters" prior to practice. Talk about hangovers! It's true when they say that alcohol and water doesn't mix! Well, of course we are given the 5 minute explanation of what an oar is and how to enter a canoe and how to paddle and don't worry, you can't sink one of these canoes …."yeah yeah….let's get in the water!". So we take our first effort to go around the river. It is then we all realize what it takes to get 9 individual to row in cadence while the guy in back steers. I think we went through 4 or 5 different attempts to find someone who could actually keep us from running aground during the practices.

One of the benefits to the canoe races (at least for me) was that Aunt Jemima's Pancake House was opened early for us to have breakfast (at a discount rate, no less). So each day after we would finish our practicing the teams could be found chowing down on pancakes while they discussed "tactics" and watched the later teams.

Two instances have always stuck in my mind. There was one of the first days of practice. We had just gotten off of the water and were standing at the dock. We could hear several of the other teams out practicing. One of the teams, Coke Terrace, was just coming around into view on their first lap. I remember hearing one of the team members yell out "ok, we're coming near the dock, let's look good!" and then he began calling cadence "stroke…stroke…stroke….". As the canoe came into view, imagine our surprise as we saw that the canoe was only about an inch above water and sinking slowly as they paddled by. It was like something out of a comedy, with the team trying to look so cool while they slowly sank. It turned out that that canoe had a leak but no one realized it until too late!

Then there was the day when, as we were dining at AJ's after our practice we watched as a team (again I think it was Coke Terrace) came into view. From where we were sitting we could see the canoes as they came by the dock where the Mark Twain was docked. We all watched in horror as this canoe headed straight towards the Mark Twain. Only two or three of the team was paddling. The person in front was holding onto a rather large balloon filled with helium. It appeared that the entire team had been partying all night long as they headed closer and closer to the Mark Twain. Suddenly the team started bailing out and the canoe continued on, smashing into the Mark Twain. Naturally, all of the teams dining at AJ's stood and gave them a standing ovation. It should be noted that no team members were injured in this incident.

I do remember the day that I was wandering through the park on a day off. I was heading through Adventureland (wearing my canoe team t-shirt, of course) when I spotted Baloo and King Louie. For those of you who haven't been following my adventures, Baloo (a.k.a. Brer Bear or his real name, Jim) was known to do some rather strange things if he could get away with it). There were several things that he could do with his costume that could really make you smile. None of these are printable here and you didn't want kids around when he made several of his moves. Sorry, I digressed again….anyway there I was walking down Adventureland and Baloo spots me. He immediately brushes past all of the kids who want to grab him and all that and Baloo walks up beside me, puts his arm around me, bends over and as we walk through Adventureland I hear him ask…."so how'd you guys do this morning?" We spent several minutes discussing that mornings practices (yes even the characters had a team). Finally I was able to free myself and go on my way and the kids were able to get their pictures taken with Baloo.

So just how did we do? Don't ask. I remember us trying to get once around the island without running aground and we almost made it. We did get around and we didn't sink our canoe, but we definitely didn't even come close to any awards. I think we were all just happy to have endured those early mornings. I did learn to respect those CM's who worked the canoes on a regular basis. I don't remember seeing any of them ever take a canoe full of guests into the rocks along Tom Sawyer Island.

Steve (Main Street Magic) Simmons

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