Let's take this all the way back to me moving to Florida in my senior year in high school. 1989. After working at a waterpark the summer before, my skin was golden brown and I was ready to have another job so I could have pocket money while I went to school.
I looked around at all sorts of places for work, but it was obvious, if you lived in Orlando like I did, you probably worked for The Mouse at Walt Disney World.
Well, since I was 17 when I applied at Disney, all they could offer me was a food service job. I had been to the parks with my parents a few summers before that, and I remembered seeing those poor souls out in the heat behind their little ice cream carts. The only thought that occurred to me when the lady interviewing me said that it was food service or wait until I was 18 which was about three months later, was "I'll wait."
Five days after my 18th birthday, sure enough, the phone rang. "Hi Sheri. This is Stephanie from Disney Casting. Happy Birthday. We were wondering if you were still interested in a job..." I squealed. I said, "Of course!" to which I got a set of instructions to show up for training which is called "Disney University."
Well after going through Disney training where you learn things like proper posture, looking approachable, the dress code, and the ability to name all Seven Dwarves quickly (two d's, two s's and three emotions), you are able to approach people and say, "Hi, is there something you need help finding?" and "Here, let me take that picture for you so you can be in it too..." and "Yes, I can name the Seven Dwarves...Dopey, Doc, Sneezy, Sleepy, Happy, Grumpy, Bashful." See, now you can do it too.
I got put into Ride Ops which is Disney shorthand for "Ride Operations." You know the folks I'm talking about, in themed costumes they're the ones who say "Watch your step" and "Keep your arms and hands inside the vehicle at all times" and so forth.
The first pavilion I was assigned to work at was The Living Seas. Now it's called "The Seas with Nemo and Friends." Personally, I liked it better back in the day, but hey, things change. Back then, our costumes consisted of burnt orange, blue and white. Yes, imagine me in a pair of burnt orange pants, white shirt that buttoned up in a quasi-military style with burnt orange epaulettes and a blue United Technologies Logo on the sleeve with a burnt orange jacket and black dress shoes underneath. That's how I spent many a day. Humiliating? Possibly, but when there are 20 other people dressed the same way, it's not so bad. When the University of Miami played in the Orange Bowl versus Nebraska, we felt right at home as every elderly Florida alumni was wearing those exact same colored pants and white shirt walking around. It was worse when a group of alumni from the University of Virginia had their meeting at Disneyworld, it was a field of that same hideous burnt orange, white and blue and between the Orange Bowl and those guys, it all happened at the same time. One man looked at me while I was out front at greeter and asked, "You a big fan of Virginia?" I had to resist the urge to facepalm really hard. As a reference, the website Hidden Mickeys.org reminded me of a couple of things:
- The Cast Members who must work outside in 90+ degree heat at Epcot say that Epcot stands for Employee Polyester Costume Of Torture.
- Every Paycheck Comes On Thursday
- Every Person Comes Out Tired
Quick side trip. When you work at Epcot, the pavilions take on a whole new level of shorthand:
- The Living Seas = Seas
- The Land = Land
- Journey Into Imagination = Imag (or some wrote "Image")
- World of Motion and Horizons = MoHo (Don't reverse it.)
- Wonders of Life = Wonders
- Universe of Energy = NRG
- Finally, Spaceship Earth = SSE
The Communicores and all the rest had their own which I never saw.
What I didn't know when I got my job is that Corey, the guy who did my training at Disney U, would also become my supervisor at Seas. I also didn't know at the time that he was somehow related to my Junior year American history teacher in New Braunfels, Coach Baker, so he immediately adopted me and instead of being assigned at Land, I went to Seas.
The Living Seas, back in the day, was your typical Epcot attraction containing a film, a ride and then a huge aquarium to look at. I became fast friends with many of the aquarists and divers, something that would pay off later when I went to work at Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay.
Inside the Seas aquarium, besides all of the great staff and countless fish, was a pair of adolescent male dolphins, Toby and Bob. From the stories that had been relayed to me, there had been a mature female with them as well, but she had either passed on or moved to a different facility, so those two young dolphins were all on their own.
What no one really knows, outside of biology circles and those who watch the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet until their eyes bleed, is that there is always a mature female dolphin that rules the pod. If the young males get out of line or if a shark tries to come steal a baby for a snack, the mature females break out and open a serious can of whooping on anything that disrupts the natural flow of life in a pod of dolphins. Yep, the females rule the roost.
Well, without a mature female with them, Toby and Bob were quite the pair. One story I heard in particular had Toby and Bob go to town on one of the aquarists who was diving in the exhibit. Those two male dolphins, not knowing their own strength, turned the guy into a rag doll, breaking bones in the process. So after that, no one went into the exhibit while Toby and Bob were on the loose.
Which brings me to Toby, Bob, Me and the little girl walking around with her mother.
Part of the rotation at Seas back in the day had an operator like myself go down to do one of two rotations, load or unload. Load consisted of Greeter where you would tell people where to park their strollers, that no, Walt wasn't in cryogenic freeze in the top of the castle at Magic Kingdom; yes, I could name the Seven Dwarves; yes, you can take pictures inside; and the wait was X number of minutes long. Then we went to Hydrolators (a fake-out elevator ride) then, Load 1 (watch your step!), and Load 2 (console control).
The other part of the rotation, where our story takes place, is in Unload. Unload did just that, Unload 1 was the unload position where you had to make sure everyone got off the ride safely, then SeaBase (Unload 2) which was the indoor greeter position where I did a lot of, "Yes, the fish are real; yes, the divers are real; Illuminations starts at 11 p.m. and so on, then to the Theaters where I learned how to public speak in front of large groups, and then Preshow (photocells) where we would visit with guests and do some greeting.
Well, one holiday weekend, they expanded the Unload rotation to include going up into what's called "The Module" which is the upstairs viewing of the exhibit down a fairly short hallway into the center of the exhibit. Lo and behold, who is in the tank? Toby and Bob.
Now I won't lie, Toby and Bob were a huge draw, everyone loved to see them doodling around the tank. After all, how many times in their lifetime will a person who lives in say, Des Moines, Iowa, come within the width of a piece of plexiglass to a dolphin? My guess is that it's rare as all get out. Hey it's a treat, I get it.
Well, inside the module that day, along with a countless other number of guests was a little girl and her mother. The little girl was no more than 8-years-old, if that. Well, people immediately went to the windows and ooh'd and ahh'd as Toby and Bob started zooming around the inside of the exhibit.
But let's not forget one crucial piece of information here... these are adolescent male dolphins.
Look at any adolescent young man you know. Go ahead! What are you seeing? A walking hormone. It reminds me of Bill Cosby in his comedy film Himself when he talks about his son Ennis and him walking out of school with his fly down. Bill felt a little better when he saw that all the other boys had their flies down too...
Male adolescent dolphins are no different. They're walking hormones too. It seems as if there isn't a mature female around, or any other female for that matter, those young mammals will "do their business" on just about anything or anyone.
Lo and behold, on that day in the module, Toby decided to run around the tank with his fly down. It's ok, you can say it...go ahead..."Oh lordy..." Yeah, you know what is coming...
As I was turned around speaking with other guests and looking out at the fish, I hear the little girl say:
"Mommy, what's that hanging out of the dolphin?"
My jaw dropped and my eyes got big as pie plates when I heard that. I spun around, looked out into the tank and well, saw Toby "hanging out" in all of his glory. His "glory" was impossible to miss and went well beyond the word "profane." At first, my mind locked up and I immediately thought, "Oh, that's just not natural..." and realizing exactly what I was seeing, I immediately spun around and grabbed the house phone and dialed the aquarist's office. When an aquarist picked up, I cupped my hand around my mouth and the receiver and whispered, "You gotta call the dolphins in, Toby's got his whatevers hanging out." The phone immediately went dead and as I looked up at the surface of the water, I saw aquarists come running out and start slapping the top of the water near Toby and Bob's holding pen. Yeah, they got put up for the night.
"Mommy, what's that hanging out of the dolphin?" still resounds in my ears 20 years later. As my friend Frank recalls in my telling of the tale, "It's an eel!"
Yes, but that's just one instance. There's more.
Fast forward 15 years, where I was a part of the opening crew at Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay. In the middle of the jungle area of the facility, between the crocodiles and the first tunnel are a few exhibits. Back in the day (2000), an exhibit called A5 by the staff held one of the two green sea turtles who live there, Stan and Ollie. Well, Ollie was too big to live in A5, but Stan was just the right size because he was still too small to live in the huge main exhibit with the big sharks.
Well, there I am, standing in the middle of the jungle area of the facility right next to A5 answering questions about the Green Sea Turtle (chelonia mydas). I explain the cool things like the fact they have 10 fingers and 10 toes, but it's all hidden inside their flippers, how long they can hold their breath underwater, where they live and so on...
Like Toby all those years ago, Stan decided that he wanted to press the bottom of his shell against the glass. Out of the underside of his tail, I see him poo a little and a very strange growth come with it. As Stan rubbed the bottom of his shell against the glass, swaying his body from side to side, in a "Woohoo! Look at me! Nyah-nah-nah-na-na" kind of way, that little growth wiggled with him.
I immediately grabbed my radio from my belt and said, "Sheri to aquarist," a response came "Sheri, this is Cathy, go ahead." I responded, "Cathy, I think there's a problem with the turtle in A5, he's got something strange hanging out of his tail." There was a pause, and Cathy replied, "Sheri, that's his hemi-peen." I stopped dead in my tracks thinking, "Oh, this can't be happening to me twice in one lifetime." Sure enough, I keyed my radio and said, "Is "-is" on the back of that?" I could hear her holding back laughter as she responded, "Yep." The guest next to me burst out into laughter, my hand went over my face as I replied, "Well can you come call him or something, he's flashing the guests."
Not once, but twice. How do things like this always happen to me? At least it wasn't an 8-year-old little girl going, "Mommy, what's that hanging out of the turtle?"
Yeah, and people wonder why I don't have pets.