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"We're rollin' on the Mickey's Birthdayland Express"

"We're rollin' on the Mickey's Birthdayland Express"

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Today's lesson: Sometimes our Disney fan obsessions do pay off.

When EPCOT Center opened in 1982, Steve Hansen was already an accomplished puppeteer and performer, working as the PuppetMan in World Showcase. Someone as talented & versatile as Steve was bound to go far in the Walt Disney world.

In 1988 Steve was hired as show writer and director for Mickey's Birthdayland, the first new "land" to be added to the Magic Kingdom.


 Photo by Jeff Lange

Faced with the task of getting guests to the new land, tucked away in the northeast corner of the Magic Kingdom, the decision was made to re-theme the WDW Railroad as Mickey's Birthdayland Express. The Main Street Depot and the trains themselves would be decorated with balloons and bunting and stacks of presents, and an all-new ride experience would be created for the “Grand Circle Tour of the Magic Kingdom.”

Steve knew I was an obsessed fan of old Disneyland ride narrations. He invited me to help create the new train show and to write & record the narration.

I started by riding the train with a stop watch and notepad, timing each segment of the trip and noting each landmark & transition. This way the script would (hopefully) blend seamlessly with the guest experience.


 Photo by Jeff Lange

We wanted some theming along the tracks to build anticipation for the party. So we planted little scenes along the way that would show the rest of the Disney Gang were heading there too. The Three Pigs were pictured in their House of Straw on a raft in the waterway that ran alongside the track. The Mad Hatter's Tea Party was out in the woods. But there was no one at the table. A sign declared "Gone to Mickey's Party." Pinocchio, Cleo & Figaro were shown en route to the party, enjoying a puppet show at Stromboli's wagon before they continued on their way.

I thought we might put a cut-out of Goofy & his jalopy out there, with the hood up and smoke pouring from his overheated engine. Steve suggested actually putting the real Goofy and a real car out by the tracks. He could flag down the train, trying to hop on. I told him they'd never put a costumed character to sit out in the woods waiting for the next train to come along.

Steve got them to do it! (On days when there was no live performer a cutout Goof was placed next to the car.)


 Photo by Jeff Lange

With another "brilliant" idea of mine, I wasn't so lucky. I wanted a railroad crossing set up with red lights and a clanging bell. Stopped at the crossing, waiting for the train to pass, would be Cruella in her long Coupe De Vil. Naturally she'd be glaring out the window, angrily waiting for us to pass.

And packed into the car would be all the other great Disney Villains, smashed together in the back seat – with Chernabog crushed and hunched over behind the others.

Steve liked the idea and presented it for approval at an executive meeting. It was voted down because, as one fellow put it, “The Disney villains wouldn't do that.” It wasn't long after this that "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" was released, proving that the Disney Villains were only acting evil (and probably did carpool to work).


Photo by Jeff Lange

When I started scripting the narration, I was most inspired by the long-gone "Mine Train thru Nature's Wonderland" at Disneyland. That narrator had a folksy charm and a dry sense of humor. That attitude would keep the script from becoming too saccharine, so I used that same frontier dialect in the recording session:

“Howdy, folks! And welcome aboard the Walt Disney World Railroad, leavin' for a grand circle trip around the Magic Kingdom with stops at Frontierland and Duckburg, U.S.A., home of Mickey's Birthdayland.

While we're movin', please remain seated with your hands, arms, legs, and anything else you got inside the train. And if you want to laugh, sing or kiss your neighbor, that's fine ... But please refrain from eatin', drinkin and smokin'!

We're now passin' through the outskirts of Adventureland. If you hear the anguished cries of a jungle beast echoin' through the undergrowth ... It's only me. I got my big toe caught in the brake.”


Photo by Jeff Lange

While writing the proposal I had an idea for a gag that I put in just for Steve to read. I never intended it for the ride itself, and I was sure he'd get a kick out of it and then cut it out:

“There across the river is Liberty Square – Home of the inspiring Haunted Mansion ... and the spooky Hall of Presidents.”

When we got around to recording the narration track, Steve said, “Do it.”

I was amazed. “You can't put that on the ride!”

Steve smiled, “Do it.” So I did it. We cut the track and didn't record an alternate take.


 Photo by Jeff Lange

The gag was still there in the final edit. It was burned into the narration disc, installed on the trains and it passed inspection by management. I could only assume they were enjoying the view at that moment.

Later I was told that one executive finally caught it months later and reported " ... an apparent misread in the narration." When informed that it was meant as a joke, he muttered “Didn't sound like a joke.” It lasted on the train for the next 2 years.

“Next stop is Mickey's Birthdayland! Anyone here want to go to Mickey's Party, raise your hand. One, two, three ... Okay, we're goin' to stop.

”Duckburg is the feather pillow capital of the world. Times have been good for the Duckburgers ... Down is up!”


 Photo by Jeff Lange

It was an amazing experience to ride that steam train for the first time and hear the crowd laughing at our gags. Composer Steve Skorija had even composed a wonderfully catchy theme song for the ride that was used to punctuate my narration:

“We're rollin', rollin' on the express;
We're rollin' on the Mickey's Birthdayland Express!

“We're all aboard the express bound for Birthdayland,
We have a date with Mickey Mouse in Birthdayland!

Donald Duck: We'll have a whole lot of fun!

Chip & Dale: So come on everyone!

We've got a big surprise for Mickey Mouse!”


 Photo by Jeff Lange

After Mickey's Birthdayland gave way to Mickey's Toon Town Fair, the narration was rewritten (and the humor removed) by other hands. But I was still invited back to lay down the new tracks. And every so often, as things along the route were changed, I'd be called into Studio D to patch in some new information.

Years passed. Steve Hansen moved to the Canadian Rockies and started a wonderful special events company, Peak Events. We reunited at the historic Banff Springs Hotel for "Van Horne's Grand Buffet" dinner show in the summers of '98 & '99. It was great working with my old friend again.

In 2000, I got back from Canada and eagerly boarded the steam train to see if I was still on the soundtrack. I was pleasantly surprised to hear my voice still coming through the speakers...

Until we got to Frontierland Station and I heard some things I knew I'd never recorded. Not only had I been replaced in the time I was away ... They'd gone to the trouble of finding someone who sounded exactly like me.


Photo by Jeff Lange

Yes, kiddees ... Fame is fleeting. Especially in the Theme Park trade.

Jim Hill here. And wasn't that a great look back at "Mickey's Birthdayland" ?

Just a reminder, though. Mickey's 60th birthday celebration is just one of the many intriguing Disney-related projects that Ron Schneider has worked on over the past four decades. And he'll be sure to even more of these stories in his memoir, "Themes, Dreams & Schemes: 40 Years Behind a Nametag." Be sure and note that title. For this is one book that you're really going to want to add to your 2008 Christmas list.

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  • Nice job Ron!  I loved riding the train..listening to the narration and the catchy song; even if we werent making a stop at Mickey's Birthdayland.  When I saw "We're rollin on the Mickey's Birthdayland Express"..the song and memories of the narration immediately came back......good times...

    http://www.raymation.net

  • Very cool. Great story and history.

  • Just goes to show that with a little IMAGINATION...you can make any ride special.

  • Got great memories of the steam train ride from that time.  Thanks for giving us some of the behind the scenes stories, typical of Disney executives, hearing but not listening!

  • The Mickey's Birthdayland Express is such a key part of what made the trips to Disney so special when I was a kid.  I still know most of the song!

  • I will definitely be on the lookout for that book.  great article today!

  • Love your stories from "behind the scenes" Ron! Keep 'em coming!

  • For those of us who are fans of Disney Theme Park narrations, the "narrator" referred to was Dal McKennon, who also voiced Ben Franklin in The American Adventure, as well as Gumby and Archie on TV. It's a voice many of us grew up with.

  • I miss those cupcakes!

  • Jim Hill brings the latest news of the Fantasy Forest project. Which involves the Toontown crew packing up and moving to new digs down on Main Street USA

  • I am so saddened by Steve Hansen's death.  I was away in England when he died and just found out about it.

    I worked with him at Peak Events in Canmore, AB.  Such great creativity and expertise is gone forever.  Goodbye Steve Hansen.

  • Unfortunately Steve Hansen died in April on Hawaii.  Farewell to one of the great puppeteers of our age.

  • I was one of those "TRUCK Goofys" for Mickey's 60th Birthday celebration. I was driven out to the woods and would wait for each train to come by. I would be pretending to crank the truck and then chase the train with a stack of presents. the truck pumped out chocolate-scented smoke. It was terribly hot that summer and when you took your head off - between trains - the mosquitoes were an absolutely nightmare.

    BUT I LOVED THAT GIG! - thanks for the character zoo memory.

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