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How "One Little Spark" nearly fried the Dreamfinder

How "One Little Spark" nearly fried the Dreamfinder

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As a kid I'd tune in the Wonderful World of Color every Sunday night. Most of the time Walt would introduce some western or historic feature - or some story like "Melvin, the Manic Marmoset" - and I'd switch over to watch Ed Sullivan. He had ventriloquists!

On a good week, there'd be an animated feature or a look behind-the-scenes at the studio, and I'd settle in and soak it up.

But once in a while it'd be a feature about Disneyland and WED Enterprises and I'd be glued to the screen for the next sixty minutes. Nothing seemed as cool to me as watching Walt walk through an attraction-in-the-works, sharing his vision and letting me in on his future plans...

Shortly after EPCOT Center opens in '82, I get a call from the Marketing Division about that year's "Walt Disney World Very Merry Christmas Parade" telecast. Since the Journey Into Imagination opening will be the next big event at WDW, a preview of the ride will be produced, featuring a tour of the building conducted by Dreamfinder.

Copyright 1983 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

The Walt Disney Company wants me to walk through my attraction-in-the-works, sharing their vision and letting kids across America in on our future plans.

Everyone's gathered for a late night shoot in the Dreamport, the room where sparks of inspiration are stored. There are huge colorful props on all sides, opening and closing and spinning and rocking in place. In the center of the room are several large spark jars, 4 to 5 feet tall, with bolts of lightning zapping back and forth inside. As the Dreamfinder, I'm going to walk through the middle of this scene, talking straight into the camera about the ride and the new pavilion.

The crew finishes setting up the lights and camera, as a sound man puts a transmitter on my belt with a wire that runs under my costume to a microphone clipped to my vest. After a sound check, I take my place by the Imaginometer and we start a run-through.

Looking straight into the camera, I think about the way Walt hosted his tours of WED. Everything's going smoothly, the cameraman following me as I walk along the ride track. The director is impressed by the way I adapt to my new role; he doesn't know I've been rehearsing for this part all my life. It's another dream come true - until a sharp electrical charge starts drilling right into the middle of my chest.

Copyright 1982 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

I stop cold and tell everyone I'm in pain! Looking down, I see a steady electrical spark running from the microphone straight through my shirt and into my chest. In a flash I realize the pain started as I stepped up next to the first spark jar. I quickly move away and the pain stops.

Displaying the intelligence of a Homer Simpson, I try approaching the spark jar again. Same result.

After a brief discussion, it's decided that my distress is caused by a field of static electricity around the spark generator. The sound man produces a large block of thick foam. He carves a divot in the foam, duct tapes it to my chest and puts the microphone in the divot. On my next timid pass by the spark jar, I feel no ill effect.

The rest of the shoot goes off without a hitch, and for the first time I'm actually pleased with the way Dreamfinder looks and sounds on TV. Ah, but there's more to the story ...

Two months later, early on a Sunday morning, I wake up and turn on my bedroom TV. Since there's nothing else on I wind up watching a live broadcast from the Orlando Science Center. It's an educational program, featuring scientific demonstrations performed before students from the 2nd and 3rd grades.

Today's topic is: static electricity.

On a long table they've set up a Van de Graaf generator and a Jacob's ladder. There are balloons and carpet samples and a Happy Host and a Scientist. And a lucky volunteer ... a little seven-year-old girl with short blond hair and a big smile on her face and a small microphone clipped to the front of her dress.

I sit up in bed and (I'm ashamed to admit) start to giggle.

The scientist is speaking. "Now Betsy, this generator produces a harmless electrical charge. Just like the static created when I rubbed the balloon with that flannel cloth. After I start the motor, I'll ask you to touch the silver ball and the charge will go harmlessly through you and cause your lovely blond hair to stand straight up. Are you ready?"

Photo courtesy of AMSE

Betsy is a little skeptical, but she smiles and says, "Yes, I'm ready." I'm shaking my head at this point, and paging through the phone book looking for the number of the Science Center - certain that I'm the only person tuned in who knows what's about to happen.

Mr. Scientist throws the switch, and we hear the generator powering up just as Betsy's smile disappears. The camera shows the excited reaction of Betsy's classmates to the sound of the generator. Teachers are smiling, Happy Host stands by looking very interested. Cut to Betsy. She's staring straight out with a pained and panicked look on her face that no one seems to notice. Betsy looks imploringly up at Mr. Scientist who calmly tells her, "Now touch the metal ball just there and watch what happens ... "

I can only imagine what's going through Betsy's mind. But I know damn well what's going through Betsy's chest.

I never do make it to the phone; I'm spellbound by the look on Betsy's face. But she's a trouper. She touches the globe and her hair stands straight up. But strangely, when Happy Host holds up a mirror so she can see the effect, she doesn't even glance at the image.

In the years since, I've often said that the thing I miss most about my years as Dreamfinder is the look on the kids' faces. Of all those faces, you can bet I'll never forget Poor Distressed Betsy's.

Speaking of things that you shouldn't forget ... Ron Schneider's memoirs, "Themes, Dreams & Schemes: 40 Years Behind a Nametag," should be showing up in a bookstore near you sometime in late 2008 / early 2009. Make plans now to pick up a copy

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  • What a cute story.  Does anyone know if this part of the Christmas Special is floating around anywhere so we can see Rob in action?

  • There is a very LONG history to static electric effects, most of it in magic shows going back to beyond the turn of the century. They all employed generators of this type, and usually involved the magician or an assistant harmlessly wired to the generator but touching audience members, starting fires by touching flash paper and the like, or passing the current through them into other things to cause visual or tactile effects. And for the record, the girl in the museum demo was in no danger either. What got the effect to become PAINFUL was the MICROPHONE, which FOCUSED the electric current in one spot, near the heart, and drew ITS power supply into the equation.

    So...no electronic device--no pain...whether we're talking ONE little spark...or many, many more.

  • Ron's articles may not attract a lot of discussion, but that's no indication of their popularity.  Keep 'em coming!!

  • Mr. Schneider, it should be noted that I enjoy reading every single word you put in front of me.

    Now I wonder where I can see that footage of Dreamfinder showing off the Dreamport.

  • Hello Mr. Schneider Im reading your book as I write this, well not at the same time, but I am really enjoying it and I thank you for writing it. Anyway, I have an urgent question for you. I was wondering if you could find the time to look at an image I have of myself and the Dreamfinder in 1983 and tell me if that was you or not? I can't for the life of me tell if it's you or another person dressed up as the Dreamfinder. Im sure this is a low priority request, but, if you ever find the time, please let me know. Thank you in advance,


    Steve S.

  • Steve Ess... I'd be delighted to see your picture. You can contact me through Facebook or at [email protected]

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