A Bit of UT at America's Theme Parks

A Bit of UT at America’s Theme Parks

By Diane Ballard

All Aboard Disney Railroad

2008su_cover_metcalfDisney World’s Magic Kingdom is famous for ­fantastic attractions. But one of the best-known features is decidedly low-tech—a throwback to yesterday. The Walt Disney World Railroad just chugs along, providing reliable transportation—with a Disney flair—around the entire park. In the conductor’s seat is railroad buff Bruce Metcalf, a California native who relocated to Chattanooga in 1986.

Metcalf (Chattanooga ’93) worked at a railroad history museum in Chattanooga, but after he retired he found he didn’t adapt well to a life of leisure. When he zeroed in on Disney World in Orlando as a possible employer, “one phone call to the casting office and I was in.”

The railroad provides 20-minute circuits around the park and makes stops accessible to most of the Magic Kingdom’s “lands.” There are four of the vintage steam-­powered locomotives that pull passenger cars, all of them the heritage of Walt Disney’s love of steam trains. They transport more than 1.5 million passengers a year.

Metcalf says playing the role of conductor is easy. “I really am the conductor on a train, and it’s a real train, not an amazing simulation.”

Reality extends to his costume, authentic “right down to wearing a pocket watch.” He says he leaves his shirt sleeves rolled down, even on hot Florida days “to keep from getting burned by flying sparks.”

As conductor, he’s responsible for safety checks and helping passengers with special needs. And he always keeps an eye on the clock.

“Because the railroad has three stations, guests actually use it for transportation. They’re better served if I make sure trains are dispatched promptly and with every seat filled.”

Though summer is the most crowded time of year at Disney World, Metcalf says the off-season months have become quite popular too. “Guests have figured out that Central Florida is nicer when it’s cooler and less crowded.”

Get to Know the Animals

2008su_cover_smahaSeaWorld in Orlando doesn’t just entertain visitors; it teaches them about its aquatic citizens. That’s exactly what Emily Smaha (Knoxville ’02) does as a supervisor in the SeaWorld education department. She says summer is the most exciting time of year.

“We provide a wider variety of experiences and really ramp up our efforts to create individual interactions with guests. We run a large summer day-camp and resident-camp program.”

Smaha also guides VIP tours and behind-the-scenes tours of the park.

The UT communications graduate got an early start on her theme park career. She began working a summer job at a North Carolina park while she was still a student at UT.

“It only took one short summer for me to understand that theme park management was a perfect career for me,” she says. She continued to work at the Carolina park throughout her university career, driving round trip from Knoxville every weekend.
Smaha says her SeaWorld group works hard to teach conservation and environmental stewardship.

“Our team constantly looks for new ways to teach guests, especially kids, how exciting animals can be.”

Activities like feeding beluga whales and diving with sharks (the humans are outfitted in wet suits and helmets and lowered in a protective cage) not only help park-goers learn but also give them memories for a lifetime.

As for her personal favorites among the SeaWorld menagerie, Smaha opts for the four-legged creatures.

“SeaWorld is home to many incredible marine animals, but I’m partial to some of the land mammals,” she says. “I still get excited when I see the Budweiser Clydesdale horses coming through the park.”

Soft Spot for Manatees

Pedro Ramos-Navarrete also teaches about marine animals in his role as SeaWorld’s supervisor of animal care. Tennessee Alumnus profiled Ramos (Knoxville ’86, ’88) in its summer 2001 issue, when he was assistant supervisor.

Besides caring for all the exhibit mammals and their housing, Ramos is responsible for the manatee rescue and rehabilitation program. He’s a pro when it comes to caring for the gentle giants—he’s worked with the rescue program since 1990. Manatees are often injured by boat propellers, or they become lodged in pipes or entangled in ropes.

Ramos led the SeaWorld contingent that came to Memphis in 2006 when a manatee was spotted in the Mississippi River. That errant animal eluded rescue and disappeared.

Early in 2008, SeaWorld released three manatees to the wild. Ramos had bottle-fed them when they first arrived at the park and admitted he was emotional about seeing them go.

“The goal all along is to rehabilitate them and release them as soon as possible, but it is bittersweet,” Ramos told the Orlando Sentinel. “They came in as calves and you do become attached. . . . But to see them go, that is why we do this. It’s very rewarding.”

Summers bring lots of visitors to SeaWorld Orlando, Ramos says, but the park stays busy year round. There’s “not much down time at all,” he says.

A Volunteer’s “VoluntEAR”

2008su_cover_kennedyMatt Kennedy has been licked by a giraffe and had his teeth rattled when a white rhino rammed his pickup truck. Kennedy’s not exactly an African safari guide—but almost. He works at Walt Disney World.

“My first role with the company was working as a safari driver at Disney’s Animal Kingdom at an amazing attraction called Kilimanjaro Safaris that takes you right out into the wilds of Africa, complete with wildlife,” he says.

Today Kennedy (Knoxville ’03) is employed in Disney’s Community Relations Department, which organizes the Disney World staff to help Central Florida nonprofit organizations.

“We call it the Disney ‘Voluntear’ program,” says Kennedy, a play on Disney’s famous mouse ear graphic symbol.

“The Walt Disney Company has had an amazing heritage that started with Walt Disney blazing a path of community support. I am proud to carry on that legacy by rallying cast members to opportunities like our ‘Bowl-a-Thon for Junior Achievement,’ our ‘Back-to-School Supply Drive,’ and the annual ‘Coastal Clean Up’ that supports our community families and the environment.”

Kennedy says his work prolongs his Tennessee Volunteer legacy. “Nothing is better than giving back to the community in which you belong.” One of his fondest memories is helping salvage a woman’s 95th birthday celebration that nearly went awry.

“She and her family had traveled across the country, and along the way the airline lost the bag full of party supplies. While the family was out at the parks, we transformed their villa into a big surprise party with a cake and balloons. Some of us stayed back to yell ‘surprise’ and left the family to celebrate. Watching her face light up was the greatest sensation.”

Follow Rebecca’s Signs

2008su_cover_whitenerIf you’re trying to find your way around a Disney park, you just might be guided by the work of UT graduate Rebecca Horais Whitener.

The 2000 UT Knoxville alumna is a graphic designer with Walt Disney Imagineering, which designs and develops—from concept to completion—Disney resorts, theme parks, and other attractions. She lives in Los Angeles and has been with Walt Disney Imagineering for 5 years.

Whitener’s environmental graphic design work includes marquees for attractions, directional signs, and other show graphics. “The visual elements I create are the final elements that make the guest experience in the theme parks complete.”

She has worked on projects for Tokyo Disney Resort, Hong Kong Disneyland, and Disneyland resorts in Paris and California.

She was recently the lead graphic designer for Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island, a new attraction at Disneyland in California. The pirate theme coincided with the popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

“It was a fast-paced project with about a six-month schedule from concept to completion,” Whitener says. She worked with the Disneyland Sign Shop and other fabricators to create hand-painted signs that look like Tom Sawyer or pirates painted them.

“It was a great project for me to learn from, and I really enjoyed spending so much time at Disneyland witnessing an entire attraction come to life.

“Walt Disney Imagineering brings together so many disciplines,” she says. “In my division—the Building Specialties Design Studio—I work closely with architects, ­interior designers, lighting designers, engineers, and landscape architects.

“The importance of the guest experience is a constant consideration in any Disney project,” she says. “The guests in the parks are our clients. We strive to provide guests with a complete immersion experience once they walk through the gates of any Disney park.”

Dollywood Wants You—and Your Family

2008su_cover_berryGoing to Dollywood this summer? Tim Berry may be responsible. Berry (Knoxville ’91) is in charge of outdoor advertising, Internet marketing, and the season-pass campaign. And if he’s persuaded you to visit the Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, attraction, he wants you to bring your family too.

“Our vision and mission is to bring families closer together by providing an environment for them to create memories worth repeating,” says Berry, who lives in nearby Seymour, Tennessee. He says about 70 percent of Dollywood’s visitors are families with children.

He’s been in his current job for about a year and with Dollywood for 23 years.

Summer is without doubt the peak season for Dollywood. “We see most of our three million guests at this time. Our hours are extended to match vacation travel patterns.”

Berry, whose UT degree is in public relations, says he’s out and about in the park as often as possible to see things from the point of view of a Dollywood guest. Also each member of the management team spends one day a month overseeing park operations and helping guests with any concerns.

Summer may be the park’s busiest season, but Berry says Dollywood has developed some special events, such as its “Festival of Nations” and the “Barbeque and Bluegrass” festival to attract visitors in spring and fall, as well. These events also draw seniors and adult couples who might not otherwise go to a theme park.

Berry says to expect big things from Dollywood in coming years.

“We’ve added forty-five million dollars in capital since 2004 including Thunderhead, which was twice awarded the best wooden coaster in the world, and Mystery Mine, which was named the best new attraction for 2007. So we have no plans of slowing down our pace,” he says. “The ten-year plan looks very exciting with a variety of unique attractions and some possible new business ventures.”