Gender-based rules see last ride at Disneyland

July 14, 1995|By Marla Jo Fisher | Marla Jo Fisher,Orange County Register

Disneyland is going coed.

For 40 years, the theme park in Anaheim, Calif. chose ride operators based on gender -- with frilly-frocked females working Storybook Land and macho men in pith helmets wisecracking through the Jungle Cruise.

But last month, the first woman took up oars to help guests paddle canoes around Tom Sawyer Island, and the first man in 38 years piloted a Storybook Land Canal Boat through the whale's mouth. Soon, female conductors will be working the Main Street Omnibus and Disneyland Railroad, and female sailors will be on the Columbia and Mark Twain Steamboat, breaking four decades of tradition.

"We're cross-training everyone on the different rides, and soon think it will be 50-50 men and women," said Bruce Kimbrell, supervisor of the Narration Attractions department, who is overseeing its new "unisex program." "This is park-wide."

The revolution was triggered by Suzanne Barnaby, 33, a ride operator who went to Walt Disney World in February and had the temerity to come back and ask her boss, "Why do they have women pilots on the Jungle Cruise there and we don't?"

Not all Disneyland rides have been segregated by gender -- many, such as the Matterhorn or Space Mountain, have always been coed. But until now, park officials believed the themes of many attractions were more appropriately carried out by male or female operators.

It is mostly the "spiel rides," where the operator gives a talk or tells a story as part of the entertainment, that for four decades have remained exclusively male or female.

When the Storybook Land Canal Boats debuted in 1956, male operators were used, but within a year the ride had become the exclusive province of women, recalled Disney archivist Dave Smith.

Women were deemed more appropriate to the fairy-tale theme, he said, perhaps because back at home in 1956, it was usually June Cleaver, not Ward, who read bedtime stories to the Beaver.

Hostesses in the Tiki Room and Circlevision were always female, while men worked the Disneyland Railroad, the Submarine Voyage, the Mark Twain Steamboat and the Skyway and drove the Main Street vehicles.

Disneyland, an icon of popular culture itself, tries to keep its casting up to date with the times. But what's kosher today may have been a ham sandwich yesterday, and vice-versa. While the park has continued to cast its attractions by gender, in the beginning it also did so by race.

At the park's opening in 1955, a chubby and kerchief-headed black "Aunt Jemima" offered her cooking skills at the Aunt Jemima Pancake House, a "faithful reproduction of a Southern plantation mansion" sponsored by Quaker Oats.

"She was very friendly, but then again, that became very politically incorrect," Mr. Smith said.

The Jungle Cruise was modeled on the tremendous success of the movie "The African Queen," in which it was the masculine and snarling Humphrey Bogart who piloted the boat through ferocious waters.

In the Disneyland version, the performance of the wisecracking pilot, spewing out jokes and puns as he narrates his way down the jungle rivers of the world, is an essential part of the attraction's appeal.

Park officials tried using female pilots on the Jungle Cruise in 1974, and again briefly in 1982, but "for some reason, the puns didn't take," Mr. Kimbrell said. "Guests didn't want to see women in that role."

In an era with female fighter pilots and male flight attendants, nobody much seems to care who's at the helm.

A dozen people emerging from the Jungle Cruise and the canal boats said they didn't even notice whether their skipper was a woman or a man.

However, Ms. Barnaby, who became the first female skipper last spring, said guests noticed the difference in the beginning and some even asked specifically for "the girl's boat."

"They made some wisecracks," she said. "One girl said, 'At least if we get lost out there, she's a woman so she'll stop and ask for directions.' "

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