Sailing aboard the Jungle Cruise, Brian Alters picks up the microphone and delivers a timeworn comedic spiel amid the lush vegetation of the Nile River.
“I’d like to point out some of the rare plants we have here,” says Alters, randomly pointing at foliage along the river banks. “There’s some, there’s some and there’s some. They’re all the same genus of species: plasticus fakus.”
Alters isn’t a Disneyland cast member. He’s a Chapman University professor and lifelong fan of the classic water ride at the Anaheim theme park.
Alters and a few dozen other die-hard Jungle Cruise devotees got the chance to skipper a steamer tramp on a recent chilly morning following breakfast surrounded by audio-animatronic wild animals in the African veld area of the riverboat ride.
“Ever since I was a little kid I’ve loved the Jungle Cruise,” says Alters, who teaches a class at Chapman called The Pursuit of Happiness and Knowledge: Charles Darwin and Walt Disney. “To finally be able to do this is amazing.”
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The exclusive Sunrise Safaris start at 5:30 a.m. sharp. On this morning, the group assembled in Disney’s Grand Californian hotel lobby includes a pair of friends from Newport Beach, a few annual passholders from Riverside, a vacationing couple from Texas, a family of four from Roseville, a Club 33 member and even a Disneyland cast member treating himself to an early birthday present.
Escorted by a team of Disneyland employees hoisting campground lanterns, our pre-dawn safari caravan parades through an empty Downtown Disney and along Main Street USA as maintenance crews prepare the park for the 9 a.m. opening.
In Adventureland, a Disneyland pick-up truck filled with gardening supplies is parked in front of the Bengal Barbeque restaurant as a murder of cawing crows soars across the slate grey sky. Temperatures hover in the low 50s, chilly by Southern California standards.
Instead of entering the Jungle Cruise boathouse, our safari crew heads down the exit of the Indiana Jones Adventure dark ride, careful to step over a snaking hose being used by an employee to rinse down the pathway.
Inside the Indy queue, we pass through a pair of giant doors leading to a backstage area of the park, where we meet our host.
Waiters dressed in jungle safari outfits step forward bearing silver serving trays filled with orange-guava-pineapple juice in stemmed glasses. Off to the left, Indian elephants usually full of animatronic life sit eerily still in a bathing pool at the river’s edge. A skipper takes an empty steamer tramp on a test run along the muddy green river.
At the end of a dirt maintenance road, nine card tables dressed with linens, china and silverware overlook the African veld scene of the Jungle Cruise boat ride. The improvised outdoor dining area is set up to look like a jungle expedition camp fit for 1940s travelers. An old Brownie camera stands on a tripod next to a stack of steamer trunks. Tommy Dorsey swing music plays from a Victrola record player.
Surrounding the impromptu breakfast area, a “Jingle Cruise” overlay adds holiday decorations to the classic Disneyland attraction. Animatronic giraffes chew on Christmas ornaments. Frozen waterfalls adorn cliff-like rocks along the river. Plastic Frosty the Snowman lawn ornaments float in the water. A rhino with a star on his horn chases a safari group up a tree as garland-festooned hyenas laugh below. The animatronic animals move in constant repetitive motion, an aspect of their monotonous life not usually seen while briefly passing the tableau via steamer tramp.
The backside of the Jungle Cruise scene offers a point of view invisible to boat passengers traveling along the great rivers of the world. Faux rocks cover power boxes. Camouflage netting hides a water pump station. The pneumatic pistons bringing the animatronic animals to life sound like hissing hospital ventilators.
I’m joined for breakfast by two women from Newport Beach dressed in their holiday best. The purple-haired Gail Abramo wears a Santa hat with a Fleece Navidad sweater bearing a sheep wrapped in Christmas lights. Heather Sievers outdoes her friend with a Christmas-themed hand-knitted skirt, a Walking in a Wiener Wonderland sweater and holiday-colored sequined Mickey Mouse ears.
Sievers and I know each other -- at least virtually. She contributes to the Disney Food Blog. And she’s married to my college roommate. We’ve communicated via social media and have plenty to talk about over breakfast.
“Don’t feed the animals,” says Edith the safari guide, dropping by the table for a bit of amusing conversation “Because if you feed them they’ll want more. Before you know it, you’re arm’s gone.”
“Not everyone’s going to make it,” warns Edith, equal parts cautionary and comedic. “Some people might be eaten for breakfast instead of eat their breakfast. Don’t be those people.”
After breakfast and a few photos, our safari group heads down to the Jungle Cruise boathouse. At 7:30 a.m., the park remains empty except for a few employees stocking shelves and tidying up shops.
We board the Kissimmee Under the Mistletoe, the canopied steamer tramp renamed for the ride’s holiday overlay. Our skipper, 25-year-old Mariana Cortez of Anaheim, poses for photos with each of the safari group at the ship’s wheel.
Once departed on our cruise, we take turns reading spiels over the microphone from script postcards at key points along the journey. At a few stops, Cortez offers to let volunteers ad-lib their own comedy material. Alters, the Chapman professor, jumps at every opportunity.
“I think that’s sedimentary rock,” says Alters, as a friend films his performance. “But I’m just taking that for granite.”
The journey travels past a safari camp overrun by gorillas, temple ruins in a lost delta region and gentle elephants grazing along the waterfront. The African veld area where we ate breakfast takes on a new perspective as we float past. In a shady cove, hippopotami dine on holiday fruit cakes floating in the water.
“Oh no!” says Sievers, my blogger breakfast companion. “It looks like these hippos might want to charge the boat. Good thing we only take cash.”
“And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for,” says the purple-haired Abramo as we pass under Schweitzer Falls. “The amazing, the colossal, the stupendous. The eighth wonder of the world. The backside of water.”
Back at the dock, each of the safari members receives a keepsake gift including a tribal mask, a hand-drawn Jungle Cruise map and a photo of themselves with Skipper Cortez.
“Look at me,” says Abramo, admiring her sepia-toned photo. “I’m driving the boat. I’m telling my kids I drove.”
Sievers wonders if being a newly inducted member of the Fraternal League of Secret Skippers comes with any privileges.
“I’ll keep the card in my purse,” says Sievers, in hopes of reciting her spiel on her next Jungle Cruise voyage. “Can you hand me the mic please. I know this one. I’m ready.”
Though it doesn’t cost Disneyland anything to offer exclusive access to backstage and VIP areas of the park, there are some real expenses involved with the premium experiences in terms of food and staffing. At the end of the day, the high price tag allows Disneyland to both control and satisfy demand.
The participants I spoke with thought the Jungle Cruise experience was worth the price. And some even said they would pay more.
“This is my favorite attraction,” says Alters, the Chapman professor. “I’ve always wanted to do this and I can’t believe Disney opened the opportunity up. I had to do it.”
The Jungle Cruise Sunrise Safari continues on select days through early December. More dates may be announced after the ride comes back from a long refurbishment set to begin in January.
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