Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Disneyland - Alone on Tom Sawyer's Island (Part II)

The raft edged up to the Island dock and the operator secured it.
The foreman and I exited the raft along with a handful guests.
"Here's your break and lunch schedule," he said, handing me a slip of paper with times scribbled on it. "It's kind of slow today, so you should have no problems. Just circle your walkways, keep them clear and be sure to hit the restrooms and fill out your sign-in sheets. I'll be back in a couple of hours or so. If you need me, call Control and have them radio me. Looks like we have an issue over at Pirates, so I've got to take off. Have fun!"
He stepped back onto the empty raft with the operator and I watched them pull away from the dock and drift back across the river.
I turned to my right and started walking up the main pathway along the river's edge, toward Castle Rock and Fort Wilderness, my pan in my right hand and broom twirling in the left.
The river was to my left, with tall reeds growing between it and the path.
I walked along, "sweeper scanning" the ground ahead of me for scraps of paper, wayward twigs, popcorn bits, wrappers and other detritus.
It was a cold morning. A California rainstorm had swept through a day or so earlier and the ground was still damp. The cold front that inevitably swept in behind the storm made the air crisp, the clouds bright white and the sky an almost unreal blue.
Erratic winds blew across the Island, swaying the trees, bending the grassy reeds along shore and reaching the back of my neck where it was exposed above my jacket collar.
Ahead of me, the empty path stretched into the distance to where it bent at Castle Rock.
Behind me, not a guest could be seen between me and the raft landing.
I could hear the New Orleans area music in the distance, and the gentle, steady snoring of the "bear" asleep in the cave at the entrance to Bear Country. As I looked across the river at what is now Splash Mountain, I saw the old Trading Post with its grass covered roof and the row of buildings across from the entrance to the Hungry Bear Restaurant and Country Bear Jamboree.
Even Bear Country was almost deserted, with a few small groups of guests strolling the walkways.
Ah, slow days in the Park.
My face felt chilled and pink with the whipping breeze and frosty air.
I thought of the times I had come here as a child, dreaming of having the Island to myself as a personal playground---maybe one or two of my friends could come along, too.
Here I was, practically alone on the Island, with the whole day ahead of me.
I marched up the hill toward Fort Wilderness and stepped through its main gates.
There inside the fort I met "Bill," one of Disneyland Security's finest---looking every bit the part in his fine U.S. Cavalry costume and black boots.
"Good morning!" I greeted him.
"Morning back to you," he said warmly, "Where's Red?"
"He must've taken today off and I got his shift. I think you and I are about the only folks on the Island right now."
"Well, there are fifteen guests with us, which is darn close to empty."
"Where are they?"
"Back by the barrel bridge and the treehouse is where I left 'em. Pretty windy today."
"I'll say. Glad I remembered my jacket. Well, I'm sure I'll be seeing you."
"Yep. Stay outta trouble."
He smiled and nodded as we parted.
I headed out the rear gate of Fort Wilderness and took a right, following the path to the River over on the "Cascade Peak" side of the Island.
I stopped for a moment and peeked through the fence that blocked guest access to the northwestern tip of the Island (where a burning cabin, wildlife and evidence of Indian habitation could be found). Thinking better of taking a moment to explore this "off limits" area, I walked along the shore path.
Behind me I heard the huffing steam and steady paddle of the Mark Twain as it rounded the bend in the river just past the Indian Village. She looked startlingly white in the clear, crisp air against the blue sky and green, green trees.
White steam puffed from her stacks and I could see a family along the railing on the upper deck. The father was pointing at the Island and the children were waving down at me.
I returned the wave and stopped to face the steamboat as she glided past.
People along the bottom deck started to wave back at me---thinking my initial wave was meant for them.
I simply smiled all the more and began to wave with broad, happy gestures---to the whole boat!
I walked along with the Mark Twain, waving playfully and laughing to myself as I looked over and saw that by now every guest on every deck on the starboard side was looking at each of the other guests, and at me, and waving furiously to me in return.
As I stopped, near the back side of Castle Rock, the Mark Twain started to round the final bend at the barrel bridge.
My last image of her as she pulled toward the dock was of 20 or 30 guests, adults and kids alike, waving happily back at me. I waved to them slowly as I stood there and smiled to myself.
Sometimes, at Disneyland, even the sweepers are part of the Show.
I had only been on the Island for maybe 15 minutes and had experienced a great guest interaction, even though the Island itself was mostly deserted.
I felt energized and warmer inside as I continued my circuit of the pathways.
The barrel bridge bobbed up and down beside me and the trees cast speckled shadows over me as I approached the "treehouse" end of the Island.
I marched up the hill and took my time near the streamlets that flowed endlessly from the base of the tree. A family was coming down the steps of the treehouse, mom, dad and three small boys (all under the age of 6).
"Good morning!" I called.
"Good morning! Is it always this empty here?" said the mom.
"I wish. You folks picked a good time of year and a great day to come."
"The boys have been up and down this tree five times already!! We're getting worn out."
"Have you seen Injun Joe's cave?"
"Injun Joe's cave. It's not far. They say old Injun Joe's moans can be heard when the wind blows through it..."
The energetic boys stopped and looked up at me, eyes wide, sizing up whether my story could be believed.
"Where's the cave, mommy? Dad, we want to see the cave!!"
Looking at the parents, who were now clearly interested, I motioned for them to follow me.
I led everyone back down the hill to the entrance of the cave.
The parents read the sign to their boys.
The scary sounds echoed out from inside and the youngest of the three appeared to be having second thoughts.
"Oooh. It's too dark. I don't wanna go!"
"Listen," I knelt down and looked at him (feeling partially responsible, since I had suggested the cave in the first place), "This is Disneyland and I work here. I have a flashlight, see? How about if I take you guys through the cave---it comes out on the other side of the island and it's pretty neat in there!"
The boy eyed my yellow and black Disney-issue flashlight that dangled from my belt. I usually wouldn't wear it for a day shift, but the Island had caves, after all, and, during the winter months, working a closing shift meant it got dark early---so I knew I might need the flashlight to help with cleaning out flowerbeds at the end of the day.
I slipped it from its holster and held it out.
His small fingers wrapped around it.
He looked at me, to see if I was serious about providing them with an escort into the scary cave.
I looked back with a "I'm ready if you are" expression on my face.
He turned to his older brothers and parents and gave a little nod toward the cave.
"Can I hold your hand?" he asked as we approached.
Both parents smiled their assent to me, and I reached down and said, "Sure."
The little guy and I led the way into Injun Joe's cave.
I felt his grip tighten as we made our way into the chamber where the wind howled and the lighting was scary.
I clicked on my flashlight and said, "Come on, right this way."
We walked over the little wooden bridge and were soon winding our way through the tight nooks and crannies at the back end of the cave---the flashlight providing warmth and comfort to the smallest member of our exploring group.
As we rounded the final turn, the bright light of the day spilled around the corner and the little boy laughed and ran excitedly to the exit, like a prisoner who have been given an early release.
He glowed with pride as the rest of us made our way outside the cave.
"I did it! I did it! That cave was not scary!"
His brothers laughed and joined him.
"Let's go this way!" they exclaimed, running off down the path toward Castle Rock.
The parents started to follow and smiled to me.
Ahead of us, the littlest boy stopped mid-run.
He turned back and looked right at me, with his eyes glancing down to my flashlight and back to my face.
"Thank you, Mr. Disneyland man!" he rang out in a small and irresistibly cute voice.
I waved back to him.
He turned on his small heels and bolted down the path, in the direction his brothers were last seen heading.
His parents followed after them all.

I turned to my right and swept my way to the Old Mill.
Walking inside, I watched its wooden gears steadily turn the grist mill.
I smelled the dirt, the dampness, the Disneylandedness of it.
This Tom Sawyer's Island gig wasn't half bad, I had to admit.
The rest of my shift played out in similar fashion.
The population of guests on the Island waxed and waned over the course of the day, from almost nobody to perhaps a "high" of 30.
Bill and I would pass each other on our rounds. We would share a bit of conversation and then move on.
In between, I spent hours seemingly all by myself, touring the paths, walkways, caves and, of course, the restrooms (in Fort Wilderness and on the little dock across from the Mark Twain landing).
Just me and the Park.
Can you imagine?
I absolutely loved the feeling. I inhaled it deeply.
Nothing else I have experienced was quite like it.
It was a uniquely "Disneyland" thing that only a true Park admirer can fully understand.
I remember when my "lunch" time came around.
I stepped aboard the next raft and took it across to New Orleans Square.
Heading up the walkway past the little park between the Haunted Mansion and the French Market, I walked past the Mint Julep Bar and into the corridor near the restrooms. There, I stepped through a "Cast Members Only" door at the end of the hall.
I was in a concrete walled stairway that led down.
Down to the Pit, the Cast Member cafeteria located beneath New Orleans Square and the Pirates of the Caribbean entrance building.
It was windowless, but bright and warm---even with the fluorescent lighting.
After spending several hours outside on the cold and windy Island, I grabbed a cup of hot soup, a coffee and a turkey sandwich---which I can still taste.
Comfort food at Disneyland.
I saw a fellow sweeper I knew and we sat down to our lunch together.
"I see you're on Island today. Lucky dog."
"It's all who you know."
"Well, I must be doing something wrong, I pulled a restroom shift."
"Hey, at least you get to spend some time indoors. It's cold out there on the Island. And lonely."
"You're so full of it! I know darn well you're having the time of your life."
I guess it must've showed, because...I was.

And I was lucky.

Few people will ever get to experience what I was able to enjoy that chilly day in 1985.

Interestingly, perhaps the most unique part of that day came toward the end of my shift. The Island was about to close and Bill had walked all the guests back to the raft for the final ride back to New Orleans Square. At that point, I had gotten to know the raft operator, Tim, pretty well. "Tim, I think I left my flashlight back at Fort Wilderness." I had, but not by accident.
"I'm going to run and grab it. Can you come back and get me?"
Tim, whose shift was almost over, hesitated, but saw the determined look in my eyes.
"Okay, I'll be back for you, but don't miss me or I'm leaving you there!" Tim said with a glint in his eye as he pulled the raft with Bill and the last Island guests away from the dock.

There I was.
The last person on Tom Sawyer's Island.
For a blessed few minutes as I ran back to Fort Wilderness to retrieve my flashlight, I reveled in my good fortune of scoring a rare sweeper victory---to be alone on the Island. Unless you were crazy enough to try and steal a raft or a skiff, you weren't going to get many chances to be the only sweeper out there.
I knew my friends would be envious.
More importantly, as dusk was falling and the chill was getting even more pronounced, I got to enjoy a few moments out there all by myself.
I ambled back from Fort Wilderness and slowly approached the raft landing.
Tim was there, pointing to his watch and putting his hands on hips in a pantomime of mock impatience.
I waved.
I slowed my pace.
I looked out over my Island kingdom and took it all in.
Reluctantly, I picked up my stride and made my way onto the raft.
Tim smiled knowingly.
Raft guides had a unique advantage.
They could be the last ones on the Island any time they chose.
I watched the landing recede into the distance as our raft, with only Tim and me aboard, made the final crossing of the day.
Tim pulled us in. I tossed the shoring rope around the cleat on the dock and he gently throttled the raft to a tight stop against the landing. He shut down the engine, tied off the rear of the raft to the dock, and the two of us walked back toward Frontierland.

Some days you just carry with you.
This was one of them.