/ Thursday, October 25th, 2007

Lou Mongello: Recently we profiled the original Journey Into Imagination pavilion and attraction as part of our Epcot retrospective series. I followed that up with an interview with former Imagineer Steve Kirk, who is not only instrumental in creating the attraction but, along with Tony Baxter, was primarily responsible for creating two of Disney’s most beloved characters: the Dreamfinder and Figment. And, needless to say, the response from listeners was wonderful, as many of you not only had strong memories of the attraction, but more specifically the characters themselves. And a lot of you wrote in and actually sent photos of yourselves or your children with the Dreamfinder, who was really one of the most unique of all the walk-around characters ever to stroll through any of the Disney Theme Parks.

Well, as fate would have it, guess who else was listening and felt compelled to write?

That’s right, it was the Dreamfinder himself. And, no, the lack of sleep hasn’t made me lose it just yet . . . But I’m actually talking about Ron Schneider, who was Walt Disney World’s original stroll-around Dreamfinder and Figment character, as well as the voice of Dreamfinder for parts of the Journey Into Imagination attraction.

So, we started to talk and thought it would be fun, with Epcot’s 25th coming up, to talk about the “Lives and Loves of a Strolling Dreamfinder.”

So, I want to welcome Ron Schneider to the WDW Radio Show.

Ron Schneider as Dreamfinder: (Delightful laughing) Thanks, Lou. It’s great to be here.

LM: I want to apologize in advance if I inadvertently address you as Dreamfinder, because I have very distinct memories of meeting you outside the pavilion, and I’ll do my best not to do my bad Billy Barty Figment impression.

RS: Oh, thank you, thank you very much. I don’t mind people calling me Dreamfinder; the job paid pretty good.

LM: You are really best known as the man who was the first walk around Dreamfinder. A lot of people may not realize you were also one of the voices in the actual attraction. Can you tell us which of these roles came about first and how you got that part?

RS: Well, at the time back in ’82 I was working at Disneyland of and on at the Golden Horseshoe Review, understudying Wally Bogue the comic there, and Tony Baxter came out to Disneyland to do a presentation to employees about careers at WED. Some of you may not know that before it was called Imagineering, the Imagineering arm of the company was called WED Enterprises for Walter Elias Disney. He did a presentation about careers, and he talked about the Journey Into Imagination, which he was putting finishing touches on. He held up a picture of these two new characters and mentioned that Dreamfinder and Figment were going to be the only Disney characters at Epcot. There’d be no Mickey, no Minnie, no Goofy. These were going to be the spokesmen for Epcot. And I saw the drawing of the characters and immediately knew this was something I wanted to do. So, I called a friend of mine called Ken Leafy, he ran the Sound Department at WED, and said “Listen, I want to apply for this job. Can you get me a recording of the Dreamfinder voice from the ride?” He says, “Oh, sure, come on down.”

A couple of days later I drive over to WED, and Ken meets me at the door and he walks me upstairs and says ‘I’ve got someone for you to meet,’ and he introduces me to Barry Braverman and Tony Baxter. Barry was in charge of the ImageWorks upstairs, and Tony, of course, was creating the ride – it was his baby. And the two of them took me in hand, and I had the most amazing day.

The first thing they did is they walked me back to this big soundstage and, set up on sawhorses there, was one of the Dream Catching Machines with Dreamfinder and Figment sitting on it, and they just finished programming the opening scene of the ride. And they threw a switch and I got to watch the entire scene sitting in the middle of this warehouse.

Then they took me upstairs and they talked me through the history of the characters and the gestation of the concepts for the ride and building and the ImageWorks. They finished by giving me a cassette recording. On one side was Dreamfinder and Figment doing the opening scene of the ride. The other side was the same thing, but without the voices. And they said “Farewell, goodbye, thank you very much.” So, I took my cassette and I went over to a friend of mines who happened to work at Shaipei Advertising, Jeff Palmer, terrific guy, still a good friend. And we put the cassette into the sound booth, and I got on the headphones and Jeff, who’s got a wonderful ear for voices, talked me into doing the Dreamfinder voice that was on the track. The voice was done by a fellow named Chuck McCann, who is a terrific character actor, a lot of your listeners – if you saw him, would probably recognize him. And the voice he’d done, ideal for Dreamfinder, was that of Frank Morgan: the Wizard of Oz.

And we had the whole first scene there, and I practiced the thing until I had it pretty good. And I went home that night, and I left a message on my phone machine saying (In Dreamfinder voice) “Ron’s off for a flight of fancy and won’t be back for some time. So, leave a message after you hear the tone!” And, when I came home from work the next day, 10 people had called and hung up without leaving a message. (Lou laughs.) And the last person calling was Ken Leacy saying “Give me a call immediately, we need to talk.” And I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if that was Tony Baxter and Marty Sklar . . . and that’s who it was.’

LM: No kidding . . .

RS: They were calling up, I don’t know for what. But, the next day I was back at WED auditioning for X Atencio to do the Dreamfinder. Apparently, Chuck McCann had become difficult to work with, and they were either going to find a new voice or they were going to find someone who could match everything he’d done. And so, the next day I was in a recording booth going “Skyrockets soar towards outer space. Imagine yourself in an infinite place,” and the last half of the ride. And that’s how I ended up doing the voice.

From there, how I got the job was I marched upstairs to Sonny Anderson’s office at Disneyland. Sonny Anderson was head of talent booking . . .

A parenthetical thought here: people sometimes ask me, “How can I get one of these wonderful jobs at Disney?” I’ll tell you the secret. I found that to get a dream job at Disney, the first thing you have to do is get a job at Disney. It doesn’t matter what it is. Because if you can get into the company, then you can use the different assets of the company to find yourself a really good job. And, since I was in Entertainment already, it was a simple thing for me to go to the man upstairs in Talent Booking, just as it was an easy thing for me to call a guy over at WED and get their assistance. So, Disney is always promoting from within; they are always having auditions for just employees.

So, I went up to Sonny Anderson’s office. And I said “I’d like to do this Dreamfinder and Figment character. So he picks up the phone, he calls Florida, and the guy who was Head of Entertainment for Epcot was an old friend from my Junior High School days who knew me as a big Disney wannabe. And he was thrilled to have me on board, and I was “In like Flynn.”

LM: You mentioned names like Wally Bogue and some of the people you worked with, X Atencio, but you were really a Disney fan first. That’s how you got into the company?

RS: I was at Disneyland the day after it opened, July 18, 1955, because my father had done some of the air conditioning work on one of the buildings. Our family went a couple times a year. In 1966, when Walt passed, it just struck me what a tremendous impact he had on my life. So, the next time I was at Disneyland, I broke off from the family. I went, and I sat, and I watched the crowds, and I suddenly became very fascinated with Disneyland as Theater; that it’s a stage where the guests step up onto the stage, and they’re actually the stars of the story. And I suddenly wanted to work in that atmosphere. I’d already had some experience with puppetry and ventriloquism and magic and I’d been on stage a little bit, but I was just fascinated with the way theme parks worked. So I suddenly acquired this whole new hobby, I was researching everything I could about the history of Disneyland, how theme parks were designed, how they operated. In 1970, I saw Wally Bogue at the Golden Horseshoe for the first time, and I knew then that’s what I wanted to do. So I got my first theme park job, got into Disney issuing wardrobe for Christmas 1970 Fantasy on Parade. The following summer, I was at Magic Mountain on its opening crew. Over 10 years there, I worked at all the different theme parks, a lot of theme dinner shows, learning everything I could about the operations. At the time I was hired at Disney, I was at Magic Mountain doing a medicine pitch, just like Wally used to do at the Golden Horseshoe. I was working at the Six Flags Magic Mountain in the Spillikin Corners, the crafts village. When, in 1980, they held auditions for the Golden Horseshoe – they needed a second cast for Horseshoe for the 25th anniversary, they were going to double up on the shows – I walked in and I was able to show them exactly what they wanted.

LM: Wow. So, how do you go from there: you’ve now done the voice, you filled in the voice seamlessly. The distinction between you and Chuck McCann is really non-existent. But how do you go from doing the voice work, where you’re given a script, to saying “Okay, I need inspiration to become a real walk around character that’s going to have to go off script to interact with guests.” Where do you get the inspiration for that?

RS: Well, I started with the source of material: that afternoon with Tony and Barry. They talked me through the history of the characters and especially important was the story of how they created the concept of the pavilion itself in trying to quantify something as ephemeral as imagination. They broke it down into three concepts: Collecting, Storing, and Recombining. Collecting Sparks of Inspiration, which is happening in the first scene of the ride; Storing them in the Dream Port, which is happening in the second scene of the ride; and then Recombining them into New Things, which was the rest of the ride. It’s like this three act structure. So I knew that the character was going to be an adventurer. He flies around in this contraption. He is fascinated by absolutely everything around him. And he is constantly thinking creatively about life in general.

In the first scene of the ride, of course, he creates Figment from the Sparks of Inspiration. So Figment is his child, Figment is his own creation. The characters were always designed to be a little left brain/right brain. Left brain, Dreamfinder, is a more practical, constructive side of creativity. Figment is the wild, untamed child. But I always knew Dreamfinder needed Figment, and loved and appreciated Figment – that whole side of creativity. This immediately gave me the relationship.

One of the other things Tony told me about Dreamfinder is that Dreamfinder was always intended to be an updated version of that guy who used to host the Wonderful World of Color on NBC. The encouraging uncle. Someone who saw the good in people and saw the creativity of people and wondered at it.

So, there were my inspirations. Of course, I had the Wizard of Oz voice going for me immediately, people react viscerally to that when they hear it. All these different elements started to put me on the right direction.

The first thing that I did was I sat down and I wrote three poems for Tony Baxter. So I had all these different elements, and this set me in a certain direction with what I was doing. I wrote three poems: one on collecting, one on storing, and one on recombining in the style I thought Dreamfinder would. I just sent them to Tony as a little love letter and a thank you. And then I started doing all the research I could on dragons, and the history and physiogamy of dragons. You know, having worked in all the different theme parks I acquired all these bizarre hobbies, because the way you work on a theme park job or any kind of role like this is you start reading everything you can about a particular topic. Not looking for any particular piece of information or piece of dialogue, but you’re looking for an emotional feeling that you’re going to try to engender in the guests. So, over the years I’ve known everything there is to know about the Canadian Pacific Railroad, U.S. Calvary Forts, traveling medicine shows, the history of movies . . . these are all subjects that I’ve created characters working in different places and I’ve done a lot of research on. So, I know everything there is to know about the physiogamy of dragons, and why they can fly and how they breathe fire and all this. Really! (Lou laughs.)

I’ve put all this research into the process of creativity. Everything Dreamfinder says in the ride is in rhyme, so I did all this research into speaking in rhyme. All these different aspects of what I thought Dreamfinder would do. I found a book called Creative Dramatics about playing improvisational games with kids, and this really struck a chord. I had this idea that I was going to be able to go out there as this character and improvise stories with children. And that always seemed to be a major part of what Dreamfinder could be.

So I kept working on different things. At one point I even started exercising – I got a thing for exercising the grip on my hand because I knew I was going to be spending 8 hours a day with my hand up the dragon, and I wanted to be in good shape for that. What else did I do . . . it just was amazing. I bought all the pictures and paintings I could of wizards and exotic flying machines and just surrounded myself with these things. Which, of course, when it finally came to going out there and being the dragon, all the preparation kind of went out the window, as these things tend to do. Because what happens in themed entertainment, you are always trying to deal creatively with – this is a phrase I came up with – deal creatively with operational reality. In other words, you have to deal with what the guests are bringing to it and using that to bring them into your world.

So, when I finally got out here to Orlando, it was September 18, 1982, and we started pulling this thing together for real. Another great truism about themed entertainment, whenever you are doing a new show like this it always takes at least a year before everything is there to do the show right. So you’re always scrambling at first. They made me the beautiful suit. They had a dragon puppet which looked pretty good, but it was not designed for comfort or ease of use. The wigs and beards and moustaches were all made out of women’s wigs, so the moustaches had the wig backing on them; they were about a quarter inch thick. When you put them on, you had to smile when you put them on, and you couldn’t stop smiling or they’d pop off your face.

LM: (Laughs) It must have been really comfortable in the Florida heat, too, so…

RS: It was . . . that was a bear. Of course, the Kodak people wanted me out in the garden, posing out in the garden area. That’s what the garden area was there for. But, they never could corner me there because I was in the Imagination Pavilion, and I had the run of the building! It was my home! So, every time they would say to me ‘we want you in the garden,’ I would always answer, “I’ll be in the garden! Unless . . . it’s too hot, too cold, too windy, too rainy, too muggy, or too buggy. Buggy being the Love Bugs that come out twice a year and nest in your beard, especially when it’s covered with hair spray.

So, I would constantly be moving, and I would go outside sometimes just bits and pieces of the day. My favorite set of the day was first thing in the morning when there was nobody in the pavilion; they hadn’t reached the pavilion yet. I’d be out there virtually alone in the building with Figment, and one of my favorite things to do was walk out in the garden area. And we’d walk around the garden area and wait for a Monorail to come by, and then I’d stand with my back to the Monorail, and act like I was talking to Figment about the plants or the fountains, showing him. And he would see the Monorail first, and he’d freak out. He’d get my attention, and then we’d both turn around and wave. And you could see the whole side of the Monorail, solid people, smiling and waving!

Then I’d go up to the ImageWorks and there’d be some kid there with the Magic Palate, you know, drawing on the video screen. And Figment and I would silently come up behind the kid and just watch for a while. Then at some point I’d say, “You know, he’s really pretty good.” The kid would turn around, having just gotten off of the ride, and have a conniption fit, it was wonderful.

LM: I can imagine. You know, let’s talk about that for a second. Because now you’re going from being this voice, you’re making this transition from a voice character to a live character. I want to understand how much creative license you had with the character, how much they gave you to work off. Obviously, the guest interaction is such an important part of it, but let’s talk for a second. If I understand you correctly, you had a pretty interesting – to say the least – first day on the job as the walk around character.

RS: I had a couple of them doing various things, but my first day doing it in the park was: I got a call, I would be up out at the Italy Pavilion at 7 am with Bryant Gumbel and the crew from the Today Show, and I will hesitantly direct all of your listeners to You Tube.

LM: I’ll actually put a link up in the show notes this week so people can go right to it.

RS: And you will see my very first public performance as the Dreamfinder. And please forgive me.

LM: No, it’s great! It’s great because that’s people’s first time that they’ve been introduced to this character – these characters – and it’s wonderful.

TRANSCRIPT FROM THE TODAY SHOW SEGMENT:

Bryant Gumbel: As we talk about tomorrow, here’s a bulletin for you: There is no imagination crisis in this country, especially here at Disney World. We’ve gathered a panel of imagination experts just to prove it. Here’s Disney’s newest authority on imagination, from the Imagination Pavilion here at Epcot is Dreamfinder.

Dreamfinder: Hello, there, Bryant. Good to have you here at Epcot.

BG: And who is Dreamfinder?

DF: Well, I’m kind of the host of the Journey Into Imagination show out here at Epcot Center. I traveled all over the Universe, collecting the stuff dreams are made of: Sounds, Colors, Ideas . . . Anything that sparks the imagination. And I store these sparks in the Journey Into Imagination Pavilion. And the guests and I recombine them into new ideas and new inspirations.

BG: I am left to assume that you did not dream alone. Who is your little puppet friend?

DF: This is actually something I dreamed up, this is my Figment. And I’m very proud of him. You see, I threw together the two tiny wings, the nose of a crocodile, the horns of a dilemma, and all the calm and reserve of a small child’s birthday party. And so, he with his curious and naïve way of looking at life shows me things that I would never have guessed in my own knowledge and experience.

BG: If you are the spirit of imagination, then the gentleman to your left certainly might be called the father of imagination. He is one of Disney’s Imagineers, and he helped come up with the idea for Dreamfinder and Figment. His name: Barry Braverman. We welcome you.

Imagineer. I have the feeling I’ve just invented a new word. Is that a profession? Is that a personal statement?

Barry Braverman: Well, it’s a term we use at WED to describe what we do; we think it’s a kind of a unique blend of art and engineering, so we’ve coined that phrase.

BG: Imagination is a very difficult thing to characterize, it’s difficult to capture and picture. What is it you’ve set out to do?

BB: What we’ve tried to do, as the Dreamfinder indicated, is give a very simple kind of a scheme for how the imaginative process works in this pavilion. And what we’ve done is boiled it down to three steps: Gathering, Storing, and then Recombining into new things. We wanted to say to people that imagination is something we all share. It’s a common ability that we all have and all we need to do is look at the world in an open and risk taking way, and we can begin this process.

BG: There is room for imagination in your future vision of the world, but it’s imagination of a different sort, right?

BB: Well, we are trying to show the arts and the softer side of the imagination idea here in this pavilion. Energy and transportation and communication stories are being told well in other parts of the project. Our goal was to remind people that without the arts, without somebody willing to take a risk and have a new idea, you really don’t have much of a future at all.

BG: You actually do blend imagination and technology, such as we’re seeing here where people by dancing on various color patterns can create, what, music?

BB: Yeah, this is part of an area we call the ImageWorks, and it’s a hands-on area where people get a chance to try out new technologies for creativity. And so we see them dancing along Stepping Tones, manipulating these enormous kaleidoscopes that are just like the ones you used as a child but much larger. This is a videographic system that we created for the ImageWorks called Magic Palate. It allows the guest to load up their brush with different electronic inks and paint right on a CRT screen.

BG: Let me ask you: by using the technology, are you not in fact taking away some of the creativity? I mean, doesn’t one have to start from point zero to be totally creative?

BB: Well that’s really not the position we’re taking. We think that these new tools just simply enhance the palate of things that you can work on. We always tell the story about the invention of the piano. Probably at some point someone thought that was a very threatening machine and would end creativity. But, in fact, it’s made things more creative. We feel that same way about computers and sensing devices and so on.

BG: And what of Dreamfinder and Figment? Do you fit into the family that includes Goofy and Pluto and Mickey and Snow White and Cinderella? Or are you truly apart, are you the future?

DF: No, I’m part of the same spirit, actually. I’m more of the original spirit, the same thing that led to them created me. And I was there when they were created.

BG: And let me say thank you to all three of you. Barry Braverman, for giving us these two, for Dreamfinder and for Figment. Figment, take care of yourself, will you?

END OF SEGMENT

RS: It was a real hoot. I did not know what he was going to ask me. I had practiced – because I learned about doing this for the theme parks – I practiced answering questions about Epcot as the character. I wasn’t ready for the specific questions he asked me. But, I was on there with Barry Braverman, as a matter of fact. It was Bryant Gumbel – I was sitting next to him with Figment, and on the other side of me was Barry Braverman talking about the Imagination Pavilion. One thing that I will never forget is Bryant spoke to me for a while and then he went to asking Barry questions (and you’ll see this on the video). At some point as they were talking – and ignoring me – I looked up and, on the monitor, I could see that you could just barely see the tip of Figments horn . . .

LM: Right!

RS: . . . in the shot. So I had practiced sticking my fingers up in his forehead and wiggling his horns, so I leaned him into the shot and wiggled his horns and that was my first moment as Dreamfinder that I’m actually very proud of. That came off nicely and looked like it was practiced.

LM: The thing that I really liked about that clip, just real quick, is that, again, nobody knew who Figment was, but you could instantly get a sense of his character and his innocence and his playfulness without staying a word, just by the way you were able to manipulate him on screen.

RS: More than the way he was manipulated, because that particular puppet was stiffer than any of them, it was the way that I spoke about him, I think. It was the way that Dreamfinder cared, obviously cared about Figment and loved him. So much of the success of the character was in his design; so much of it was in the wonderful job Billy Barty did as his voice; but I think a lot of the reason why people love him and remember him so fondly is that in the ride, he is the star of the ride and is treated with such care and such love and so much appreciation and that’s something that I always tried to put across. And I think that came across right from the start with our work on the Today Show.

Another parenthetical thought, one of the first things I did in the character late in September was we went down to Florida and to the Orange Bowl Parade. Kodak had built an amazing float that had a huge full-sized re-creation of the flying machine, and Figment and I rode it. Right through the middle of Miami Beach. At night. And everyone knew who we were. These people had not been to Epcot. But they were all going crazy, screaming “Dreamfinder” and “Figment” and waving. Everybody seemed to know who we were. And I think that’s because kids never change. When you see an ad about Disneyland in 1950, you’re looking for the Mickey Mouse costume. And when people look at the coming attractions for Epcot, everybody latched on to Dreamfinder and Figment. Because they were just so beautifully designed and beautifully rendered and they heard so much about the Imagination Pavilion – I think that that, also, was in our favor that very first day.

Of course, when they finished the Today Show, the next thing I had to do was I had to go around the World Showcase Lagoon, go over to Imagination and appear in the Epcot Center Opening television special with Danny Kaye and Drew Barrymore.

CLIP FROM EPCOT CENTER: THE OPENING CELEBRATION

DF: It’s nice to meet you! And this is my assistant and good right arm, Figment!

Danny Kaye: I understand that you’re in charge of some very creative things. I would think that would be terribly interesting.

DF: Right you are, for right in there
Imagination’s everywhere.
The visions once inside your head
Exist inside that place instead.

Imagination is my game,
The sparks of which ignite the flame
Of your own creativity,
And that’s real great for you and me.

END OF SEGMENT

RS: For me, there are two people who are the reason I got into entertainment. One was Jerry Lewis and one was Danny Kaye. So doing a scene with him and Drew Barrymore, straight off of E.T., was a hoot, too. And that is also on You Tube, and that, also, for me is an embarrassment. Particularly the beard. If you look at the way the beard is, and I’ve been out in that character at that point for about 3 or 4 hours, always in public eye. There was no restyling of the beard – it was glued on back then – and so the beard had started to collapse and looked very, very strange. But we got a little bit more in with me and Figment there, and also an early example of how I overdid the voice at first. It took me a while to get relaxed into him. But that was my first day as Dreamfinder and Figment.

LM: You made a subtle reference to about how you talked about the character with love, and you still do, because I caught, as you were telling your monorail story, you talking about Figment in the present tense, you talked about him as a person and not as a puppet. The feeling that you have definitely comes out in that you were able to attach that same type of innocence and curiosity to this puppet, by the way you talk about him and by the way you moved him. So I think that’s why the character was so successful and so memorable to so many of us who, as kids, saw him, and he made such an impact on us when we saw him as a real walk-around character.

RS: Five years of doing the character . . . you’ve got to form some kind of attachment, first of all, because you are physically attached. I had to, in developing him at first, because I immediately was thrown into playing two characters at the same time, which was something that I had not done in a long time. I had to find a way to very quickly learn how to bring him into life in a way that defined him as a separate character so when people looked at us, they would see a human being and this totally independent thought process that is Figment. The first thing I learned to do is I learned how to aim him. One of the important things that the Muppets do, that’s very important. In order to bring a character to life you have to have him be able to look at what he’s looking at. There is what they call a magic triangle that runs between the audience’s eye, the character’s eye, and the character’s nose. And when it’s lined up correctly, it looks like the character’s actually looking at you. If it’s just a little bit off to one side or the other, it looks like the character is looking off into space. And so I had practiced for weeks aiming Figment. I would ride on the bus around the back side of Epcot when I was in character, and I would ask people in different parts of the bus, “Is he looking at you?” “Is he looking at you?” I got the feeling for that, and I can do it to this day; without looking at the character I know exactly where his gaze is.

The other thing I had to do was I had to find a different thought process for him. So the first thing I did, when I went out on set, is I took all of my affection for the female form and I put it into Figment. I made it an automatic rule that if he saw a pretty girl, he’d go nuts. (Lou laughs.) Now, we got a little more sophisticated than this very quickly. But it gave him an independent action. I could be talking to a guest or posing for a picture, but all I had to do was realize that there is a cute little girl or a cute lady and Figment would go **scchloowee**—and I’d have to grab his arm and pull him back. And, if I did this quickly enough so that they wouldn’t see my arm holding the dragon, it looked like he was about to leave me. And this is the first of the bag of tricks that we used; it got to a point, at some point, where I could hold two conversations at the same time. I could, if there was a small child who was related to Figment down on my left, I could actually hold a conversation with an adult while Figment was looking down at this child and reacting to what the child was doing.

LM: I can imagine, in the five years that you did the walk-around character, you must have an incredible amount of stories and memories from meeting so many different guests. Any stories or any kind of moments specifically stick out in your mind?

RS: How long do we have? (Lou laughs.)

Well, let me go back first of all to a point that I made before about dealing with operational realities. When I got out on the street with Figment, I didn’t know how the guests were going to react. I expected that we could play creatively, you know, we would be making things up and telling stories. I really wasn’t sure how it was going to work, mind you, but that’s what I was looking for. And of course, all any adult wants to do is have their child’s picture taken with “the monkey.” The thought being “their kid had his picture taken with ‘the monkey,’ so my kid will have their picture taken with ‘the monkey,’”

LM: Right.

RS: “And I will walk up to them, and I will put the child down, and the child will cry out in delight and throw their arms around Dreamfinder and it’ll be a gorgeous moment, and I’ll take the picture and we can go some place that’s got air conditioning.” That was operational reality for the Dreamfinder.

I immediately had to find a way to get the guests to play with me before they took that picture. I had to find some way to relate with the child, relate with the audience, put on a show at the same time for everybody, and do all this without making anybody mad.

LM: Almost establish a trust with them before you played with them?

RS: Oh, yeah. Oh, definitely, with the children you definitely . . . if you’re going to get close to a small child you better have trust first.

So, what quickly evolved was my own version of a queue line. First of all, because of the way the dragon was built, I was no good from the back. If people stood behind me, they would see how the trick was done. So I would usually find myself with my back to a planter or a wall, and I would get all the people who were waiting to have their picture taken and, by my body movement and the way I used my voice, I would form them into a biiiig semi-circle around me. And I would remember who was the first person there, and I would gesture to the child or to the parent to come on over to the center of the circle. And thus, boom, everybody’s immediately being entertained by the way that I deal with this family. And, over time, I would develop about 8 or 10 standard routines that would work under different circumstances with different types of groups, and I would just rotate those through my brain as I pulled the people up. And, generally people would not see the same piece of material twice; this is all the practical side of Dreamfinding.

The first thing that I would do is I would find a way of introducing the dragon. For example, I would ignore him. I wouldn’t talk about him; I would just talk to the parent, I’d say, “Where are you from?” And all of the time, Figment’s looking at them, looking at me, looking at them, looking at me. Eventually, the parent would always say, “What is that?” I’d say, “Oh! You see him, too?” (Lou laughs.)

Sometimes, the kid would walk up. If the kid walked up alone, Figment would look at me and he’d move his lips and, of course, I could hear him. And I’d say, “I don’t know what it is. I’ll ask. Excuse me, what are you?” Children love that question, because they are not used to thinking like that. So sometimes I’d get their name, sometimes I’d get “I’m a boy,” sometimes I’d get a look like ‘what are you talking about?’ And then I would explain them to Figment. Finally, the basic idea was that I was collecting sparks of inspiration: there’s a child right there, you can’t get any better than that. And I would find different ways of introducing them.

If I would meet a group of young men traveling with their peers, and they’re all 12 to 16 years old, and they’re too cool for this character. But they’re interested in the trick, and they’re interested in seeing us, they just saw us on the ride. I found the thing to do, then, is immediately not to push anything out, just to go back on my heels and mirror their energy level. You know, they’re looking back, they’re going “Yeah. Hi. What are you . . .” So I’d be the same way to them. And they would immediately . . . since I’m not bowling them over with smiles and gags and “oh, come on, you can do better than that,” they would warm up to you. They would warm up to you.

So, that was the basics of going out there and playing with it. Every environment was different.

And as far as amusing stories, oh, jeez . . . I’ll tell you my absolute favorite first . . . was the day that I was coming off of a set and walking through a crowd trying to get to my dressing room without being swamped and stopped all over again. And I could break through this one group and there’s this little five year old black child looking up at me, his eyes as big as saucers. And he’s not moving. And there are all these adults around, so I realize that I can just deal with this child, spend time with him, and I won’t be swamped, and then I can move on. So I kneeled down and I introduce him to my arm, and we talked for a while, and he’s pretty much awestruck. And, finally, I get up and I say “Well, I’ve got to go now. Goodbye!” And he looks up at me with tears in his eyes and he says, “Bye bye, Jesus!” (Laughter) And he’s crying, “Bye, Jesus!” And everybody is dying; they’re all just roaring laughing. And I just stood there waiting for a full minute, and I could just hear the kid when he went home, “Yeah, I met Him. He has two heads, and He called me by my name.” That was the kind of thing that you would get.

There was a little girl in a wheelchair who was blind. And I met her up in the top of the Crystal Area. I walked up, and their parents pulled me over and introduced me and I talked to her for a while, she was about, I’d say, 12. And she petted Figment and we talked about imagination. And she said to me, “Would you like to take an imaginary trip?” And I said, “Oh, yeah. Where do you want to go?” She said, “Let’s go to the moon.” I said, “OK.” I wasn’t sure how we were going to get there at the moment, but I took her hand and this little girl left the Representative of Imagination in the dust. She described the whole trip. And where we were going, and what we were doing, and how we were getting there. And I could only just sit there with my lips hanging. It was the most amazing thing, to ride on this child’s imagination. That’s one that stayed with me for a long time.

The Give Kids the World kids, of course, were very touching. The very first time someone came back into my dressing room and said that we’ve got a Give Kids the World kid outside, they made the mistake of telling me what the child had and how long he had to live. So when I went out there, I was a wreck. So, from that point on whenever anybody said we’ve got some Give Kids the World, I’d say “That’s enough. I don’t want to know any more.” And then I’d just go out and play with them. And, of course, they’re the sweetest people in the world, and they’re just so thrilled to have us. We traveled; we visited some hospitals in Miami on tour. We’d walk into the room and people would just light up and love it.

I met a lot of celebrities. I met Michael Jackson and Red Skelton and Ray Bradbury, which is funny because I grew up four blocks from where Ray Bradbury lives. I’d often seen him, but I never met him.

But it was an amazing experience. The whole interaction with the characters evolved. When you do something like this for a long, long, long time, every so often you’ll come in to work one day without realizing you’re tired or you’re not feeling quite right, and, suddenly, you’ll find some whole new aspect of what you’re doing. And you’ll find a new ease in it. And, like you said, Figment becomes a separate person for you.

The two things I miss most about the job were the kid’s faces and having the dragon on my arm. If I put my arm up in that horribly uncomfortable position, I can still feel him there.

LM: I can imagine . . . actually, I can’t imagine how rewarding it must have been to do what you did, have such an impact on people and make them happy every day, but . . . Let me ask you, as your role and as a fan, what was your favorite part of the attraction itself? I’m sure you had to have had a favorite part, other than the part you voiced, of course, so . . .

RS: Well, it’s a part that nobody else got to see except me. And that was, remember the ride didn’t open until months after Epcot, and, so, at least twice a day on my break I would put Figment away and I would walk through the ride. And I’d watch them putting the thing up. And this was the biggest thrill. I mean, when I . . . I’m going to tell you something, this is a secret; no one’s listening to this, right?

LM: No, not at all. Just me.

RS: When I was 16 at Disneyland, I used to walk around backstage. And I have walked through most of the attractions while they were running. Security was a lot looser back then, kiddies, and don’t try that today . . . but, I was always fascinated. So to have a whole ride built around the character that I was playing was an amazing experience. My favorite thing, you asked what my favorite thing was, to walk around the outside of the turntable because there are five Dreamcatching Machines and five Dreamfinders and five Figments, and it was like running through the Flinstone’s house. You know what I mean? The background wouldn’t change! And you’d keep walking around and each one would be in a different state of repair or working or something like this. So one time I was walking through there and I heard my name called from above, and I look up and a guy I went to college with was installing some of the special effects. And he came down and showed me some things and took me through. That was a lot of fun; the stuff we could do in the ride that nobody else could do.

Here’s a fun story, kiddies! We were doing a TV special, I think it was one of the first Christmas specials after Epcot opened, and they wanted to have footage of Dreamfinder walking through the Dream Port where all the different abstract sparks of inspiration were. So I showed up in the middle of the night, and they put me – we had one suit that didn’t have Figment attached to it, and that’s one of the few times I got to wear it — and so they have me walking through the Dream Port and reflecting on the process of imagination and the wonders that will be theirs when they come to visit. And, of course, I immediately flashed on the footage of Walt walking through WED, talking about the rides when we were kids. That just tore me up. But they put a wireless mic on me, a lavaliere mic. Now a lavaliere mic, for those of you who do not know, is a battery pack with a transmitter in it and then from that runs a long wire at then end of which is that little microphone that you’ll sometimes see paper clipped to your celebrity’s vest when they’re out talking. So, I had this battery pack taped to my chest under my shirt, then I put on the shirt and vest, and then the microphone was right on top of that, right by my mouth. We were getting ready to shoot this thing, and they turned on all the special effects in the Dream Port. And there’s these enormous spark jars – you see them all the time in novelty stores. But these were immense, you know, these are six feet tall. So, now we’re rolling film and I come strolling up and I’m all happy and ‘welcome to my home,’ and I get to the giant spark jar and a visible spark of electricity is jumping from the battery pack into my chest. Thrilling and yet very, very painful, mind you. I quickly got away from the spark jar, and we’re trying to figure out how to get me strolling past the spark jar without killing me! So, finally they taped a giant piece of foam core to my chest, they put the battery pack on that, and I was safe. And walked through this thing, they got the film, and it was really nice. So, now, flash ahead about two months: I’m at home on a Sunday morning watching television, and they’re doing this live broadcast from the Orlando Science Center. And they’re going to do a whole special about static electricity. And they’ve got two classrooms of kids, about second and third graders, there and they’re all going to be part of the fun, and they’ve got one little girl up there, and they’re going to show her what a Tesla Coil is, and they’ve got the big silver ball, you know, and Jacob’s Ladder and all the things that generate static electricity. And I suddenly noticed that she’s wearing a lavaliere mic. And I realize I’m the only person in Orlando that knows what’s about to happen. And so they tell her, “Now, when we turn this on and you touch this, you won’t feel anything, but your hair will stand up straight.” They turn the thing on . . . this little girl had a big smile on her face, right up until that moment. Suddenly, the smile disappears. And she starts looking around. She doesn’t want to make a scene because she’s on television, so her eyes are darting around and trying to think of “oh, what can I say, what can I say.” She never said anything; she took it for the whole minute and a half that she was on camera. I was thinking, “I’ve got to call someone, I’ve got to stop this from happening,” but I was also laughing. I’m sorry to say.

LM: When the attraction closed in 1998 and reopened a year later as Journey Into Your Imagination, obviously most notably absent was the Dreamfinder and Figment. Figment eventually comes back along with Dr. Nigel Channing. I’m sure I know what your feelings probably were, but how did you feel when you found out they were going to refurbish the attraction and that your characters were no longer going to be a part of it?

RS: Fleeting glory. I am not one of these purists or preservationists. I believe that theme parks must evolve and must change. I’m always anxious to see what the Imagineers are going to show me next. I don’t pretend to dictate what they should do or how they should do it, because these are people whose job it is to spend years researching these stories and researching technologies and then surprising me. So, I was going to miss Dreamfinder and Figment, but, by that time, mind you, I hadn’t been doing the character for 11 years. I’d been to the place, I’d seen it, I had pictures taken with all the Dreamfinders, but I was ready to see what they were going to do to top it. I knew that the Kodak lease was up, and they were entitled to a redesign.

Now, I have a friend of mine who was working, I believe, as an Assistant at Imagineering, and he worked – he revealed to me years later – he worked on the Imagination re-do. He will not, to this day, tell me why it turned out like that. What I’ve been able to gather is that the ride was a lot different and a lot better, but it got nickled and dimed. Dreamfinder and Figment were never going to be in it – Eisner was not a fan of either character, apparently. Did not like Dreamfinder. So I knew that they probably were not going to be around. I knew that Figment would survive, probably as merchandise, which he has, and come into his own, recently. And even some new representations of Dreamfinder, which I find very amusing.

I was just as disappointed as anybody. It was my understanding that at the time they got more negative response from guests about that one attraction than anything else in the history of the Disney Theme Parks.

LM: The fan outpouring was very evident, it wasn’t just from the hardcore fans, it was from all the fans. But, fortunately, at least to a certain degree Disney listened. Although, like you said, the character of Figment that they’ve brought back isn’t that same type of pure, innocent character that was there. He’s still beloved, but he’s lost something in that translation as it’s gone on.

RS: Well the character, first of all, he’s not designed like a standard Disney character. He’s got a lot of angles. He’s not circles like Mickey. So he’s a little bit wild. The very first time they took Figment to a party, when they were creating the puppet for the first time out in California long before Imagination opened, they took the Figment puppet out to children’s birthday parties a couple times, just to see how the kids would react to him. And they had a ventriloquist running him, and the ventriloquist would try to approximate the Billy Barty voice. And the kids were scared to death. That’s why Figment never spoke in person. Because the look, with the eyes and the horns and the beak, was so strong that the voice was just unnecessary and was a little bit frightening.

So the design is a little bit non-Disney, which I think is part of the attraction. He’s known as a rebel, being a wild character. He’s a person to create merchandise for because he’s into everything. This last pin event that they had at Epcot, I bought a wonderful set – and I’m not a pin collector, kids – but I bought a wonderful set called Figment World which had pins of all the different parks but as they would look if Figment ruled the world. So the centerpiece of the whole thing is the statue of Partners with Walt holding Figment’s hand.

LM: Wow.

RS: And Figment, you know, engenders that kind of creativity among artists because he is just, there’s no stopping him. He can do absolutely anything, and artists love that kind of inspiration. The other thing that Figment had going for him was the fact that he is a rebel. I think they like Figment because he’s got that “Rebel with a Cause” feeling to him.

LM: Yeah, I know you’re talking about the artists who like to draw him. I know some people from the Disney Design Group who say they love designing pins for Figment because they really are able to go outside the box a little bit than what they’re able to do with the traditional characters, especially like the Fab Five; they can really get very creative with him.

RS: You saw the sets with Goofy and Chip and Dale, and everybody is dressed as Dreamfinder.

LM: Right (laughs).

RS: That really broke me up. So this last Christmas, I had, like, five different people who gave me the Mickey and Figment dolls. The funny thing about that was they got them at the discount store for three bucks, because they were the ugliest things ever made!

LM: Yeah. That was kind of the first time I saw . . . because I had spoken to somebody from Disney at one point who, years ago said to me “Dreamfinder is dead.” And that’s a term that they never use for a character. And when he is finally reincarnated, he comes back as this sort of odd looking plush figure that reminded me of the Christmastime stop-motion animation with Yukon Cornelius: that’s who he looked like to me, (Ron laughs) as opposed to being the Dreamfinder. But, they started to release other merchandise and the big Fig, with Dreamfinder and Figment, was just wonderful. Hopefully it’s a trend toward bringing these characters back in.

But I had one question about – it might be urban legend, it might be rumor – but supposedly there’s this lost Dreamfinder film that was created, possibly for the Pavilion, that never saw the light of day or maybe never was actually created. Did such a thing ever exist? Was it ever something that was on the drawing board?

RS: Oh … yeah . . . Two weeks before I came to Florida, I was lying in bed one early Saturday morning, and I got a call from someone at Disney, it may have been Tony Baxter, I’m not sure. Calls me up and says, “Ron, we need you in Florida.” I said, “I know, I’ll be there in two weeks.” He said, “No, no. We need you today.”

And that afternoon, I’m on a plane and I’m flying to Orlando. I’m not quite sure what I’m going to see. Turns out that they weren’t the ImageWorks was going to be ready. In fact, it was probably not going to be ready for opening day. The ride was certainly not going to be ready. And the third element of the attraction was Murray Lerner’s wonderful film, Magic Journeys. (I was never really a fan . . .) And if they didn’t have at least one of those three attractions up for opening day, Kodak could walk. Or behave poorly in some other way. So, not knowing if that film was going to be up, they had to have something in that theatre.

So they called a fellow by the name of Mike Jittlov – everybody run out to your search engines and type in Mike J-I-T-T-L-O-V – Mike Jittlov is the wizard of speed and time, and he had done a lot of animation, wonderful stop-motion animation, for the early Disney Channel – and you’ll recognize him because he always wears a green robe with a hood and this magic smile on his face and the man is, was, and always will be a genius.

They went to him and said, “We need a film for imagination that will promote the ride, will show them that we’re getting the thing ready, and will have clips from Murray Lerner’s film. So they flew me out that day to do on-location clips of me as Dreamfinder with Figment walking through the under-construction Imagination Pavilion. So the next day I’m thrown into the most primitive version of the character I ever wore, and the puppet we were using was the same puppet that they’d used years before in the ground breaking; it looked very little like the current character. You’ll have seen in just about any Epcot retrospective the shot of me and Figment walking through the Sensor Tunnel.

LM: Right.

RS: My beard is extremely large, and Figment and I are walking along and I’m pointing and smiling. And that was taken that day. We shot a lot of footage of me walking around the construction site and walking through different parts of the ride, and then the next day I was flying back to California. The next three days, we spent at WED shooting footage with Mike Jittlov. Now, Mike Jittlov was one of my heroes at that time, I was a film student for a while. The second I met him I knew exactly what we were in for and what he was going to want to do. So I put that same manic smile he did on, and what they basically did was they shot me running at extreme high speeds through various areas of WED that had been set up to show the work being done, not only on Imagination but stuff that was being done for different parts of the upgrades in the parks and like this.

And I got to meet all the people at WED and I got to run through these sets and make a tremendous scene. They shot one thing of me talking to the Figment puppet – I didn’t know what I was saying back then . . . And it was three days of just, it was a joy to do, mind you. But. In order to so the construction that they do on those floors, the floors at WED are very, very, very hard concrete, and they don’t give at all. And if you’re pounding across them for three days and you’re not in any shape . . . Brother, I couldn’t move a muscle. I was in such pain, you wouldn’t believe. One of the last shots he wanted was one of me running up this flight of 20 stairs. And I turned to Mike, and I said, “You’re going to get this twice. So you better get it right.”

But they shot this thing; they put it together; they had a screening at the screening room over at Disney Studios, and I got invited, and there were all the people who worked on it. And the character didn’t look right to me. It looked like it had been thrown together. When the show was over, I walked by Mike Jittlov, and he congratulated me. He wrote me a letter that said “You look like you’ve been hit by a truck.” And that’s pretty much how I felt. I knew that I didn’t want this to be people’s first impression of the characters. Whatever was going to happen to us – and, mind you, I wasn’t sure myself – but I knew it didn’t look like robot, and I knew that I wasn’t wild about it.

Well, it turns out Murray Lerner heard: “Oh, they’re going to put WHAT in my theatre?” And he finished Magic Journeys in time, and that’s opened with the attraction. And the film has never seen the light of day. If you go to Mike Jittlov’s page, Kiddies, you will find – I think there’s four different stills from that film in there that you can take a look at, click on it, keep for yourself with my compliments.

LM: Great, excellent. Two final questions – What’s the Dreamfinder doing now?

RS: Well, as a matter of fact, (clears throat) excuse me . . . as a matter of fact, I’m back working in entertainment with the Disney organization. You might have heard about the big upheaval at Monsters, Inc., they found out that monsters can create more power from laughs than they can from screams, and so my boss, Mike Wazowski, opened a Comedy Club in Monstropolis. If you go into Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom and you turn right, you’ll see this place, they’ve got the door there where you can walk through the door right into Monstropolis and visit the Laugh Floor Comedy Club. They’ve taken one of the Scare Floors from the Monsters, Inc. Factory and turned it into a stand-up comedy club. And I’m working with a collection of semi-talented monsters who are trying to do stand-up. It’s a wild job, and a lot of the same elements as improvising with Figment and meeting the kids. People pop up on the screens, though, so when I’m seeing the audience they’re pretty much on television. But, it’s just a lot of fun. The other people working with the monsters are just the funniest – we’ve got about 25 of us now – just the funniest, most creative, quick people you’ll ever want to meet. On top of which, you know the monster world technology is just astounding. So, with Pixar’s help, and we’re just starting to get the thing up.

We’ve been open now for about seven, eight months, and every couple of months they come in and they improve this thing. So if you saw this thing in previews, folks, and you read the online reviews, it’s time to go back and visit it again because we’re now at about 500% better than we were in the previews.

LM: Well, Ron, I want to say how happy I am that you’re still with the Company and that you are sharing your creativity and your talents with another generation of children as well as people like me and so many of us that are still kids at heart. We really appreciate what you’ve done in the past as Dreamfinder and bringing these characters to life and just how important they’ve become to us, and to Epcot, and to Disney as a whole.

RS: My pleasure. Oh, can I say hello to my Pen pal in Belleview? Just a little message I had to put out there. (Lou laughs)

And Figment and I have enjoyed our Journey Into Imagination with you!

Thank you.

LM: Thanks, Ron.

Comments

comments