From Dreamer to Dreamfinder: A Life and Lessons Learned in 40 Years Behind a Name Tag by Ron Schneider
Have you ever wondered what it is like to be a performer in a Disney show? Or maybe how those shows were dreamed up and brought to life? If so, this book may be for you! Author Ron Schneider chronicles his years as a performer, writer and creator of a variety of "themed entertainment." Before reading this book, I instinctively knew what themed entertainment was -- as most regular theme park visitors do -- but I did not know there was such a nice, succinct way to describe it! There is also, believe it or not, a Themed Entertainment Association! Who knew? But I digress...
Part memoir, and part how-to book, From Dreamer to Dreamfinder will appeal to a broad spectrum of Disney and theme park fans. This highly entertaining (pun intended) book follows Schneider's career chronologically and includes Appendices that will be useful for anyone who is interested in his views on how to properly "do" themed entertainment.
The book starts with an overview of Schneider's childhood in Southern California, where the newly opened Disneyland played a very large part in shaping his childhood and his future career. His stories then move through his (short-lived) college and (long) working years, as a contributor to a wide variety of themed entertainment venues, including Magic Mountain (as Professor Samuel J. Spilliken, a performer in the Spilliken Corners Craft Village), Womphopper's Wagon Works Restaurant (as C.L. Womphopper, "a legendary slick-talking wagon salesman who invented wheeling and dealing"), Disneyland (among others as a hander-out of costumes for Fantasy on Parade, and various characters-including Pecos Bill-in The Golden Horseshoe), Walt Disney World (most famously as the creator of the Dreamfinder, and also as a member of the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor cast), Universal Studios Florida (as a manager of the Celebrity Look-Alikes program, and hilariously, as a not terribly successful Santa Claus), the Fort Liberty Wild West Dinner Show (as Professor Gladstone) and Chuck E. Cheese's (!).
As I read the book, I gleaned a few lessons from the highly entertaining stories:
Don't be afraid to takes risks, the rewards can be memorable. In an early chapter, Schneider recounts a meeting with Disney archivist Dave Smith in 1970, the invitation to which he got as a result of an unsolicited congratulations note that he sent on reading in Variety that Smith had been appointed the Keeper of Disney History. During that meeting Smith gives Schneider an impromptu backstage tour of the Walt Disney Studios, including of Walt's formal office. Schneider is immediately struck with an overpowering urge "the kind no man can resist... so I ask Dave where the bathroom is. I fully expect to have to go back out into the hall to use the men's room, but he points to an adjacent door and I step into Walt Disney's personal bathroom. I would have known it anywhere... the wallpaper is covered with small graphics of antique steam trains. Humbled, I take a seat."
Be persistent. Schneider was successful in reaching his goals of working in the themed entertainment industry through persistence. While he was not always successful in getting the particular job he was auditioning for, he always tried to both use that experience to learn something, and also to open additional doors for himself. For instance, Schneider had been cast as a part-time character for the Golden Horseshoe Review at Disneyland, and was a huge fan of Wally Boag, who created the Pecos Bill character in that show. When Boag finally decided to retire, Schneider hoped to be hired to replace him. The problem was that soon after Boag left Schneider lost his voice and could not do the show for a few weeks. By the time he returned, another performer had been cast as Boag's replacement. While some would view this as a huge setback, Schneider takes the positive view that this allowed him to be open to other opportunities, specifically the one he is most remembered for: as Dreamfinder at Epcot's Imagination Pavilion.
Getting to know the right people at the right time is critical to moving one's career forward. Schneider paints vivid pictures of a number of Disney and other themed entertainment personalities whom he has met and worked with over the years. In fact, Schneider was able to secure his gig as the Dreamfinder through keeping up communication over the years with a number of Disney Imagineers. Once he has heard about the new Imagination Pavilion at Epcot, and of the characters of the Dreamfinder and Figment, Schneider arranges to hear a recording of the Dreamfinder's voice and after practicing it, leaves the message on his answering machine in the voice. Soon after a few calls from Orlando, Schneider is on his way to create the character for the opening of the pavilion. If not for the relationships he made, and for keeping those contacts up-to-date, he might never have gotten this opportunity.
There are many ways to measure success. After recounting the long and somewhat circuitous route that he took to getting the Dreamfinder position, Schneider notes that an Epcot employee had been keeping track of his interactions with guests: "'I'm counting the number of people you're affecting. Not just the ones who interact with you, but the number that stop and smile or stay and watch for any length of time. You're averaging about 600 people every thirty minutes.' Roughly double what I was doing at the Horseshoe! That's good to know."
Keep moving and growing. Schneider changed jobs often. Sometimes this was out of necessity, but often it was by design.
"Things might have gone on like this for a while if it was anyone else but me. After 10+ years of keeping an eye on the horizon looking for the next step forward, I've gotten into the habit of moving on after a few years. Especially if my current situation isn't evolving."
It is important to stay true to your own sense of the quality of your work. In recounting a particularly unsuccessful holiday stunt involving Santa and his sleigh at Universal Studios, Schneider points out that it is often important to admit that something doesn't work, and return to the drawing board: "The point is if you're going to invest the time, money and effort (and most precious of all, your guests' credulity) in an idea, make sure it's going to work out the way you wanted. If not, change plans!" There were times where Schneider either quit a particular job, or chose to step into a different role, if he felt that quality was being compromised or that his own standards could not be met as a result of constraints put on him.
When Robert Earl, the theme restaurateur who started the Planet Hollywood franchise, was recruiting him for the Fort Liberty Wild West Dinner Show, Schneider asks: "'Do you mind if the show's good?' He replies, 'Not at all.' I smile, 'Then we'll get along fine.'"
Alice McNutt Miller is a lifelong Disney fan whose fondest childhood memories include "The Wonderful World of Disney" on Sunday nights and her first trip to Disneyland when she was ten years old. Alice and her family are Disney Vacation Club members, and have visited Disney parks all over the world. They live in Vienna, Virginia.
The previous post in this blog was Christmas at Fort Wilderness.
The next post in this blog is Raglan Road: A Little Bit of Ireland in the Middle of Disney World.