the big hippo

A Real Jungle Cruise Operator Reviews Jungle Cruise

A former Disney World skipper compares his experience on a simulated river cruise to the Rock’s. (Spoiler: They both carried guns.) Photo: Frank Masi/Disney

In Jungle Cruise, Disney’s latest adaptation of one of its theme-park rides, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays an inexplicably brawny skipper named Frank, whose love of bad puns belies the fact that he is cursed to be trapped for eternity atop the Amazon River. Much of the movie revolves around Frank’s ability to pop off dad jokes while operating a tourist jungle cruise while also low-key trying to find a mystical leaf that will allow him to finally die. It is two hours and eight minutes long, and one of its characters is a man made entirely of bees. Our critic Bilge Ebiri did not enjoy Jungle Cruise, calling it a “mealymouthed CGI panderfest” that hurled him deep into the pits of Herzogian existential despair.

While I respected and mostly agreed with Bilge’s review, I couldn’t help but wonder if our perspectives were flawed, seeing as neither of us had ever been employed as Disney Jungle Cruise operators. It’s an important and agreed-upon tenet of film criticism that all movies must be reviewed by real people who do the real jobs in those movies, or else the review doesn’t count (godfathers on The Godfather, tomb raiders on Tomb Raider, zookeepers’ wives on The Zookeeper’s Wife, etc.) With that in mind, I reached out to Steve Krupkin, a man who helmed the simulated riverboat ride in his youth and who is now my uncle, and forced him to pay $30 to watch Jungle Cruise on Disney+ during his vacation.

I wanted to know: Did this movie ring true to his experience? Did it capture some ineffable je ne sais quoi only known previously to the thousands of men and roughly three women who had taken up the esteemed mantle of Jungle Cruise skipper since the ride’s inception in the 1950s? Were the real Jungle Cruise jokes better or worse than the Rock’s? And also, were all of the Jungle Cruise skippers hooking up in the ’80s?

Do you want to be anonymous, or do you feel comfortable talking about your past as a Jungle Cruise skipper?
However you want. It’s not on my LinkedIn, but it probably should be. It actually helped me get my first job. I wrote in my cover letter something like, “Just as I faced the challenges of the jungle, I could face the challenges in advertising,” or something stupid like that.

Okay, then let’s establish your credentials. How did you get the same job as the Rock in the 2021 Disney movie Jungle Cruise?
I was 21, and it was 1989. I got it as a summer internship. As part of the Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom College Program. MKCP, I think they called it.

What made you want to be a Jungle Cruise operator?
What wouldn’t want to make you be a Jungle Cruise operator? The Jungle Cruise was one of the sought-after jobs. I had some friends that were working in fast food and other friends that went around with a dustpan and a broom and cleaned up. My roommate was a lifeguard, which was pretty cush. But in the hierarchy of Attractions jobs, Jungle Cruise was the cream of the crop.

Did you have to audition? How did you end up getting one of the best jobs?
When you interviewed, I think you said what you wanted to do, or what you’d be open to do, and rank it, like “Attractions” or “Lifeguard” or “Food Service.” I definitely put Attractions at the top. And back then, there were only male Jungle Cruise skippers. If you were a dude, that gave you a leg up. Now, looking back, obviously, they saw that I had the ability to deliver dad humor, and they gave me the job because of that. That part of the movie was such a great homage to the job.

We’ll get into the puns shortly. But first tell me what your actual job title was.
I think it was called Attractions cast member, but my actual title was Jungle Cruise skipper.

So basically the same title as the Rock.
He and I have a lot of similarities.

You’re both dads. You’re both Jewish.
Is he Jewish?

The only reason I didn’t think he was Jewish is because he’s too good of an athlete.

How similar was your day-to-day to the Rock’s day-to-day in this movie?
I would say honestly, before he goes on the adventure-excursion, it was the same job. When he’s driving those people around and taking them through the jungle and activating the different things, making jokes about the “backside of water,” the big hippo … As a real Jungle Cruise skipper, you did the same thing: You drove this boat around; it only went forward and backward. You’d pretend you were steering it, but the wheel didn’t work. It was on a track. You controlled the speed. When you went over certain things, the elephants would spray you, or the hippo would come out. Remember how in the movie he chops a rope and stuff comes flying at them? He had the [early] version of the ride. By 1989, a lot of that stuff had been automated. But basically, it was the same job. And at the beginning, I don’t think he even has his gun loaded.

Wait, did you have a gun?
A real gun. You had to clean it after work each day. It had blanks in it, but it was a real gun.

For what?
To shoot the hippos. And to protect the guests.

Did you have the same outfit?
I didn’t have that driving cap or whatever that is. I had a straw jungle cowboy hat and a polyester shirt, tan and brown, and polyester pants. It was in the summer, so temperature-wise, it was similar to the movie. It was 95 and humid every single day.

Photo: Steve Krupkin

That sounds bad from a breathability perspective. Was it paid?
Yes, I made $5 an hour. And they took your rent out of your pay. I think I netted, like, $95 a week.

You lived at Disney World?
Yeah, in apartments. This really cool condo complex for 20-somethings. All the interns lived there. And there was a pool. It was like Club Med for working college students. Half were American students and the other half were foreigners who were working at Epcot.

Hmmm. So everyone was hooking up with each other?
There was a lot of that. I didn’t fare as well as other skippers. There were a lot of short romances. Everyone was young and vibrant and having a blast and making five bucks an hour.

Let’s get to the puns. Was there a script you had to follow, or did you have the ability to improvise?
SOP — standard operating procedure — was that you were trained on the actual script. But your trainer would pride himself on teaching you jokes that were not SOP. But when you came to the docks, you had to be careful that a supervisor didn’t hear you telling a non-SOP joke. You could get in trouble. But nobody ever did. There was a script, but I don’t remember really seeing it, just learning it from my trainers. And a lot of the puns in the movie were the same.

They were the same as the jokes you yourself actually made?
Oh, yeah. The whole, “Look at that, I’m going to show you something you’ve never seen: the backside of water” thing … I didn’t think it was funny when I learned it, but it was funny that it was in the movie.

To be honest, I don’t get that joke.
I don’t either. I didn’t get it when I was saying it. And the joke about “I get paid by the number of people I take out, not how many I bring back” — that was definitely one that I’d say. “I got fired from an orange-juice factory because I couldn’t concentrate,” that was in there. At the end, when he said, “You’re all outstanding in my boat; now I need you all out standing on the dock.” [Laughs at own joke from 1989.] 

Did people in the ’80s laugh at these jokes?
Oh, yeah. People thought you were so funny. Especially moms. “You were hilarious!” I know I’m on a bunch of people’s handheld video Disney World vacation videos. If they didn’t laugh, you’d tap the mic and go, “Is this thing on?”

How did you keep it fresh? How many times a day did you have to say these jokes?
You’d do two trips in the front boat, two trips in the back boat, two trips off. Maybe I’d do, like, 20 trips around in a day. And by the end, your voice was shot. Although we went to bars every single night, so between the loud bars and that job, your voice was toast. You’d be there til 2 a.m. and then have to be at work at 7. Maybe sometimes I didn’t give my best performance early in the morning.

This sounds amazing and horrible.
It was.

Did anything bad ever happen? Did anyone ever fall off the boat? Was anyone rowdy?
I’m sure there were some hecklers. You could maybe jam someone’s foot between the boat and the dock. But there was this lore, like, “Nothing bad ever happens in the Magic Kingdom.”

Sometimes a real alligator would find its way into the park, and you had to be so careful, because kids would think they could go pet it.

Wait, you had real alligators infiltrate the Jungle Cruise?
Well, this happened mostly on Tom Sawyer’s Ferry.

Did the boat ever break?
The boat would break every now and again. This was also similar to the Rock — how he was always tinkering with his boat. It would stop and you’d have to have somebody come and tow you out.

Did you recognize at that time that the Jungle Cruise was racist?
There was definitely some bad stuff … the “natives,” the headhunters. But back then, I don’t think we thought about it that way. It was Disney, it was the ’80s.

When did you realize it was racist?
I definitely did later. But there were other rides, like Splash Mountain and its [Song of the South imagery], where even back then, you were like, “That doesn’t seem quite right …”

Are you aware of or in a kind of secret society with the other famous Jungle Cruise skippers, like Kevin Costner?
Apparently Steve Martin was a Jungle Cruise skipper. You should be interviewing him. [Ed. note: This seems to be a myth.] It’s nice to have a connection to him that way. And now I have one to the Rock. If there were a secret handshake, I’d give it to him when I saw him.

Photo: Frank Masi/Disney

If the Rock had been one of your coworkers, would you have found him intimidating? Was there competition among the skippers?
There were definitely factions. Like the Jets and the Sharks. Like, we were definitely loyal to our trainer and the other guys were loyal to theirs. There was a competition around who had the better jokes. But otherwise it was pretty idyllic, except that it was 90 degrees, and you were sweating and hungover, and it was racist.

Our film critic didn’t like the movie. What’s your official review?
Hmmm. I wish I had seen it in a theater. Maybe if I’d seen it on a bigger screen, it would have been better. But I give them credit for the effort. It’s hard not to like the Rock and Emily Blunt. I get her confused with Olivia Wilde. I feel bad for Jason Sudeikis being dumped by Olivia Wilde. Anyway, if I weren’t a Jungle Cruise skipper, I’d give it a mid-50s on Rotten Tomatoes. But since I was … maybe they could have cut it down to an hour and 45 minutes. I don’t know who this movie was for. If you’re under 13, it would probably scare you. Maybe it’s for people between the ages of 13 and 13 and a half. I probably wouldn’t have plunked down $30 to watch that if it hadn’t been for this interview with you.

I appreciate that, as does Disney. Did it move you emotionally?
I got a little sad when I thought the Rock was going to be a rock for the rest of his life. But then she brings him back. It reminded me of being young, being 21, when my only worry was, “What time am I getting off of work so I can go meet my roommate so we can go to the bar and get five drinks for $2 each?” Someday you’ll miss being young, Rachel.

Was there anything that felt off from the spirit of the Jungle Cruise to you?
The submarine was too weird. That felt like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The Jungle Cruise was in Adventureland, and 20,000 Leagues was in Tomorrowland, or something like that. It didn’t feel like the spirit of the Jungle Cruise. And I don’t remember the Jungle Cruise being about trying to outrun a mean Nazi.

I don’t want to make the Rock mad. I’m sure he’ll be reading this. I’ll say this: I think he really made Jungle Cruise skippers proud with his ability to deliver corny jokes. He definitely paid incredible homage to the craft of Jungle Cruise skippers.

A Real Jungle Cruise Operator Reviews Jungle Cruise