Ambush of the Little Mermaid ninjas

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I figured the jig was up when the director of “The Voyage of the Little Mermaid” noticed two totally out of place dudes sitting in his dress rehearsal. And a fully uniformed Disney security guard was between us and the closest door.

I think it was the weekend after New Year’s of 1992 when I met up with Hoot Gibson at Disney-MGM Studios in the morning. He’d been keeping tabs on the construction of the pre-show of the new Voyage of the Little Mermaid show that was going to open sometime soon, replacing “Here Come the Muppets.” We didn’t know when it was going to open, but with the pre-show area getting painted and dressed, he thought it wouldn’t be very far off — maybe a month or so. I remember he was particularly excited because he’d seen a cartoony version of a Fuji Island Mermaid with a monkey’s head that was getting worked on which would end up amongst random items decorating the walls, like King Triton’s trident. The day was unusually quiet so we thought we see if the doors were unlocked, as they often were, so we could take a look.

It’s at this point I’ll stop to tell you that while we’re perhaps not clothed like a typical tourist in souvenir Walt Disney World garb, we’re also not dressed like cast members either. January can still be quite warm, so although we’re both wearing collared short-sleeve shirts, we are also wearing shorts. I am carrying a giant army green bag containing video and audio recording equipment and Hoot has his usual black backpack. And at this point, we’re in our early 20s.

We look around to see if anyone is watching, then quietly open the doors and peer in. The lights are on but not overly bright and it sounds quiet, so we step in. Across from the entrance way there is another door normally hidden in the wall, which is propped open revealing a generic looking hallway beyond and a black telephone hanging on the wall. It seems safe enough, so we start looking around. The construction is much further along than how Hoot described to be me, so we we casually examine the tchotchkes when the phone suddenly begins ringing.

We froze.

For what seemed like an eternity.

Suddenly, another hidden set of doors opened and a young woman walked into the room. She looked at Hoot and I.

“Did that phone just ring?,” she asked casually.

I don’t remember which one of us answered, but someone told her “yes” and she breezed past us and into the hall, picking up the phone.

Just as Hoot and I look at each other and turn to leave, a pack of ninjas burst through the door that the friendly woman had come from. Ninjas? Yes, ninjas. They were dressed in black from head-to-toe, chatting to one another and pulling off full face masks as they entered our room before turning right and heading through another set of doors.

Hoot and I looked at each other, took a breath, and followed the ninja’s into the unknown.

As we entered what was obviously the theater, things started to make more sense. On stage was the commotion of sets being changed. Another ninja stood on stage practicing making a sea turtle breakdance while Max, Prince Eric’s dog, walked around with his dog head off and a human head poking from the top of the large, furry costume. The ninjas were puppeteers!

The back row of the theater had a series of card tables set up with mixing and lighting boards. Several people in polo shirts and khakis were up front giving orders. At this point things were finally clear: we had walked into a dress rehearsal for the new show. We quickly made our way through the ninjas to seats near the back of the theater as close to the exit door as possible. Seated just between us and freedom was a security guard.

The director called for everyone to get ready to continue and for the next 12 minutes Hoot and I got a literal “sneak” preview of the Voyage of the Little Mermaid show. When it was over and the performers, technicians and support staff clapped, you bet we clapped too.

The director yelled to gather everyone to the front to go over notes and gave Hoot and I some suspicious glances. That was our cue — we got up and headed out the door and back into the Florida sunshine right behind the security guard, who was apparently only looking to get into some air conditioning for a few minutes.

Luckily, Hoot snapped a picture of that Fiji Island Mermaid. Because when the show actually opened a few days later on January 7, someone had made off with it and it was never to be seen again.

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