DC Gorilla Oarfare raised their oars above their heads and sang Queen’s “We Are the Champions” during a victory lap around the Rivers of America as the home team successfully defended their turf and claimed the Disneyland Canoe Races championship once again.
Disneyland crowned a familiar champion on Thursday, Aug. 10 before the Anaheim theme park opened to the public as the team made up of Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes employees hoisted the Fastest on the River trophy.
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More than 1,000 employees from Disneyland, Walt Disney Imagineering and from throughout the company take part in the canoe races each year. This year, 84 teams participated – with eight to 16 members on each team.
It’s an arduous commitment. Practices began in June with races starting in July and winners crowned in August. All of the practice and competition time on the water takes place when the park is closed – typically in the early morning hours just before and after dawn.
It was a hard-fought victory this year for the Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes team that is so strong and dominant that they field varsity and junior varsity squads. The DC in Gorilla Oarfare’s name stands for Davy Crockett and the tandem teams take pride in winning the top two spots in the annual employee competition they started 60 years ago.
The varsity DC team crossed the finish line in 3:58.24 – completing the single circuit along the Rivers of America in just under four minutes. That’s right. These races are tracked down to the hundredths of a second.
If you’re wondering, the average lap around Tom Sawyer Island on one of the few Disneyland rides with no motor or track takes the average crew of 20 visitors about eight to 10 minutes.
The junior varsity DC Gods of Oar came in second at 4:02.49 – a difference of less than five seconds behind the varsity team.
But the story this year was all about Smoke on the Water – the Disneyland Fire Department team – that emerged as a new contender for the title of Fastest on the River. Smoke on the Water finished in 4:07.07 after flirting with a sub-four minute time during the preliminary heats last week.
“Smoke on the Water came out of nowhere and stole our place from us last week,” said Gods of Oar’s Aries Law. “We smoked them this time.”
Law cheered on his Gorilla Oarfare teammates from the banks of the Rivers of America while decked out in a team T-shirt, gold leaf headband and war paint on his face.
“Dig DC! Dig!” shouted Law, 27, of Anaheim. “Get it DC!”
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The Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes teams viewed the Disneyland Fire Department as their chief competition in this year’s race, Law said.
“They have good reason to worry,” said Disneyland firefighter John Simpson. “We’re to be reckoned with.”
Smoke on the Water didn’t shrink from the fight.
“For firemen, we’re pretty competitive to begin with,” Simpson said after the race. “We were really hoping we’d beat them this year. If we had won, I was going to say, ‘We beat you on your home court.’”
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Simpson didn’t want to make excuses, but he had a few at the ready.
“We were down a person this year,” said Simpson, 62, from Irvine. “The average age of our team was 50. We’re a little older than most of them.”
Racers making the counterclockwise full loop around Tom Sawyer Island paddle in the opposite direction of Disneyland visitors. The lone concession is really the only way to strip an otherwise unfair advantage from the race teams made up of Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes employees.
Nonetheless, Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes employee teams dominate the standings every year. Pride is on the line, after all. It’s their job to know the river. Plus they get to be out on the Rivers of America every day of the year.
The teams are fairly evenly split between the ultra-competitive and fun-loving, said Disneyland Canoe Races event coordinator Ashley Oertle.
“There’s always new teams that have no idea what they’re doing out there. They’re excited to have fun with each other,” Oertle said via a video interview after the finals. “But there’s also the teams that have been around for quite a few years and they’re in it to win it. You can definitely tell that they’re giving it their all every week.”
Disneyland handed out medals on Thursday morning to the top three finishers in four divisions named for the waterways represented in the Rivers of America – Mississippi, Columbia, Missouri and Rio Grande.
Qualifying teams that didn’t reach the finals competed in a separate sprint competition on Wednesday, Aug. 10.
In the sprint competition, the Batuu Barrel Runners beat Duck Dodgers, You’re Welcome and Plaidstics to reach the final where they outraced A-Row-Ha.
The “Barrel” in the Batuu team’s name refers to the floating barrels at the corners of the “Fantasmic” fountain platforms marking the strictly enforced out of bounds area of the race course. The Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge team was disqualified last year for going inside a barrel and incorporated the sour memory into their name as inspiration.
Many of the team names are inside jokes that only make sense to Disneyland cast members – Disney parlance for employees.
Galaxy’s Edge fielded several teams with clever names like Batuuan Canuuans and Racing Rancors. This year’s inside baseball puntastic team names included the AnimatOars, Third Shift Trash Bandits, Canoe Take a Picture, Rowsort Enhancers, Guest Rowlations and Rivers of FAMerica. The FAM stands for Facilities Asset Management, the team that manages all the facilities across the 500-acre theme park resort.
FAMerica was the hero story of the competition rising from near the bottom of the standings when the time trials began to finish in first place in the Columbia division at 4:18.77 – finishing with the fourth best time in the finals behind Smoke on the Water.
The first canoe was on the water at 5:45 a.m. on Thursday.
Competitors traded high fives with co-workers watching from the sidelines as they headed down to the dock for each heat. The airhorn at the start of each race was quickly followed by the chants of “row, row, row” from the competitors as colleagues and family cheered from the Hungry Bear restaurant patio. The ducks floating on the river didn’t seem to mind all the excitement while watching the races from the best seat in the house.
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The four first place winners from each of the divisions took a victory lap just before 7 a.m. followed by an awards ceremony on dry land. A check for $2,500 was presented to the Tierney Center for Veteran Services non-profit organization, part of Orange County’s Goodwill chapter.
By 7:30 a.m., nearly all signs of the canoe race were gone and Disneyland opened for early entry to Disneyland hotel guests.
The canoe races that started 60 years ago at Disneyland have become a beloved summer tradition for employees that has been exported to Disney parks around the globe.
The Disneyland canoe races began in the summer of 1963 when Indian War Canoes foreman Ray Van De Warker and Jungle Cruise foreman Bob Penfield watched a visitors’ canoe filled with athletes charge around the Rivers of America at top speed.
A debate ensued and challenges followed. Soon Frontierland and Adventureland employees were battling it out on the water to see which themed land was the king of the river.
The Disneyland canoe races are one of the many unique perks of working at the Happiest Place on Earth, a bucket list experience for many employees and the reason some apply for the job in the first place.
Most of the pinch-yourself Disney Cast Life moments take place during the wee hours between closing time and the morning rope drop when the park is typically teeming with overnight workers. Sleeping Beauty Castle sunrise yoga sessions start just before daybreak. Minnie’s Moonlit Madness trivia and scavenger hunt takes place after midnight.
The goal: Build community and friendships among employees while having fun at work. Of course, there’s a competitive aspect as well. Winning helps. Losing hurts. But the camaraderie and teamwork endures.
Oertle, the first year coordinator for the annual event, has been coming to the Disneyland Canoe Races since she was an infant to watch her aunt Laura Iwasaki compete. As a kid, Oertle enjoyed the doughnuts, hot chocolate and Disney characters as much as the races. She joined her aunt’s Duck Dodgers team when she started working at Disneyland.
Oertle will finally get to rest after two months of 4 a.m. call times for pre-dawn canoe race practices and heats.
“I’m taking a vacation day tomorrow and I’m sleeping in past three in the morning,” said Oertle, who works with Disneyland’s cast activities program. “The early mornings were a bit of a struggle for me. I’m not the biggest morning person, but I love the event.”