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Disneyland giving up its gender bias

Disneyland, where for 40 years the Jungle Cruise operators have resembled rugged outdoorsmen and the Snow White character has looked like, well, Snow White, has begun tearing down gender barriers for many jobs.

In the past month, women have begun taking guests on the circuitous Jungle Cruise past water-squirting elephants and stalking tigers, where only male guides had ventured before. Next month, men will begin relating the same fables as their female counterparts on the Storybook Land ride.

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Park officials say they are looking at inviting women to work in some of the Magic Kingdom's other male bastions -- train locomotives, Main Street omnibus and the steamboat. It may take as long as a year, but they say it will happen.

"The whole park will be unisex," predicted attractions supervisor Bruce Kimbrell. "There will be no barriers."

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The change represents a major turnabout for America's most famous theme park, which credits much of its success to a system of "casting" (rather than simply hiring) its peak seasonal work force of 12,000.

The system implicitly dictates that employees from popcorn sellers to sweepers are "cast members" who act out their roles any time they are before the public, or "on-stage" in Disney-speak. Their collective performances have made the theme park the nationwide standard for courtesy and bolstered its reputation, but casting may also have given rise to sexual stereotyping.

Only men have been hired play the parts of wisecracking boat jockeys on the Jungle Ride. Only women have staffed the sedate Storybook Land ride, a children's fantasy attraction in which they point out the miniature homes of characters from Disney stories. (Curiously, men originally ran the Storybook ride when it opened with the park in 1955, but were replaced entirely by women within a few years.)

Even though gender roles started breaking down throughout society for both men and women two decades ago, Disneyland stuck to tradition. And it might have stayed that way had Suzanne Barnaby not gone on vacation to Walt Disney World in Florida in March.

Ms. Barnaby, an Adventureland ride operator with 15 years experience, saw women working as boat operators on the Jungle Cruise at the Orlando attraction, a duplicate of Disneyland's original ride.

As soon as she returned to Anaheim, she asked a supervisor if she could start working the ride there. Four days later, her request was granted and she was handed two pages of well-worn jokes to memorize.

The Jungle Cruise has a special allure for employees, since it is the only ride in which the rollicking, pun-loving operators are given some latitude in their spiel.

The job doesn't pay any more than other rides or lead to faster promotions, park officials say, but it is an experience few forget. Ron Ziegler, press secretary to President Nixon, worked at Disneyland in the 1950s and used to entertain White House reporters with Jungle Cruise jokes.

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Disneyland had experimented with the notion of female jungle guides before. Some worked during the summer of 1974, but Mr. Kimbrell said "the public was not ready to accept women daredevils."

The park tried again in 1987, recalled attractions director Craig Smith, but "it was too hard from a female perspective." They had difficulty loading guests and pushing boats around between trips, he explained.

This time, there is no turning back.

Mr. Kimbrell points out that audiences have grown to expect women adventurers from such movies as the Indiana Jones trilogy. Ms. Barnaby and 11 other women were trained for the Jungle Cruise. They join a ride staff of about 100, of which 38 may be working on any given day.

The women are expected to give the same corny routine as the men up to 30 times a shift as they maneuver their boats past various jungle scenes. ("The only way to stop a charging hippo is to take away his credit card," or "When you've been in the jungle as long as I have, you begin to smell -- danger, that is.")

Guest reaction to female guides is good, though Ms. Barnaby and the others have worked out a few snappy retorts to the occasional snide comment.

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"A kid will say, 'I don't want a girl skipper.' I say, 'At least if we get lost, I'll pull over and ask for directions.' "

The men have generally been accepting, too, though there are occasional grumbles. One male Jungle Cruise operator said, "The only gripes are by the old-timers who hate to see the fraternity disappear."

So does this mean we can expect men to play Snow White or Tinkerbelle?

"Trust me," a park spokesman says, "there is never going to be any male Snow White."


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