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Going to Work Under the 'Seas' : Divers Make Nightly Runs in Disney Waters to Keep Illusions Spotless

February 28, 1993|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — The clear, crystalline lagoon lay glistening in the earlymorning light.

Not far beneath the surface, a shimmering white coral reef seemed to teem with life. All around it red, orange and green splashes of seaweed danced in the current. And atop a flat rock nearby, two giant crabs sat dueling in the semidarkness.

Suddenly a pair of divers appeared. With flashlights attached to their wet suit hoods, they slowly picked their way along the rocky bottom. When they saw the crabs, the frogmen paused a moment as if to reflect. Then, pulling tools out of pockets, they quickly attacked the animals with screwdrivers, popping open their shell-like tops to get at the gears and wires inside.

It's 5 a.m. and the Disneyland divers are making their rounds.

The famous fantasy theme park, in fact, is graced with at least 11 major bodies of water. Ranging in depth from three to 12 feet, they include the ominous recesses of the jungle cruise, the murky greenish expanses of the river surrounding Tom Sawyer's Island, the complicated twists of It's a Small World and, of course, the clear, ocean-like waters of the submarine ride wherein artificial crabs eternally shake their pincers.

Like the submarine lagoon, almost all of the park's rivers, lakes and "oceans" are stocked full of mechanical creatures and devices doing their individual parts in the creation of Disneyland's world of illusion. And like machines everywhere, these break down, are in constant need of maintenance and must be regularly inspected.

That's where the Disneyland divers come in. Working five days a week from midnight to 8:30 a.m., the three-man underwater crew scours the river and lake bottoms cleaning crocodiles, helping hippos and fixing fish.

"Diving is just what it takes to get to the job," says Bob Johnson, 46, who has been diving for Disney for 20 years. "We're basically maintenance machinists."

Yet they have to deal with a lot of conditions never faced by most machinists. One of the most hazardous, they say, is diving in the murky river surrounding Tom Sawyer's island. Dyed green and full of mud, the water there provides almost zero visibility, according to the divers. "There are times when we are buried to our waists in muck," Johnson says. "You can work on the same piece of equipment for years and never see it."

Often, he says, he has dropped tools on the bottom and lost them forever.

And once, Johnson says, he had to swim blindly through a 150-foot-long, 21-inch-wide pipe connecting the river to the jungle ride in search of a blockage that never was found. "Fortunately, I'm not claustrophobic," he says, "but you do hope that nothing fails on you because if it does, you're not coming up."

On the other hand, the divers say, there are certain experiences that make their jobs interesting.

Over the years, for instance, they have recovered thousands of objects dropped by guests and park employees, some of which have bordered on the bizarre. The recovered objects include watches, jewelry, cameras, keys, glasses, radios, wheelchairs, crutches, strollers, tables, chairs, revolvers used by jungle ride operators and, once, a knife used in a fatal park stabbing. Other finds have included plates, silverware, trays and what appeared to be the remains of entire meals. "I guess the food wasn't too good so they just pitched it in the water," diver Mike Sanders, 39, speculated.

Their favorite dive site by far, the underwater machinists say, is the 10-foot-deep submarine lagoon where, with a little squint of the eyes and a bit of imagination, they can almost believe that they are diving in the Caribbean. It was there that the three divers--one in a small diving skiff and the others underwater--converged near the end of their shift on a recent Monday morning to inspect an apparent leak in the air system that animates the lagoon's numerous crabs, sea turtles and various other forms of marine "life." The symptom: a steady stream of bubbles emerging from one of the fighting crabs.

A few twists of the screwdriver soon eliminated the leak. In addition, after swimming slowly through the blue water over tropical coral reefs, the divers tinkered with a nearby colony of tortoises and removed algae from the strings anchoring some of the mechanical fish to the bottom.

Then, climbing aboard the skiff, they repaired to the machine shop--euphemistically called the Oceanographic Research Station--where, hunkered over work counters, they ordinarily deal with mechanical items that can't be fixed underwater.

"At first it's different and new," says Al Walker, 30, who's been a Disneyland diver for five years. "But after about a year it's just another job."

Two hours later, when the park opened, the line at the submarine ride began forming almost immediately.

"I thought it was really good," said Starlyn Brown, stepping off a submarine after the 10-minute underwater ride that, in addition to the reef fish and now bubble-less crabs, featured sunken treasure, mermaids, giant squid and a deep sea earthquake. A visitor from Bakersfield, Brown had taken the ride with her husband and two children. "It was effective," she said. "The water was clear and they made the fish look lifelike."

Jill Follett, on vacation from Anchorage, Alaska, with her husband, Eric, and the couple's two young children had a similar assessment. "The kids thought it was great," she said.

And what was Eric's answer when the children asked him whether the underwater sights were real? Easy, she said. "He told them, well, this is Disneyland. "

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