An ill wind in the willows

It's a wonderful day for a protest. The air is smartly cool, even cold, and the sunshine seems to have been buffed to an extra high gloss for the occasion. An orgasm of flowers is spilling over the grounds around Cinderella's castle in the Magic Kingdom, but there is no time to wallow in this sweetness.

After getting lost within Disney's sprawling grounds I am already late for the event.With radicals, you can never tell: Will they throw frog's blood all over the building? Occupy the Hall? Capture Pooh bear and shove bamboo up his honey pot? Acts of rebellion happen as fast as an out-of-control motorcar.

I race to the appointed protest sight expecting mayhem, smoke and banners swaying in the wind. What I find is six people standing demurely in green T-shirts. These are terrorists who could be mistaken for people deciding where to eat lunch.

This is the scene, or lack of it, in front of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, which rumor says will be euthanized like a family dog that's just gotten too old to be fun anymore, and replaced by the more popular Winnie the Pooh and his Hundred-Acre Wood. The speculation led young South Floridian Jef Moskot to build a website, where hundreds have left toadying messages in support of their beloved frog (originally brought to life in Kenneth Grahame's1908 novel "The Wind in the Willows," and to cartoon glory by Disney in 1949) who they feel has been sorely neglected.

There is no Toad walking around in a character suit, no Toad merchandise, and although a recent live action film of the classic, starring members of Monty Python, enjoyed lavish praise from The New York Times, it was only released in three cities. And as we all know, we're up to our eyeballs in Pooh.

Recently, the webbed Toads called for "a stop to this villainy" by urging fans to gather in front of the ride on a particular Sunday earlier this month. The turnout is disappointing.

"There are some non-shirted people here who are afraid to wear `the shirts`. They work in 'themed entertainment,'" says Jennifer Mandelion, speaking in spy code and wearing one of the green shirts with a cartoon of a dead Toad on the front and the come-on, "Ask Me Why Mickey is Killing Mr. Toad," on the back. (Despite her frog-kissing affiliation, she wears a Pooh wrist watch.) The cowardly collaborators are seated at tables across from the ride, watching their valiant brothers fight the amphibious fight. As for Disney's official position, which has been not to come out and say directly that there will be frog's legs for dinner, "I think it's a done deal," she says. "We've heard rumors that the honey pots are already being worked on."

The Toadies confide that there are Disney "suits" all around, monitoring their behavior, and they are afraid they will be toad away. Sure enough, as soon as a passing vacationer approaches them (as many do; lots of park guests saw the news and feel compelled to take what could be their last Wild Ride) and is handed a flyer, two park officials intervene, albeit pleasantly, and say no literature can be passed out, and then tell me that I must be accompanied by a press representative in order to work in the park. When I reply that my calls to the press office were never returned and that I paid to get in, I seem to be off the hook. I realized the Toadies are right; like a clumsy and obvious FBI, there seem to be more suits and wires than there are toad activists.

Moskot says he loves the toad because "the lead character is as insane as I am" (the story, you may recall, centers on Toad's compulsive, impassioned behavior, which gets him in trouble), and the group echoes the website's admissions of sadness at another piece of the original park being removed. Out of the corner of my ear I hear Karen, who has come all the way from Peterborough, Ontario, to attend a Disney fan gathering (the toad protest just happened to take place at the same time), say that she is "a toad virgin." She has never even ridden the ride before, yet risks being deported to the real world to stand in its favor.

It's time she went on the ride

Since I was wrong about a mob of international camera crews covering the event and am, in fact, the only reporter who turned out, I ride the ride along with its defenders. They insist that Karen's first exposure should be through the "naked lady" entrance, referring to one of the cartoon images. People in line ask about the cause; Jef says one who approached him was upset that this wasn't "a real controversy," expecting, perhaps, to hear about corruption or sweatshops, and pissed that it was only about a ride. Karen wants to sit with Jeff. "I should lose my toad ... in the company of someone who knows what they're doing."

On the ride, the toadsters do not jump out of the car and chain themselves to the toad-embossed andirons. They behave just as you want people you're on rides with to behave. They scream, they point at things with enthusiasm ("Naked Lady!" "Weasels!" "Satan!") and shout, "We're all gonna die!" They are happy. But at our exit we are greeted by a Suit, an attractions manager who approaches the group. The team is wary. Will he give them the boot? Have they gone too far? Have they poisoned the minds of heretofore unblemished park-goers with their subversive shirts?

"If you'd like to go and ride the other side, too, I'll take you through. You won't have to wait in line," he says. We are getting a police escort through the gates of victory. But isn't that what the capitalist running dogs always do, ply the enemy with hospitality and cake, and then take them someplace where they are never heard from again? Mysteriously, this time, our safety bar doesn't lower; we get stuck several times, with the Weasels, with the nearby train. The group had said earlier that there are rumors of "secret rooms" inside the ride, filled with "cool stuff." But are they really filled with cells where the enemies of the people are chloroformed and locked up? Alas, no. Once again we go through hell and back, unscathed.

Karen likes this side even better. "It was more worth it than I ever expected," she says, more than most virgins can boast. The group is exhilarated and happy as we part company. Twenty minutes later they are gone altogether. They have a lot more of Disney to wallow in before returning to their respective homes in Florida, Texas, New York and Canada. Even the most strident dissidents have to have a little fun. Toadally.

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