The Magic of Disney

Walt Disney World in Florida is in the process of celebrating its 25th anniversary, and there hasn't been a year of the magic without horses. Walt Disney himself was an avid horseman, playing polo and envisioning a very horse-oriented park with horse-drawn parade floats and carriages throughout. There were more than 200 horses at the Tri-Circle D Ranch on Disney property in the beginning. But while the number of horses has been pared down to about 80, their importance as ambassadors has done nothing but increase.

There are approximately 20 Percheron or Belgian draft horses at Disney. It is these gentle giants who attract the most attention when visitors first enter the Magic Kingdom and step onto Main Street. The horse-drawn trolleys make a circuit from the entrance of the park to Cinderella Castle and back. But the horses' most important function are as cast members greeting guests from around the world.

"These horses come from all over the country," said Rob Hinkle, Ranch Manager of the Tri-Circle D Ranch and thus responsible for all the horses at Disney in Florida. "They all have some work experience, some carriage or pulling experience, because we don't have time to train them to be Main Street horses. The main thing they must possess is an excellent disposition."

Like all cast members at Disney, the draft horses have to be good with children, crowds, and pretty much handle any situation with a good nature. The draft horses usually start at Disney at six to 10 years of age. They might first be used to pull a wagon on a hay ride or be a part of one of the many carriage trips or multi-horse hitches; then, if they pass that initial test, they will be given the Main Street run-through.

The draft horses are vanned from the ranch to the Magic Kingdom each morning. For those trying out for a Main Street job, the first few times hitched to the trolley will be before the park opens, with a driver and helper aboard. If that test is passed, then comes an initial crowd meeting.

"They'll tell you pretty quick if they are going to work," said Hinkle. "The main thing is the guests. If they aren't going to work out with the guests, then they have to go."

Bill Carr is a Senior Cowboy at Disney, with five years of driving experience on Main Street. Like all the drivers, Carr had years of horse experience before being recruited by Disney. Carr was in the Standardbred business all his life, starting as a groom at age 13 and progressing up to trainer and driver. Carr, now 52, does "just about anything that has to do with horses except drive the eight-horse (parade) hitch," he said with a smile. "We do special events, weddings, conventions, carriages...our only restriction is safety to the guest and cast horses. If we feel we can do it safely, we do it."

That might include taking one of the non-draft horses used in the trail rides or with other carriage jobs up the elevator onto the fifth floor of the Dolphin and Swan Hotel for a Japanese cosmetics convention show; or driving the team of four Welsh ponies or six Shetland ponies for the Cinderella Coach during a wedding or other special event.

Some of the draft horses also have other duties besides hayrides, carriages, trolleys, and occasional appearances as a knight's charger. The park is famous for its eight-horse hitch of black Percherons, which travel across the country to special events and parades.

For the Main Street trolley horses, days begin with a van ride to the Magic Kingdom and a bath, if weather permits. By eight, they are taken to the car barn and harnessed. Then at 8:50, the big attractions hit the street for a 9:00 opening. The draft horses usually work until about 12:20, when they are taken back to the car barn for a hosing down in warm weather.

"We let guests in on that part," said Carr with a grin. "It's great to see a kid hosing off one of those big horses. They really get a kick out of it."

"Breakers" will take the horses back to the ranch, and the drivers remain at the car barn because they are responsible for cleaning the leather and polishing the brass on the harness. Quitting time is 3:30 for the drivers.

"The 20 draft horses really work about 11.5 hours each day," said Hinkle. "They stand for about three minutes, then pull for about three minutes. Then there are breaks during the morning for special events. They work two days on, two days off. And the trolleys run 365 days a year."

In fact, all of the horse attractions are available 365 days a year since that is when the park is open. The 45-minute trail rides were increased from four to six times a day in late 1996 to meet demand. There are nightly hayrides at 7:00 and 9:30 p.m. In December, there were Christmas caroling hayrides around the campground (which is situated near the Ranch), and in October, there were haunted hayrides and appearances by the headless horseman.

Then there is the new Wedding Pavilion on the Disney grounds. The Cinderella Coach was used about 200 times last year, with interest in that special service increasing as the year drew to a close. Those 200 coach trips don't include horses working with the landau coaches or other coach jobs or pulling events.

Joe Rajski is another driver who enjoys the horses, and his job at Disney. Rajski's experience came with Saddlebred horses, and he obtained his experience with draft horses at Disney. On a whim and at the suggestion of a friend, Rajski applied for a job at Disney while on vacation in Florida five years ago. A few weeks later he had moved South from his native Indiana, and never looked back. "It's so much fun working here, and you get to meet people from all over the world," said Rajski. "But you can't take your eyes off the horse while you're working. My job is to anticipate what everyone else is going to do, and to keep them and the horses safe."

Carr and Rajski said the most-asked questions they get from guests are: What is the horse's name? What kind of horse is he? Can I pet him? Does he bite? And, How old is he? Then the questions usually turn to the driver, asking how they came to work for Disney with the horses.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

The draft horses and ponies are kept in one 30-stall barn that was constructed not long after Walt Disney World was built. The airy building has "on-stage" and "off-stage" sides, with some horses available for public viewing and others out of the limelight. There are turn-out pens and paddocks, where Hinkle said each horse is given as much time as possible based on the weather.

Large fans are located in the aisleways of the barn, and each stall has an individual overhead fan for cooling in the hot, humid summers. Automatic waterers insure that each horse has an adequate supply of fresh, cool water. Alfalfa hay is purchased and shipped in from western states, and grass hay comes from Georgia. Each horse's diet is balanced by one of the three veterinarians on staff at Disney (who care for all the animals, not just the horses).

All of the horses also are on a preventative health care program, stressed Hinkle. They receive yearly physicals and quarterly de-worming medications.

A blacksmith shop adjacent to the draft barn also is open to public viewing. Gary Wade has been the Disney farrier for more than 23 years.

"I try to maintain the best foot I can get on the horses," said Wade. "They are unusual because they are working 365 days a year."

And, since the Disney horses are seen by the public more than any other horses, Wade conceded that, "More people see my shoeing than any other shoes in the country. Most people won't know the difference, but some do. I like to know when a horse goes out of here (his blacksmith shop) that he is the best he can be. I'm looking for the long-term and keeping them as natural as possible."

Wade uses synthetic shoes for the draft horses pulling trolleys on Main Street for several reasons, the two most important being safety for the horse and keeping the surface of Main Street from being destroyed by steel shoes.

"I've got lots of sizes," said Wade as he opened one of his huge cabinets to prove his point. "Got front and hind. They fit all the Percherons and Belgians."

The trail horses at Disney are shod using only St. Croix steel shoes.

"Each horse gets new shoes every five weeks, no resetting," said Wade. "I like the St. Croix because of the uniformity and balance. And I've started to use more of the clip shoes."

Wade usually prefers to hot shoe horses, but said he also cold shoes on occasion.

"Most of the horses get shod here (in his outdoor shop) where guests can watch," he said. "When I'm working here, I've got to watch out for the horse and the crowd too. There are things I do to the horse to get him to work with me that the guests don't even notice. Then again, sometimes I get 'tired' and get out from under a horse if the horse is starting to act up."

Wade laughs when he thinks about how many times he has spent 20 minutes getting the horse's foot ready and getting a shoe ready just for someone to ask when is he going to "shoe" the horse.

"To them, shoeing is nailing the shoe on the foot, that's all," he said with a grin.

The most-asked question is whether shoeing hurts the horse. Other questions are reminiscent of those asked of the trolley drivers, questions about the horse and about the farrier.

Wade's father and uncle were shoers in Vermont, and he learned the trade from childhood. He also attended Cornell University, where he studied shoeing, and apprenticed at a racetrack. While in the service, although he didn't work with cavalry horses, Wade found that many of the officers had a liking for horses, and a need for a good farrier.

In 1973, the Disney company contacted Wade, and he has been in Florida ever since.

"When I started here, there were more than 200 horses," recalled Wade. "It took me four months to get all those horses done."

Wade said horses have always been important to the Disney company, but times have changed.

"When I started working here, there was not much here but a dirt road and the blacksmith shop." Now, there is a petting zoo, pony rides, and buses letting guests off to visit Discovery Island and all the animals contained therein.

The trail horses have a covered waiting area where they loiter between rides, with a trough of fresh water running the length of the pen. There are eight paddocks behind the riding stable, and two bigger fields behind those for turn-out. Mounting blocks were installed not only for the convenience of the riders, but because it helped eliminate discomfort for the horses during mounting and dismounting.

Hinkle said all new horse workers start with the title Cowboy or Cowgirl Helper, then work their way up depending on skill to Cowboy or Cowgirl and Senior Cowboy or Senior Cowgirl. Horses are given trial periods to make sure they will work out with the guests at the trail concession. They, too, become cast members after a time and are treated with the respect of other, two-legged employees.

When the time comes for a horse to be retired from duties at the Tri-Circle D Ranch, Hinkle said finding a good home is more important than money. "We actually inspect the farm or ranch where they will be going," he said.

While horses come from all over to work at Disney, Hinkle prefers to work with breeders. That way, he noted, if a horse doesn't work out, it can be sold back or traded back to that breeder. None of the Disney horses are ever taken to horse auctions.

Hinkle has been ranch manager for about a year. Prior to taking the job with Disney, he was senior special events coordinator at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.

"This was a great opportunity to work for one of the nation's leading companies, and to still be in my element with horses," said Hinkle, who has accounting and equine management degrees.

There are two assistant managers under Hinkle who see to the day-to-day operations of the horses, while Hinkle takes a "more long-range look" at the equine operations, including planning and budgeting. The Ranch supports each of the parks when they need equine assistance, i.e., when there was an event at Epcot that needed a horse-drawn wagon, Hinkle's team stepped in and took care of the job.

The Animal Kingdom that will be open at Disney in 1998 will not have a direct impact on the equine program. However, the new veterinary facility at that park and the increased number of veterinarians will be available to the horses. "So we will be able to utilize their facilities and personnel, but it won't affect us in number of horses," he added.

So, as the team of white Welsh ponies pulls newlyweds off into the Florida sunset, or as a child in wide-eyed wonder stops to pet a 2,000-plus pound draft horse, or as a family spends special time out in the woods on horseback, there is a little magic. There is also a lot of hard work and preparation. But horse people know that combination already. Disney just shares it with guests.

About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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