Saturday, December 5, 2009

This day in paleontology history...

Well, it might not have been this exact day, but at some point, roughly a couple of days after Thanksgiving 1999, I completed my 20+ hour drive from Chicago to Orlando Florida, after my term on the Sue project, to start my new job at the Field Museum's satellite preparation lab at Disney's Animal Kingdom Themepark.
I moved in with Casey Holliday and his roommate Tom Mullane, who worked for Disney Education, for a couple of weeks while I found an apartment, just 10 very short years ago.

The lab was built by Disney for the Sue project, which they cleverly funded in partnership with McDonald's, United Airlines, the Field Museum, and others. Disney had the "Dinosaur" movie in the pipeline, and created Dinoland in Animal Kingdom as a product tie-in.

During the Sue project, Casey Holliday, Bruce Schumacher, and Joanne Avery prepared over 50% the skeleton in this lab. I arrived after Joanne left, and Bruce was on his way out to his new job with the US Forest Service, and I brought a microscope and some fossils from the Triassic of Madagascar. During the next 11 months, Casey and I prepped the Triassic material, some Cretaceous Malagasy material (titanosaurs, croc and theropod bits) and a juvenile tyrannosaurid collected by Elmer Riggs in Alberta in 1922.

Here I am at the age of 18 in a rare, non-bearded photo, holding up the right tibia and femur of that tyrannosaurid. Behind me is the view out of one of our 3 glass walls. This lab was in the middle of a theme park with a capacity of about 35,000 people, which was often met during busy travel periods. Overall, it was an odd place to work, but tons of fun. Casey is a great guy to work with, and the ability to go over to MGM Studios over lunch and ride a roller coaster, Aerosmith's Rock n' Roller Coaster no less, makes the best job in the world even better.

The lab, full of molds of Sue's cervical vertebrae.
Casey and Bruce moving Sue's femur with a crowd of onlookers, in National Geographic, 1999. As weird as this place was, I'd go back to work there in a heartbeat. Disney had student members of it's college program work outside the lab in costume, making presentations to large groups of visitors. The lab was situated near the exit of the "Tarzan" live stage show, which seated a few thousand people. Every hour or so, the show would dump, and the path leading by this glass became one of the exits for the show, exposing us to more visitors in 15 minutes than most museums get in a week, a day for the very largest.

The extreme humidity of central Florida led to frequent problems with the air abrasive units, but the most interesting of troubles came from the exhaust system. The Nederman arms were ducted to a blower on the roof, and when blasting through many pounds of sodium bicarbonate the blower would "clog". Once every two weeks or so we would have to climb up on the roof, and remove an access panel to expose the fan blades. The sodium bicarb would build up on the blades and form a pumice-like rock that had to be chipped off with a hammer and putty knife. This maintenance was critical, because the buildup threw the fan so off balance that not only would it rattle the walls, but the floor itself. Firing the system back up after this cleaning was always awesome, sending up an ejecta of white powder that drifted over Dinoland. The ladder to the roof was also handy for climbing up to watch shuttle launches. After work was a great time to walk through this giant zoo with a beer and check out the animals, or catch a safari ride, and maybe make plans to head to the Big Bamboo Lounge, a hole in the wall Disney hangout that deserves it's own tribute post.
We also kept a minifridge stocked with Corona and limes, which made the lab a popular aftershift hangout for the education staff.

Sadly, as soon as the Field Museum contract was up, Disney bulldozed the lab to build a roller coaster. I got them back by knocking down a couple of their streetlamps with the moving truck on my way out of the park. Thanks Casey for providing the photos, all of mine were stolen by a psychotic former co-worker.


Casey said...

i like the broken magnifying light being held up with the stir stick. Very classy. I have absolutely no recollection of a fridge with Coronas in it.

Casey said...

oh yeah, and Bruce was in on Elmer too. He did most of the tail.

Maltese said...

Well, at least Bruce's hair has improved in the past decade!

FossilMIke said...

Check with Bruce... he had a bunch of photos from Orlando.. some of which he graciously loaned to me when we had the Sue exhibit at the Sternberg Museum