Long before the sunrise at Magic Kingdom, chants of “stroke, stroke, stroke” can be heard throughout all of Frontierland as Walt Disney World Cast Members gather along the Rivers of America to compete in the annual Canoe Races of the World July 12-23. For some, it’s their first chance for team building and fun but for others, it’s an intense competition for the coveted paddles awarded to each division winner.
In a tradition dating back to 1973, hundreds of Cast Members come together pre-dawn over a period of two weeks in July to race in canoes before heading in for a full day of work. The seventy-nine teams of 10 people take less than six minutes to pass Thunder Mountain, the Walt Disney World Railroad, the Haunted Mansion and return to the starting place near the Country Bear Jamboree.
This year will be the twelfth year for veteran Steve Whittington and his team, “The Good, The Bad and The Ugl-IE”, last year’s men’s pro division champions.
“In 1998 I was an Industrial Engineering intern and they needed another person to row, so I thought ‘Why not?’ Whittington said. His team went on to win the men’s pro division that year and since then he’s only missed one race. “Once we finished the races, I was hooked. It was such a blast.”
Last year’s Spirit Award winners, the Toasted BLTs, were a newly-formed group from the Contemporary Resort’s new Bay Lake Tower. “We were the opening team at Bay Lake so it was a great team builder,” Captain Eric O’Leary said. “Our main goal was to have fun. One guy [intern Jonathan Theriault] put himself in a giant sandwich and danced around with people as our mascot, Toasty the Sandwich.”
Regardless of walking away with a paddle or not, O’Leary says “it’s not about winning. The canoe races are always a fun time and we’re excited for everyone else doing it.”