Time to Roll Credits for Reed Jones
It’s been a fabulous run spanning more than three decades at the “most magical place on earth” known as Walt Disney World.
It’s been a fabulous run spanning more than three decades at the “most magical place on earth” known as Walt Disney World. His fingerprints are scattered throughout the Disney theme parks, sprinkled with his creative pixie dust.
His greatest hits for conceiving, writing and directing projects include Festival of the Lion King and Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade both at Animal Kingdom, and the Dream Along With Mickey Castle Show at the Magic Kingdom.
There are plenty more credits as we cue the final scene, but there are time and space limitations. Instead, let’s focus on the man behind the curtain, so to speak. A man who is retiring at the end of the year honored and humbled by his legacy.
“Basically, from college, I knew I wanted to create shows, and I’ve had the best job in the world,” he said. “I have to say I’ve had a very charmed career and I absolutely loved it.”
Everyone has a career path. Entertainment was Jones’ muse. After graduating from Berry College in Rome, Georgia, Jones moved to Maitland, where his parents lived. He started doing local dinner theaters, worked in Reno for a while, on multiple cruise ships, and Six Flags Over Georgia– all as a performer. At 6 feet 2, he had a commanding stage presence. “I kept saying I had just enough talent to keep working,” he said. “And I was tall, and I looked good in costumes.”
But even then, he started cultivating his craft by spending time with creators and studying how shows were put together.
“I don’t feel like I’m done yet. I’m kind of excited to see what happens next.”
– Reed Jones
“The guy who did those shows [at Six Flags] had a really great way of creating review or variety shows that actually meant something,” Jones said. “And that was the first time I’d seen something like that. I loved it! And that became my goal, to create these type of jukebox shows, variety shows, whatever you want to call them, but they had to mean something.”
Jones also worked at Walt Disney World Resort back in his college days, Jones was one of the dancers in the Main Street Electrical Parade. Once he graduated, he got a role as a singer in Disney World’s Fantasyland Theater and Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue. His official hire date was April 8, 1990, but he was well-prepared for a longer trajectory – focused more for what went on behind the scenes, the production side. He would find a home there, and never leave.
“He never wanted to be a star,” said long-time friend Mimi Saunders. “He wanted to be the best team player he could be.”
And so, the path took a bit of a detour, and Jones found his way.
“Quite honestly, I hit my end game, but it took a while to do it,” he said. “When people say, ‘how do you do it?’ I’m like ‘you figure it out.’’
Jones is now approaching his 33rd year at Disney. Since 2005, he has been Executive Creative Director for Disney Live Entertainment. The job description on LinkedIn is impressive and daunting:
Makes primary entertainment creative decisions locally at Walt Disney World.
Leads the development and oversees the creative content of new entertainment product at Walt Disney World, including stage shows, parades, atmosphere entertainment, and special events.
Conceives high level creative concepts for planning prior to development.
“His name is indelibly written in the history and legacy of Walt Disney World and he can be very proud of the impact he made,” said Gene Columbus, a now-retired longtime Disney executive who was once Manager of Entertainment at the Magic Kingdom.
Jones’ pièce de résistance, by most accounts, remains the Festival of the Lion King. It has all the elements of entertainment and pageantry, including Tumble Monkeys, high flying aerial ballet, stilt walkers, a fire act, and of course, the beautiful, iconic music.
Jones loves it so much that he goes back to the park a few times each year to “watch it with fresh eyes.”
“Reed outdid himself with that,” Columbus said. “It’s a fine example of a sensitivity to the possibilities. What I was looking for in these creative people was taking and looking at something conventional in a very unconventional way.
“As an artistic director, Reed has that sixth sense about ‘does this work? Does this fall into our Disney brand? Does this live up to the standards?’ ‘’
Check. Check. Check. But it’s never a one-man show. Teamwork is of the essence. And the goal remains the same at each of the theme parks: Engage and entertain.
“It’s a puzzle, I mean, we’re here to make solutions,” Jones said. “That’s probably one of the most exciting things about this job is that we’re always trying to figure it out. What’s the puzzle?
“And the fun part is trying to crack the code. And when you finally figure it out, you’re like, ‘That’s it, this is the solution. This is how it works.’ And I think that’s why we all love our job so much.”
That creative collaboration was challenged by the COVID pandemic that has drastically impacted the American lifestyle since the beginning of 2020. Interactive experiences – the heart of the matter at theme parks – became nearly impossible in an era of social distancing and masks. The challenges were daunting.
“It was like opening up a theme park again,” Jones said. “I’ve opened a few parks in my career from scratch: Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Shanghai Disneyland, and things like that. But the fact that the park was closed and to start back up, number one was a challenge.
“We’d never stopped operating before. We didn’t know how long we were going to be gone. One of our biggest challenges was how to get the characters out for our guests because that’s what they want to see right off the bat.”
So Reed and his Disney team turned to their improvisational skills. They came up with cavalcades and flotillas at every park. Think of them as downsized parades. Even with requisite six feet of separation mandate, guests could still take pictures and selfies.
The concept carried over in all four of Disney’s theme parks, including horse-drawn carriages around EPCOT’s World Showcase and Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear passing by on tricked-out cars at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Most of these appearances weren’t announced ahead of time, adding a touch of spontaneity as well as an added safety protocol to avoid crowding. And guests loved it. So much so that Disney is keeping some of them in play as part of the park experience.
And the shows that were furloughed because of COVID are now starting to circle back, including the newly reimagined 25-minute “Finding Nemo: The Big Blue and Beyond” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
“We’re almost there,” Jones said. “It was a great learning experience for everyone.”
There have been many teachable moments in Jones’ career. Now it’s time to step away and let his capable colleagues at Disney Live Entertainment do the heavy lifting. He’s been thinking about retirement for the last year-and-a-half. The timing finally feels right.
As he closes in on his 65th birthday in November, Jones isn’t quite looking at the Final Scene nor looking for ways to reinvent himself. He knows he will find something, but not something so time-consuming or demanding. It’s a sweet spot known as TBD. A great unknown, not bound by time or financial constraints.
For now, his rescue dogs Lucky and Rusty will be glad to see more of “dad” around in the house. Though unintentional, their names happen to be the same names as the characters played by Elvis Presley and Ann Margaret in “Viva Las Vegas.”
Long live showbiz.
“I just have had such a wonderful career and I think I’m done with this chapter, and I want to do other stuff,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m done yet. I’m kind of excited to see what happens next.
“So, we’ll see.”
Columbus isn’t quite so sure about how long the retirement plan will last. He ran into Jones at an event a while back and joked that the retirement will last for a few hours. As someone who is now into his “fourth retirement,” Columbus knows how challenging it is to step away and not look back, or at least look ahead to something else.
So keep that curtain cracked open, just in case. Reed Jones just may have another creative trick that he hasn’t shown us yet. You’ll always find magic when Disney is your muse, whether you’re a kid out of college with aspirations or a respected veteran gifted in the ways of audience appeal.