The Wonderful Fans of Disney

Meet the Disney experts who call New Hampshire home

Disney Castle

I have a cool party trick. It’s called “ask me how many times I’ve been to Walt Disney World.” It’s usually followed up with an assurance that I’m not really a weirdo, because the answer, as you may be able to surmise, is a lot. Here’s the thing though: I’m not alone. If this was a normal school vacation season, families would be piling the kids into a plane right about now and winging their way three hours south. In fact, this is the time of year when Walt Disney World’s population of New Hampshire residents normally skyrockets. During April vacation, it’d be rare to cross Main Street USA without spotting a UNH hoodie or hearing someone say, “The line at Small World is wicked long.”

The love for the sprawling central Florida resort has spawned massive, passionate subcultures that focus on everything from how to most efficiently conquer the Most Magical Place on Earth to chronicling the Epcot pursuit of drinking around the world. And though the answer to my party-trick question is somewhere in the 80s, that number is dwarfed by others who frequent the place much more often. It may be 1,358 miles from the state capitol in Concord to Cinderella Castle in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, yet some of the most knowledgeable and recognizable Disney aficionados in that massive and committed subculture come from right here in New Hampshire.

To wit: the Salem engineer working on government contracts who would rather be on Pirates of the Caribbean, the New Boston journalist breaking Disney industry news online, the radio host spinning tunes while dreaming of Space Mountain, and the Nashua global training manager/podcasting pioneer who helped build a renowned brand.

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Jim Hill of New Boston is a podcasting, blogging, journalistic icon in the Disney community with sources second to none. Photo by Kendal J. Bush

When breaking Disney news is released into the world, it more often than not emanates from New Boston.

That’s where Jim Hill, a long-time journalist who began his career in the Army writing for the base newspaper at Fort Devens, has been cultivating inside sources for more than 35 years.

For Hill, creator of JimHillMedia.com and co-host of “The Disney Dish” podcast, it started by helping a base commander at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms research Donald Duck’s “service” in the Navy. Hill reached out to famed Disney archivist Dave Smith (“he didn’t hang up on me,” Hill laughs) who gave him the official story — Donald never left the service in his animated career. The feature, which was picked up by The Associated Press, caught Disney’s attention, and not long after, Hill found himself at Disneyland covering the park’s 30th anniversary.

“I was just sitting there at this dedication ceremony in the summer of 1985, and the two gentlemen sitting in front of me were trading Walt stories,” Hill says of a chance encounter with a pair of now-legendary Disney Imagineers. “It was John Hench and Herbie Ryman, who worked with Walt on the actual map of Disneyland. I said, ‘I don’t want to intrude, but I so appreciate your work and thank you for everything you’ve done.’ This was early on, when few people knew their work or their names, and they opened up like flowers. From there, it just kind of snowballed.”

Hill’s list of quotable sources and contacts ranges from Disney legends like Marc Davis, Tony Baxter and Mark Eades to industry giants like John Lasseter, J.K. Rowling and actor Josh Gad.

“I was at the D23 Expo just before ‘Frozen’ opened,” says Hill. “I was in a standard press line where you get your two minutes with a celebrity before they move on to the next reporter. Josh was with a publicist from Disney who introduced us. His eyes got real big and he said, ‘You’re Jim Hill? I’m obsessed with you.’ He’s a huge Disney geek and he was mad at me because I never answered one of his questions in my ‘Why For’ column. In fact, he just reached out to me this week because he and his daughter were binge-watching ‘Full House’ and they came across the episode where the family goes to Walt Disney World. He contacted me and said, ‘I have questions.’”

Like many baby boomers, Hill was first introduced to Disney through a standing Sunday night appointment in front of the TV to watch “Wonderful World of Color.” His favorite episodes were when Walt Disney himself would pull back the curtain on Disneyland and share details about ongoing projects.

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Just part of Jim Hill’s collection of media passes from his long career covering theme parks. Photo by Kendal J. Bush

As Disneyana began to explode with the growth of the internet, providing a direct pipeline between Disney freaks
and their entertainment destination of choice, Hill wrote for a number of sites before launching JimHillMedia.com. (“Finally, a place that couldn’t fire me.”) Then came the “Disney Dish” podcast, which he co-hosts with well-known Disney expert Len Testa of TouringPlans.com, which became an outlet for the information he culls on the regular from a roster of well-placed sources.

“I prefer to get the story right,” he says of his approach. “The downside is that I have hundreds of stories I’ve been
told that start with ‘only tell this one after I die.’ The good stuff is still to come.”

His favorite part of the nontraditional approach to entertainment journalism?

“The fact I get to do it in New Hampshire,” he says. “In a lot of ways it keeps me very grounded. A lot of podcasters move down to Orlando or out to Anaheim, thinking that, if they’re close to the source, they can have the first picture of that new cupcake. Those folks are genuinely suffering right now [because of the pandemic closure and related restrictions]. The nice thing about when you live in the woods of New Hampshire, it’s sort of like, ‘Oh, my God, the Magic Kingdom closed today.’ Yeah, but the sun still came up.”

Why New Hampshire?

It’s worth noting, Jim Hill says, that Disney has always thought of New Hampshire as an important market — particularly for Walt Disney World.

“It was really telling that, when Disney launched the Disney Store chain back in ’86 and ’87, one of the very first markets they put a Disney Store, and it was a deliberate choice, was in the Pheasant Lane Mall,” he says. “The thinking was, ‘We’ll get Disney fans in Massachusetts who go over the border for tax-free shopping, but also all of the people in New Hampshire who are facing yet another joyful winter and figure it’s time to go to Orlando.’”

Randy Houle, who brings an analyst’s sensibilities to his travel passion, posits that it’s a natural progression in travel. Even before Disney became a global conglomerate, Florida was a popular snowbird destination. Now, air travel is simple enough that it takes about as much effort to fly to MCO as it did to drive to the Catskills years ago.

Flights to and from Manchester-Boston Regional Airport make it an easy schlep, and yet it’s distant enough where you can get away and close enough where if you leave in the morning, you can be mainlining Dole Whips at Aloha Isle by lunch.

“I think there are a lot of amazing, creative minds here in New Hampshire, and Walt Disney World lets you be creative,” Bishop says. “It lets you transport yourself to a fantasy land and be open to ideas and experiences. And I think there are a lot of people in New Hampshire who have that side to them.”

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WZID on-air personality Heather Bishop admits she’s likely to drop a Disney reference within minutes of starting a conversation. Photo by Kendal J. Bush

As an on-air personality at 95.7 WZID, Heather Bishop entertains and informs listeners with music, traffic, news and weather during her midday shift. Catch Bishop off-mic, however, and she’ll toss around coded terms like DHS, ADR, BTMRR, IASW, DAK and about a million other impenetrably complex Disney acronyms. Fluent in Disney-speak, Bishop has a black belt in Disney-fu, and even braved the resort just days after it reopened following the unprecedented four month closure due to the pandemic.

“I wanted to prove it was safe,” Bishop says. “I wanted to see for myself — to see it firsthand so I could tell other people.”

Was it?

“This is the thing: If you’ve been a billion times, it’s not the same. The first time back after COVID, it was a lot different. The game is completely changed. There were staggered openings at the parks. I’m a ‘get-up-at-the-crack-of-dawn/get-to-the-park-first’ person. That wasn’t an option. The thought of waiting for Epcot to open at 11 a.m. gave me hives, but it turned out to be great. Focusing on relaxing in the morning was awesome. I stayed in bed until 9 a.m. Unless I’m sick, I never stay in bed until 9 a.m.”

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A small section of Heather Bishop’s chain of Magic Bands — a visitor’s park pass, room key, credit card and more — that stretches longer than the typical line at Animal Kingdom’s Flight of Passage attraction. Photo by Kendal J. Bush

The Tilton resident hasn’t kept count of the number of times she’s visited, but admits that the chain of Magic Bands — the wristbands that act as your room key, credit card and theme park passes, among other things — is probably best measured in parsecs.

“I’m worse than a vegan. When you have a conversation with a vegan, they’ll tell you about it in the first five minutes. Well, that’s me. I can turn any conversation into a Disney conversation,” she says.

“But you know what? You do you — I’m going to do me. I have a child on the spectrum, so the more we go, the better the trip we have. He knows what to expect.”

Bishop’s love of the place started in the ’80s, but it became permanent just a few years ago during a family getaway. Her son, Josh, had been recently diagnosed with Kawasaki disease and nearly died. When they arrived at Disney after treatment at the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, cast members stepped up.

“We got to Animal Kingdom, here he is in his wheelchair, and we know he couldn’t ride a lot of attractions,” Bishop says. “He liked to collect autographs, so we got in line to see Lilo and Stitch near the front of the park. A cast member sees us and says, ‘Wait over here.’ He closes the line, and brings us straight to Lilo and Stitch, who spent 20 to 30 minutes with us. I will never forget that. Josh still had his hospital bracelet on; Stitch pointed to it and we started to tell his story. We started crying. There were tears and hugs. They created a magic that I will always be appreciative of.”

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Mike Scopa of Nashua displays just a few of the runDisney medals he’s taken home over the years. Photo by Kendal J. Bush

By day, Mike Scopa works in procedure governance and global training — another professional face in an office. But in his off hours he’s a rock star with Mouse ears (and a pair of running shoes) cementing his spot on the Disney-adjacent Mount Rushmore.

Scopa, a Nashua resident, was one of the original voices of the “WDW Today” podcast, along with podcast co-host Len Testa and a few others. The podcast was an early entry  into the now-ubiquitous format, and one that measured downloads in the multi-millions at its height. There was a time when the guy with the reassuring New England accent telling you when to go, where to go and what to do when you got there couldn’t walk from his airport gate at MCO to the Magical Express shuttle without being spotted by a fan.

“When I start a new job, I’m careful. I don’t say anything,” he says of his side-hustle as a Disney expert. “But when I started at Santander, one of the directors came over to me — he’s a friend of mine now — and he said, ‘I know who you are. I’m a big fan, but I didn’t want to come over and gawk.’ It’s happened in pretty much every company I’ve worked with.”

The podcast, which has since been passed on to a new team, ran for nearly 1,300 episodes.

“We just wanted to have a lot of fun,” Scopa says. “We didn’t have any objective of making money or getting fame and fortune. We just wanted to get together and talk and help people. As the months went on, we realized we needed to get some guests — and they started pouring in. We had Lee Cockerell, the former executive vice president of operations at Walt Disney World; we had performers, cast members, an Imagineer here and there, show directors, the people who put together the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. It got to be a lot of fun. We learned what goes on behind the scenes and found out a few secrets we’ll have to take to our graves.”

It allowed the podcast team to build a community of friends who would travel to Florida and meet up annually, and it even spawned an informal renaming of the resort’s Pop Century Resort, where he would often stay, to the slightly catchier “Scopa Towers.” (Scopa’s number is north of 250 visits.)

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An avid runner, Scopa spends almost as much time trotting on the roadways around (and through) Disney’s famed theme parks as he does marching up Main Street USA — as these race medals show. Photo by Kendal J. Bush

“There was a chemistry there that worked,” he says. “A lot of people that listened to us became friends. We’d meet up at Mousefest or Reunion, spend time with them, go out to dinner and have a great time. I didn’t want it to become a job though, and all good things come to an end.”

It didn’t put an end of his love of all things Disney, and specifically of running. As co-host of the “Mickey Miles & More” podcast, he kept logging miles and sharing his expertise. On one race weekend, normally held the first weekend in January, he ran the Walt Disney World 5K, 10K and half marathon. He then hopped the Disney Cruise Line to Castaway Cay and hosted Olympian and running guru Jeff Galloway as a guest on the podcast. Then it was back to the airport for a flight to the West Coast, where he ran another half marathon and 10K in an attempt to earn the coveted Kessel Run medal — at the time, a 10K and half marathon on each coast.

“When running Disney, we had uniforms for two different running teams,” he says. “A lot of people put their names on the back of their shirts, and even though I didn’t want to call attention to myself, people recognized me.”

Handshakes, a breather, a few selfies, and Scopa was back on the road.

“It cost me a couple of personal records,” he says, laughing.

Scopa started his relationship with Disney as a child, watching the “Mickey Mouse Club” and writing a report in school about the 1964 World’s Fair. He had a chance to visit the new Walt Disney World in 1975, which at that time consisted of the Magic Kingdom and a couple of hotels. Even then, it managed to ensnare the future fan in him.

“It’s the willful suspension of disbelief,” he says. “That did it for me. On one particular trip with my family, I forgot what day it was. That never happens to me. It really suppresses any worry and stress you might have.”

An early column Scopa wrote about how the place made him feel ran on mouseplanet.com and caught the eye of a rather recognizable figure.

“One of the nicest things that I’m most proud of is how that article was adopted by the SaveDisney website,” he says. “Roy E. Disney [Walt’s nephew, Roy’s son] put it on the homepage. I must’ve really hit on something they really liked. Maybe it captured something that sums it all up.”

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Photo by Kendal J. Bush

Randy Houle is a no-nonsense, pickup-driving, die-hard Patriots fan with a hard Merrimack Valley accent who can project a gruff demeanor. By day, he’s a program manager on a mobile air traffic control system used by the US Army and the Marines. Mention Mickey Mouse, though, and this Raytheon engineer reveals his true form. As an annual passholder for more than two decades, Houle has walked through the turnstiles at Walt DisneyWorld as many as 60 times in one year, which may not seem all that remarkable until you realize he lives in Salem.

“I first went in 1992 with my wife’s family,” Houle says. “I was always a fan of Disney stuff — I’d watch ‘Wonderful World of Disney’ every week as a kid — but when I first went to the parks, it was a whole new thing.”

After that initial impression, the Houles — his wife works as a CFO for a New Hampshire bank — spent their honeymoon there. That trip, in turn, led to others. Many others. (His personal count is between 130 and 140.)

At first, Houle says, people would scoff, “You’re going to Disney again?” Now: No one says that to him anymore.

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One of Houle’s most prized collectibles is this Jiminy Cricket figurine carved out of reclaimed Redwood from the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas. Photo by Kendal J. Bush

“The more you go, the sense of wonder and amazement you have the first few times turns into this feeling of going home,” Houle says. “You’re returning to someplace you enjoy and where you can relax. It’s like being away for a long time and then coming home. It feels good.”

So good, he turned pro. For a time, Houle was a Disney cast member — what the company calls its employees — at The Disney Store in the Mall at Rockingham Park. He’d spend days overseeing government contracts and evenings organizing Disney pin-trading events.

“I’d get to talk to people who had similar interests, I’d get to see cool stuff before it came out, and I got great discounts,” he says. “At the time I worked there, I could get into the parks for free with my cast member ID, and we got 50% off of room costs. It was a great deal, it was fun, and I loved it.”

Houle counts a number of Walt Disney World classic attractions among his favorites (“I know they’re not the most exciting,” he says). Among them: The Peoplemover, Spaceship Earth and The Carousel of Progress. The Carousel is an attraction originally conceived conceived by Walt Disney for the 1964 World’s Fair. One experience, in particular, however, stands out.

“Before Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party became such a big thing, they had pin events — starting around the millennium,” Houle says. “They had all sorts of live entertainment in the park and, if you got the special dinner package, you could have dinner in the Haunted Mansion. We did, and that night I snuck a pocket-size TV in with me and got to watch the Red Sox break the curse by winning the World Series — from inside the Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World.” 

An unlikely Walt Disney World fanatic

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Me? I’m an enthusiast. If I find something I like, I’m probably going to take it to excess. So, though it may not seem like it after 80-something trips to Walt Disney World, I was originally an unlikely Walt Disney World fanatic.

I like Motorhead and watching hockey fights on YouTube as much as the next meathead, but my favorite song is “Go the Distance” from Disney’s “Hercules,” and I’ll stand in a long line to get my picture taken with Goofy. What’s the attraction? It took writing three “Mousejunkies” books to try to explain how Disney brained me with the most magical sucker punch on Earth one hot August day in 1998, but since that afternoon, it’s become a part of every single day of my life.

It’s like Scopa says — it’s the willful suspension of disbelief. Your biggest worry while staying onsite is getting to your dinner reservation on time. It’s like Jim Hill says — you meet creative people who are passionate about what they do. It’s like Heather Bishop says — it’s a place that can make you feel something and leave you with lasting memories. And it’s like what Randy Houle says — after yet another excessive and unnecessary trip, it’s still like going home. -Bill Burke

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