Rowing into the finals: A look at CROW, Disney’s canoe tradition

Cast member event happens before dawn at Magic Kingdom

Rowing into the finals: A look at CROW, Disney’s canoe tradition

BAY LAKE, Fla. – Comradery, teamwork and tradition. Those are three words that could describe C.R.O.W., a unique canoe experience that Walt Disney World cast members get to experience.

C.R.O.W., which stands for Canoe Races Of the World, allows cast members to team up and compete around the Rivers of America at Magic Kingdom.

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“CROW got started 47 years ago. Disney Cast Members wanted to have a little morale boost, so they decided to ask if they could do some canoe racing around the Rivers of America and Tom Sawyer’s Island. And the manager said, ‘Sure. What the heck? Let’s go for it.’ And it has been a cast morale boost and a cast event ever since,” said Joe Vecciarelli, cast activities coordinator.

Canoe Races Of the World (C.R.O.W.) at Magic Kingdom on May 17, 2022 (WKMG)

Before C.R.O.W. made its way to Walt Disney World, it first debuted at Disneyland in 1963. Since that time, its been added to Disney parks around the globe.

The special activity begins before dawn, prior to the park opening to guests.

Canoe Races Of the World (C.R.O.W.) at Magic Kingdom on May 17, 2022 (WKMG)

This year’s CROW theme was C.R.O.W.BACK, a subtle tribute to the other races over the decades.

Over the past three weeks, 90 teams have been competing for the best time.

Early Tuesday morning, the best 18 teams in five different divisions competed in the finals. Teams of 10 people sported their best team outfits and raced against the clock in a championship round.

Canoe Races Of the World (C.R.O.W.) at Magic Kingdom on May 17, 2022 (WKMG)

Some team names included Beauties & the Beast, Lights MotOARS Action!, Disney SpOARts and Albert AWOL’s EnginOARS.

“CROW is definitely my favorite event as a cast member. I think it really showcases how we have kind of a family of cast when you think of all the people in the Central Florida community,” explained Ellen Sawin, competitor and seven-year cast member. “Everyone is super excited, and it’s honestly very supportive, and everyone is rooting each other on with just like a healthy dose of competition.”

Canoe Races Of the World (C.R.O.W.) at Magic Kingdom on May 17, 2022 (WKMG)

Each group boards their canoe in Liberty Square, just steps from the Haunted Mansion. With a little push out to open water, and a “bon voyage” from volunteers, the teams begin their journey. Most teams finish their row in an average of five to six minutes.

“It’s pretty intense, and you’ll see some some of the times in the finals will come down to two to three seconds apart,” said Mike Cooper, 20-year CROW participant and cast member. “We’re talking about a hard row for six, seven minutes around around this river.”

Mike Cooper alongside fellow cast member Ellen Sawin (WKMG)

While each team competes for the top spot, other cast members line the shoreline to cheer on their favorites with clever signs.

Canoe Races Of the World (C.R.O.W.) at Magic Kingdom on May 17, 2022 (WKMG)

After competing during Tuesday’s event, each team crowded around the leader board to see their final time.

Canoe Races Of the World (C.R.O.W.) at Magic Kingdom on May 17, 2022 (WKMG)

The atmosphere went quiet as a cast member volunteer wrote out each teams’ final scoring time, with five different teams in each division winning the top spot.

Like so many events during the pandemic, C.R.O.W. was put on hold as Walt Disney World reopened its parks.

It was not until recently that cast members were able to experience the tradition once again during Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Canoe Races Of the World (C.R.O.W.) at Magic Kingdom on May 17, 2022 (WKMG)

“Being able to get back out and to do these races and have everybody come together and just be part of this, as well during the 50th anniversary, it’s a nice way to bring it back and a nice number. Start the races during the 50th and continue moving forward and make it better every year,” Vecciarelli concluded.

The winning team will get their name inscribed on an award plaque that is shaped like a paddle.

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About the Author:

Landon joined News 6 in 2017. He grew up in Southern Illinois and graduated from Southern Illinois University with a bachelors degree in TV and digital media. When he is not at work you can catch him at one of Orlando's theme parks or the beach. Before working at News 6 he worked for stations in Miami and Fort Myers.