Naperville Living: Life after Disney leads them home
By Angela Bender email@example.com December 29, 2011 6:50PM
Naperville resident and artist, R.J. Orgen preps before a day of painting in his home office on Wednesday December 28, 2011 in Naperville IL. | Terence Guider-Shaw~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 2, 2012 8:07AM
If a house is a reflection of those who live there, there is no doubt when stepping into the home of R.J. and Suzanne Ogren that they have a passion for Disney. In May, the couple moved into their downtown Naperville home and immediately made it a place where they can display the years of influence Disney has had on them.
“(Disney) has defined our lives,” 67-year-old R.J. said.
After attending high school together, R.J. and Suzanne reconnected in Miami, Fla., and got married. Suzanne was an actress and dancer. R.J. had an art background.
Despite their roots in the Midwest, they continued to live in Florida but spent their first Christmas as a married couple at Disneyland in California. They decided then and there that they would find a way to be employed by the theme park.
“Both of us stood in Town Square and said, ‘Someday we are going to work here’,” said Suzanne, now 66, who at the time had no idea that Disney World would be built in Florida.
Pursuing the dream
By the time Disney World opened in 1971, they had an infant daughter. They set their sights on getting jobs there and moved to Orlando. Because the company did not hire artists from outside the company, R.J. spent three years trying to get his foot in the door. He finally obtained an entry-level position as a monorail pilot.
“We were really struggling,” said Suzanne, who by then was a stay-at-home mom with two children.
After three months as a monorail pilot, R.J. applied for an artist position. After five weeks of interviews against 13 other people, R.J. was hired. He worked on all attractions at the theme park, spending his time re-doing or creating new characters and murals throughout the park. He put the skins on the pirates and presidents, and painted Peter Pan and Snow White. He even became a certified scuba diver so he could paint underwater on the 20000 Leagues Under the Sea ride.
“We did everything you could imagine,” R.J. said, “everything you saw inside and outside.”
When R.J. took the job as an artist with Disney World, Suzanne was hired to take his place as a monorail operator. After 18 months and the persistence of her husband, Suzanne got a dance audition and was hired to play a variety of characters, but primarily worked as Sleepy of the Seven Dwarfs. She eventually took a job in management.
During their time at Disney, R.J. and Suzanne saw Disney World’s Magic Kingdom grow from a single theme park with a couple of hotels to Walt Disney World Resort made up of four theme parks, two water parks and 23 on-site themed resort hotels. The Ogrens visited the parks for free at anytime, meeting for a drink at Epcot, taking their kids on rides, or just to people watch. Eventually both of their children also got jobs with the theme park.
“The whole family was Disney oriented, and we didn’t think we’d ever leave,” Suzanne said.
Making Naperville home
But by the mid-’90s things began to change after Michael Eisner took control of Walt Disney Company. The Ogrens decided it was time to move on, leaving for Virginia, and eventually the Chicago suburbs. And finally, last May, they landed in Naperville.
“We finally found where we wanted to stay,” R.J. said.
Suzanne added that their Naperville home feels like the one they had in Orlando.
“We feel like we’ve been here forever,” she said. “When we got everything put in this house, everything worked. It just fits us.”
Suzanne has a study where she writes, which is decorated with many variations of Sleepy, including a doorstop and a portrait of her.
R.J. has a studio in the basement where he does his artwork, including paintings and portraits. On the studio walls are photos of him working at Disney, in a golf cart at Tomorrowland, and putting final touches on figures on Disney’s Jungle Cruise. Also, on display is a piece of glass from the Haunted Mansion, a core sample from the monorail, two passes to Disney World and Snow White’s apple given to him when he left.
Numerous other Disney mementos can be found throughout the rest of home. Each year their Christmas tree is covered with Disney ornaments, including ones given only to employees. Disney animator Marc Davis designed a snow globe that sits on a shelf. A floor-to-ceiling coffee cup rack is filled with Disney-themed mugs. Prints from Disney movies hang on a basement wall.
And even though they live in Naperville, Suzanne and R.J. know they will always be reminded of the years they spent at Disney.
“A Disney background follows you everywhere,” Suzanne said. “The minute someone finds out you worked for Disney, it’s a big deal.”
Columnist Angela Bender lives in Naperville. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.