Meet the Mentor Alum Who Got to Hang With Johnny Depp

That’s not the only “brush with greatness” Jason Surrell has enjoyed in a 30-year career in entertainment

Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow with Mentor alum Jason Surrell (88)


Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow with Mentor alum Jason Surrell (’88)

Quinn Fuerst , Contributor

Don’t you wish you could hang with Johnny Depp? Well, 1988 Mentor High alum Jason Surrell did. Read on about how that happened and the rest of his entertainment career!

Cardinal Nation: How did you get into screenwriting? 

Jason Surrell: I’ve done all kinds of writing throughout my career, but I first trained myself as a screenwriter and applied that format and many of those principles to my work in themed entertainment, which originally grew out of the film industry when Walt Disney began developing Disneyland.  So training myself as a screenwriter just made sense to me.  And then later on I studied it through UCLA extension.  I’ve written and directed an independent film and done some work for television, but I also apply the craft of screenwriting every day in my work in themed entertainment.

Cardinal Nation: How do you think your time at Mentor has impacted your life?

Jason Surrell: I had long been the class comedian – not a class clown, which I believe diminishes the material! – but when Ted Hieronymous cast me in Top 25 during my senior year it was truly life-changing in that it brought me out of my shell in a way nothing had before that moment. It gave me a confidence I didn’t have before and turned me into a “selective extrovert,” meaning I can truly perform when I’m onstage, in some cases literally but in most cases while pitching a project. And my free period chats with Rich Woodman and some of my closest high school friends at a table in the library made me feel “seen” in a way I hadn’t felt before and made me feel validated as an actual thinking adult as opposed to simply a “high school student.” Teachers can leave a huge footprint that goes well beyond the classroom, and Mr. H and Mr. Woodman did that in ways they couldn’t possibly have known would play such a huge role in my life, and I’ll be forever grateful to both of them.

Passing of Trustee, Ted Hieronymus, '65 | Heidelberg University
Ted Hieronymus, Mentor Top 25 founder and director (1965-95) and long-time Mentor music teacher
No photo description available.
Richard Woodman, retired Mentor science teacher and long-time volleyball coach

Cardinal Nation: How did you end up at Disney?

Jason Surrell: Working for Disney was always a dream of mine – I even talk about it in my short bio in the program for the big Top 25 show during my senior year – and I got my start during the summer of my freshman year of college working at the Jungle Cruise as part of the Walt Disney World College Program. I went back the next summer and transferred into Entertainment, which allowed me to dust off my dancing skills from Top 25. I then decided to transfer down to the University of Central Florida in Orlando, so I could continue working at Disney while finishing up my degree, and that was when I first started pitching live shows. That ultimately led to the early part of my career in live entertainment at both Disney and Universal, and ultimately paved the way for me to transition into creating rides and attractions at Walt Disney Imagineering and Universal Creative. Except for a brief pause during the pandemic, I’ve only worked for those two companies over the course of an almost 30-year career.

The 1987-88 Mentor Top 25 of which Jason was a member

Cardinal Nation: Did you grow up going to Disney And Universal?

Jason Surrell: My family went to Walt Disney World for the first time when I was five, and we were a “Disney family” from then on. I was also obsessed with the Universal Studios Tour in Hollywood from a young age, and became captivated by it when I finally got to go there for myself when I was 14. And then I was actually down in Florida working for Disney when Disney-MGM Studios and Universal Studios Florida opened, and within a couple of years I was working for both of them. So the two companies have played a huge role in both my personal and professional lives from a very young age.

Cardinal Nation: What activities were you involved in? 

Jason Surrell: I wasn’t involved with much during my high school years, but my time in both the school choir and especially Top 25 had a profound impact on me and helped nudge me even further into the entertainment industry. It was always my dream and passion to work in show business, but getting an actual taste of performing sealed the deal. My time in Top 25 also gave me the confidence to perform stand-up comedy during my early 20s, but I ultimately gave that up to pursue themed entertainment and film and television.

Cardinal Nation: What other teachers at Mentor High that made an impact on your life?

Jason Surrell: Rich Woodman and Ted Hieronymous were both huge influences on me in terms of cultivating a love for performing and entertainment and making me feel like my thoughts and opinions – my point of VIEW – had real value, and I’ll never be able to repay them for that. Mr. [Chris] Young and Mrs. [Ellen] Geisler, my two English teachers, also helped nurture my burgeoning ability to write, even though I could be a handful for them from a “class comedian” point of view!

Cardinal Nation: What was your favorite project you have worked on?

Jason Surrell: I think my two favorite projects are “Star Tours: The Adventures Continue” at Disney, because I got to play in the Star Wars galaxy and actually pitch the project to George Lucas, who has been one of the major inspirations and influences in my life; and Universal Studios Beijing at Universal because I got to be the creative director of an entire theme park, which once seemed like too big a dream even for a big dreamer like me. So to have that kind of responsibility and help bring joy to so many people has meant the world to me.

George Lucas - IMDb
“The Maker” of the “Star Wars” universe, George Lucas

Cardinal Nation: What recognizable figures have you had the privilege of working with, and what were they like?

Jason Surrell: I was fortunate enough to work with a few of Walt Disney’s original Imagineers, either on projects or the books I wrote on classic attractions, but I did get to spend a lot of time with a few of them and learn the art of themed entertainment directly from the masters. Through my work with “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones” and the “Jurassic” franchise, I’ve had a chance to collaborate with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, so after growing up on their work in the ’70s and ’80s you can imagine how mind-blowing that was. I got to write for and direct Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, and he couldn’t have been kinder, more gracious and was as eager to serve the material as anyone else I’ve ever worked with – a total pro and true collaborator – and that was a life-changing experience.


And I got to work closely with Jimmy Fallon and his Tonight Show writers on our attraction at Universal, and he is everything you’d want him to be based on what you see on TV. I also got to spend a lot of time with the cast and crew of “The Avengers” when I was writing a book about the film, and that was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. They’re filming a cataclysmic battle of New York on the same Cleveland streets where my parents used to take me Christmas shopping, so it was like two worlds colliding. And you haven’t lived until The God of Thunder practically force feeds you a breakfast sandwich, which is exactly what Chris Hemsworth did.

Cardinal Nation: How do you think entertainment is changing, and how might it change what your work is like?

Jason Surrell: Entertainment is ever-changing, always has been and always will be.  The pandemic has accelerated certain trends that were already underway, meaning you can see a movie in your home on the same day or shortly after it debuts in theaters. But the pandemic also demonstrated that humans have an insatiable need for a shared experience, which is what going to a movie or a theme park is. Our business has bounced back harder and stronger than even our most optimistic leaders could have thought, and international pop cultural events like “Spider-Man: No Way Home” have demonstrated that the movies are back. But whether it’s television, home video, gaming, the internet and now streaming, the entertainment industry will always adapt to new innovations and new additions, and that will never change. Content will always be king, but the way we experience it will constantly evolve and change, which is what we’re seeing right now.

Cardinal Nation: Advice for Mentor students that want to get into the entertainment industry?

Jason Surrell: I am living proof that a kid from Mentor, Ohio can make their dreams come true. So my main advice to anyone pursuing a dream, especially one that might strike friends and family as being outside the norm, is to keep at it. You CAN and WILL make it come true if you believe in yourself and do the work. But doing both of those things is harder than it seems, so be prepared. But you really can make literally anything happen.