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What's really behind the sudden change in Disney Parks & Resorts' facial hair policy?

Jim Hill

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What's really behind the sudden change in Disney Parks & Resorts' facial hair policy?

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You're going to read a lot today about how - by revising their long-standing policy on facial hair - Disney Parks and Resorts is now turning its back on nearly 60 years of tradition.

Which isn't entirely true.

I mean, if Walt Disney himself really insisted that no one with a beard or a mustache be allowed to work inside of one of his theme parks, then how do you explain Sheriff Lucky and Black Bart ...

Sheriff Lucky and Black Bart from Disneyland's 1957 souvenir
guidebook. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

... those mustached & goateed performers who used to entertain Disneyland visitors in the late 1950s / early 1960s with their daily gun battles in and around Frontierland?

More to the point, given that most of The Happiest Place on Earth's original shops & restaurants were run by lessees (EX: The Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship Restaurant in Fantasyland) who were then in charge of hiring all of their own on-site employees ... For at least six years there (i.e. Walt didn't actually gain absolute & total control over his Anaheim theme park 'til 1960 /1961. Which is when the Company bought out ABC's stake in the operation and the last of Disneyland's original sponsorship deals finally expired), Walt had little or no say over what many frontline Disneyland employees looked like.

So where did this whole "All-Disney-theme-park-Cast-Members-must-have-no-facial-hair" thing come from? I actually got to ask Van France (who - along with his then-assistant, Dick Nunis - created the University of Disneyland training center back in 1955) about this in the late 1980s. Back then, Van was working with Steve Fiott, a New Hampshire-based publisher on his soon-to-be-published memoirs, "Window on Main Street: 35 Years of Creating Happiness at Disneyland Park" (Stabur Press, September 1991). And over lunch one day at the late, great Green Ridge Turkey Farm Restaurant, France revealed to me that that classic clean-cut look which eventually came to be the gold standard at the Disney theme parks almost came about by accident.

Van France proudly gestures towards his very own
window on Main Street. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

As Van explained ...

... we had so many marines moonlighting for us back then. Guys who were stationed at Tustin, El Toro and Camp Pendleton that would come work Third Shift at the Park on the weekends, doing stuff like stocking shelves after hours, trash collection and street cleaning.

And Walt - who was spending a lot of his weekends back then staying in that apartment above the fire station as he looked for new ways to plus the Park - would get up early in the morning and then go wander around Disneyland. And he'd see these marines with their high-and-tight haircuts doing things like hosing down the streets. And Walt just liked how clean-cut these hard-working servicemen looked.

Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs in "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis."

Now you gotta remember that the late 1950s was the time of the beatnik. Not the crazy long-haired hippies that we had in the 1960s, mind you. But scruffy-looking kids with goatees. You know? Like Maynard G. Krebs on "Dobie Gillis."

So as we began buying out the lessees and Walt got more & more control over who worked at Disneyland ... I think the whole clean-cut, no-facial-hair thing really grew out of that. Walt liked how professional the marines who moonlighted at Disneyland looked. He also recognized that - back in the uptight 1950s -- the general public was pretty leery of people who looked different, like the beatniks.

So it wasn't that Walt himself disliked facial hair. He had a mustache himself, you know. As did a lot of the animators and Imagineers who worked for him. And Walt was good friends with Salvador Dali. Who had  the craziest mustache you'd ever seen.

Salvador Dali and Walt Disney. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

No, the no-facial-hair thing came about because the people who work at Disneyland aren't employees, they're Cast Members. And when they're out in the Park, they're not just doing a job. They're onstage performing a role. Which is to entertain our Guests. And Walt wanted Disneyland's Cast Members to be clean-cut like those marines. So - over time - we began insisting that all new hires who'd be working onstage in direct contact with the general public not have facial hair. So this wasn't a formal policy that we had in place when Disneyland first opened back in 1955. It was something that we decided to do later after we'd bought out all of the lessees.

Which brings us now to the bigger question. As in: Why did Disney Parks & Resorts pick this particular moment to revise its no-facial-hair policy when it comes to beards & goatees?

I mean, the last time that the Mouse did something like this was back in March of 2000. Which was when Disney Parks & Resorts dropped its long-standing stance when it came to prohibiting male Cast Members from growing mustaches. But that was done because ... Well, it was a far tougher labor market back then. And Disney World was genuinely having trouble when it came to recruiting enough employees to properly staff the then-recently-opened Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park as well as the then soon-to-be-opening Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge. And by removing the no-mustache restriction, that then gave the WDW Resort a far bigger pool of prospective employees to choose from.

Am I the only one who thinks that Kidani Village at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge
sort of looks like a giant mustache? Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

But today's job market is obviously not like the one back in March of 2000. From what I hear, the Walt Disney World Resort has more job applicants then it knows what to do with right now. So what's the point of dropping the no-beards-or-goatee job requirement right now?

From what I was told by Disney Company insiders yesterday, this grooming policy change has more to do with Mickey's long-range plans for international expansion than anything else. That - on the other side of the Shanghai Disneyland project -- the Company is considering making investments-of-scale in emerging markets like Russia, India and South America. Places & cultures that have very different attitudes when it comes to facial hair.

So - in short - don't believe everything that you read today when it comes to The Walt Disney Company and facial hair. Disneyland didn't actually start off life back in 1955 as a place that wouldn't employ people just because they had a mustache, beard or goatee.  (Want proof? Then check out this Disneyland postcard from 1957. Which shows 4 very mustachioed Cast Members gathered around that coal stove inside of the old Swift Market House on Main Street, U.S.A. )

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

More to the point, the Company didn't make this change to the Disney Look just because it was looking to make life easier for the male Cast Members who work at their theme parks & resorts. I've heard persistent rumblings that this sudden change-in-policy may actually have a tie to a federal discrimination complaint which was filed against the Disneyland Resort back in August of 2010. You may recall this case. Which grew out of a Muslim Cast Member's complaint that she wasn't being allowed to wear a religious headscarf while working as a ticket seller & vacation planner at Disneyland.

So what exactly does that case (which was settled, by the way, in September of last year when the Company provided 22-year-old Noor Abdallah with a Disney-approved blue scarf & beret-style hat to wear while at work) have to do with Disney's decision to suddenly allow Male Cast Members to have beards & goatees? I'm still digging away at that story, folks. When I know more, I'll post it here, okay?

Your thoughts?

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  • I'm personally not a fan of facial hair, but a cleanly trimmed beard or moustache looks fine.  It's the "growing" phase that would make the CM's look a bit scruffy.  You mentioned that this rule has been lifted due to international expansion.  I can imagine India and South America with their own Disney attractions, but Russia?  The majority of nationals live in a decent vicinity to DLP and their population is one third of the USA's.  It's a bit confusing if Disney try to water down their parks to multiple locations around the world, rather than tent-pole locations for each continent.

  • I wouldn't take a postcard featuring period characters as proof of a castmembers grooming policy.  I know what you're saying is correct about the policies.  I was actually kind of surprised to learn it had changed during Walt Disney's lifetime.  I just don't think the postcard really stands as proof.

  • Going off of Andrew's comment on a potential Disney resort in Russia, Jim, does Disney realize that Russia is NOT a developing country with a growing middle class? While Russia's economy will grow significantly due to their substantial petroleum reserves, their population growth has been stagnet. Russia does not have the number of families coming into the middle class that countries like China, Brazil and India will have over time. So is Russia just being thrown out for discussions sale or are they seriously considering it as a potential location of a Disney resort?

  • Correction *discussions sake

  • DocEagle, you took the words right out of my mouth. Using postcards displaying period characters as proof of this policy is equivalent to showing a postcard of the Abraham Lincoln Audio-Animatronic or 6 of the the 7 Dwarfs meet-and-greet characters as proof.

  • I don't know if i feel that your analogy with the entertainment cast members wearing facial hair  back in the 50's/60's is fully supported Jim. While I completely believe in this not being a full-tilt policy in that time, entertainment cast members have always been 'exempt' from certain wardrobe/grooming policies if their role supported it, i.e. gunslingers with mustaches. If I am incorrect please feel free to rebut but I was a Guest Relations Mgr/Operations mgr for 2 years at Hollywood Studios and we had tons of entertainment that were allowed to 'create' their own personas, facial hair or no facial hair.

    BTW... Love your articles... read every day!

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Thanks for the kind words. And you're right. I wish that I had more photos of Disneyland from the late 1950s / early 1960s to support the central premise of today's article. It would have been great to have some images of those lessees' employees with facial hair. I spent hours this morning looking for photos like that, but came up dry.

    On the other hand, it was nice to finally get some of that interview that I did with Van France interview back in 1989 up on the Web. Van (as you might expect) had some great stories about the early days of Disneyland. Not to mention Pleasure Island outside of Boston and Freedomland in the Bronx. I can't believe that I've been sitting on that material for over 20 years now.

    But then again, until Disney announced its new facial hair policy, I never really had the chance to bring up France's tale about Walt thought of all those marines who used to work Third Shift at Disneyland. That's the thing with storytelling. Sometimes you have to wait a really long time before the proper opportunity arrives to share a particular tale.

  • I would bet that the evolution of the hair policy reflected in part a reaction to the changes in fashion.  During most of the 1950s there were a lot of little unwritten rules governing how people, especially young adults, should act and look.  Guests routinely showed up in their "Sunday best' when visiting the park.  So its no surprise that cast members followed the norms of the times . . . as the sixties approached, obviously fashion changed somewhat and rules were codified.    

    I don't think there is any "secret agenda" behind the change as apparently a lot of castmembers wanted the change, plus they are allowing a "Casual Friday" for CMs not onstage.

  • I also have heard it was changed when EPCOT opened to allow the males to have beards and facial hair to reflect the beliefs of their countries  such as Morocco

    EDITOR'S NOTE: That is a logical explanation. The only problem is that it doesn't quite jibe with the actual sequence of events. EPCOT Center opened in October of 1982, whereas it wasn't 'til March of 2000 that the Company's policy in regards to the Disney Look was actually amended so that Cast Members could then have mustaches.

  • Well, actually, that final postcard is proof that not just Entertainment Cast Members wore facial hair.  On the far right that is the famous Trinidad, the White Wing street sweeper on Main Street who cleaned up after the horses on Main Street among other things.  He was the most photographed character at the park in the early days because of his distinctive look but he was definitely a maintenance employee not Entertainment.   And he was not the only one who was a regular cast member with facial hair but since he worked on Main Street and was so distinctive, he was pulled in for that photo for the Main Street  postcard.

    Yes, over the years, there were no restrictions in WED Imagineering or Feature Animation or Entertainment about facial hair.   Since Disney is an international company, it has to be sensitive to different cultures where moustaches and beards can relate to religious traditions or even to manhood.

  • I don't know...I think it's a bit ridiculous. I think it's perfectly reasonable to not hire someone because you feel they appear unprofessional if their hair (facial or otherwise) is a bit on the long or messy side. However, to simply not hire anyone with ANY facial hair? Sounds like another example of the Mouse's control issues.

  • I worked there in the early 60's and don't remember your scenerio at all........I was hired by a lessee, Aunt Jemima's Kitchen and had to conform to the appearance policy as did all lessee cast members........the gun fighters in Frontierland had facial hair due to the role that they were playing.......Trinidad was an Icon on Main St and you are correct, one of the most photographed characters in the Park........the policy at the time, as it was explained to me was, if you were hired with a moustache and it was on your I.D. then you were allowed to keep it ..........there were a few employees that sported mustaches back in the day........John Catone and Frank Stabile come to mind...

    EDITOR'S NOTE: When exactly in the early 1960s were you hired, Mike? From 1961 going forward, after Walt Disney Productions bought out ABC and assumed full ownership of Disneyland, Inc., Walt had far more influence over what the lessees could and could not do. So maybe by that point, Disney was insisting that both the Cast Members as well as the employees of the lessees adher to the Park's grooming standards.

    As for Mr. Catone and Staabile ... As Van explained this to me, the reason that people like John and Frank were allowed to have mustaches was because -- at the time that they were hired to work at Disneyland -- there was no formal policy in place in regards to male Cast Members and facial hair. But as Walt began insisting on a more clean-cut look for the employees working at his theme park, people like Mr. Catone and Mr. Stabile were grandfathered into the new system (i.e. allowed to keep their mustaches because -- at the time that John and Frank were hired  -- there was no formal policy regarding facial hair in place).

    The point that I was trying to make with yesterday's article was that -- when people talk in absolutes when it comes to Disneyland (i.e. that theme park has always insisted on its employees being clean-cut and clean shaven) -- that's really not what happened. A lot of the policies and procedures that are now considered traditions at The Happiest Place on Earth evolved over time. There are a lot of trial and error during Disneyland's first 5 or 6 years of operation, as Walt butted heads with lessees (You must have heard the stories about how the folks at the Park constantly did battle with Don DeForge about the tricks / techniques he used to lure customers into his Silver Banjo restaurant). Not to mention that huge culture change that came in January of 1956, when C V Wood Jr. was pushed out as Disneyland's first Vice President. And a lot of the hard-drinking Texans who helped Woody build the Park and get it through those first six months were chased off as well.

    There's so much Disneyland history that gets deleted and/or glossed over nowadays because it then doesn't fit in with the version of this theme park's history that the Company's comfortable with talking about. That's why I loved interviewing / talking with people like Van France, John Hench and Marc Davis. Guys who were actually there, working side-by-side with Walt who'd then tell you the whole unvarnished truth, warts and all. Rather than the cleaned-up, condensed, Company-approved version of Disneyland's history.

  • I remember when a group of us young WED Designers were going to work at Disneyland to learn what it was like in the 1970's with guests, and  we had to agree to cut off our moustaches and cut our hair.

  • Another tradition that I think evolved over time was the "red carpet" out front.  Supposedly, Walt wanted the entrance to the park to be like walking into a show... out front was the red concrete, with a strip of red concrete for carpet laid out for the guests.  Then the area in front of the train station was the lobby, the posters in the tunnels were the coming attractions, and then entering into Main Street was like the movie unfolding out for the viewer... a great story, but I had thought the parking lot was redesigned in the beginning of Eisner's tenure... and the red carpet was set up then.  Jim do you know more about this?  I know I've seen pictures of the front of the park where cars are driving up practically to the ticket booths.

  • How do you expect anyone to take your writing seriously when you write something like, "Want proof? Then check out this Disneyland postcard from 1957. Which shows 4 very mustachioed Cast Members gathered around...".

    They're playing CHARACTERS for Pete's sake!

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Look, you need to see the forest for the trees. Yes, the men appearing in that photograph which was then turned into a Disneyland postcard were performers who played characters at the Park (with the exception of Trinidad the whitewing). But their mustaches & beards aren't held on with spirit gum. These performers have facial hair.  At a time when -- according to most Disneyland histories -- Walt was supposedly already forbidding anyone who worked in his theme park to have facial hair.

    The whole point of this article is to show that Disneyland history isn't as absolute / black & white as many fans would like you to believe. There were things (like this theme park's grooming policy) that evolved over time. Rather than already being locked in place / written in stone on July 17, 1955.

  • Thx for the article.  Strange though I left in 2000 & they were allowing mustaches and goatees as long as they were grown in.

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