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I was a Disney Character: A Tale of Blood, Sweat and Fur

I was a Disney Character: A Tale of Blood, Sweat and Fur

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Mwah!

Peter Pan and Aladdin were huddled together in a corner of the locker room, their lips locked in a moment of pixie dust passion. Next to them, the Fairy Godmother cursed like a sailor while Snow White took a long drag on a Marlboro.

And so began my first day of work at Walt Disney World.

A Childhood Fascination

From the first time my parents took me to the Magic Kingdom, I was fascinated by this colorful world where everything was, well, magical. It was an awesome experience to walk through the front gates and onto Main Street; smelling the popcorn, listening to the barber shop quartet, rushing to the rides.

Actually, many of my childhood memories about Disney involve rushing. To the tram or the monorail. To Space Mountain or Peter Pan's Flight. To make our reservation at the Diamond Horseshoe Revue. But regardless of where we were rushing to, we always stopped when we saw a character.

Genuine Celebrities

Watching Mickey and his friends on TV was one thing. Getting to meet them, hug them, and take pictures with them was completely different. They were the larger-than-life inhabitants of this magical world that was, in itself, larger-than-life. And they were right there!

I was mesmerized by the characters. From the way they interacted with the crowds to the personal escort always at their side, they were genuine celebrities. And like any true celebrity, there was an aura about them. For years, I'd watch the characters walk in and out of specially disguised doors and wonder what was on the other side.

Finding a job

I graduated college with an advertising degree and the expectation of writing Super Bowl commercials. Half a dozen job interviews later, I realized two things: (1) the advertising world hadn't been waiting for my arrival with baited breath and (2) without a portfolio of dazzling work, the closest I'd get to any ad agency was delivering pizzas at lunchtime.

My spirits deflated, I searched the job ads in the paper, looking for anything to stand out. Something did. Amongst the sea of black and white ads sat a four-color notice commanding attention. Using words like "magic" and "spectacular", the ad was offering the opportunity to become part of the Walt Disney World team. The job? Character performer.

People will see me and cry

The auditions were held at a soundstage far removed from Disney property. A massive line of people, many of whom looked like rejects from the set of Fame, stretched around the building. Wearing tights, headbands, and those fuzzy things dancers put around their legs, they chugged bottles of Evian and clutched their headshots.

Once inside the building, we were each given a number and divided into groups of 40. Then we waited. And waited. Finally my group was called and I followed the others into a giant dance studio. A little man in a beret mumbled something unintelligible and busted into a fury of wild dance moves. Everybody else matched him move for move. I tried to follow along but wound up tripping over a feather boa and falling down.

The second part of the audition involved about 20 of us standing in another room while a tall man with glasses barked out orders.

"Okay, show me: packing a suitcase!"

I looked around and saw the others silently going through the motions of folding imaginary clothes and putting them into an imaginary suitcase. I followed suit.

"Show me: putting on a pair of roller skates and teaching somebody to dance the Charleston!"

"Show me: sleepwalking, winding up in a room filled with banana peels, cotton balls and a group of gorillas!"

The audition ended and we were led into another room to wait. Ninety minutes later, the tall man with glasses came out and read 30 names from his clipboard. I was one of the names.

Basic training

For the next two weeks, I went through Disney's Character Orientation program. Each morning, I'd report to Casting and learn about the characters I'd be playing. At the end of the course, an exam tested my knowledge of these characters and my ability to sign their names. After all, if little Billy gets an autograph from Mickey in 1985 and then again in 2005, the signatures must be identical.

I passed the exam, received a little diploma (signed by Mickey, of course) and joined my fellow trainees on an awaiting tram. This was it, I was finally going behind those magical doors.

Behind the doors

The tram drove a mile or so from Casting to the Magic Kingdom. During the drive, we passed a graveyard of miscellaneous ride props, like a hippo from The Jungle Cruise and a sub vessel from the defunct 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The road sloped downward and we arrived at a gigantic hanger. This was the gateway to the Utilidor, the underground tunnel system that covered the entire Magic Kingdom. Each attraction is accessible via the Utilidor and you can get to any of them within minutes. And just like the magical world above ground, there's plenty to see in the Utilidor. Standing at a doorway, just a few feet from the entrance to Fantasy Land, was Ariel, talking dirty to her boyfriend on her cell phone.

Know your role

Make no mistake about it, there's a definite pecking order among 'character performers' at Disney. At the top of the food chain are the 'faces.' These are the unmasked performers who portray characters like Cinderella, Jasmine and Prince Charming. Further down the ladder, you've got your 'main 5', which includes the five classic Disney characters, Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald and Pluto. Below, you'll find the rest.

But don't think for a moment that we've reached a small world of equality here. Characters that have broken through the mainstream via TV, movies or massive merchandise sale are regarded as stars. Winnie the Pooh and his neurotic friends, Captain Hook and The Beast all fall into this category. At the bottom of the list are characters based on rides (the Country Bears), characters long forgotten (Pinocchio's Gideon) and worst of all, characters who took a spin on the Disney promotional machine and still failed to make an impact (Goofy's son, Max).

Just another day at the office

I portrayed five different characters during my four months at Disney. During that time, I worked all over the Magic Kingdom. Oftentimes to make extra money, I'd pick up additional shifts at one of the other parks or at a hotel character breakfast. Sweaty fur aside, there were plenty of cool perks about the job, like riding Space Mountain with the lights on and getting sneak previews of new attractions before they open to the public. Oh, they also let you buy damaged merchandise at a discounted price.

FAQ

When I tell people that I worked at Disney, their burst of laughter is often followed by a list of questions. Here's a random sampling:

Are the costumes air conditioned?
No.

Is it hot inside?
Oh yeah.

What if you need to use the bathroom during a set?
You hold it.

Are you bitter that you never became a face character?
I was actually given the opportunity to turn in my sweaty fur for tights and play Peter Pan. I declined when I was asked to shave my chest.

Is Walt Disney really frozen in a block of ice underneath the Magic Kingdom?
Sorry, I can't answer that. What happens at Disney...stays at Disney.

Reflections of a character

It's been several years since my exposure to backstage Disney. And in case you're wondering, being at the park each and every day didn't diminish my love for the place. I still turn into that young boy whenever I walk down Main Street and I still rush to get my photo taken with a character. In fact, having worked at Disney and going behind-the-scenes only fed my craving to be part of the magic.

Come to think of it, I guess I'm just like that saucy, rebel mermaid Ariel. I just want to be part of that world.

Rob Bloom is a humor writer. He likes candlelit dinners, long walks on the beach, and Coca-Cola Slurpees. In addition to being published in newspapers like "The Orlando Sentinel," Rob will soon be featured on NPR's "All Things Considered." To read his regular humor column, as well as his rants on obscure pop culture icons, visit RobBloom.com.

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  • Well, that was interesting.

  • Why post *** like this! It completely ruins the magic! And yes clearly bitter you didn't have ty 'look' for face!

  • Hi there .. Just curious as to when you were there? I was there from 1996-1999... I only did fur.. and was based at Magic Kingdom .. r.jaywilson@yahoo.com

  • What characters did you play?

  • This was very interesting and informative! I really want to be a face character at Disney World when I'm old enough (and finish college)! Do you know if the face characters also have to play fuzzies? Someone said they did...

  • amazing. ha

  • hahaha you are so funny!! I loved every bit of it your a greaat writer, I want to audition for pricess tiana but ... i would have to fly all the way to orlando to audition soo idk

  • Thank you for this! Anyone who reads this as "bitter" (comment below) clearly has never spent time in the tunnels! Its a crazy word as a character performer and I think you managed to get the furry life across! Your comments on fur status particularly rang true! Miss Bunny and Thumper, Brier Rabbit (and yes Gideon!) ...give me ears anyday!

  • I wanted to work there, stop crying..

  • hahaha, hilarious.

    when i'm old enough, i really want to try and be a jasmine face character =)

    i've been back stage, let's see, 3 times! (I'm in the band at my high school and we perform every year so I got to go backstage)

    I remember my first time backstage, I saw Mickey Mouse with his head off smoking. It was lovely. Just kidding I laughed so hard I almost peed.

    Anyways, loooved the article! so funny and informative...happy to say i still am motivated to work there!

    Thanks for your article!

  • WHAT, U TURNED DOWN PETER PAN, that wud b my dream job. Also what, peter pan and aladdin making out?

  • I work for Disney, in entertainment, and I know for a FACT that that opening paragraph couldn't ever have happened. Face characters cant smell like alcohol (snow white) for a start, and there is no reason ever that those characters would ever share a green room in a million years (or locker room are you serious?) And even if they did, how would you see? Youd be stuck someone unimportant on your first day like camp or c-spot not in a show greenroom with important face characters that are for some reason together. If your gonna write fiction, let us know first.

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  • I am a disneyland maniac and a big fan of Disney's empire. As a graphic designer that i am, i Like so much the excellency of Disney art.

    I love the whole thing and concept, from making disneyland landscapes and attractions, to Disney Characters costumes.

    I really hate it when i see face characters with no Masks  ;-)

    If i was in charge of this, i would never allow any naked face characters to appear publicly at the Parks. I would demand from every "disney character" to wear a mask.

    And there is a simple reason for that. It's because every time i see photos from several Disneyland parks characters, each time i see a different face of Snow white, peter pan, Belle, Aurora etc.. and the magic and the magic switched off for me and this is a very uncool thing. Not only for me but for all visitors.

    For example, I would like to see "Ariel's real movie face" as a mask and not as a different woman every time, dressed up like Ariel. visitors are going to Disneyland to visit their favorite Characters and not other people's faces pretending to be Disney characters. The Magic of Characters is in their Big eyes.

    No human have those eyes.

    I would only allow not to wear masks and have their faces shown, when they are acting a role play at a theater on a stage. Only there.

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