Authors: Cast Member Confidential: A Disneyfied Memoir
Tags: #Journalists, #South Atlantic, #Walt Disney World (Fla.) - Employees, #Walt Disney World (Fla.), #Entertainment & Performing Arts, #General, #United States, #Photographers, #Personal Memoirs, #Disneyland (Calif.), #Amusement & Theme Parks, #Biography & Autobiography, #Travel, #South, #Biography
“With razor-sharp prose and a keen eye for detail, Chris Mitchell’s account of backstage life at Disney World shows us that the Magic Kingdom isn’t all bedknobs and broomsticks. From pot-smoking princes to ‘protein spills,’
Cast Member Confidential
is a witty, compassionate, and ultimately disturbing view of the happiest place on earth. Put it this way: I’ll never trust Winnie the Pooh again.”
—Kevin Roose, author of
The Unlikely Disciple
“Chris Mitchell’s no-holds-barred account of his year in the Magic Kingdom is harrowing, sordid, and yes, great fun. But it’s heartfelt, too, and intensely readable. Mitchell doesn’t just peek behind Disney’s imposing curtain. He tears the whole thing down.”
—David Goodwillie, author of
Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time
Kensington Publishing Corp.
ll my life, Disney has been a kind of sanctuary for me, a place that felt safe when everything else was going fuzzy. The music, the movies, the characters—every element so well thought out, it was hard to believe I couldn’t simply jump through a chalk drawing to get to a world where animals sang and danced. So when I hit a rocky road in my life, and desperately needed some magic to solve or at least escape my problems, I turned to the Magic Kingdom for sanctuary and solace.
In many ways, Disney World is just like one of those animated movies in which everything seems more colorful, more extravagant. It’s a place where everyone is welcome. Whether you’re a pirate or a princess or an anarchic runaway, Disney provides a dress code, teaches you how to behave, and gives you all the tools you need to live happily ever after.
But there’s danger in losing yourself to a fantasyland of fairies and flying carpets because at some indecipherable moment that fantasy becomes your reality, and the moral code that used to define you blurs. When the only limit is imagination, life can get very strange, very quickly.
The people I met while I worked at the park were good people. Every one of them signed legal agreements with Disney promising not to talk about their behind-the-scenes experiences. Because I worked for a third-party subcontractor, I signed no such agreement. While I intend to hold nothing back in telling you my story, I have a responsibility to protect the identities of my otherwise innocent fellow Cast Members.
The people in this book are real, but I have changed their characteristics to mask their true identity from the Corporation. In some instances, I have combined characteristics of people I met and created composite characters. The events in this memoir really occurred. The incidents that happened to me, I describe as accurately as possible. Stories I heard, I present as folklore. At Disney, as in every society, the legend and lore passed down through oral storytelling are a vital part of the cultural experience, so I didn’t leave that out. In certain instances, I have ascribed folkloric episodes to actual (or composite) persons for ease of storytelling. I didn’t include the many rumors that I couldn’t confirm to my satisfaction.
From my first day as a Disney World Cast Member, people wanted to know what it was like to be a part of Walt’s great machine. I would try to describe the onstage atmosphere or the backstage culture or the after-hours social events, but I could never quite capture the essence. How could I describe a cartoon dream world? What could I say to make them understand the challenging circumstances that drove me there in the first place? The only way to explain it is to start at the beginning.
You are about to discover what really happens behind the scenes at Disney World. Please keep your hands and arms inside at all times. Things are about to get a little bumpy….
y gratitude goes out to the people who helped shape this book: to my mother whose strength and courage I will admire forever, to my family, who has always been incredibly supportive, even when my actions made no sense at all, to my agent, Nancy Love, and my editor, Richard Ember. To the beautiful and talented Ann Christianson, who patiently read a thousand versions of this manuscript, and to Shane Coburn, who helped shape my most convoluted thoughts into words. Most of all, I want to thank the people I can’t name on these pages, the Disney Cast Members who would get fired or worse if the Corporation found out about their involvement: to the Madame of the Safe House and Spiderguy and the Girl of Paradise Cove, thank you for taking the risk and letting me in on your secrets. My biggest thanks of all to Walt Disney, whose vision has meant so much to so many.
obody has ever died at Disney World.
I discovered this curious truism on a trip to Orlando the year Tony Hawk landed the 900. I was there for work at the time, interviewing a professional rollerblader who worked as a stunt monkey in the Tarzan show.
It was a perfect September evening in Frontierland. The sky was North Shore blue and cloud free from Saint Pete’s Beach in the west to Cocoa in the east. Butterflies were dancing to the banjo music, chasing beehives of hot pink cotton candy and buckets of popcorn that shone like doubloons in the last rays of the setting sun. It was a waxed planter day, a point break day, a powdery double-diamond day where anything at all was possible.
I was leaning up against a railing, the murky water of Tom Sawyer’s Island at my back, when a baritone recording announced the beginning of the Magic Kingdom parade. Music rose up out of the landscaping and parade floats began to appear. My interview subject, Nick, had assured me that I would recognize him when the Tarzan float rolled up, and sure enough, he was hard to miss, dressed in a unitard of brown fur, doing cartwheels and flips in his Rollerblades. The audience was entertained by the stunt monkey, but they were enthralled with the dreadlocked bodybuilder in the loincloth, earnestly flexing his muscles on top of the float. Tarzan was the star of this show.
I could hardly hear myself think over the din of the Tarzan soundtrack, but I had no problem hearing the woman next to me when she belted out a glass-shattering scream. She was pointing at the dark expanse of lagoon that separated the flowerbeds of Frontierland from Tom Sawyer’s Island, screeching like she had just found a crocodile in her cereal bowl. As I watched, the surface of the lagoon broke, and two tiny arms clawed the air, only for a second, before disappearing once again beneath the water.
I’m not a heroic person. While I’d like to say I was motivated by altruism that day in Frontierland, I was driven by what, in my case, is a more primal instinct: I sensed the opportunity to break the rules and get away with it. So I took it.
I kicked off my shoes and jumped the railing. The spot where the child had appeared was less than ten feet away, bubbles spritzing the surface where he had gone under. I aimed in that general direction and dove.
Immediately, I regretted my decision. The water tasted like diesel and expired spinach and smelled like El Porto after a sewage spill. I shot to the surface and tried not to retch. When my eyes focused, I discovered that I wasn’t alone. A crowd of people was standing at the edge of the lagoon, and there were at least three in the water with me. The woman was at the railing, bawling into her hands.
I was looking for the shortest distance to the shore when I heard a triumphant shout behind me, and the crowd of tourists cheered. A man in the water held up a terrified boy who was, miraculously, still wearing a pair of mouse ears. Several people helped me over the railing onto the grass bank of Frontierland where the frantic woman was already clutching her boy and his savior.
The lifesaver, I realized then, was none other than Tarzan, who moments earlier had been riding his float, grinning as if he’d just been acquitted. He was six feet tall with broad shoulders and a Neanderthal forehead. Up close, I could see that his head of twisted dreadlocks was actually a wig. He was covered from head to toe in bronze makeup, and shadows had been artfully applied to exaggerate his musculature. He hugged the woman and put his hand on the boy’s head.
“Keep boy safe,” Tarzan said in broken English. “Children most important thing in world.” He turned around and, for a moment, we stood face to face. “Tarzan very brave. But everybody can be hero.” Then he winked at me and bounded through the crowd. The people parted, cheering as he vaulted back up onto his float, where he was joined by a woman in a yellow pinafore who batted her eyelashes at him and kissed him on the cheek.
The parade resumed and the crowd around me went back to eating waffle cones and buying souvenirs as if a cartoon character saving a drowning child were just another amusement park spectacle like a barbershop quartet or a sunburned German.
Afterward, I met Nick in the Disney parking lot and asked him about the experience. He responded to my amazement with an uninspired shrug. Just another day at the office. We drove to the skate park, where we spent the next couple of hours shooting sequences of switch-up grind tricks, then tagged the alleys off Orange Blossom Trail. When we ran out of Krylon, we picked up a couple of Red Bulls from a convenience store and sat down on a curb to do the interview.
As a general rule, I don’t pass judgment on anyone. In my interviews, I ask challenging, often uncomfortable questions, but I don’t moralize, demonize, or indemnify. People are complicated; that’s why crayons come in boxes of sixty-four. When researching a subject, I start with her or his digital persona. People usually lie in their “About Me” section, but their choice of avatar is, if not immediately revealing, at least an honest foreshadowing of their true character. Nick’s avatar was a slick version of himself—shirtless, with spiked hair and a studded belt. His ringtone was Snoop Dogg’s “Mind On My Money.” His screen name was SaintNicksRevenge. It wasn’t a lot to go on, but considering we both grew up in a skate park, we were family. We spoke the same language.
“People say Nick Elliot sold out,” I said into the Dictaphone. “Three years ago, he was the X Games Champion. Now, he’s run off and joined the circus. What do you say to them?”
Nick kept his cool. “I get paid to skate,” he said. “And that’s all I really care about. Fuck them.”
“But you’re skating for
Corporation,” I goaded. “You’re a wage slave to Disney Inc. How is that satisfying?”
He finished his Red Bull and crumpled the can. “I know what you’re thinking. You look around Disney World, and you see crowds of sweaty-ass tourists, singing animals, sweatshop-manufactured merchandise, and you think this must be the lamest place in the world. But you’re just seeing the surface, bro. You wouldn’t believe the shit that goes on here behind the scenes.”
“Disney has a dark side?”
“Dark as dysentery. What do you want? Opium? Koala bears? How about an Uzbeki mail-order bride? I’m telling you, this is the real Neverland Ranch. Michael ain’t got nothing on the Mouse.”
“You know,” I said. “Radical accusations against Disney have been made before, but nothing has ever been proven. A lot of people consider it conspiracy theory propaganda.”
Nick checked his watch. “In less than twenty minutes, I can introduce you to a guy who sells acid out of his Pooh costume. He’s at Epcot right now.”
“So, is that the real reason then? You’ve found a place where you can lead a double life?”
For the first time, Nick’s cool exterior cracked. “This is going to sound totally fucking lame—in fact, turn off the tape recorder. I don’t want this to go in the interview.” I pretend to do it. “This place has real Magic—I’m serious. There’s almost no crime. Nobody ever dies here. Have you noticed you don’t see those bright green exit signs anywhere? Or telephone lines? It’s not because they forgot; it’s because they make their own rules here. This is what utopia would look like if it were run by eight-year-old architects.”
“I still don’t see what’s in it for you.”
“Being a pro skater ain’t easy, dude. My sponsors are constantly on my ass. The kids expect me to rip
all the effing time
. I eat ibuprofen like Skittles. But here…here, not even the Grim Reaper can touch me. All I ever wanted to do was skate, and now I’ve found something better. I’ve found a place where I can be a kid forever. Besides, the bud that comes through this place is the kindest you’ve ever had.”
My whole flight home, I thought about what Nick had said and what I had witnessed. Nick Eliot was the guy every kid in Rollerblades wanted to be. He had a pro skate and a video game character, and yet here he was, working for Disney, proselytizing about magic like an apostle. As an action sports journalist, I was well aware of my responsibility to temper all claims of purity with a dose of ironic realism. I skated through Hollywood during the 1992 riots, videotaping skate tricks while looters robbed stores in the background. I did tequila shots before DARE half pipe shows. I protested my own values as a counterpoint to Absolutism.
And yet, I couldn’t find a cynical twist for my encounter with Tarzan. I had watched a storybook hero save a child from drowning in a place that claimed nobody had died there since it first opened its doors in October 1971—no crime; no natural disasters; no unhappy endings. Was it possible that Disney was the next step in our evolution as a civilization? Nick believed. Either I was involved in one of the most convincing scams of the century or Disney was truly blessed with a legacy of immortality.
There are times when even the most jaded journalist needs to believe in Magic. For me, this was one of those times.