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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

Chris Mitchell (10 page)

BOOK: Chris Mitchell
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“You said this was an old costume. So it’s not still going on, right?”

Johnny shook his head. “The new design has arms that the performer can’t get out of. Rumor has it this guy was sorely disappointed when they unveiled the new Pooh wardrobe. He dragged his feet through character sets until the
Monsters Inc
. costumes came out.”

“I don’t get it.”

“One of the stars of
Monsters Inc
., Mike Wazowski, is the same height range as Pooh. Basically, a giant eyeball with stick legs, Mike Wazowski is shaped in such a way that the performer has to keep his arms inside the costume at all times. He could eat a burrito in there if he wanted to, or check his voice mail, or, yes, even jack off!”

“So he still works at Disney?”

Johnny sipped his Scotch. “Like ah said, ah have no idea if it’s even true. It’s just something that ah heard around the proverbial water cooler.”

It seemed a little off-color, but Johnny certainly had a lot of details. For the first time, I was beginning to understand Nick’s warning that night at the party.
Even candy apples can be rotten, but you have to take a bite to know for sure
. I had a mouthful of candy apple, and I was looking at a mighty suspicious piece of fruit.

Cruella de Vil

D
isney villains are easy to spot because they’re storyboarded to be bad. They make sweeping entrances on discordant swells. They have fingers like daggers, chins that jut at obscene angles, and goatees dripping from sneering mouths like pubic stalactites. They have names with sounds that make you frown: Maleficent, Jafar, Shere Khan, Scar. Disney cinema contains no subterfuge, no twist in the plot where an honest, trustworthy character is suddenly revealed as a malicious antagonist. Unlike the real world, where people—even the most wicked ones—believe they’re doing the right thing and struggle constantly with shifting conceptions of good and evil, Disney villains wear their black, twisted souls on their sleeves. They’re archetypes of evil, and they fascinate us.

At seven o’clock that night, I met Brady in the parking lot. He pulled up in a Range Rover that smelled as if it was about three hours old. “Nice whip,” I said, sliding into the seat next to him. The backseats were down, and there was a heavy tarp spread across the carpet.

“Thanks,” he said, lighting a joint and passing it over. “I like to be comfortable.” As he pulled out of the parking lot and onto the long stretch of highway that leads to the East Coast through the Everglades, he demonstrated some of the Rover’s features: paddle shifting and a top-of-the-line navigation system. I didn’t know much about English cars, but I knew this kind of ride didn’t come cheap. Johnny was right—a character contract was unlikely to afford such luxury.

What did I really know about Brady? He had been at Disney long enough to be approved in every character in his range. He flaunted achievements and defects alike as badges of pride, but kept secret the source of his information. He was socially connected and tech savvy (surprising since most of Central Florida seemed to be about five years behind the technology curve). His avatar was Che Guevara. His ringtone was Shostakovich.

And what did he know about me that made him think I’d be willing to finesse a midnight mystery adventure? I gave him a ride once. I helped him out of his Pooh suit, and I mouthed off to his manager. It seemed unlikely that our limited interaction would cement a thieves’ bond between us. It occurred to me that I fit the profile for one of those swampy dismemberment victims: alone in a new city, no friend of the law. I was already pretty sure Brady was a certifiable sociopath; just how far could he go?

“So,” I said in a voice designed to set serial killers at ease. “What’s the plan?”

He looked at me as if he was trying to decide if I was responsible enough to borrow his
good
board. “How do you feel about premeditated domestic neglect?”

His tone suggested it was the kind of thing I should be against. “I’m against it.”

“Good, because tonight we’re going to do something about it.” We passed a building that looked like it had been turned upside down, a two-story teddy bear. “Not too far from here, just on the outskirts of Orlando, there’s a pit bull being patently neglected by her caretaker.”

“A what?”

“We’re going to liberate the beautiful creature and set her up in a safe house.”

“Did you say ‘pit bull’?”

He took the last drag off the joint and threw it out the window. “Does that frighten you?”

“It’s my understanding that neglected pit bulls can be hazardous.”

“That’s quite possible,” he agreed. “And there’s a good chance she won’t want to be rescued.”

In my distinguished career as a juvenile delinquent, I emancipated many items: Watchamacallit candy bars, king-sized Ralph Lauren sheet sets, and patio furniture. I spent many happy afternoons in the Sherman Oaks Galleria moving items from store to store, thrilling as much from the restocking of inventory as I did from the original shoplifting. But I’d never stolen anything alive, and there was something unsettling about the thought.
Things
didn’t care where they existed; a sweater was just as happy tied around my waist as it was folded on an Old Navy shelf. But a dog had a home and a caretaker and needs.

We drove past a souvenir shop shaped like an orange, an ice cream stand shaped like a swirly cone, a funhouse, a hedge maze, and a medieval dinner show set in a fiberglass castle. The sidewalks were filled with tourists buying bootleg Mickey beach towels, waiting for tables at Outback Steakhouse. An old man in a wide-brimmed hat sat in a nylon beach chair in the middle of a dirt parking lot. A sign at his feet advertised his trade: Genyuwine Florida navels. $3 a bag.

“Why me?” I asked.

Brady rolled down his window, and I could smell the wilderness of the Everglades closing in on the car as we moved away from the city lights. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you seem like the kind of guy with a certain moral, um, flexibility.”

“How should I take that?”

“As running commentary.”

“Just to make sure I have this right: we’re stealing somebody’s dog?”

“Not stealing.
Rescuing
.” Brady’s face relaxed into a comforting smile. “Try to think of it as ‘salvation.’ While this dog might not, at first, realize that she is being saved and might even put up a struggle to defend her substandard lifestyle, she will ultimately come to realize that she can benefit from our intercession. We are going to give her a better life.”

I surveyed the tarp in the back of the Rover. “And what is this better life?”

“I have a contact at Animal Kingdom, a trainer who takes care of strays. She’ll make sure the dog gets all her shots and gets into a loving home. If that makes you feel better.”

“If I don’t have rabies by the end of the night,” I said, “I’ll feel better.”

I probably should have been more worried, driving into the dark Florida swamp on a dognapping mission, but it felt good to be doing something illicit again. Illicit, yet oddly humane. We drove for another twenty miles on a two-lane highway through dense swamp, the only light coming from the dull glow of the Rover’s dashboard.

“I heard Sunny got snatched from the Minnie-Mickey kiosk,” Brady said.

“Was that Sunny?” I pictured Mickey’s twisted body, high above the Brazilian mob, and felt a sudden pang of empathy for the woman. “I watched them take her.”

Brady shook his head. “She came out of it okay. Couple of bruises I think. They’ll give her some cushy restrictions for a while, and she’ll be back in the saddle.” He glanced sideways at me. “Speaking of which, you met anybody yet? A nice photographer or a dancer? DAK’s got a smoking Poca.”

I played with the tilt of my seat. “It hasn’t been as easy as I thought to break the ice. Especially characters.”

“You have to understand something,” Brady said. “Character performers are like members of a country club. They seem intimidating from the outside, but once you’re in, bam! You’re part of the family. And you know what they say: if you can’t keep it in your pants, keep it in the family!”

“So how do I get in?”

“Ah, the eternal question. How does the outsider get inside. And once
inside,
what will he do so they don’t think he’s a fraud.” Brady dropped his voice to a whisper. “You have to earn their trust.”

“How do I do that?”

He turned down the radio and cleared his throat. “Cast Members in the character program are—how do I say this tactfully? They’re not normal. They’re deviant and diabolical. For the record, I don’t recommend it, but if you really want to join our club, you simply have to do something to prove that you’re cut from the same cloth.”

“Like jacking off in a costume?”

He looked at me sideways. “That rumor’s still circulating, huh? I thought it died out when they changed the Pooh body.”

“Word on the street is Mike Wazowski works the same way.”

Brady laughed out loud. “I have no doubt you’ll figure out a way into the inner circle. Just don’t get caught. The character manager you met yesterday, Sam. He’s one of the more pleasant authority figures roaming the tunnels.” He stopped and his face went dark. “Here we are.”

To me, it looked like the rest of the swamp. There was no sign, no light, no pavement—just a worn dirt track off the highway. Brady barely hit the brakes as he turned off the highway and bounced the Rover to a stop under the low-hanging branches of a cypress tree where the Spanish moss hung down just past the license plate. A hundred yards away, an Airstream trailer glowed like polished ammunition, nestled in the swamp. By nomad standards, it was nice, lined with Malibu lights, and a garden gnome.

“Alright,” Brady said. “It’s 8
P.M.
The owner of this fine specimen of ’70s Americana should have just clocked in at his low-pay, medium-risk security job. Due to his inability to maintain a meaningful relationship, the dog will be alone. You brought the gloves?”

“On sale at Home Depot.”

“Bangarang.” Brady smiled. “Let’s make some mischief.”

The cypress trees cast shadows like crooked hands along the gravel and scrub, the Spanish moss glowing like tinsel in the moonlight. I followed Brady as he limped along the edge of the shadows, approaching the trailer from the side. About twenty feet away, he stopped and crouched down. The trailer was silent; the only movement was the spooky Spanish moss swaying around us.

I crouched next to him. “Where’s the pooch?”

“She’s right there.” From under the tree, I could barely make her out, a sleepy mongrel with fur the color of dirt, snoozing by the rear tire. She was tethered to the axle of the Airstream with a piece of rope. “We need to move as quickly as possible, so here’s what we do. You grab the dog while I untie the rope.”

“How come I have to do the grabbing?”

“Because you have the gloves.”

“They’re one size fits all,” I said, holding out the gloves.

“Are you gonna help me with this or not?”

There was a wild desperation in Brady’s eyes. I was pretty sure he could go postal without much buildup. “Fine.”

“Okay.” From a jacket pocket, Brady pulled a small package. In the shadows, I could just make out the gleam of his teeth. “Every negotiation requires incentive, and this situation will certainly call for negotiation.” He opened the package and unfolded a layer of wax paper to reveal chunks of roast beef. “If she shies away, offer her some of this. She probably hasn’t eaten in a while, so she should warm right up to you.”

The smell reminded me that I hadn’t eaten dinner yet. “Hope she doesn’t mind sharing,” I said.

“I wouldn’t.” He handed me a fist-sized chunk. “They’ve been marinated in muscle relaxant. One bite will knock you out for the rest of the night.”

I took the meat in one leather-cased hand and followed Brady into the open, crouch jogging like PlayStation soldiers toward the Airstream. Immediately, the dog woke up and began to lose it, straining against the weave of the rope, teeth flashing in a haunting chorus of howls and growls. We stopped within feet of her dripping snout.

Brady hissed. “Negotiate!”

I tossed a piece of meat in front of the dog and, right away, the barking stopped. She kept her eyes on us while she lowered her nose to the offering. Up close I could see that she was way too thin, shaking with fear. Her fur was missing in patches where she had chewed herself down to the skin and beyond. Gingerly, she nibbled at the edge of the roast beef, then snapped it up and devoured the whole thing. Immediately, she began to growl at us again.

“What do we do now?” I asked.

“Now, we wait.”

Brady sat down in the dirt and dusted off the head of the garden gnome, humming the J. Geils Band 1980s chart topper, “My Angel Is a Centerfold.” We were two hundred feet away from the road, far enough that I could just barely hear the passing traffic over the hum of the trailer’s generator, but I couldn’t see any headlights.

Within a couple of minutes, the dog lowered herself to a crouch and put her snout down on her paws. She continued to growl, but by this time, her eyes were getting heavy, her breathing slower. Eventually, she stopped growling and started snoring.

“Good girl,” Brady said. He pulled a knife out of a pocket and cut the rope, then lifted the dog into his arms and carried her to the back of the Rover. After firing up the engine, Brady lit another joint and offered it to me, but I waved it away. I wanted to relish the high of successful adventure. As I watched the Everglades slip past my window, a thought crossed my mind.

“You and I both know you could have pulled this off alone.”

“Probably,” he said, the joint dangling from his lower lip. “But it wouldn’t have been as much fun. And besides, I thought a secret mission might do you some good. You’ve been looking so fucking forlorn lately.”

“What are you talking about?” I protested. “I’ve been smiling like my life depended on it.”

“Your Disney smile looks like you’re one parking ticket away from a killing spree—Now, don’t get offended. You’re new, and God knows you’ll get plenty of practice.” His features softened as he glanced back and forth between the road and me. “Anything you want to talk about?”

It was the first time anyone in Orlando had expressed genuine concern for me. After nearly a month of preserving the Magical experience for strangers, it was something of a shock to find someone who cared what I was feeling. Still, opening up to Brady would have meant admitting some ugly truths to myself, and I wasn’t ready to do that yet. “I’m good,” I said.

He took another toke, his face momentarily illuminated in a car’s passing headlights. “What drove you to Disney anyway?”

“You make it sound like it’s a bad thing. I thought this was the ‘greatest fucking job on Earth.’”

“It is, but you didn’t come here for career opportunity. And I don’t think you’re on a spiritual journey; taking photos in a mouse kiosk is not exactly the pinnacle of the human condition.”

I used my stock response. “I like photography.”

Brady jabbed his finger in the air. “Not good enough.” The contemplative twist of his mouth made him look like the subject of a Baroque oil painting. “There’s something more for you here.”

“Alright, Descartes,” I said, trying not to sound more amused than offended. “What’s my higher purpose?”

“You, sir”—Brady enunciated each word with melodramatic flair—“have got the makings of a Guerilla Philanthropist in you.”

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