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
“If I sense that a guest is having a less-than-Magical moment.” Parroting back the last five seconds of a boring lecture was a skill I had developed around the second month of kindergarten.
Orville sniffed and continued, “If you sense that a guest is having a less-than-Magical moment, provide immediate recovery any way you can; (5) project the appropriate body language on stage at all times; (6) preserve the Magical Experience; and (7) as she or he is leaving the park, thank each guest and invite her or him to return soon.”
“Guest Service Guidelines,” I repeated, staring at a beautiful girl dressed in a Pocahontas costume, posing for pictures with a group of children. “Got it.”
Orville inserted his own considerable frame between the Native American Princess and me. “Let’s try a simple exercise. You see those two Japanese women standing there looking at an upside-down map of Universal Studios?”
“Go ask them if they need help.”
Some insipid Phil Collins song was trickling out of the vegetation—“Something, something, my heart.” It combined the hopeful evangelism of gospel with all the soulful depth of a high school musical.
I moved cautiously to the side of the two women, trying to recreate my Disney smile from before. The women were in an advanced state of flustered, talking very fast in Japanese and tugging at the soggy map, like grommets fighting over a bong.
“Excuse me,” I enunciated. “Can I help you?”
The women looked relieved to see somebody with a nametag. “Toilet?” said one.
“No problem,” I said. Remembering one I had just seen, I jerked my thumb over my shoulder. “One hundred yards. On the right.”
“Thank you,” they chirped together, and ran off.
“Say-o-na-ra!” I said in my best Japanese, then beamed as Orville joined me. “Ta-da!”
“That,” he said, “was terrible. Stage presence is of the utmost importance. When onstage, a Cast Member should always display appropriate body language. This means, stand up straight. Don’t lean or sit or cross your arms. Keep your hands off your hips and make eye contact with the guest at all times. A Walt Disney World Cast Member never points with a single finger—and he
uses a thumb.
Instead, use two fingers.” Orville held out his index and middle fingers together. “Or, to be on the safe side, the whole hand in the style of a karate chop.”
Just then, a cheer erupted from the crowd, and Mickey Mouse appeared. He was smiling his big grin and walking with that classic Steamboat Willie swagger. Instead of his traditional primary-colored overalls, he was wearing a khaki safari outfit with an outback hat and scout patches on the sleeves. Everywhere he turned, people were adoring him as if he were the Second Coming.
“Is that one of the Mickeys I’ll be shooting?” I asked.
The color drained from Orville’s face, and he gave his forehead a vaudeville slap. “Oh my stars and garters!” he gasped. “When referring to a character such as Mickey or Minnie, keep in mind that each one is a unique individual and, as such,
be referred to in the plural.”
I watched the
one and only
Mickey Mouse disappear behind a Cast Members Only door, then reappear a few seconds later, looking mightily refreshed and maybe a little taller. “Aha!” I pointed with two fingers. “How do you explain that?”
“Each performer can only last so long in their costume in this heat,” Orville said. “So when we make the exchange, you have to come up with a plausible reason why each character disappears for a spell.”
“Like he’s got a phone call?” I ventured.
“Absolutely not,” Orville said. “A Cast Member should never let on that one of the characters is doing something ‘out of character.’ When Tigger leaves the autograph line every thirty minutes, he isn’t taking a Powerade break; he is going to the Hundred Acre Wood for bouncing practice. Brer Fox is checking the briar patch, etcetera.”
“So maybe Mickey got a phone call…from his Hollywood agent who just cast him in a provocative but tasteful new movie with leading lady Jessica Rabbit.”
Orville frowned at me. “I think it’s better if you don’t say anything at all. Come on, I’ll show you the backstage commissary.”
I began to imagine Disney World as a kind of friendly monarchy, something along the lines of Monaco or the United Arab Emirates, with its opulent kingdoms built around shimmering resort hotels, or like a religion. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has strict appearance guidelines, as do Jehovah’s Witnesses and pretty much all sects of Islam. A Cast Member who peppers his speech with smiling courtesies doesn’t think about that choice any more than a Muslim thinks to praise Allah throughout his daily conversations. Wearing a conservative hairstyle is no more taxing than the Orthodox Jewish custom of wearing side curls.
I was half paying attention to Orville’s monologue as we entered the cafeteria and got in line, so I didn’t really notice the beautiful Pocahontas until I bumped into her, nearly knocking over her Diet Coke.
“Double-u, tee, fuck,” she growled.
“Sorry about that,” I said. Instead of her yellow Indian princess dress, she had on an Adidas tracksuit, and her long, dark hair was tied up in a bun, but it was definitely the same girl I had seen in the park, smiling and signing autographs. She had the body of a dancer, athletic and elegant, and a regal jawline. Her face was done in thick makeup, rouged cheeks with long, dark eyelashes. She had eyes like my ex, fickle globes that changed color with every mood swing. She didn’t say anything, so I added, “First day. I’m a little clumsy here in the Church of Disney.”
“Excuse me?” Her lip curled when she said this.
“Well, not literally. I mean. You have to admit it’s
a religious experience, right? These outfits. The characters. All deities in the Disney pantheon, and Walt’s Papa Zeus.” Pocahontas’s face was blank. “It’s Disneyism,” I babbled, now committed to my theme, “and Orlando is the Holy Land.” I felt off balance. I was suddenly very conscious of my short hair and vintage Banana Republic wardrobe.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Pocahontas growled, her now gray eyes churning like storm clouds. “Disney is about family values. Not religion.”
I was flexing my arms, biting my cheeks, letting myself get riled up the way I swore I wouldn’t if I ever found myself face to face with my ex-best friend. “Kids eat Mouse burgers like they’re taking Holy Communion, learning the Gospel of Walt: ‘Tigger is real.’ ‘There’s only one Mickey.’ You deceive children into believing you’re a Native American princess. What kind of values are you teaching these kids?”
The flush rose from her tan chest, up her neck, and into her cheeks where it glowed like hot coals through the heavy stage makeup. She looked me up and down with unconcealed contempt. “Let me explain something to you,
.” She spat the word as if it was a bug that had flown into her mouth. “Piaget stated—and I
—that the unconscious, or semiconscious characteristics of imagination must be stimulated early and often in a child’s development to ensure proper cognitive development as an adult. What we do as Cast Members aids in the development of a healthy, productive society.” She went on like this for a while, spouting social theories that echoed sociology lectures I hadn’t paid attention to in college and couldn’t understand now. I was acutely aware of other Cast Members in the commissary watching or pretending not to watch, entertained by my abject humiliation. Eventually, the tirade stopped and it was my turn. Orville was smiling as he turned his gaze on me.
“Children are idiots,” I countered.
Pocahontas stormed off. I paid for my lunch and found a seat at one of the long tables. Five minutes later, Orville was still smiling at me over the top of his sandwich.
“That didn’t go the way I expected,” I said.
“It went pretty much exactly the way I expected,” Orville said.
“She took it so personally.”
“There’s something you have to understand about your fellow Cast Members,” he said, and I knew he was about to say something serious because I could clearly count his chins. One two three. “Disney World employs forty thousand people from all corners of the globe. They come to Orlando and work for minimum wage, and they don’t care about the money. They work here because Disney makes them
something: nostalgia, pride, love…Whatever it is, it’s real, and it keeps them here for their entire lives.” He pushed his plate away from him. “Cynical journalist types, on the other hand, don’t last long here.”
“You think I’m a troublemaker.”
“If I thought you were
trouble, I wouldn’t have hired you. We have a state-of-the-art security system with cameras, uniformed guards, and undercover ‘foxes’ who are trained to take you down long before you become a problem.” He pushed his spectacles up on his nose and winked. “But I know that won’t be necessary with you. I can see your momma taught you well.”
His words summoned memories of my mother. I tried to picture her as she was when I was eight: vital, energetic, laughing at my ridiculous Baloo impressions, a spatula in her hand, a smear of cake frosting across her cheek. But the old images were flimsy, and easily replaced by modern apparitions of my mother struggling to walk from the bed to the dresser, trying unsuccessfully to keep food down, and fighting a juggernaut of pain just to fill her lungs with air. Was anyone with her now? Would anyone be at her bedside when she slipped away? My fingertips traced the soft skin around the base of my thumb where the ring used to sit. The shadow beneath my hand was formless and weak behind the tinted glass of the commissary. I struggled to convince myself that I wasn’t listing to the side, that this feeling of vertigo was in my imagination.
Orville was staring at me as if it was my turn to do something. I could hear the echo of his lecture, but I had lost the thread entirely. “Don’t you want to know what happens if you break the Rules at Disney?” he said with a gravedigger’s sobriety.
My mouth was dry, so I just nodded.
He cleared his throat. “Punishments for disobeying the Rules are handled immediately. For most offenses, we have a system of ‘reprimands,’ whereby a Cast Member may accrue five points within any twelve-month period before being let go. Reprimands range from one point for a wardrobe violation to two points for unauthorized food tasting.”
Orville sighed. “No eating onstage, remember?”
“So that’s it? No matter what I do, I get a slap on the wrist?”
“I’m not finished,” Orville wiped the corner of his mouth on a napkin before delivering Disney’s three supreme evils. “Number one: using, being in possession of, or being under the influence of, narcotics, drugs, or hallucinatory agents during working hours or reporting for work under such conditions. Number two: conviction, plea of guilty, plea of no contest, or acceptance of pretrial diversion to a felony or serious misdemeanor, such as but not limited to child abuse, lewd and lascivious behavior, or sale/distribution of controlled substances. And number three: violation of operating rules and procedures that may result in damage to Company property. Any Cast Member caught with a hand in one of those cookie jars would be terminated immediately.
“Termination,” he continued, “isn’t always a simple matter of being let go from Disney. If a Cast Member gets fired from the Kingdom, there’s a chance she or he may never be allowed to visit the park again. Disney reserves the right to prosecute that person to the full extent of the law as a trespasser. In other words, you could be banished from Eden.”
I’ve never been a fan of team sports—the sweaty male bonding, the common goal of victory over another group in different color jerseys, or the locker rooms. Which is not to say I didn’t try: Little League, AYSO, flag football, Red Rover. I participated in everything, dutifully lining up on one desiccated field after another with a bunch of kids in the same color shirt. That’s what I hated first about team activities—the ridiculous costumes that defined the tribes. But I quickly learned to despise the Rules of the Game even more. That was what first attracted me to skating: the total lack of structure meant I could participate any way I wanted. From the moment I got out of bed, I could be on my skates: out the front door and down the steps, up the driveway and onto the street. When the street got boring, I could move to the sidewalk with its never-ending obstacle course of pedestrians and baby strollers and dog shit. I made my own Rules. I wore my own uniform. It was the same feeling with surfing and skiing and later snowboarding—activities that empowered a person to blaze a unique trail through a constantly evolving landscape.
When I graduated high school, my brother Michael gave me a copy of Ayn Rand’s
. It was like a fuel dump beneath my teenage bonfire. Here, at last, was adult justification for my rebellious angst, an ethos that celebrated my individuality as a philosophical given (as opposed to organized religion that subjugated the individual impulses using tools like sing-alongs and vigils and, yes, even costumes).
, in general, and John Galt, in particular, was all the justification I needed to devote my life to the one thing I truly cared about: skating.
This decision was not popular with my father, a principled man of sensibility and reason who grew up during the Depression. But my mom made a successful appeal on my behalf to allow me to pursue my dream with the compromise that it would not disrupt my education. By my sophomore year in college, I had my first skate sponsor. By the time I could legally drink in the States, I had traveled to sixteen different countries on four continents as a pro rider.
My first tag was GALT. I’d paint it on walls in every city I visited, customized with a Celtic
and four circles that represented the wheels beneath my feet. I was fiercely loyal to the principles of individuality, vigilant against the comforts of polite society and anything that could be summed up with “-ism.” When I was twenty-two, I bought my first camera and started a skate zine. This was back when print was still relevant, and it thrilled me to get letters from places I’d never heard of, to know that there was a global community of individuals devoted to the same principles I advocated. I imagined a secret society just like the one in
, made up of people who eschewed the Rules in favor of something better. This invisible web of independent thinkers replaced the Disney Dream as my idealistic vision of the future.