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
I left the park that day feeling as if I’d just finished cramming for a final exam. What had, at first, seemed like a whole lot of inane regulations was, in fact, a corporate lifestyle that bordered on autocratic fascism. It’s no secret that the most restrictive societies in the world germinate the most vituperative rebellion. The despotic regions of the Middle and Far East produce the choicest heroin; an abnormally high percentage of diagnosed sociopaths have a military history; and everybody knows Catholic schoolgirls are the most mischievous adolescents on the planet.
The Disney Rule Book was a manifesto of totalitarianism, a recipe for deviance as certain as the countdown of a live hand grenade. It was everything I had fought against, all the principles that opposed my John Galt ideal of freethinking and counterculture individuality. But there was something glorious about it too, the genetic code of a seed that had been dormant inside me since my teenage rebellion. Accepting Disney in my heart meant surrendering myself to a beautiful truth that was far more seductive than my philosophy of earnest insurgency. Like the supernatural suck of an undertow or gravity’s insistent tug, I could sense an irresistible comfort in Disney’s unyielding order. The holy spirit of Walt was offering me a big, furry bear hug, and I was rushing to his bosom.
he most memorable Disney stories involve an ordinary person becoming part of a magical world. This is usually achieved through the assistance of a “magic broker” of sorts, a being who identifies the regular girl or boy as special, and somehow worthy of something more, and so blesses her or him with magical ability. Pinnochio had the Blue Fairy. Cinderella had her Fairy Godmother. Aladdin rubbed a lamp and brought forth the Genie. In
The Little Mermaid
, Disney reversed the formula and introduced a magical creature to the real world using an evil squid queen as the broker. The concept of a magic broker is a marvelous one, but ultimately dangerous. Anyone who believes a puppet can become a freethinking boy with the wave of a wand or a girl can find her prince if only she has the right accessories will have no problem marching off to fight an unwinnable war or going under the knife for questionable cosmetic surgery or toasting a glass of cyanide-laced Flavor Aid and stretching out to wait.
The night was still young and I wanted to test-drive my new look, so I drove over to Pleasure Island where, Orville had assured me with Red Bull–edged enthusiasm, I’d have a
time. “You’ll love it,” had been his exact words. “Jazz, comedy, live bands, beautiful girls…or alternative lifestyle. There’s a little something for everyone.”
Pleasure Island turned out to be a series of bars, a theme park for adults where every drinking hole had its own identity. In addition to Orville’s suggestions, there was Technoland, Discoland, and Two-Guys-Singing-Funny-Songs-on-a-Pianoland, each theme reinforced by interior design and costumed bartenders. The best part was, you didn’t have to commit to any one theme. For a simple cover charge, you were allowed access to every dance floor on the property.
I couldn’t believe the indecency: pop music, racy dancers, and wide screens projecting Ricky Martin videos. Bright colors smeared across the horizon: electric Midori shots sparkling down glowing blue ice blocks, dark Brazilian girls in raspberry miniskirts with warm butterscotch eyes. I wove through a carnival of sensations, anticipation crackling in the air around me like a Rice Krispie Treat. Pleasure Island was naughty and tantalizing, but somehow still came off as steadfastly wholesome. How did Disney achieve such a sexually charged atmosphere and still maintain a G rating?
Walking into this social atmosphere without my jewelry and hair felt awkward, like window-shopping in scuba gear. As I wandered from bar to bar, I struggled to understand how I could fit in at Disney World. Back in LA, I had been certain of my identity: a counterculture, atheist anarchist who sat in the VIP room sneering at how affected everyone around me was. It may not have been entirely
, but it was comfortable. At Disney however, I had no frame of reference. I was an animated wooden boy caught between two realities, not quite the creature I had been, but nowhere near the one I would become.
Eventually, I settled on the Beach Club, a live music venue decorated with surfboards and beach paraphernalia. The place was packed with groups of tourists: college grads in mall brand T-shirts, convention attendees drinking imported beer and slam dancing as if it were still relevant, and a retinue of goths, sipping pink cocktails. I scanned the cliques, hoping for some kind of connection, an anchor point to make myself less irrelevant among the throng of drunk strangers, then gave up and went to the bar. I bought a Corona and sat down on a stool where I could watch the chino-clad convention groups mosh to the band’s rendition of “Mony Mony.”
“I hate it when they change the lyrics!” the guy next to me shouted over the music. “Don’t you?”
“I never understood the lyrics in the first place,” I shouted back.
He was a rumpled Columbo-looking man, somewhere in his thirties. He smelled like gin. “They’re supposed to hold out the microphone so the audience can sing, ‘Hey Motherfucker! Get laid! Get fucked!’ But since this is Disney property, they’re not allowed.”
So that explained it. Pleasure Island was sexy, but not
. Provocative, but not so much that it could be considered lewd or lascivious. It was just another variation on a classic Disney theme. They took you up to a certain point and then left the rest up to your imagination.
“Name’s Brady,” he slurred, extending a hand. “Do me a favor and watch my drink while I go take a piss.” He fell off his barstool, picked himself up, and then stumbled to the bathroom. Sipping my Corona, I tried to relax into the atmosphere. I was a Cast Member now. I had the haircut and a nametag; I knew how to point with two fingers and smile on cue (sort of). All I had to do was catch the Magic and ride it in. But something wasn’t clicking.
Brady returned with a new drink in his hand, which he set down behind his original cocktail with enormous concentration. As he maneuvered back onto the stool, I noticed he was favoring one leg.
“You okay?” I asked.
“What, you mean my pimp walk? That’s nothing. Old battle scar, that’s all.” He tossed back his first drink and picked up the second. “To tell the truth, it makes for some real authentic show, if you know what I mean, a nice nuance for the performance.”
I stifled a yawn, and scanned the room. “So you’re in production.” In LA, this line was the basic starter of any bar conversation; either you were in the Industry or you were aspiring. There were six versions of the Hollywood dream, and I’d heard them all.
Brady looked over his shoulder like he was checking for spies, then leaned close. “I’m a friend of fur,” he whispered. “Mike Wazowski and I are fuckin’ inseparable. Pooh and Roger Rabbit too.”
“I see.” For the first time, I considered the very real possibility that my new drinking buddy was certifiable.
“What about you?” he said, sizing me up. “You’re, what, five eleven, six foot? I bet you know Tigger, or—I know.” He snapped his fingers. “Aladdin!”
“Yeah, we play hold ’em on Fridays.” I reached for my beer and stood up. “Well, I guess I’ll see you.”
“Oh!” Brady snagged my arm. “Shit, I’m sorry. I thought you were…You have the haircut so, you know, I just assumed you worked at Mouschwitz.”
“Actually I do,” I said. “As of this morning, I am an Animal Kingdom photographer.”
“No shit!” said Brady, holding up his glass for a toast. “Welcome to the Greatest Fucking Job on Earth.” I waited for him to laugh or crack a smile, but as far as I could tell, he was serious.
“Thanks.” I returned his toast and sipped my drink. “Why did you ask if I was friends with Aladdin?”
He screwed up his face in what I assumed was supposed to be a conspiratorial smile. “It’s
,” he said. “When you work in the character department, you say you’re
with your characters.”
“I get it. So you dress up as Pooh and Roger Rabbit, and what’s his name.” I tried to sound sincere when I added, “That’s cool.”
“It is.” He nodded solemnly. “The character department is very cool.” His reverential tone reminded me of the way surfers talk about Tavarua Island. I didn’t see the attraction to dressing up as a cartoon character, but I could appreciate his passion. The guy loved his job the way I had loved mine. He drained his glass and slammed it on the bar. “Hey, you want to go to a party? It’s Cast Members only. Should be a blast!”
Something about Brady reminded me of Tas Pappas, a skateboarder friend with a big heart and a chemical imbalance. He had a not-so-quiet insanity behind his eyes that made him seem capable of anything, as if crime was fun, but punishment was the real adventure. It was a quality I could relate to.
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
I offered to drive after watching Brady pull a hip flask out of his pocket and drain it in one pull. Sitting in my passenger seat, he immediately lit up a joint and started slurring out random nonsense.
“I’m flying blind on a rocket cycle,” he announced. “You gotta go up to get down.” He rolled his window down at a stoplight. “I like your tits,” he told the drag queen in the Jetta next to us.
“Thanks, honey,” she rasped. There was lipstick smeared across her teeth.
Brady handed her a card. “Call me,” he told her as she pulled away.
“Disney gives you business cards?” I asked. “What does it say? Friend of Roger Rabbit?”
“Wouldn’t that be somethin’?” he chortled. “I don’t have a business card. But my manager does, and sometimes his cards fall into my pocket. The bastard. Won’t he be surprised when he gets a call from Tits McGee…. Pull in here and park wherever you can.”
The building was an anonymous block of apartments that went on as far as I could see. Brady explained that we were in “the Disney ghetto,” a low-income, high-density suburbia where Cast Members came and went at random. “It’s depressing as fuck, but it’s close to the parks, and there’s plenty of…” He shot me a sideways look. “Well, whatever you’re into, there’s plenty of it.”
As drunk as he was, Brady negotiated a maze of hallways that brought us to the front door of an apartment, behind which there could be no doubt a party was raging. A pair of boys dressed like fairy princesses crashed out of one door and into another, squealing as they groped and snapped each other’s bras. Brady grabbed the door before it slammed shut.
I put a hand on his shoulder. “What kind of party is this?”
“Do me a favor,” he said, turning back to face me. “Reserve your judgment. If there’s one thing I can’t tolerate, it’s intolerance.”
Whatever I thought I was going to see in the apartment—smiling Cast Members with identical haircuts, sipping spiked punch and crooning about how
they were—I wasn’t prepared for the scene that was unfolding on the other side of that door. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of people swirling through the living room. As far as I could see, they were all young, beautiful, and seminude, abandoning themselves to a reggaeton soundtrack. Couples were paired off without regard to race, gender, or even exclusivity. One group was using tubes of cake frosting to paint an underwater mural, featuring Nemo, on the living room wall, licking off mistakes, and reapplying. As I watched, two girls disentangled themselves from each other to take turns making out with a muscular guy wearing what looked like a Ninja Turtle costume. The room smelled like rubbing alcohol, hash smoke, and something I once smelled in a Vietnamese flea market but never cared to identify.
A cute blond girl rushed the door when she spotted us. “Brady,” she squealed, “you’re totally late. We almost started without you.”
Brady whispered something to her, and she darted back into the chaos of the apartment. I followed the friend of fur into the living room, careful not to step in a suspicious puddle in the foyer. I tried to assess the madness, but there was no epicenter. Sweaty Cast Members swirled around the room giggling, brushing against me before being sucked away. I tried to make eye contact. I smiled in a way that I hoped looked natural, but I couldn’t make a connection. Cast Members looked at me through bloodshot eyes, and I would see the lack of recognition pass over their faces like a storm cloud before they turned their backs and walked away. In no time, I was an awkward junior high version of myself, eating Cheetos out of a salad bowl on the kitchen counter, wondering where the bathroom was.
Suddenly the music stopped and somebody cleared his throat. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Brady announced. “Almost all of us know why we’re here tonight.” His announcement was met with cheers and suggestions of
to get fucked up
screw our brains out
. “All true,” Brady continued. “All true. But tonight we have a higher purpose—a mission of Truth, if you will, because as Galileo said, ‘All truths are easy to understand once discovered; the point is to discover them.’” Here, he paused for effect, but the crowd of onlookers just blinked in expectation.
“We’ve gathered here to honor one of our dearest friends in the world, a young man who has shown great potential ever since he came to the Tragic Kingdom two years ago. He has been a friend to all, a booty call to many, and until this day, he has rested easy in the belief that we all think he is straight. Tonight however, we dispel all illusions in outing the newest queen in the Kingdom. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, everybody’s favorite stunt monkey, Nick Elliot!”
At Brady’s announcement, a cheer went up that rocked the walls of the apartment, and from the back of the room emerged the slight form of the Orlando rollerblader I had interviewed four months before.
Nick walked over to stand next to Brady, who raised a hand to silence the crowd’s chant for a speech. “Um,” Nick blushed. “Thanks. I guess this is an honor.” He looked up at all the smiling faces in the crowd, and there was something like relief in his eyes. Then he saw me, and the color drained out of his face. “Uh, thanks,” he said quickly and bolted in the other direction.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Brady announced. “Nick Elliot! In honor of our new ’mo, I have party favors for the first five people who can finish this sentence: ‘Bright covered packages tied up with string…’” A dozen people rushed him.
I pushed through the crowd and eventually found Nick in one of the bedrooms. He was sitting in a corner texting on his Sidekick.
“Oh hey,” he said, pretending to see me for the first time. “I saw your Myspace post about moving to Orlando. I didn’t know when you were coming or I would’ve…” He closed his Sidekick, opened it, closed it again. “I didn’t recognize you with your Disney Look. Nice haircut, by the way. You look like a constipated CNN stock analyst.”
“When I need my taxes done, I know where to turn.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Parker, I’ll have Debby home by midnight.”
“Are you finished?” I allowed him a couple more zingy one-liners before I cut him off. “How’s it going?”
“What? You mean the outing thing? That’s bullshit, bro. I just let him say all that stuff so we could get on with the party.” Nick wiped his nose on a rainbow wristband. “I’m not gay, you know.”
“I know,” I said.
“Not that I have a problem with it. I mean most of the guys here are, and they like totally hook me up with their girlfriends, so I get pussy like all the effing time!”