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
“That must be fun.”
“It is, bro. Believe me.” Nick gulped his drink. “Besides, it doesn’t even matter. I’m leaving in three weeks anyway. There’s this new Cirque show opening in Vegas and they want rollerbladers.”
“Vegas? What happened to life everlasting in Disney World?”
“Oh yeah,” Nick snorted. “Well, Cirque pays better. Hey, what are you doing here anyway?”
I didn’t feel like rehashing the events of the last few months, so I summarized. “I just needed a change of scenery, you know? LA was getting stale.”
A group of Cast Members ran past us giggling. As they disappeared into the bathroom, a cute brunette grabbed Nick’s hand. “Come with me,” she said to him. “I want you to try something.”
“Cool.” When she turned around, Nick mimed an “O” face for my benefit. “Just so you know, dude, you’re only seeing Alice’s antechamber here. This rabbit hole goes all the way down.”
He let the brunette pull him to his feet and smiled at me. “You’re staying in Orlando for a while, right?”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
He put his hand on my shoulder. “Even candy apples can be rotten, but you have to take a bite to know for sure.”
isney World!” Considering it was just after midnight in LA, Michael sounded surprisingly awake. “What kind of Peter Pan bullshit is this? What did Mom and Dad say?”
“I haven’t told them yet.” The lights were dim in the parking lot of the Budget Lodge. A family of opossums scrambled for the shrubbery when I pulled in. “And who cares what they say? I’m twenty-nine.”
“Just so I’m clear on the plan,” he growled. “What exactly are you
“Hurricane relief.” I said it with a martyr’s pathos because I knew it would piss him off.
I could hear him rubbing his temples, breathing through his nose. It was something he did when he was frustrated. “This is about Mom, isn’t it?”
“No.” I was twelve again, and an authority figure was asking if I
to stay after school. I cut my engine and slammed my Jeep door. It felt good.
I tried to slam the hotel door too, but the lightweight particleboard made an unsatisfying swoosh. “Why did I even call you?”
“Because you thought I wouldn’t answer.”
“You’re an ass.”
“Are you finished?” There was a long silence before he spoke again. “She starts on chemotherapy next week. It’s a long road and it won’t be easy on her. The body reacts in unpredictable ways when you introduce these kinds of chemicals into the bloodstream.”
“What do you mean?”
“Chemo works,” he explained, “because it destroys rapidly dividing cancer cells. The problem is that it can’t distinguish between healthy and malignant cells, so it affects all tissue. Her hair is going to fall out. Her nails will break. And that’s just the beginning.” He continued with a description so vivid I had to put the phone down and take a deep breath. The next time I heard him talking, he sounded angry. “Are you listening to me?” he said.
“A ten percent chance she’ll end up with cardiomyopathy,” I parroted.
“Let me tell you something,” he continued. “I told you the real diagnosis because I thought you were mature enough to handle it. I thought Mom and Dad were underestimating you.” His beeper went off and he stopped talking. When he spoke again, he sounded exhausted, like he’d just paddled through an undertow. “I have to go. Call me when you’re ready to grow up.”
My early memories of Disney were no different from those of any kid on the playground. I cried when Bambi’s mom died and clapped my hands to bring Tinker Bell back to life. For Halloween, I dressed in character costumes. My favorite was Peter Pan—his wanton disregard for authority, his steadfast refusal to grow up. Peter had principles I could really get behind. If I could have found a way to get to Never Land, I never would have come home. I would have left family, friends, and everything that was familiar and wonderfully mundane for the opportunity to eat at a table with a real gang of Lost Boys.
Michael was in junior high at the time, but he was something of a prodigy at being an asshole. “Grow up,” he’d say. “There are no such things as pirates or Peter Pan or Fantasyland. When are you going to learn that Disney is not life? Life—” Here, he would indicate the gridlocked traffic or a dog shitting on the sidewalk or some other meaningful symbol. “Life is happening all around you all the time. Deal with it!”
My mother was quick to shush him. “Tch, Michael. Let him have Fantasyland.”
As the youngest child, it was my privilege and my curse to be allowed to live in a world of wonder. Now, however, it seemed my brother had a point. My first week at Animal Kingdom was anything but magical. I woke up before sunrise every morning and clocked in at the lab where I developed and filed pictures until noon. The photographers, who worked on commission, would breeze into the lab, dump their spent rolls in my inbox, and bolt back into the park without a word. At lunch, I sat alone at long tables packed with merch vendors and stilt walkers, in clusters of wardrobe-themed familiarity, like galaxies of planets made from related elements. Other than Orville’s endless lectures on Disney etiquette, it was a socially successful day when I exchanged ten words with anyone before the sun went down.
Orville didn’t trust me to interact with park guests, so he lined up chores that kept me backstage, away from the critical eyes of guests and park management. I relished my time outside the confines of the little lab, when I could enjoy the warm Florida sun on my face and the scent of orange blossoms and honesuckle on the gentle breeze. Every break I got, I would wander around the park, trying to make sense of a world filled with life-sized stuffed animals and roller coasters scored with a soundtrack.
Animal Kingdom was Tarzan’s park, and Simba’s. Any Disney character that existed in a jungle-themed story found a home there alongside the real creatures of the wilds. It had a soundtrack of jungle rhythms and prerecorded animal sounds scientifically developed to make tourists feel as though they were on a fantastic safari of tame, brightly colored creatures. Timon and Rafiki welcomed park guests in front of the anteater habitat. Baloo and King Louie signed autographs near the kangaroos’ domain. And every day, Mickey and Minnie dressed in safari outfits and posed for photos in kiosks along the greeting trails with families who reeked of frustration and chili fries.
I spent hours exploring the backstage of Animal Kingdom where the exotic animals had their nighttime dormitories, and vets and trainers scuttled between habitats in electric Pullman carts. I skipped lunch to ride the complimentary blue Schwinn bicycles around the dirt paths backstage. When I clocked out from the photo lab, I would roam around the backstage areas of Disney’s other theme properties: Epcot and Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Contemporary Hotel, the Wilderness Lodge, and Pleasure Island. Anywhere guests weren’t allowed to visit. Backstage entrances were marked with helpful signs announcing
CAST MEMBERS ONLY
. I liked to go in one Cast Members Only door and out another, relishing the feeling of
. Backstage was an exclusive VIP club, and I was on the list.
I was especially intrigued by the backstage area of the Magic Kingdom, a system of tunnels known as Utilidors beneath the park where Cast Members could travel from one land to any other without ever seeing the light of day, ascending color-coded staircases to emerge behind a fake storefront or a theater lobby.
Rows of fluorescent lights illuminated the tunnels from above, highlighting the walls with a yellowish hue. Thick, insulated pipes of high-voltage cable and chilled water striped the walls of the corridor to form parallel lines along one entire side. Overhead, the AVAC waste disposal system rumbled every time a load of turkey legs was sent from Adventureland to the central garbage-processing plant.
I would get lost following the twists and turns of the thick pipes of the futuristic trash chute, spelunking the labyrinth of corridors, filled with unmarked doors and unexplored passageways.
Smaller corridors shot off from the main tunnel like a web of veins coursing beneath the surface of the Magic Kingdom. Painted signs on the walls pointed the way to Frontierland and Main Street USA. Most of the tunnels, it turned out, were there for maintenance, air-conditioning equipment, or concessions overstock, but the center of the maze, just beneath Main Street USA, had a branch of Disney’s bank, a cavernous locker room, and a café called the Mousketeria, which featured Spaghetti-Os in motor oil, innocuously labeled “chicken noodle soup.”
It was here in these tunnels that I became fascinated with the beau monde sect of Cast Members known as character performers.
One afternoon, I was sitting at a table in the Mousketeria when Brady and a girl dropped into the seats across from me. “What’s up, shutterbug?” he said, chewing on a straw. “Didn’t think I’d see you at the Queendom.”
“I come for the food,” I said, “but I stay for the ambiance.”
“He works over at DAK [Disney’s Animal Kingdom],” Brady said to his friend. Then to me, “This is Jessie. She’s friends with Pooh and the chipmunks.”
“Charmed,” she said with a coquettish smile. She had a cute face and a solid body, like a gymnast’s. She was wearing a Tinker Bell tank top that showed off well-defined shoulders sprinkled with freckles. “I think I remember seeing you at Nick’s outing party…. Was that you? I was pretty lit. Anyway, it’s good to see a DAK CM [Cast Member] slumming with us tunnel tramps!”
Brady dropped his jaw in mock exasperation. “Jessie, do you
to whore out to everybody you meet? Give the new guy a break.”
Jessie punched Brady in the arm, then looked me over like she was appraising a mogul run—top to bottom and back. “Let’s see. You’re prince height. You’re an athlete—I’m a contemporary dancer, so I can tell. I bet you do the Lion King show, right? Or Tarzan. I’d say Aladdin, but he doesn’t live at DAK—just here and Epcot, right?”
Brady gave her a shove. “That’s what I thought too! Turns out he’s a photographer.”
I wasn’t certain, but I could have sworn a cloud of disappointment passed over her face. “That’s the theory,” I explained. “But I’m mostly doing lab work right now.”
“Ohhh.” Jessie scanned the tables behind me, then turned to Brady. “I
the thought of leaving, but I have to get over to the Studios for Fantasmic. Track 2 tonight. Fun, fun, fun!” The two air kissed and Jessie bolted without saying good-bye.
“That was weird,” I said to Brady after she left.
“I’ve never felt embarrassed to be a photographer before.”
He waved it off. “Don’t mind Jessie. She’s a star fucker, but she’s cool once you get to know her.”
“You and Jessie…”
“What?” he said. “Are you crazy? She’s a Piglet.”
“I’m a Pooh.” He registered my blank look with the serenity of a Buddha. “Same story: relationships never last. I make it a strict rule never to date anybody who’s been approved in my characters…. Damn, I forgot how green you are. Come on, I’ll give you the nickel tour.”
Brady walked me down the main corridor to the Hub where the walls were lined with rack after wheeled rack of character costumes. Sweaty Cast Members in gray shorts and white T-shirts flung colorful outfits at wardrobe assistants who wheeled the racks through a doorway into a room that Brady referred to as the Zoo.
Just inside the door, three rows of ceiling-high racks were filled with character heads. A sneering Hook leered sideways at Geppetto who gazed serenely at Brady and me. Tigger and the Queen of Hearts rubbed noses on one rack while Goofy and Dale kissed on another. Roger Rabbit, Baloo, Tweedledum, Formal Minnie, Safari Minnie, and Minnie Goes Golfing. There were Six Mickeys, three Donalds, and all seven dwarfs. They sat on wooden racks like decapitated cartoons warning other animated creatures not to enter this kingdom.
We stood in the doorway of the Zoo while Brady pointed to the different character costumes. “Basically,” he explained, “there are two different types of characters: fur and face. Fur includes any character whose costume covers the performer from head to toe. Obviously, fuzzy characters like Winnie the Pooh, Terk, Chip and Dale are considered fur, but so is Buzz Lightyear and Geppetto because they have masks that cover their heads. Face characters include the princess roles and some of the more human characters. Tarzan, Maleficent, and the Mad Hatter are face roles, although performers spend so much time getting into makeup, the up-close result is more Kabuki than reality.”
“Why did Jessie call me ‘prince height’?”
Brady nodded. “All character roles are organized by height. Mickey stands between four feet ten and five feet. The Queen of Hearts is six feet to six feet three. For that reason, most Mickeys are girls, whereas the Queen is almost always a guy. Disney is very strict about these height restrictions. Do you know why?”
“Actually, I do,” I said, proud to show that I wasn’t a total rube. “Guest Service Guideline 6: preserving the Magical Experience.”
“That’s right,” Brady said. “A character set lasts thirty minutes with a thirty-minute break between sets, but during the summer, when the heat is unbearable, these sets get shortened to twenty minutes with forty-minute breaks. During the course of the hour that guests are waiting in line, they might see three to four different Plutos, so Disney made an easy-to-follow rule: to be ‘approved in’ Pluto, a performer has to be between five feet six and five feet eight.”
A grinning Captain Hook head wielded by a flustered wardrobe assistant pushed its way through the door, and Brady nudged me back into the hall. “Some fur characters have further physical requirements. Woody’s girlfriend, Jessie from
for instance, has to be extremely skinny—and flat-chested—to fit into her shirt. The Tinker Bell who starts the Fantasy in the Sky fireworks show has to weigh exactly 115 pounds to make it down the zip line at a safe speed. It’s pretty standard for Cast Members to classify people by their character range, so Jessie, who’s five feet seven and reasonably slender, is said to be “Pluto height.” You’re about six feet tall, so that means you’ll never be Donald or Pooh, but you’re in the right range for Genie, Captain Hook, or one of the princes; therefore, you’re ‘prince height.’”
Brady guided me down a tunnel and into a room filled with wigs on Styrofoam heads. Two women were perched on stools, brushing the wigs. They barely noticed us standing in the doorway. “Face roles,” Brady continued, “are more specific, and for that reason, they’re more highly coveted. Hair color and style are incidental as every performer wears a meticulously maintained wig. This is nonnegotiable. Disney doesn’t care if your stylist sculpts your mane into a perfect Snow White bob. You will be wearing an even more perfect Snow White hairpiece. To an extent, race doesn’t matter. Most of the Pocahontas girls are Puerto Rican or Dominican, while the Chinese princess, Mulan, might be anything from Brazilian to Vietnamese. But to be a face character, you have to exhibit an explicit list of facial features. Alice, for instance, has a soft, roundish face, while Jasmine has angles reminiscent of her Middle Eastern ethnicity. Tarzan is lean, Jane a little more filled out. Meg has Mediterranean eyes. Snow White has big round eyes. Eye color itself doesn’t matter, thanks to the invention of colored contact lenses, but a smile always has to be natural.”