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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 (8 page)

BOOK: Chris Mitchell
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“Hey, you guys! Question time!” Alan stood on a chair to address the room. “Suppose you were stranded on a desert island. What three items would you want to have with you?”

“That’s easy,” the Tigger said who, this week, was calling himself Shayde. “A flare gun, a tent, and one of those satellite phones with a GPS system that lets you call from anywhere on the planet. That way, I could get
the fuck
off the island before some cannibal finds me.”

“Girl,” Rusty called everyone girl, but he pronounced it “gr,” like a growl without the rumble. “Girl, that’s too sensible. This is a
fantasy
desert island.”

Alan held up his hand. “That’s okay. What’s his name is entitled to his choices.”

“Wanna know my three things?” Rusty asked “First, I’d have a beautiful catamaran to sail around my island. Second, I’d want one of those see-through airplanes like Wonder Woman has so I could look at everything from above. And third, a computer so I could e-mail all my friends to tell them what a great time they’re missing.”

“I’d want three of my friends with me,” Sunny piped.

Alan nodded his head at me. “What about you, camera guy? What would you take to your desert island?”

“My longboard,” I said. “Assuming there’s a good break there. Or maybe a skimboard. I suppose it’s no good to ask for a boat and a wakeboard, since I’d have to drive it myself, and then what fun is that, right?” Crickets. “A speargun would be useful too.”

There was a moment of silence while everyone in the room tried to translate whatever I just said. “Well, I know exactly what I’d take.” Alan dropped down into the chair, crossed his legs, and looked intently around the room to make sure everybody was listening before he continued. “I’d lay my Fendi towel across my Chanel lounge chair and wait for Johnny Depp to serve me mimosas!”

As a rule, serious conversations were avoided in the break room. Philosophical discussion topics ran the gamut from sexy celebrities to desert island fantasies, abjectly avoiding all serious news. The 2000 presidential election, for example, while hotly contested in the courthouses of Central Florida and obsessed over by record numbers of concerned citizens around the nation, went largely unnoticed in the break rooms under the Magic Kingdom. At the time the final count was made official, ushering in George W. Bush as the forty-third president of the United States, the break room behind Camp Minnie-Mickey had divided into two passionate factions: one that proclaimed
The Sound of Music
to be Julie Andrews’ greatest role, and the other, which steadfastly argued for
Mary Poppins
.

Since I had no opinion whatsoever of grand issues like this one, I was quickly marginalized from the rest of the character performers. I didn’t get hazed or excommunicated or anything. I just wasn’t let into the inner circle. If characters were talking about something scandalous when I walked into the break room, they would suddenly drop their voices to a conspiratorial whisper or change the subject. As someone who was accustomed to being part of the cool clique, I found it a little disconcerting to be on the outside.

To preserve my self-respect, I decided I needed a place of my own. The dubious charms of the World Famous Budget Lodge were wearing thin, and I wanted with increasing urgency to integrate myself into the Disney community. And so, when I saw a note on the DAK character bulletin board advertising a room for rent, I called.

Johnny was a soft-spoken good ’ol boy who used a lot of exclamation marks in his text messages. His avatar was a smiling image of a NASCAR driver, waving from the top of a champion’s podium. His ringtone was Justin Timberlake. He claimed to be a nonsmoker with no pets, looking for a nice guy to share his two-bed, two-bath apartment, located in the Disney Ghetto. He wanted $400 a month.

“Ah’m just a regular kinda guy,” he told me, his phone voice thick with Southern drawl. “I put in mah nine to five and wind down mah day with a Scotch and some NASCAR.” He paused, and I could hear the sounds of ice clinking against a glass. “It doesn’t bother you that ah drink, does it?”

“I’m not into Scotch,” I said, “but I’ll join you for a beer.”

Johnny was in his late thirties, Geppetto height. His smiling eyes and flushed cheeks gave him the appearance of a frat boy on spring break. He was grilling steaks on the patio when I first pulled up in front of his apartment. Offering me a beer, he flashed a big smile.

“Welcome to Orlando, roomie,” he said. “Ah hope you’re hungry.”

I’d been living off mouse-shaped burgers and Slurpees for the last week, so the smell of steak was making my mouth water. “I’m starving.”

He wore the pleasant expression of someone who had just remembered the punch line to an amusing joke. “Your bedroom is on the left. Dinner should be ready in thirty minutes.”

His apartment was clean and well organized, decorated with black leather and Jeff Gordon memorabilia. He had a better-than-decent home theater system and a well-stocked wet bar. Everything gleamed as if it had been bought right off the showroom floor.

My room was standard, big enough to fit a queen-sized bed and a couple pieces of furniture. The walls and carpet, which smelled brand new, were identical shades of Eeyore gray. I had a window overlooking a little garden, and my own bathroom.

Johnny was setting the table when I emerged, showered and changed, half an hour later. “Ah hope you don’t mind,” he nodded at the TV, which was showing NASCAR. “Normally, ah wouldn’t be so rude as to watch TV during dinner, but Jeff Gordon’s racing tonight. In my humble opinion, there’s nobody better. You a fan?”

“Not really,” I said. In
my
humble opinion, watching NASCAR was about as thrilling as watching snow melt, but the food smelled so good, I wouldn’t have cared if we were at a NASCAR museum.

“Ah’m recording it anyway.” Johnny flicked the remote and the screen went dark. “Ah record everything. It’s a habit ah just can’t seem to break. Photography is it?”

“Sort of. Right now, it’s more point-and-shoot than art.”

“Ah’m sure you’ll do great,” he enthused. “Ah’m proud to say ah had a hand in making the Disney system. You know those photo machines on the dark rides? The ones that take your picture right when the track drops out from under you. Ah used to manage the sales booth on Splash Mountain. Maybe five, ten times a day, some girl would get the idea to flash her titties for the camera. Well, ah couldn’t sell those ones. In fact, ah couldn’t even show them. So ah created a policy: if a guest was riding in the same log with a flasher, he just had to explain the situation to me, and ah would personally escort him to the front of the ride so he could have his Magical Moment
complete
with souvenir photo. Ah shit you not. Ah told my nephew about it, and he has never waited in line since!”

I offered to help with dinner, but Johnny had already taken care of everything. In addition to steaks, he had also prepared garlic bread and a salad, all of which was served on black plates with black handled flatware.

“This looks amazing,” I said. “You have no idea how much I needed a home-cooked meal after five days of junk food.”

“Well, don’t be shy,” he said, handing me the salad bowl. “If we’re going to live together, we have to learn to trust each other.” The salad was one of those spring mixes, made up of difficult-to-pronounce lettuce. “Ah have a confession to make.” Johnny flashed a devious smile, looking about as dangerous as a dolphin. “Ah’m not like the other tenants here in the Disney Ghetto. Ah’m kind of an anah-maly.”

“What do you mean?”

“Most everybody here works in entertainment,” he said. “But not me. Ah work in public relations. Pepper mill?”

“No thanks. What do you promote?”

“Mostly ah work with the Disney Vacation Club and Cruise Lines. Everybody told me ah should be the cruise director, but at my age, ah thought PR would be more respectable.”

“How old are you?”

“Thirty-seven, but they say you’re only as old as the ones you feel, and ah been feeling pretty youthful lately….” Here he paused, so I could bond with him over the pleasures of young flesh. “Bit of a Peter Pan complex maybe.”

Right away, I liked Johnny. He was relaxed and easy to talk to. He didn’t have many hard opinions, preferring instead to see how I felt about things, then nodding and smiling as if I had just said the most sensible thing in the world. He was reassuring in a psychiatric sort of way, and he made one hell of a steak. All through dinner, he told stories of couples he would catch necking on Splash Mountain. He used baseball terms to explain how far he’d let them get before embarrassing them with a warning announcement.

“So,” he said through a mouthful of steak, “have you met anybody in Orlando yet?”

“I haven’t really settled in yet,” I said. “I got my heart broken in LA, so I’m just a little cautious. And rusty. What about you?”

“Not interested in settling down.” Johnny smiled. “Orlando’s got too many opportunities. Ah used to do most of my dating through the
Sentinel,
but then ah discovered Craigslist.”

“Personal ads? Does that really work?”

“Does it ever!” he laughed. “Ah can get a date with anybody ah want within six e-mails.”

“Trolls or hotties?”

“Beauty is in the eye,” he said, swallowing a bite of salad. “Ah tell you what, the next time you see somebody coming out of mah room on Saturday morning, you can be the judge. But do me a favor, if you’re not sure you recognize him, just call him ‘Dude’ or something. It’ll save me a lot of embarrassment later on!”

I went to the kitchen for another beer so I could consider this new twist. My roommate was gay. So was my boss. And if my instincts were correct, most of the people in the character program. In principle, I didn’t have a problem with that. Growing up in LA, I knew lots of gay men and women. I had just never lived with any of them.

When I sat back down at the table, Johnny cleared his throat. “You don’t have a problem with me being gay, do you?”

“No problem,” I said. “As long as you don’t mind that I like girls.”

“How do you say it in California?” He pretended to search for the right words. “Ah’m totally cool with that.”

“Great,” I said. Sensing that we had just crossed our first roommate hurdle, I held up my fresh beer for another toast. “So, do you have a lot of one-night stands?”

“Not too many.” He shook his head, smiling the whole time. “But ah don’t let guys stick around too long either. Ah have a tendency to get mah heart broken too, you know. And not just by guys who look like Jeff Gordon.”

“Turn and burn,” I said, thinking about my ex-girlfriend, who, according to rumor, had already moved in with my ex-best friend. “You let people in too deep, and they just end up hurting you.”

“You’ll get over her,” he waved it off, the peaceful smile never wavering from his lips. “Ah learned from mah mistakes. Now, ah just date guys who are emotionally unavailable, and ah don’t get too attached to anyone or anything.” He pointed his fork at me. “That’s the lesson ah learned. No commitment, no disappointment. Life’s a lot safer that way.”

Johnny sipped his wine, smiling happily, and cut himself another bite. When he ate, he switched his fork from left to right hand in that way that suggested a quaint, practiced Southern charm. He chewed with purpose, listened thoughtfully, and responded with positive affirmations that made me feel like I was a good person doing smart things. His eyes were calm and glassy like the back side of a wave when you punch through, just as it’s about to crash.

That night, I lay on the carpet of my new bedroom, wrapped in a blanket, contemplating my situation. I had a decent apartment and a fun job in the Sunshine State. Romance and friendships would come in time, as would furniture and probably a whole lot of heatstroke. But I was, I felt sure, on the right path.

Whistle While You Work

L
egend has it that Walt Disney wasn’t much of an artist. He didn’t know how to draw the modern versions of Mickey or Donald and had to consult his illustrators in order to duplicate his own famous signature.
*
Once he turned a project over to his stable of illustrators, the folklore goes, it became a product of the Brand. But what he may have lacked in artistic skill, he made up for in entrepreneurial acumen. He knew the value of packaging and presentation, that the tiniest details could mean the difference between success and failure. His adoration of the Disneyland theme park (the only park that was completed in his lifetime) was fanatical in its entirety, and he went to great pains to make sure each of his projects bore a perfect facade. He constantly fussed over its appearance and the presentation of its attractions, assigning hundreds of chores that cost thousands of dollars in overtime hours.
**

He was a man of great principles. Sometimes heralded as a creative genius, sometimes denounced as an obsessive-compulsive narcissist, but everyone agreed that he was a man of puritanical diligence. A product of Midwest values and Industrial Revolution savvy, he learned how to make money the old-fashioned way: from children.

Apparently, word had leaked that I was “talking inappropriately” to Mickey, because Orville felt it necessary to give me another round of lectures. As he led me through the backstage pathways of Camp Minnie-Mickey, his booming voice commanded the attention of every spider monkey between the park entrance and Africa.

“Mickey Mouse is the most important person at this park.” His tone was designed to convey enormous responsibility. “People save up their entire lives. They work overtime in third-world sweatshops. They travel thousands of miles just to shake hands with Mickey Mouse. And they are counting on you to capture that memory on film. Cheerfully,” he added. “Wordlessly.”

I struggled to keep up with his enormous strides as we approached the character kiosk, basically a gazebo with an entrance gate, an exit gate, and a backstage access gate marked with a CAST MEMBERS ONLY! sign. “I get it,” I said. “Mickey’s a unique snowflake. Walt Disney’s the messiah. Guests rule.”

“What did I say about cynicism?” Orville asked rhetorically. “Your job is to stand here, in this kiosk, for ninety minutes, and take photos of the guests with Mickey and Minnie. As soon as the next photographer relieves you, you are to go over to that kiosk where you will take photos of guests with Pooh and Tigger for another ninety minutes. After that, you may take a break. Do you have any questions?”

“Put me in, Coach.”

The whole first week, I felt self-conscious standing in that kiosk with a pair of rodents the size of short skis. I hid behind my camera and smiled at anybody who looked my way. Eventually, though, I started getting the hang of it. “Smile,” I’d call out. “Say Mickey!” When the mice went backstage, I’d announce that they were going for a short “cheese break.” When Pooh disappeared, I’d say he was going to get some “Hunny.” If the character performers found my behavior more appropriate, they didn’t show it. As long as I wasn’t publicly defacing the Magic, I avoided embarrassing lectures.

Disney had rules for every situation from a hostage crisis to onstage childbirth. One day, while I was shooting with Mickey and Minnie, a couple came forward for what I assumed was a regular autograph signing. There were hugs and smiles, and suddenly, the guy dropped to his knee and proposed to his girlfriend.

My first instinct was to shoot the whole process from beginning to end, but the mice stopped me. According to the Rules, a Cast Member had to stand aside and patiently wait until the girl either accepted or declined the proposal. If she accepted, we were allowed to gush and congratulate the happy couple. If she declined, we were meant to fade away into the background. As in all things Disney, negative imagery wasn’t allowed to taint the Magic.

The way Mickey and Minnie kept the guests moving was a ballet of efficiency. A hug, an autograph, a photo, then send them on their way. To help keep everything flowing, the characters had assistants, called greeters, who stood in the kiosk and helped orchestrate the process. On average, they cranked through one family per minute, sometimes more. But it never appeared rushed. Everybody left with a smile.

Up close, I got a real sense of just how difficult it was to be a good character. A performer could only see out of fine black screens that covered the nose and mouth of the character head, so there was no peripheral vision. Since every kid who approached a character came in below the performer’s sight line, Tigger, for example, had to move slowly and carefully, a characteristic that was difficult to maintain when you were trying to be a bouncy, fun-loving tiger. Signing autographs in costumes like Tigger was especially difficult because the performer had to make it look natural as if the character was really looking at what was being written when actually the book was resting on the tiger’s nose, on top of the performer’s head. You had to hope the pen was facing the right way and the book was turned to a blank page or else Tigger looked like an ass.

For other characters, like Donald and Pluto, performers could see out of the eyes as well, but no fur was equipped with ideal visual range. Visibility was so limited in some heads that performers were forced to adapt to do their jobs. In Goofy, for instance, a Cast Member could only see out of the mouth, giving him a perfect view of the guest’s feet and some very small children. But in order to see a bigger child or an adult, he had to tip the head back, giving the impression that Goofy was gazing up at the sky—believable for a moment, but not for any extended length of time. Pooh faced a similar conundrum. The performer could see out of the mouth and a little bit through the nose, but between the two, there was a huge blind spot. The performer got a perfect view of the guest’s feet and face, but nothing in the middle. Somebody could hand Pooh an autograph book or a carrot or a stick of dynamite, but the performer had no way of knowing what the item was until the guest put it up to the bear’s nose.
*

To overcome these problems, the entertainment department developed character-specific movements to enhance the visual range. Goofy bobbed his head up and down like an autistic dog. Pooh swayed back and forth like a blind musician keeping rhythm with a song in his head. Baloo jitterbugged, Mushu did tai chi, Rafiki invoked the elements with his voodoo staff, and so on through the roster. These actions provided a sweeping motion that eventually summed up every guest interaction.

As a side effect of character blindness, the performer’s other senses became keenly acute. Inside a head, a performer could hear people talking from halfway across the park. Thick accents were easily identifiable. A child’s scream was earsplitting. I used to think the characters were immune to the smells of the outside world, but, in fact, it was exactly the opposite. Any scent that drifted into the head stayed in the head: cigarette smoke, perfume, garlic breath. Passing gas inside a costume was to be avoided at all costs. The stench was trapped inside the body until the character bent down to hug a child, then blew out the only opening in the suit—the mouth. Within a week, I’d lost count of the number of times I heard a child turn to his parents and say, “Eew, Pluto has doggie breath!”

Every day, I spent ninety minutes with the mice, followed by an hour and a half with Tigger and Pooh, then Pluto and Goofy, and back to the mice. By three o’clock in the afternoon, I had the routine down. My pockets bulged with extra rolls of film. I smiled at everybody, determined to take the best family portraits they had ever seen. I was becoming, if not the best Cast Member Disney had ever employed, at least not the most egregious. The afternoon mouse greeter, on the other hand, sucked. He was an elderly gentleman with an uncultivated thicket of nose hair, who had a habit of forgetting where he was. Every so often, he’d wander to the back of the kiosk to hum little tunes and admire the hibiscus flowers, leaving the characters alone to entertain the guests and keep the line moving. By Rule Book standards, that behavior warranted at least two reprimands, but he’d been around so long, he had earned himself a teamster’s right to be clueless. Still, he should’ve sensed something was up long before the South American mob arrived.

I was one roll away from wrapping up in the kiosk. The shadows were starting to lengthen again, and the moisture in the air around the hibiscus bushes had settled into a gentle simmer. Two Japanese women were jumping up and down, unabashedly giggling with Mickey and Minnie when I first heard the chant. It didn’t sound like much, a rhythmic rumble like a marching band was coming our way. I posed the Japanese pair between the mice, took two photos (one for certain, one for safety) and handed out the claim ticket so they could find their photos later in the day. The old greeter was studiously picking his nose in the back of the kiosk, so I did his job, ushering the women to the exit gate, still giggling and gushing and waving to Minnie.

That’s when I saw them. There must have been twenty people in the group, a small, efficient army in green and yellow T-shirts, rolling up the exit ramp like a tidal wave. They were singing as they came, dancing to the lyrics of a homemade Portuguese war song, and taking no notice of anything in their way. There was no mistaking it; they were hooligans.

The Japanese women dove over the railing into the hibiscus bushes just seconds before the mob crashed through the exit gate. Minnie, who recognized the signals right away, was already halfway up the Cast Members Only pathway, running as fast as her little legs would carry her. But Mickey was distracted, dancing a little jig for a family of Indonesians. The poor mouse never even saw it coming.

Pinned to the back of the kiosk by the advancing horde, I shot an entire roll of film as the mob swallowed the smiling mouse. Six or seven of them grabbed Mickey by all four limbs and hoisted him over their heads. As they passed him into the middle of the circle, they spun him around until his head was sideways, his arm twisted at an unnatural angle. One of his shoes bounced on the ground at my feet, before being quickly snatched up by a young boy with the face of a cherub. “Obrigado,” he said and smiled. And then he was gone, consumed by the group, already retreating down the exit ramp, their hostage held high above their heads. I watched until they disappeared around the corner and their song faded away, leaving only BGM and crying children.

“That was incredible,” I said to the greeter who appeared, finally, to have noticed something amiss. “What just happened?”

“Damn Brazilians,” he muttered. “They think they can get away with anything.”

I teetered on the knife-edge of adrenaline. “They took Mickey!” More than anything I wanted to follow them, just leave the camera and my nametag, and join the Brazilians for whatever adventure they planned next.

“Don’t blame yourself.” The old greeter mistook my excitement for self-reproach. “These tour groups are all made up of assholes. All of them! And they’re only half as bad as the Family Reunions.” He stabbed my chest with a bony finger and lowered his voice. “Know what I say? Screw ’em.”

“Brazilians?”

“Guests. Screw ’em all.” And with that, he angled himself up the Cast Members Only pathway and disappeared among the hibiscus.

It was my indoctrination to the Us vs. Them relationship between Cast Members and guests, and it came as something of a shock. I had spent my entire life in opposition to the institution, fiercely loyal to the principles of individuality and independence. In the world of California beach culture, antiestablishment behavior was the norm: punk rock, illicit sex, a healthy rivalry between sports that occasionally expressed itself in a bar fight or a territorial tagging. Anything counterculture was fair game.

My first reaction to the Mousenapping was empathy with the mob. Disney was a place where dreams could come true. Whether you were looking for a holiday from death or a five-foot-tall mouse grinning like a huffer, Disney was the destination. The Brazilians were just having fun, grabbing a souvenir that a thousand other Cariocas hadn’t already brought back to Rio. Who could blame them for rising up against the Disney regime with their zero-tolerance policy for nonconformist behavior? No jewelry. No frowning. No ironic realism to temper the sticky sweet Goodness. Everybody dressed alike, wore the same haircut, and spoke in Disney code. Cast Members were clones of an Americana that never existed before
The Disney Look
book was published. But now that I was a card-carrying member of Mouse Inc., I was expected to squeeze myself into that very same mold.

For the first time since moving to Orlando, I felt a vast, oppressive loneliness crushing my confidence. I was nobody here; worse than that, I was the new kid at school, cliqueless, trying not to get beaten up before lunch. I had no point of reference for a corporate lifestyle. No network of friends to watch my back. Shortly after his coming-out party at Brady’s house, Nick had packed up and moved to Vegas. Other than him, I didn’t know a single person in Florida. I was alone in the middle of an ocean, treading water, and I was drowning.

After I clocked out, I sat on a bench under the Tree of Life for a while, dialing numbers of friends in LA and leaving messages. I had become so used to my costume that I didn’t realize I was still in it until a security guard kicked me out for sitting and talking on the phone onstage. I drove around the property aimlessly for a while, eventually ending up at the Magic Kingdom Cast Member parking lot. It was the same dilapidated theme as all Cast Member gateways. Tall weeds were pushing their way through fissures in the crumbling asphalt obscuring faded signs. Men and women with Disney haircuts leaned against Nissans smoking and swearing and bitching into their Bluetooth headsets. It was about as Magical as diarrhea, but it made me feel better, somehow, that beneath the Rule Book patina, people—even Disney Cast Members—were, after all, people.

I followed a group of colorful Cast Members—attraction greeters in striped jerseys and Outdoor Foods girls in bright pleated skirts—onto a tram, which dumped us in front of the underground entrance to the Kingdom. The cement floor inside the Utilidors was slick with humidity and a layer of vending cart grease. Entertainers on break between autograph sets chatted idly in wardrobe doorways, enunciating clearly to be heard over the hum of the air-conditioning machinery. I had to step aside for a Pargo loaded with cleaning supplies, a glum duet of janitors in the front seat chewing beef jerky side by side, as silent as salt and pepper shakers.

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