By Rob Bloom
April 08, 2005
Peter Pan and Aladdin were huddled together in a corner of the locker room, their lips locked in a moment of pixie dust passion. Next to them, the Fairy Godmother cursed like a sailor and Snow White took a long drag on a Marlboro.
And so began my first day of work at Walt Disney World.
A Childhood Fascination
From the first time my parents took me to the Magic Kingdom, I was fascinated by this colorful world where everything was, well, magical. It started as soon as you exited Interstate 4 and tuned your AM dial to Disney radio. There was the giant lot where you parked your car in Goofy 12 or Pluto 22, the tram and the monorail and then, you finally arrived. It was an awesome experience to walk through the front gates, under the train and onto Main Street; smelling the popcorn, listening to the barber shop quartet, rushing to the rides.
Actually, many of my childhood memories about Disney involve rushing. To the tram or the monorail. To Space Mountain or Peter Pan’s Flight. To make our reservation at the Diamond Horseshoe Revue. But regardless of where we were rushing to, we always stopped when we saw a character.
Watching Mickey and his friends on TV was one thing. Getting to meet them, hug them, and take pictures with them was completely different. Here were the personalities whose screen antics brought me such happiness – and they were right there. Living, breathing, moving. They were the larger-than-life inhabitants of this magical world that was, in itself, larger-than-life.
I was mesmerized by the characters. From the way they interacted with the crowds to the personal escort always at their side, they were genuine celebrities. Hell, they even walked in and out of mysterious secret doors! For years, I’d watch as characters went behind those doors, out of sight, and wonder what was on the other side.
Finding a job
I graduated college with an advertising degree and the expectation of landing a big agency job and working on my first Super Bowl ad. Half a dozen job interviews later, I realized that (a) the advertising world wasn’t exactly waiting for my arrival with baited breath and (b) without a portfolio of dazzling work, the closest I’d get to any ad agency was delivering pizzas at lunchtime.
My spirits deflated, I searched the job ads in the paper, looking for anything to stand out. Something did. Amongst the sea of black and white ads sat a four-color notice commanding attention. Using words like “magic” and “spectacular”, the ad was offering the opportunity to become part of the Walt Disney World team. The job? Character performer.
People will see me and cry
The auditions were held at a soundstage far removed from Disney property. A massive line of people who appeared to have stepped out of the movie Fame stretched around the building. Wearing tights, headbands, and those fuzzy things dancers put around their legs, they chugged bottles of Evian and clutched their headshots.
Once inside the building, we were all given a number and divided into groups of 40. Then we waited. And waited. Finally my group was called and I followed the others into a giant dance studio. A little man in a beret quickly mumbled something and then busted into a fury of wild dance moves. The other auditionees followed suit and mirrored the choreographer move for move. I, on the other hand, was lost.
The choreographer stopped dancing as quickly as he had started and walked among us, tapping some of us on the shoulder. I wasn’t tapped. He walked away and we were led into another room to wait.
The second part of the audition involved about 20 of us standing in another room while a tall man with glasses barked out orders.
“Okay, show me ‘packing a suitcase’!”
I looked around and saw the others silently going through the motions of folding imaginary clothes and putting them into an imaginary suitcase. I followed suit.
“Show me ‘trying on a pair of shoes but putting them on the wrong feet and walking around’!”
“Show me ‘sleepwalking and winding up in a room filled with banana peels!”
And on and on. Finally, we were brought into yet another room to wait. About 90 minutes later, the tall man with glasses came out and read about 40 names from his clipboard. I was one of the names.
After the names were called, each person was briefly interviewed by the tall man with glasses. At the end of the interview, he gave each person a different color paper, indicating which Disney park you’d be working at. I was placed at the Magic Kingdom and couldn’t have been happier.
But before I could go behind those secret doors, I had to complete the Magic Kingdom orientation program. For the next two weeks, I’d report to Casting and learn about the characters I’d be playing (a decision determined by height). At the end of the two weeks, an exam tested my knowledge of these characters and my ability to sign their names. After all, if little Billy gets an autograph from Mickey in 1985 and then again in 2005, the signatures must be identical.
I passed the exam, received a little diploma (signed by Mickey, of course) and joined my fellow trainees on an awaiting tram. This was it. I was finally going to see what was behind those doors.
Behind the doors
The tram drove a mile or so from Casting to the Magic Kingdom. During the drive, we passed what resembled a graveyard of miscellaneous ride elements, like a hippo from The Jungle Cruise and a sub vessel from the defunct 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
The road sloped downward and we drove up to a gigantic hanger. This was the gateway to the Utilidor, the underground tunnel system that covered the entire Magic Kingdom. Each attraction is accessible via the Utilidor and you can get to any of them within minutes. And just like the magical world above ground, there’s plenty to see in the Utilidor. Standing at a doorway, just a few feet from the entrance to Fantasy Land, was Ariel, talking dirty to her boyfriend on her cell phone.
Know your role
Make no mistake about it, there’s a definite pecking order among ‘character performers’ at Disney. At the top of the food chain are the ‘face characters.’ These are the unmasked performers who portray characters like Cinderella, Jasmine and Prince Charming. They’re the stars of the show (just ask them and they’ll tell you so) and rarely associate with anyone outside their circle. Further down the ladder, you’ve got your ‘main 5’, which includes the five classic Disney characters, Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald and Pluto. Underneath them you’ll find the rest.
But don’t think for a moment that we’ve reached a land of equality here. Characters that have broken through the mainstream via TV, movies or massive merchandise sale are regarded as stars. Winnie the Pooh and his neurotic friends, Captain Hook and The Beast all fall into this category. At the bottom of the list are characters based on rides (the Country Bears), characters long forgotten (Pinnochio’s Gideon) and worst of all, characters who received a promotional push but still failed to connect with the crowds (Goofy’s son, Max).
Just another day at the office
I portrayed five different characters during my four months at Disney. During that time, I worked all over the Magic Kingdom. Oftentimes to make extra money, I’d pick up additional shifts at one of the other parks or at a hotel character breakfast. Also, there were plenty of cool perks about the job, like riding Space Mountain with the lights on and getting sneak previews of new attractions before they open to the public. Oh, and you get free parking!
When I tell people that I worked at Disney, they usually have a list of questions for me. I hope this forum can provide some answers:
Are the costumes air conditioned?
Is it hot inside?
What if you need to use the bathroom during a set?
You hold it.
Are you bitter that you never became a face character?
I was actually given the opportunity to turn in my sweaty fur for tights and play Peter Pan. I declined when I was informed I’d have to shave my chest.
Is Walt Disney really frozen in a block of ice underneath the Magic Kingdom?
Sorry, I can’t answer that. What happens at Disney…stays at Disney.
Reflections of a character
It’s been several years since my exposure to backstage Disney. And in case you’re wondering, going to the park every single day did not diminish my love for the Magic Kingdom. I still turn into that young boy whenever I walk through the front gates down Main Street and I still rush to stand in line at Space Mountain. In fact, having worked at Disney and going behind-the-scenes only fed my craving to be part of the magic.
In actuality, I guess I’m just like that saucy, rebel mermaid Ariel. I just want to be part of that world.