I grew up in Anaheim, so my history with Disneyland is a long and cherished one. Although I have my critiques on Disney films and television, the original theme park itself (I’ve never been to their other parks) is of theme park superior status. That’s why a lot of folks who end up working for the park often stay for a long time or grow with the company in other roles.
For me, I took the entertainment route. With my background in dance, I had my eye on becoming a parade performer for as long as I could remember. I didn’t see it as a career but more of something I could potentially do for a few years. When audition season came around, I planned on being there in the wee hours of the morning. I realized it wasn’t a dance audition when the casting directors asked us to walk across the room pretending to be Eeyore without making a sound. I freaked out for about 20 minutes because I had no improv or acting experience. But somehow I conjured up the 5-year-old in me and immersed myself in the Eeyore within me. I slowly walked across the room, my head down swaying from side to side, sagged my shoulders, and I’d drift my eyes up now and then with my best interpretation of puppy dog eyes. While walking sulkily I’d pretend to play with my tail, watch as it fell, sighed and would drag my feet back to go pick it up.
After several cuts throughout the day, I found myself at the last round with a small group of people left. The last round was the most fun because we got to actually be in the costume and perform in front of the casting directors. I think at that point they didn’t need to judge us on whether we can do improv, they just wanted to see if the costumes would actually fit us. I played Mickey Mouse during that last round and after walking around, waving, jumping up and down to show that I could move freely in costume, I was given paperwork to sign to make my employment at Disney official.
I stayed at Disney for a little less than a year and shortly made my move to Portland after I left. It was definitely the best job I’ve held in a long time and here’s why:
- You get to work at the “Happiest Place on Earth.” Now, sure, I know this is not everyone’s belief about the park, but this slogan is drilled into every Disney employee. From the janitors to the ride operators, everyone is emanating this aura of being happy. When I spent the day at the park recently, I actually felt this energy coming from the employees. There were also moments where I took part in making “magic” for guests. One particular time, I was able to play Princess Minnie Mouse and do a special meet-and-greet with a Make-A-Wish participant along with Snow White. I’m just glad I had a head over my face because at the end of that shift, I was crying bucket loads of tears for the girl with cancer who would be dying three months afterwards. Just knowing that I had a small part in making her happy for a moment made me feel like what I was doing was more than just for me.
- You get insider access to coming attractions. When Toy Story 3 came out, the ride Toy Story Mania was built around the same time. If you haven’t been on the ride before, it’s a game where you compete with your ride partner at shooting different targets throughout the ride. I remember the promotion around the new ride and being able to be one of the first people to try it out.
- You get to experience what it feels like to be wildly famous. This can be a good and bad thing. This isn’t the type of famous where you’re an actor on a television show and only a specific audience knows who you are. But you’re super star, Brad Pitt or dare I say, Beyoncé famous. Everyone knows who Mickey and Minnie Mouse are, even if you hate Disney. Fuzzy characters often have character hosts with them for multiple reasons (costume malfunction, feeling sick or uncomfortable, etc.), but mostly they are there for crowd control. The last few months of my time at Disney was spent on disability because someone picked me up and shook me a little too hard because they got excited to see Minnie Mouse. The head is at least 10 lbs so I got bad whiplash from not bracing myself in time for the sudden movement. But other than that one event, I enjoyed the love and affection I received from visitors.
- To go along with the love and affection from visitors, as a character you often received gifts from guests. We had a rule at work that when guests offered gifts to you, you’re required to deny the gift three times. For me, I had to shake my head and show exaggerated expressions of modesty. But often the guests would insist, and I’d end up with a gift! I’ve received a cool Stitch notebook that they only sell at the Tokyo Disneyland, I got a gold-plated bookmark from a visiting diplomat, keychains of Mickey and many other fun trinkets.
- You sometimes meet famous people. Disneyland is only a 40-minute drive from Los Angeles so many celebrities will visit Disneyland with their friends and families. I’ve met rapper Snoop Dogg while I was Stitch and Kate Moss while I was Mickey Mouse.
Disney Character Myths Debunked
Now for debunking the myths of working as a character at Disneyland. I still get these questions often.
- There’s no fan generating air for us in the head of the character. It would be a luxury to have those especially during the summer months when temperatures can reach 100+ degrees, but I think people fail to recognize that there are hundreds of heads in our costumes department. It would probably be a pain to put a fan in each of the head, plus I’d be terrified of having a spinning blade near my head — it just doesn’t sound safe.
- Yes, it is hot in the costume. In the Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Daisy heads, there were enough holes through the nose to let in enough air ventilation. You can breathe fine in it. But when you’re moving around a lot, jumping, dancing and so forth, naturally you can get warm. In the Stitch outfit, there was very little air ventilation, so every time I removed the costume after a shift, I’d be drenched in sweat. While wearing the costumes you’re also wearing a leotard underneath with a head mask and a bandana to prevent sweat from pouring down your eyes. You definitely get a workout every time you’re on shift.
- No, I’m not wearing the head for an entire shift. Here’s a big Disney secret revealed for those who don’t already know: during each shift, say for example in Mickey’s house in Toontown, there are eight Mickeys working at a time. How the shift works is, a Mickey is out “on stage” (in front of guests) for 30 minutes at a time. Then a five-minute switch occurs when the character host tells people that Mickey is going on a restroom break or something clever like he needs to go feed Pluto. During that five-minute interval, another Mickey takes over and does their 30 minute shift. It goes on like this for eight hours with an hour break for lunch for each of the Mickeys, which then another Mickey covers the breaks during those times. This happens for most of the other characters as well; typically, there are two Goofys, four Chips and Dales and so forth. The break room area consists of multiple characters at any given time and if a guest, especially a kid, ever saw the amount of multiple Mickeys in one place, well, the magic would fizzle immediately.
There you have it, my life as a Disney character! But listing all of the best things and debunking of myths doesn’t quite capture the memories I made at Disney. I’ll always be grateful for the people I met there, the experience I gained, and the easy access I had to take leisure trips to Disneyland anytime I wanted. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to working as a Disney character (unless I get really desperate and this teaching career doesn’t take off) but I don’t totally rule it out as an option either.