Joel, via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Joel, via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Behind the Magic: 15 Secrets of Disney Park Characters

Joel, via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Joel, via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

As kids we hugged them, took pictures with them, and collected their autographs. But what’s it like to be an adult earning your living by pretending to be Mickey Mouse, or Cinderella, or Winnie the Pooh? To find out, we spoke with several current and former Disneyland and Disney World staffers about the reality of life inside the costume.

1. They have their own jargon.

Disney divides their character performers into two main categories: fur characters and face characters. Being a fur character involves putting on a giant, fuzzy costume and communicating only through gestures, or “animation.” Also called look-alikes, face characters include mermaids, fairies, and other human or human-like characters.

One important note: According to employees, no performer actually plays Disney characters. In order to preserve that Disney magic, performers won’t usually admit to portraying Aladdin or Jasmine—instead, they’re simply “friends with” them.

2. You must be this tall to wear the costume …

From shift to shift, multiple performers need to be able to share a costume, and look exactly the same wearing it, so casting agents evaluate aspiring performers on height before even considering their acting abilities. “The audition process is pretty rigorous,” says Luann Algoso, who worked as a fur character at Disneyland for about a year, beginning in 2008. The first cut is made within the first 15 minutes in regard to your height. If you don't fit the height requirement for any of the characters they're hiring for, then you get cut immediately.”

After being hired, though, performers have a chance to play multiple characters in the same height range. Algoso wore the giant heads of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald and Daisy Duck, Lilo and Stitch, and Meeko, the raccoon from Pocahontas. An anonymous performer currently working at Walt Disney World told us she’s played “Too many [fur characters] to count,” including Chip and Dale, Winnie the Pooh, and six of Snow White’s seven dwarfs.

Chad Sparkes, via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

3. … And this "slender" to show midriff.

Face characters are also selected based on height. Male face roles require tall performers: audition announcements for Tarzan, Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, and Kristoff from Frozen request actors between 6-foot and 6-foot 3-inches. Princesses, on the other hand, usually occupy the short-to-medium range—Elsa and Anna from Frozen, Rapunzel, and Jasmine are all listed at 5 feet 3 inches to 5 feet 7 inches. Characters who are supposed to be children, such as Wendy from Peter Pan and Alice from Alice in Wonderland, are more petite, and a casting call for Tinker Bell requests actresses be 4 feet 11 inches to 5 feet 2 inches. Villainesses, however, are taller and more imperious: Maleficent can be between 5 feet 9 inches and 6 feet, and Cinderella’s stepmother and the Evil Queen from Snow White are expected to be between 5 feet 8 inches to 5 feet 10 inches. 

Certain parts of the look matter more than others. Hair color and eye color aren’t very important, at least for women, since all the female characters (and some of the male characters) wear wigs, and colored contacts can easily change blue eyes to brown. But a pretty face and a slim figure are non-negotiable—every female character described on the Disney auditions website, from princesses to villainesses, requires a “slender build.” Jasmine, thanks to her midriff-baring costume, also requires a “toned mid-section.” As for the men, the ideal Kristoff has an “athletic build,” while Gaston boasts a “strong, athletic build” and Tarzan needs a “strong, athletic, muscular build, and very toned physique.”

4. Auditions are intense.

A recruiter for the Disney College Program advises hopefuls to “plan on spending one to six hours at an audition.” At a fur characters audition, the casting agents make their first cut based purely on height. Then comes a series of “animation” exercises, which involve silently improvising based on imaginary scenarios. “I was asked to pretend to be Eeyore, Winnie the Pooh, and even to pretend to be a pregnant cheerleader,” Algoso says. Casting officials make a series of cuts throughout the rounds of improvisation, then the remaining performers put on costumes and perform more improv in character. After a final round of cuts, selected performers receive job offers.

Before would-be "face characters" can even proceed to the tough stuff, though, they're asked to line up. According to Kristen Sotakoun, who scored a spot as Pocahontas, “If you attend a look-alike audition, you literally stand there in a line, [and] they look at you.” During the audition, casting managers evaluate the performers individually, asking each to smile. After this process, called the “type out,” the hiring managers release anyone who doesn’t fit the look they want. A former Snow White said, “They look at about 50 people at a time and go through rows of 10 to decide who gets cut for look alone. It's the biggest cut of the day.” While about 700 people attended her audition, she recalled, “After the ‘type out’ there were only about 150 left.” 

Face character auditions can last up to two days and involve as many as a thousand hopefuls. In addition to the “type out,” the multi-step audition process includes a movement portion, in which auditioners learn a combination of dance steps, as well as an “animation” segment. Performers who make it past this stage get sent to hair and makeup, where they try on wigs, have their makeup done, and put on the costume of the character they’re being considered for. Dressed to impress, each hopeful receives coaching on what her character should sound like, then does a brief cold reading imitating that voice and dialect. After taking pictures in costume, auditioners wait for casting agents to make their decisions. 

5. Everyone starts out as a fur character.

 

Loren Javier, via Flickr// CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Even the Little Mermaid has to pay her dues playing Winnie the Pooh. Performers hired for face roles are first trained to portray fully costumed characters, then spend several weeks greeting kids while wearing giant furry suits. After this probation period, face characters train for their human roles. 

6. Performers do their own makeup …

All character performers get paid for one hour of dressing and preparation. During training, performers with face roles learn how to create a specific character look with makeup. Disney provides the makeup products to ensure a uniform look from performer to performer. After makeup, face characters put on their wigs and costumes and make final adjustments. 

7. … And even learn to write like their characters.

 

Bonguri, via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

During the training process, performers watch their characters' movies in order to practice moving and speaking like them. They also learn their autographs. Each character has a specific signature that performers must replicate, so that park visitors who collect autographs see consistency from year to year—regardless of who’s playing Belle or Goofy at the moment. 

8. There's no talking (or singing) allowed.

Mickey, Minnie, and their ilk can’t speak, only gesture effusively. But while face characters talk to guests, they’re still not supposed to sing. A different set of performers sing for the on-site shows, but these musical performers are considered a separate category of employee and are often represented by the Actors’ Equity Association. 

9. They have to be able to think on their feet.

Face characters deal with all kinds of challenges, from curious kids demanding answers to tough questions, to snarky guests who attempt to get a performer to break character. Sotakoun notes that playing a historical character is particularly tricky. Some kids find it confusing to talk to “Pocahontas” when their teachers have taught them the real Pocahontas is dead. During one meet-and-greet as the Native American princess last year, a young British boy came up to her and announced, “My class visited your grave last year!” 

10. The costumes can take a toll on performers' bodies.

The travails of one former fur character involved getting punched, being put in a choke hold, having her shoulder partly dislocated, and earning three bruised finger bones. This performer eventually went to physical therapy for her shoulder and needed knee surgery thanks to the weight of her costume. Fur character costumes can weigh as much as 47 pounds, and in 2005—the last year for which comprehensive data is available—they were blamed for 282 injuries. That year, character performers across the four parks that make up Walt Disney World reported 773 injuries total; 49 reports cited the heavy costume heads as the cause of injury. Algoso can relate: She once had to go on temporary disability leave after a guest picked her up and shook her when she was playing Minnie Mouse, giving her whiplash from the weight of her cartoon head.

Though she says over-enthusiastic guests sometimes hug “too hard or too aggressively,” Algoso believes most do so unintentionally. The anonymous fur character agrees that, while certain kids find it hilarious to punch them in the torso, most painful moments happen because guests “forget sometimes that what they are doing could hurt us,” as when a parent slaps her forcefully on the back and knocks the wind out of her. Of the 773 injuries reported in 2005, 107 pointed to pushing, pulling, and other aggressive behaviors from guests (both adults and children) as the cause of their injuries.

11. It's hot.

The anonymous Walt Disney World fur character says the worst part of the job is “always feeling hot, hot, hot!” (Performers at Southern California's Disneyland contend with similarly unpleasant temperatures.) Disney does warn auditioners about this aspect of the job, noting in casting calls that “all performers” experience “exposure to hot and humid weather. (Contrary to popular belief, fur costumes don't come equipped with fans.)

For this reason, there are strict rules about how long characters' sets can last. Indoors, fur characters perform for 30 to 45 minutes before they get a 30- to 45-minute break. Outside, set lengths depend on the heat index, per employee contracts and OSHA regulations. If it’s under 94°F, performers spend about 30 minutes outside, then 30 minutes inside relaxing. If the heat reaches 95°F or higher, characters work shorter sets, about 20 minutes—and the hotter it gets, the less time characters can spend greeting guests. According to their union contract, Walt Disney World character performers should spend at least as much time resting as they do performing—and more if they’re working outside.

Since they’re not laboring inside giant fuzzy suits, face characters can spend a bit more time doing meet-and-greets, but even in cool weather, they don’t spend more than 60 minutes outside at a time. Most outside sets last about 45 minutes.

To avoid long stretches without a beloved character—and to ensure there are enough Mickeys and Elsas spread throughout the parks—there are usually a few performers playing the same parts during a given shift. 

12. You can check out the backstage area—but you probably won't want to.

 

Loren Javier, via Flickr// CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Of the set-up behind the scenes, a former Walt Disney World fur character quipped in her Reddit AMA, “Ever seen the back of a shopping center? It looks kind of like that.” In Orlando, the Magic Kingdom does have a network of service tunnels—called “utildors” rather than simply “corridors”—under the park, used for glamorous activities such as making deliveries and transporting garbage. Disneyland has no such tunnels.

Cast member-only spaces include dressing rooms, hallways, a cafeteria, and break rooms with televisions. Again, these areas are fairly boring by cast accounts. If you still desperately want to see where they store Mickey’s heads, Walt Disney World offers a five-hour backstage tour called "Keys to the Kingdom." A former fur character warns, “It’s a tour for ages 16 and over, because you have a high likelihood of seeing partially-dressed characters. I've been wearing Piglet's legs and feet and had to tell the Blue Fairy where to go when seen [by guests], I've even been in almost full costume (I was carrying Minnie's head by the chin) when guests have stopped to look at me.” She calls the tour “Murder the Magic.” You’ve been warned.

13. Performers have to reaudition at least once a year.

Character supervisors reevaluate face character performers every six months or so to “make sure your silhouette hasn’t changed.” During these “re-looks,” managers check performers’ body shape, skin, and general appearance to make sure they still fit into the costumes and still have the right look for their characters. The union contract governing the employment of Walt Disney World character performers mentions explicitly that character performers must attend at least one audition each year to certify they're still suited for their roles. 

14. Face characters make more than fur characters.

In 2014, Walt Disney World fur characters made between $10.10 and $14.66 an hour, depending on how long they’ve held their jobs. Face characters, however, receive $3.25 more an hour, a “face premium” that presumably serves as compensation for continually having to come up with responses to guests’ odd questions.

Thanks to negotiations between Disney and the performers’ union in 2014, all Walt Disney World characters received a 35 to 50 cent raise in May 2015, and they’ll receive another in July 2016. Wages for Disneyland characters are comparable to those of their Orlando counterparts.

15. The stress, and the rules, and the heat are worth it.  

 

Loren Javier, via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Everyone we spoke to seemed to agree: Making children smile is the best part of the job. A former Alice noted that children who really believe they are meeting these characters are “what made [the job] special.” The anonymous current fur character admits she has bad days, but “sometimes all it takes is that one cute kid” to turn it around.

Current and former character performers also often cite experiences with Make-A-Wish participants and other ill or disabled children as some of their most meaningful interactions. Algoso remembered one event for a child with cancer facilitated by Make-A-Wish. She did a special meet-and-greet as Princess Minnie Mouse and notes, “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.”

Another former fur character reflected, “I also once had a little boy in a wheelchair zoom up to me, stop short, look up at me, and say ‘Mickey, Mom and Dad asked me what I wanted before I go meet Jesus, and I said I wanted to meet you!’” She expresses what so many character performers report feeling: “When I questioned why I was sweating my ass off, eyes burning because a drop of sweat hit my contact, I thought of kids like this.”

10 Things That Went Disastrously Wrong on Disneyland’s Opening Day

Disneyland is commonly known as the “Happiest Place on Earth,” but when the park opened on July 17, 1955, it didn’t live up to its now-ubiquitous nickname. In fact, Disney employees who survived the day refer to it as “Black Sunday.” Here are 10 of the most disastrous things that went wrong.

1. FAKE TICKETS FLOODED THE PARK.

Disneyland’s opening day was “invite only” and not for public consumption. Tickets were mailed out and only reserved for special guests, including friends and family of employees, the press, and celebrities, such as Jerry Lewis, Debbie Reynolds, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra. However, scores of counterfeit tickets were widespread on opening day. Disneyland was only expecting about 15,000 guests in total, but more than 28,000 people entered the park.

In addition, there were two sets of tickets with designated times: one for the morning and one for the afternoon. The time to leave Disneyland was printed on each ticket, so if it read 2:30 p.m., you were supposed to leave the park at that time to make way for the afternoon ticket holders to come in. Unfortunately, the morning ticket crowd didn’t leave, so attendance ballooned when the afternoon attendees were admitted.

There was even some money to be made from Disney's woes: one man set up a ladder outside one of the park's fences and charged $5 per person to climb it and sneak in.

2. TRAFFIC WAS BACKED UP FOR MILES.

Sukarno riding mini car with Walt Disney
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Since Disneyland and the city of Anaheim were not prepared for the amount of people that showed up, California's Santa Ana Freeway that led into the park was backed up for seven miles. The traffic essentially shut down the freeway for hours. In fact, people were in their cars for so long that when they finally made it to Disneyland, there were reports of families taking restroom breaks in the parking lot and on the side of the freeway.

3. THE PARK WAS COVERED WITH WET PAINT AND WEEDS.

Completing Disneyland was a race to the finish. Walt Disney wanted a quick turnaround, and it took exactly one year and one day from announcement to opening day, with construction crews working around-the-clock to meet their deadlines. 

However, once the doors opened, guests could easily see that it was not completely finished. Workers were still painting structures and planting trees all over the park. Along the Canal Boats of the World (now the Storybook Land Canal Boats), weeds had yet to be removed from the riverbanks. And instead of landscaping the area, Walt Disney simply added signs with Latin plant names printed on them to make it look like they were meant to be there.

In addition, a number of rides were still under construction like Tomorrowland’s Rocket to the Moon, which showed a glimpse of what routine space travel would look like in the distant future of ... 1986.

4. NO FOOD, NO DRINK, NO FUN.

For the lucky people who made it into Disneyland on opening day, they experienced a shortage of food and beverages in every restaurant and concession stand in the park. Because of the unexpected influx of guests, virtually all food and drink inventory was wiped out within hours.

5. THERE WAS A PLUMBERS' STRIKE.

Entrance to Disneyland circa 1957
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

While there were plenty of water fountains on site, many of them were not working because of a plumbers’ strike during construction. Walt Disney had to choose between working water fountains or working restrooms for Disneyland on opening day, so he picked the latter because he felt the toilets were more important.

“A few weeks before the opening, there was a major meeting,” Dick Nunis, chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, explained to WIRED. “There was a plumbing strike. I’ll never forget this. I happened to be in the meeting. So the contractor was telling Walt, ‘Walt, there aren’t enough hours in the day to finish the restrooms and to finish all the drinking fountains.’ And this is classic Walt. He said, ‘Well, you know they could drink Coke and Pepsi, but they can’t pee in the streets. Finish the restrooms.’”

6. THE WEATHER WAS SCORCHING.

Although Walt Disney had no control over the weather, it contributed to the disastrous opening day experience at Disneyland. Temperatures reached an intense 100 degrees, which must have been unbearable in a park without working water fountains. The day was so hot that the fresh asphalt became like a sticky tar, with guests complaining that they were getting their shoes and high heels stuck in the pavement of Main Street, U.S.A.

7. THE RIDES WERE BREAKING DOWN.

Like so many of the other workers toiling to make Walt Disney's one-year deadline, both Disney Imagineers and construction workers rushed to complete the theme park. As a result, a number of rides—including Peter Pan’s Flight, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage, and Dumbo the Flying Elephant in Fantasyland—broke down or were closed altogether because they simply were not finished yet.

The growing pains didn’t stop on opening day. During the first few weeks after opening, the stagecoach ride in Frontierland permanently closed when it was discovered it would flip over if it was too top-heavy; 36 cars in Autopia crashed due to aggressive driving (ironically the ride was designed to help children learn respectful rules of the road); and a tiger and a panther escaped from the circus attraction, which resulted in a “furious death struggle” between the animals on Main Street, U.S.A.

8. THE MARK TWAIN RIVERBOAT SANK.

The iconic Mark Twain Riverboat in Frontierland was filled way over capacity on opening day, with about 500 people cramming into the attraction. This caused the boat to go off its track and sink in the mud, but the ordeal was far from over.

"It took about 20 to 30 minutes to get it fixed and back on the rail and it came chugging in," Terry O'Brien, who was working the ride on opening day, later recalled in an interview. "As soon as it pulled up to the landing, all the people rushed to the side to get off, and the boat tipped into the water again, so they all had to wade off through the water, and some of them were pretty mad."

9. SLEEPING BEAUTY’S CASTLE ALMOST CAUGHT FIRE.

A gas leak in the park prompted the closing of Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Frontierland for a few hours, while flames from the leak were seen trying to engulf Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Walt Disney was so busy during opening day that he didn’t learn about the fire until the following day.

10. ABC'S LIVE SHOW FROM DISNEYLAND WAS A TRAIN WRECK.

Walt Disney had a partnership with the broadcast network ABC, which helped finance Disneyland with an investment of $5 million of the park’s $17 million price tag. In return, Walt Disney would host a weekly TV show about what people could expect to see in Disneyland, a full year before it was set to open its doors.

On opening day, Walt Disney hosted a 90-minute live TV special with co-hosts Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings, and future president Ronald Reagan. Over 90 million viewers tuned in to see the “Happiest Place on Earth.” And while the cameras showed the fun and excitement of Disneyland, the TV special obscured the numerous disasters described above.

However, the live broadcast itself was riddled with technical difficulties, such as guests tripping over camera cables all over the park, faulty miscues, on-air flubs, hot mics, and unexpected moments that were caught on camera—namely Bob Cummings caught making out with a dancer just before going on air.

“This is not so much a show, as it is a special event,” Art Linklater said during the live broadcast from Disneyland. “The rehearsal went about the way you'd expect a rehearsal to go if you were covering three volcanoes all erupting at the same time, and you didn't expect any of them. So, from time to time, if I say, ‘We take you now by camera to the snapping crocodiles in Adventureland,’ and instead, somebody pushes the wrong button, and we catch Irene Dunne adjusting her bustle on the Mark Twain, don't be too surprised.”

The live broadcast also featured the debut of the original Mouseketeers from The Mickey Mouse Club TV show, which premiered a few months later in 1955 on ABC. So at least something positive came out of all of it.

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iStock
Disney Parks May Soon Have Robotic Stunt People
iStock
iStock

Animatronics are a staple of any Disney park, but as the company introduces more characters into the fold—like heroes from Star Wars, Marvel, and Avatar—the bar is being raised on audience expectations. On the screen, these characters defy gravity and pull off death-defying stunts, yet at the Disney parks, they’re still relying on fairly static animatronic models for their live shows and attractions. As Tech Crunch details, though, the gap between what the heroes do on film and in the park may be closing.

This development is all thanks to Disney’s R&D department, where Imagineers are working on next generation animatronics that can pull off aerial stunts like you’d see in any of the studio’s blockbuster films. The project is called Stuntronics, and its goal is to create animatronic stunt "heroes" that can replace a more static model in the middle of a Disney park show when the scene requires some high-energy action to take place. It's similar to the flesh and blood or CGI stunt people that movies have been using for decades.

In a video demonstrating their progress, a robot model is shown leaping from a cable to do backflips, double backflips, and other heroic landings. It’s something straight out of a Spider-Man movie and is years ahead of any animatronic character currently at the park.

Tony Dohi, principal R&D Imagineer at Disney, told Tech Crunch that the idea for this type of animatronic came about because they realized there was a “disconnect” between the exhibits at the park and what people see on film, so swapping in advanced animatronics for complex action scenes would go a long way toward making Disney’s parks feel more authentic to their properties. The Na’vi Shaman from the Avatar exhibit shows that Disney can get their animatronics to emote; this next step will put them into action.

According to Tech Crunch, right now the stunt robots are realized with the help of an “on-board accelerometer and gyroscope arrays supported by laser range finding.” They are autonomous and self-correct their aerial stunts to hit their marks. Though the model used in the video is just a generic mockup, it’s not hard to see how the Imagineers at Disney can easily turn it into any number of heroes from Marvel or Star Wars.

Stuntronics is just one of the advancements happening with robotics at Disney. Tech Crunch also detailed the Vyloo, which are a trio of autonomous bird-like robots in the park that react to guest movements. They can be seen in the Collector's Fortress in the Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! attraction at Disneyland in California.

The Stuntronics project is still in the R&D phase with no practical application in place just yet. But if this technology does progress the way the Imagineers are hoping, the blockbuster action of Star Wars, Marvel, and The Incredibles won’t just be exclusive to the movies anymore.

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