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Joel, via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Behind the Magic: 15 Secrets of Disney Park Characters

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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.”

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32 Things You Should Know About Epcot
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Happy Birthday to Epcot, the only place where you can drink in 11 countries without ever leaving Florida. In honor of its 35th birthday, we've rounded up some facts about Walt Disney’s vision for the future.

1. EPCOT is an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow.

2. Epcot turned out much differently than Walt had originally imagined it. Before Disney’s death in 1966, EPCOT was actually intended to be a real community where people would live, work, and play. See his intentions here:

3. To build the park, more than 54 million cubic feet of dirt had to be excavated.

4. With its two distinct halves—Future World and the World Showcase—it may seem like two different theme parks smushed together. In fact, that’s exactly what it is. When plans for the park changed after Walt’s death, some Imagineers wanted to go with a World’s Fair theme while others were pushing for a futuristic park. Two Imagineers put their models up against each other, and Epcot as we know it was born.

5. With 11.25 million visitors every year, Epcot is the world’s fifth most-popular theme park—right behind the Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland, and Tokyo DisneySea.

6. In 1991, Disney announced plans to build WestCot in Disneyland’s parking lot in Anaheim. Michael Eisner put a halt to those plans when Disneyland Paris flopped. California Adventure later opened on that spot instead.


7. Spaceship Earth, a.k.a. the giant golf ball, weighs 16 million pounds, is 165 feet in diameter and takes up 2.2 million cubic feet of space. The geodesic sphere is made from 11,324 aluminum and plastic-alloy triangles.

8. The term “Spaceship Earth” was coined by famous futurist and theorist Buckminster Fuller, who wrote a book called Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in 1968.

9. Ray Bradbury conceived the original storyline and penned the original script for the Spaceship Earth ride.

10. The 5.7 million-gallon body of water at The Seas with Nemo & Friends is home to more than 3000 fish and other sea creatures. The sheer size makes it one of the largest man-made ocean environments in the world.

11. Captain EO cost an estimated $30 million to make. At just 17 minutes, that makes the film $1.76 million per minute.

12. The “Living with the Land” attraction is home to a Guinness World Record—the most tomatoes harvested from a single plant in one year (1151.84 pounds).

13. The food grown in Epcot greenhouses is actually used in the restaurants there, including the Garden Grill.

14. The Sea has a panel of experts that they use for consulting purposes. The panel has included Robert Ballard, most famous for discovering the wreck of the Titanic; Sylvia Earle, the first female chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and Gilbert Grosvenor, a former president and chief executive of the National Geographic Society.

15. Two people have died after riding Mission: SPACE. One was a four-year-old with an undiagnosed heart condition, and the other was a woman who suffered a stroke due to high blood pressure.

16. Leonard Nimoy directed the popular Body Wars movie at the Wonders of Life pavilion.

17. The score for Soarin’ Over California was composed by Jerry Goldsmith, who said that he loved the project so much, he would have done it for free. Goldsmith’s many noteworthy scores include The Omen, Planet of the Apes, Alien, Poltergeist, Patton, and Rudy.

18. The Wonders of Life pavilion once contained a film where Martin Short explained how babies were made. Really.


19. The World Showcase promenade is 1.2 miles long.

20. The World Showcase lagoon spans 40 acres.

21. The Rose and Crown pub in the U.K. has a special machine that can cool your Guinness to exactly 55 degrees, the temperature recommended by the company.

22. Russia, Switzerland, Spain, Venezuela, United Arab Emirates, and Israel have all been mentioned as additions to the World Showcase side of Epcot at one point or another.

23. There were once plans for a boat ride called The Rhine River Cruise in the Germany pavilion. The show building was partially constructed, but the rest of the ride was trashed shortly after Epcot opened.

24. Contrary to popular belief, for the most part, the countries in the World Showcase are not funded by that country’s government. There’s one exception: Morocco.

25. Morocco’s King Hassan II reviewed a detailed scale model of the Morocco Pavilion for "authenticity and artistic effect." 

26. Imagineers have long considered a roller coaster inside of the Japan pavilion. It would be similar to the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland, but would instead revolve around Mount Fuji.

27. The American pavilion is built at a slightly higher elevation than all of the other countries'. This is to show that it's a host country to all of the other pavilions, and also to help it stand out as the centerpiece.

28. For 17 years, Epcot’s Japan pavilion was home to Miyuki, the world’s only female amezaiku artist. She learned the art of creating small, edible animal sculptures out of brown rice toffee from her grandfather. Miyuki retired in November 2013.


29. More than 30 million blooms fill the park during the Flower and Garden Festival every spring.

30. The Food and Wine Festival in the fall represents 25 nations with 1.5 million food samplings, 300,000 wine pours, 360,000 beer servings, and 100,000 dessert portions.


31. The puppets for the now-defunct “Tapestry of Nations” parade were designed by Michael Curry, the same man who designed the puppets for the Broadway production of The Lion King. He has also worked on five Cirque du Soleil shows and multiple opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympics.

32. Jim Cummings is the man who provides the voiceover at the beginning of “IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth.” You may know him better as the voice of Darkwing Duck. He’s currently the voice of Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and Pete. Listen to the first 30 seconds of this video—you can probably hear a little bit of each of those characters.

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job secrets
12 Secrets of Roller Coaster Designers
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Back in the early 20th century, engineers attempting to push the limits of roller coaster thrills subjected riders to risky upside-down turns and bloody noses. A century later, coaster designers rely on computer software, physics, and psychology to push the limits of the roughly 4400 rides in operation worldwide. To get a sense of what their job entails, Mental Floss spoke with several roller coaster specialists about everything from testing rides with water-filled dummies to how something as simple as paint can influence a coaster experience. Here’s what we learned.


Roller coaster passengers prepare for a drop

Known as a “thrill engineer,” UK-based Brendan Walker consults with coaster manufacturers and parks on the psychology of riding the rails. In his experience, riders getting secured into their seats are at the peak of their excitement—even more so than during the ride itself. “The moment the lap bar is being locked down and you have that feeling of things being inescapable, that you have to suffer the effects of the ride, is the highest moment of arousal,” Walker says. “The actual ride might only achieve 80 percent of that excitement.”


Bill Kitchen, founder of U.S. Thrill Rides, says it can take anywhere from two to five years for a coaster to go from idea to execution. Part of that process is devoted to the logistics of securing patents and permits for local site construction—the rest is extensive safety testing. “We’re subject to ASTM [American Society for Testing Materials] standards,” Kitchen says. “It covers every aspect of coasters. The rides are tested with what we call water dummies, or sometimes sandbags.”

The inanimate patrons allow designers to figure out how a coaster will react to the constant use and rider weight of a highly-trafficked ride. The water dummies—which look a bit like crash test dummies, but filled with water—can be emptied or filled to simulate different weight capacities. Designers also sometimes use the kind of crash-test dummies found in the auto industry to observe any potential issues prior to actual humans climbing aboard.


A roller coaster track is ready for passengers

There is absolutely nothing random about the length of a coaster’s track. In addition to designing a ride based on the topography of a park site, designers take into account exactly how much space they’ll need to terrorize you and not an inch more. When England’s Alton Towers park was preparing to build a ride named TH13TEEN for a 2010 opening, they asked Walker exactly how much of a drop was needed to scare someone in the dark. “It was a practical question,” Walker says. “For every extra foot of steelwork, it would have cost them £30,000 [roughly $40,000].”


The popular PC game, first released in 1999, allowed users to methodically construct their own amusement parks, including the rides. As a proving ground for aspiring engineers and designers, it worked pretty well. Jeff Pike, President of Skyline Attractions, says he’s seen several people grow passionate about the industry as a direct result of the game. “I remember when the game first got popular, I would go to trade shows and there would be kids looking to get into it using screen shots of rides they designed. The game definitely brought a lot of people into the fold.”


Cans of paint are arranged on the floor

For all of their high-tech design—the software, fabrication, and precise measures of energy—a good coaster ride can often come down to whether it’s got too much paint on it. “The one thing that will slow down a steel coaster is a build-up of paint on the track rails,” Pike says. “It softens where the wheel is rolling and hitting the track, which increases the drag.” A good, worn-in track will have grey or silver streaks where the wheel has worn down the paint, making it move more quickly.


Brian Morrow, Corporate Vice President for Theme Park Experience at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, says that the looming curvature of coasters spotted as guests drive toward and enter the park is very purposeful. “It’s like a movie trailer in that we want you to see some iconic coaster elements, but not the whole thing,” he says. “You approach it with anticipation.”


The loop of a roller coaster track

Whether a coaster’s theme or design comes first is largely left up to the end user—the amusement park. But for some rides, manufacturers are able to offer pre-fabricated constructions that designers can treat like the world’s biggest Erector Set. “Sometimes I work on rides that have already been built,” Walker says. “They’re produced by a company and presented almost like a kit with parts, like a model train set. There’s a curve here, a straight bit here, and you can pick your own layout depending on the lay of the land.”


If you’ve ever been on a wooden coaster that seems a little shaky from one trip to the next, check the forecast: It might be because of the weather. Pike says that humidity and other factors can shrink the wood, affecting how bolts fit and leading to a slightly shakier experience. “The structure itself can flex back and forth,” he says. It’s still perfectly safe—it just takes more maintenance to make sure the wood and fasteners are in proper operating condition. A well-cared-for wooden coaster, Pike says, can usually outlast a steel model.


A roller coaster track at dusk

“A coaster running in the morning could run slower when cooler,” Morrow says. “The wheels are not as warm, the bearings are warming up. That could be different by 2 p.m., with a slicked-up wheel chassis.” Coasters experiencing their first-ever test runs can also be slightly unpredictable, according to Pike. "Those first trial runs [during the testing phase] can be slow because everything is just so tight," he says. "A lot of coasters don't even make it around the track. It's not a failure. It's just super-slow."


The twisting, undulating tracks of coasters can often be the result of necessity: Pike says that trees, underground piping, and available real estate all inform designers when it comes to placing a ride in a specific park. But when they have more freedom, coasters can sometimes take on the distinctive shape of whatever happens to be around the designers at the time of conception. “We had a giant piece of land in Holland that just had no constraints, and we were sitting around talking," Pike says. “And we started talking about Jay Leno’s chin.” The ride was a “loose” representation of the comedian's jaw, but “it is there.”


Roller coaster riders enjoy the end of the ride

For Walker, the best advertising for a coaster is having spectators watch riders de-board after an exhilarating experience. “It’s all about that emotion,” he says. “A spectator basically asks, ‘What’s making them so aroused? What’s giving them such pleasure?’ The line for the ride is the audience. Imagining yourself on the structure becomes a very powerful thing."


Biggest, fastest, longest—coasters are running out of superlatives. Because rides can only be designed with so many drips, rolls, or G forces, some companies are looking to the sky for their next big idea. Kitchen has been overseeing design of the Polercoaster for years: It’s a sprawling, skyscraper-esque ride that uses electromagnetic propulsion to carry riders upwards instead of across horizontal tracks. “We want to put it in places where land is very expensive, like the Vegas strip,” he says. “You can only do that if it takes up a lot less space.” Kitchen believes it’ll be another two years before ground is broken on the project, which is set to exceed the 456 feet of the current tallest ride, Kinga Ka at Six Flags in New Jersey. “It’ll be the world’s tallest—and hopefully the most fun.”


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