One of the big news stories this week is the reopening of Disney World in Orlando and, with Florida being one of the epicenters of the virus, there have been very polarizing opinions on the decision. Disney itself, in my experience, has always been a polarizing topic--you don't meet many people who could "take it or leave it" or are just "meh" about Disney in regard to the films, the parks, the institution as a whole. There seem to be those who can't stand anything Disney--the commercialism, the sugary-sweetness of it all--and then those who love Disney? Well, they don't leave you guessing, their minivan stickers say it all.
If you're one of the ones who could care less, no need to read on, this'll bore you to death. But for any Disney Superfans out there, I thought I'd share some questions I often get about my time working there and my experiences--the magical, the not-so-magical, and the just straight-up weird!
First I should provide a little context. On the Disneyfan spectrum, I land closer to Superfan status but am nowhere near the level of some guests I've seen at the park (I'll get into that later). Growing up in a small town in West Virginia, if a classmate got to go to Disney World it was a BIG, BIG deal (first of all...you're flying to Florida?!) I also grew up in what I consider the heyday of Disney animation--the trifecta of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty & the Beast were released when I was in the 9-12 year old age bracket, which just added to the fandom.
When we moved to Florida, as I entered middle school, I became more intrigued with all things Disney being that we were now living so close to the parks. In sixth grade I chose Walt Disney as the subject of a biography for writing class. I was fascinated by what I learned about him--his imagination, his vision, his love of family and Americana. I poured my heart and soul into that paper and clearly remember my teacher calling me up and tearing it to shreds, scoffing at both my writing ability and my dream to some day work for Disney (good call, lady).
Following graduation from college in Orlando, I landed a real, grown-up job where I wore suits and pantyhose and had benefits, but secretly...I always wished I had taken the opportunity to work for Disney when I had the chance. I had grown up dancing and performing, I lived in Orlando, and I knew if there was any chance of getting to do it, my days were numbered at 24 years old (in the dance world you're approaching ancient by then). So, after nearly a year at the grown-up job, I did the not-so-grown-up thing--I quit, went down to Disney Casting, and auditioned as a dancer. I didn't make the cut. But they did ask me to come back to wardrobe and try on a few wigs. I ended up trading pantsuits and heels for petticoats and mermaid fins.
The decision made sense to just about nobody but me, but that little girl from West Virginia dancing around the living room to Disney songs was all lit up sitting in a wardrobe chair being fitted in Alice, Ariel, and Wendy wigs. Too short to be a princess, these were the characters I'd play for the next year and a half, primarily working as the lead Alice for Magic Kingdom meet & greets, parades, and shows before management started hinting through a dwindling schedule and the entrance of a younger, more Alicey-looking girl that I was aging out of playing a 12 year-old. Those 18 months feel like many years in my mind, jam-packed with so many memories. Here are a few questions I often get about my time there...
1--Is it true that there are cooling systems inside the characters' costumes?
Nope! At least not back then. At that time, it was a requirement to be a "fur" character for a period of time (i.e. Mickey, Pluto, etc.) before you could advance to what they called a "face" character (Cinderella, Peter Pan, etc.) So I had to pay my dues and play Pooh or Chip/Dale for a bit before I could play Alice or Wendy and let me assure you--not breezy in any way! Thankfully, at that time, they'd only keep you in costume and on set for ten minutes of every hour, so that helped (doesn't sound long but in the Florida heat with little air it gets gross quickly). Summer parades were brutal though, as were bus rides at the end of a long shift with other fur characters who'd worked in the sun all day...
2--What was the best part of working there?
I would say, for me, the training period and the kids. When you first start they put you through Disney University and you get to learn about Walt Disney's vision and the history of the company, which I found really fascinating. But interacting with the kids was my favorite part once I got started. The younger ones truly believe they are meeting their idol; that somehow their favorite character has magically jumped from the screen to talking to them face to face in real life and it's very sweet (with kids...when adults believe this it can be uncomfortable...more on that later).
The hardest meet and greets were the kids from the Make a Wish Foundation who were meeting you (the character) as the last and most important wish they selected. They were often very sick by this point and the emotions of a grieving parent seeing their child's final wish come true knowing they will pass soon, it was hard to keep it together until getting backstage. As a parent now myself, I don't think I could handle it today. But I also recognized what an honor it was to have the opportunity to be part of a moment like that. Them looking in your eyes and really believing they're meeting their hero--having a small moment of joy to help them and their family forget about the pain--that's the true magic of Disney.
3--Is there really an "underground Magic Kingdom"?
Yes and no. Some guests walking through the park may not realize that beneath their feet is a flurry of activity from, I don't know, probably thousands of employees running from place to place--lots of people zooming through tunnels and hallways on foot, segways and golfcarts. But, despite the area being beneath guests, it's not actually underground. With Florida's terrain, it wasn't possible for them to make this area truly underground, so they built the tunnel system at ground level and then built the Magic Kingdom above that. At the time I worked there, around the mid 2000's, this area contained wardrobe, cosmetology where wigs were styled and make-up was done, a cafeteria with a Subway restaurant and some hot food bars, and a series tunnels that took you from one "land" to another. Break rooms for perfomers to use between sets, at that time, were on ground level behind gates.
4--What were the worst/hardest parts of working there?
Overall, I loved my experience but any down sides were more related to employee conditions at the time, though I'm not sure how it is today. The long shifts (most were between eight and twelve-hour days, usually six days a week), the heat, and the long process to commute and just get clocked in/out for the day were tough. If you're full-time--especially if you're used as the lead of a certain character-- there's no work/life balance, Disney is your life...but that was a trade-off I was up for at that point in my life and, because there's so much downtime with a 20-minutes-on, 40-minutes-off schedule each hour, all day long, you build deep friendships there that are like family. (Not to mention, working with other entertainers makes for some fun company!) The break rooms at the time were pretty run down and dingy and the pay was hard to live on, even working overtime, which is usually surprising to people for a company that makes so much money.
Being a performer in the Christmas parade was an honor but man, was it greuling. I was cast as a wind-up toy ballerina doll in the Babes in Toyland segment of the parade, which involved a whole lot of time on my feet dancing from one end of the park to the other, twice a day, from October through January. Surprisingly, rather than supportive dance shoes or even actual ballet slippers, I was given spray-painted flat dress shoes (like those stiff slip-ons you get from Payless) so--not surprisingly--I ended up needing physical therapy on my feet after dancing on concrete for hours on end, six days a week. But that was nothing compared to the mental toll of hearing the same loop of music repeated over and over again nearly every day for three months so, yes, I'm glad I did it, but I was also glad when it was over. I'm a Christmas Dork and a Disney Dork and it still took years before I could hear a Christmas song again without twitching.
5--The wording varies, but I often get asked some version of "what was the weirdest encounter/experience you had there?" or "did you meet any celebrities?"
So the oddest case of "Disney Magic" was probably when Hurricane Charlie hit. The Category 4 storm downgraded to about a 2 as it passed right through Orlando one evening--I vividly remember losing power in the house I shared with a bunch of other twentysomethings. The areas surrounding Disney were pretty torn up--no power, trees down...I even saw a metal sign on the side of I-4 just outside the park that was bent like it was made of plastic. Yet, by the time I got to work the next morning, less than 24 hours later, the park was pristine, as if nothing had happened the night before--I mean, like, not a leaf out of place. A bit eerie, that Disney magic.
As far as celebrity encounters, I really didn't have that many. Celine Dion and Joey Fatone were super personable and sweet with all the staff during meet and greets for their kids. I once waved and smiled when I passed Vanessa Williams in one of the tunnels as she rode by on a golf cart on her way to perform for a Christmas special, she looked at me and shuddered (a bit reminiscent of her role in A Diva's Christmas Carol if you get the old VH1 reference; if not, do yourself a favor & look it up on YouTube, you can thank me later). A manager later told me I wasn't supposed to look at or engage with the performers unless I was in character (oh well). Mariah Carey was the toughest to get a glimpse of, she was there twice during my time there but I was never able to see her. Rumor had it she required her own toilet seat be put on before she would use any Disney bathroom but who knows if that's true (and who can really blame her, right?)
The biggest celebrity almost-encounter I had was with Michael Jackson, which would've been five years before he passed. He was coming to stay at the resort and was looking for a Peter and Wendy to "play" with during his stay (don't ask questions). I was on the list of possible Wendys but was not chosen; had I been I'd probably have some good stories to tell.
But, when it comes to Disney weirdness, one of the most (err...how do I put this?) "unique" groups of people I got to interact with at the park were what I would classify as Uber Disney Super Fans. You could spot them this way: you're talking with a kid, signing an autograph book, and you catch in your peripheral a grown man in Mickey ears losing his stuff in line a few people back, akin to someone waiting to meet one of The Beatles in the 60's. He finally makes his way up in mouse ears, Disney gear head to toe, a fanny pack, a lanyard full of pins, and geeks out, hands shaking, going "oh my God! oh my God! It's Alice!!! Breathe, Breathe!!!" and you're thinking "you do realize I'm a random 20-something in a wig and that animated people aren't real actual people, riiiiight?" But you also find it kind of cute and, hey, in a jaded world it's kind of refreshing so you of course play along, not that you have much choice anyway. I had this experience more than a few times and, once, one even requested an autograph on his calf where he had a full sleeve of Alice in Wonderland tattoos. Listen, I like Disney but these people are next level--it's equal parts cute and troublesome.
Ahh...the Disney days--I will always look back on them fondly; Uber Fans, smelly fur costumes, broke down feet and all. I met some wonderful people, got to do a helluva fun job, and also learned a great life lesson--that when an idea is tugging at you, even if it seems totally off the logical path, following it can bring you somewhere pretty great. In my case, it was only because I took that left hand turn and quit the "real" job that I ended up in teaching--it was at Disney that I learned the joy of connecting with kids and realized just how special it is to make a positive impact on their lives. A real-life Alice in Wonderland story--a girl just following her curiosity and ending up on some pretty cool adventures.