A few years ago I worked as a character performer at Walt Disney World. The topic came up in another thread, and a Doper suggested that I start an AMA about it.
So, yeah, here we are! Through a series of minor coincidences, I ended up applying for the Disney College Program, as well as auditioning for a character role. Once hired, I spend most of my time portraying Tigger and Eeyore. I had one shift as Tweedledee (or maybe Tweedledum?), as well as a handful of shifts as a van driver. Later on I was cast as a Toy Soldier in the Christmas parade, which was tons of fun. Anything you’d like to know?
Hot as balls. There are no fans or ventilation systems of any kind. During the hot summer, it gets so dangerously hot that each outdoor shift only lasts 20 minutes before the performer has to be brought inside and another performer is sent out. In these situations, there are typically 3 performers working the same character. An average summer work day would be 8 rotations of 20 minutes on set and 40 minutes off. When it cools off, the shifts change to 2 performers rotating 30 minutes on and 30 off. Even so, overheating and dehydration are always major concerns. I would sweat so much that during each and every break I would drink a liter of water without ever having to pee.
What about the smell from other wearers of the suit?
During each shift, every performer gets their own costume. At the end of the day, every costume that was used gets washed and sanitized. The only odors you have to worry about are your own.
Do some characters get paid more than others? Like, is being Mickey considered a plum job?
Two-part answer. First, performers don’t get hired for a particular role, they get hired for a height range, which often includes multiple characters. The shifts available for that height range all pay the same regardless of how uber the character is. I mainly worked Tigger and Eeyore, but in theory I also could have been assigned to a shift as The Sheriff of Nottingham, Foulfellow, Kenai and a bunch of others. Performers working as Mickey don’t get paid more, they’re just shorter.
However, there are also some roles that require specialized training, which results in a higher pay grade. For example, there are some special performances with a Mickey costume that can shoot fireworks out of his hands. This requires that the performer be pyro certified. The more specialized and dangerous the skill, the more it gets paid.
I sustained only one crotchal injury during my tenure. On one miraculously slow day, I was spacing out, thinking about some of the gorgeous women in the College Program. I got an erection, though it wasn’t visible from the outside. It was, however, quite erect – until a little kid smashed his head right into it. Joy unending!
As for the happiness thing, it’s a bit tricky to give a definitive answer. There are aspects of the work environment that make it very unique in a positive way: free access to the parks, meet interesting people from all over the world, lots of opportunities to move around within the company and learn new skills.
There are, of course, some serious downsides to working at WDW. They are incredibly rigid about how they expect their employees to look and behave, and some of the rules are ridiculously specific: you’re allowed to dye your hair, but only to a color that could naturally be grown out of a human head. Girls are allowed to have earrings, but no other visible piercings. In the training process, they scare you into believing that you will be fired on the spot for stealing even a single roll of toilet paper or hot dog bun. I never tested this system.
If you ever hear a former Disney employee refer to an organization as “Disney-esque”, they’re not talking about sunshine and happiness, they’re talking about how retardedly strict the organization is with its employees. That said, I absolutely loved what I did there, though I doubt I would ever find any lasting happiness or satisfaction working there.
I was paid $7.88 per hour. Keep in mind that this was in 2009 and that, as a member of the College Program, I had access to a lot of stuff for free: cable, internet, transportation to/from work, gym, pool, tennis court, beautiful women.
Dealing with scared children is a topic that is covered in depth during the training process. We were taught to get down on one knee and bring our arms close to our body to make ourselves appear as small as possible. No sudden movements, very small inviting hand motions, and hope for the best. Sometimes they overcome their fear and venture closer, sometimes it doesn’t work at all.
It’s hard to pick one story as being the funniest, but here’s one that I remember fondly: I was working in the Crystal Palace restaurant as Tigger. I went up to a table and a very small child climbed out of his seat to talk to me. He must have been just barely learning how to talk, because whatever he said was just total gibberish. I slowly turned to look at each of his parents, then shrugged. They both knew exactly what was going on and started laughing their asses off. I trotted away happily.
Another good one was when I was working at Pooh’s Playground, again as Tigger. There was a marching band that performed nearby, and one day after my rotation was done, I went over to go play with them instead of going inside to cool off. I was dancing and having a good time, but when I tried to get one of the drummers to let me play with his drum, he lightly pushed me away. Dejected, I turned around to march back to the break room. What I hadn’t realized was that a huge flock of children and parents with baby strollers had coalesced directly behind me while I was fooling around. I just started walking without realizing that anything was in my way, and I stumbled and smashed into at least 3 baby carriages as I slowly worked my way through the wall of meatbags and strollers. It was not graceful in the slightest. For months after the incident, the nearby attractions employees referred to me as “that Tigger who tripped over all the strollers.”
The worst work-related moment was also when I was working at Crystal Palace. Usually, each rotation there ends with a “Celebration”, in which all of the characters march around the room with the kids. During this particular shift, which I had never worked before, there was a rotation that didn’t end with a Celebration. An attendant gave me the super secret high five signal near the end of my rotation. What she meant was “five more tables, then you’re done,” but I misinterpreted it to mean “five more minutes, then I’ll bring you inside,” which is what the signal means for outdoor sets. I just kept on going, not keeping any track of time or the number of tables I had visited. Eventually I knew something was wrong, as I was starting to feel a bit wobbly and out of focus. I felt like I was just about to collapse when I looked up and saw an attendant, who came over and said “Tigger… have you had your bouncing lessons yet?” which I knew referred to my scheduled break. I shook my head and she brought me inside. Indoor sets are a maximum of 40 minutes, but I looked at the clock and realized that I had been left on for nearly an hour. I was too tired to do anything but drink water, but the other performers were pretty annoyed that the attendants had let that happen to me.
The most bizarre thing… another Tigger shift at Pooh’s playground. This time I had a pretty nasty cold, so there was snot running out of my nose all day. It was pretty gross to feel my face slowly becoming covered with a wonderful mixture of sweat and snot. To combat this, I had the bright idea to stuff a wad of tissue in the offending nostril during one of my breaks. At first, it worked great, but as I bounced around, the tissue wad slipped out of my nostril and was free to fly around the inside of my character head. So now, not only did I have snot running down my face, but there was also a giant snot-soaked half-dissolved tissue blob floating around inside my costume. Lovely!
For the most part, it was pretty easy to switch off the talking as soon as I got into costume. Some character performers (myself included) would just never talk at all once they put their head on, even when standing backstage. It just becomes part of your world: head on, talking off.
I only have one memory of accidentally talking. While on set, a kid held out his autograph book to have me sign it. I reached out to take it, but unlike all of the other kids out there with functioning brain cells, this little guy decided that he wasn’t going to let go. Frustrated, I yanked it out of his hands like a boss and accidentally muttered “Gimme that fucking thing”, but it definitely wasn’t loud enough for anyone to hear.
Tigger! Eeyore! It’s entirely possible I gave you a hug at the Crystal Palace at some point. I love Eeyore and Tigger!
How long do you have to practise the autographs for each character before they come out right? Is it a huge charge being the focus of so much love and excitement from the guests? How long do character Cast Members generally work as characters before moving on to different jobs? How much training did you get in each character, and what kind of training – ie, physical training in how to move like the character, films of the characters cartoons or movies, etc?
Mrs. Homie and I were at 1900 Park Fare and Grand Floridian, and were being entertained by Cinderella and her friends. A female mouse character (Perla?) came by our table, put her lips up against my cheek, and made a kissing sound. I asked “That’s a girl in there, right?” From within the costume I could hear a young woman valiantly trying to stifle a snicker.
Do they generally try to assign women to female characters, and men to male characters? Can I be sure that the actress inside Jessie is really an actress, and that the actor inside Woody is really an actor?
What’s the most off-the-rails thing you’ve ever seen a guest do? Have you ever seen anyone get hauled away by Security?
Thanks for this thread! There are lots of “Ask the Cast Member” threads on the Disney message boards, but those are often full of woo.