What Disney Characters Want

I’ve been debating whether to write this post as I know there are quite a few similar posts out there but I felt its information that as many Disney guests as possible need to hear. Visiting Disney theme parks is a lot of fun and meeting the famous Disney characters is a favorite activity for many children and adults alike. Having worked in Walt Disney World entertainment for seven years, I’ve seen plenty of the good and the bad. My experience is from Disney World so there might be some procedural differences in other parks but I’d be surprised if a lot of it’s not the same for all the Disney theme parks. Also, of course I can’t speak for every single character performer but this information is based on my own experience as well as many conversations with other performers. Without further ado here are some tips from a former performer to make character meet and greets go smoothly and be more enjoyable for you and the character.

The biggest most important thing Disney characters want is the same thing most everyone in the service industry and really everywhere wants. And that’s simply to be treated with respect. I hope most of you are thinking “duh” (or whatever the current head smacking slang is) but you’d be surprised how many people don’t show basic human decency while at a theme park. It’s pretty simple. Be polite and don’t crowd, grab, hit, kick, step on, pull at, pick up, poke, jab or grope any part of a character. Contrary to popular belief characters can be physically injured by your actions and even if something doesn’t hurt that doesn’t mean it’s not annoying and rude. Also, don’t encourage or allow your children to do any of the things on that long list either. Most characters aren’t going to care much if a two-year-old hits them because they know kids that young don’t know any better but they aren’t going to be happy if that toddler’s parents don’t intervene or worse look on and laugh or encourage the bad behavior. (Is hitting, pulling, poking etc things you want to teach your child anyways)? Don’t make inappropriate comments about a characters tight or revealing apparel. They will not think you are witty or cute, they’ve probably heard it 10 times that day. The first thing I listed in the don’ts was “crowd” which I think many people don’t think about. Characters are there to be hugged but when you’re approaching a character, particularly in a large group or family try to give them a little personal space unless your hugging or posing for a picture. I think I only heard one mother ever say “don’t crowd him” (referring to Friar Tuck) and I wanted to hug her, I was so happy. My next point is less important as it is really unintentional and characters are very used to it but characters are often touched in uncomfortable ways or handled roughly by very nice people with the best of intentions. It’s nice to be mindful of where your placing your hands during photo and hugs, the characters anatomy doesn’t always line up with the performers. Usually higher up on the back or resting on their shoulder are safe places to put your hands. Also, remember many performers are very petite. It’s common for larger framed (mostly men) to get excited and playfully rough house a little. Just remember a 5ft 85lbs girl probably does not want to be bear hugged by a 6ft 200lbs man. Most characters will take these unintentional small things in stride but it’s nice if you keep them in mind.

Now that we’re treating characters with respect, which I hope is a given to most of you, let’s treat them each like the character they are. Performers work hard to bring a character to life and give people some magic and joy (at least if they’re doing it right). So go ahead and scratch Pluto behind the ear and tell him he’s a good boy. Bow to princesses. Salute Captain Hook. Feel free to ask simple, easy to answer, appropriate questions that are in character to answer (yes or no questions are great). Do not ask the performer questions about themselves. Nothing is more annoying than hearing “are you hot in there?” (Yes). “Are you a boy or a girl? Where do you see out of?” (Doesn’t matter). Always talk to the character and not the performer. They will not think you’re clever for figuring them out or for knowing some bit of information you heard from your friend who was on the college program. They will however appreciate their hard work in staying in character being recognized by you treating them exactly how you would the character you see in front of you. (Except don’t kick villains or anything).

Here’s a scenario many of you may be familiar with: you’ve waited an hour to see the Mouse himself and upon getting to the front of the line your child screams and cries in utter terror. I know that is beyond frustrating but please don’t just drop your wailing kid up there by Mickey so you can get a picture. As my husband pointed out childhood memories are preferable to childhood trauma.  So what can you do? I recommend trying to see a character with a shorter line to test things out before waiting in a humongous line. If you do find yourself standing in front of Goofy with a scared child it’s okay to take a moment to try to coax the child into meeting with the character. Let the character do their thing, they are often good at winning scared children over. If  your kid’s not in complete hysterics you can try carrying the child up and staying up there for the picture. Would you rather have a picture with you in it or no picture at all?

If you really want things to go smoothly be aware of the characters limitations and aware of their and the other guests time (I’ve lumped these two together because a lot the same advice applies to both). Disney entertainment cast members have to constantly balance quality verses quantity. Every guest who has a meet and greet with a character deserves a meaningful interaction. At the same time there are a whole lot if people wanting these meaningful interactions. Characters would much rather spend the few moments they have with each guest giving high fives, hugs, kisses and having fun than fumbling with autograph books or posing for excessive pictures. If you ask a Disney performer what their least favorite part of the job is you’re likely to get “signing a million autographs a day” as the answer. That’s not to say you can’t collect characters autographs, just be smart about it. Have your autograph books and pens open. It can be hard to open books with paws and always takes up extra time to find a page. Also if you hand a character a closed book, even if they are capable of opening books, they will open it to any random (hopefully blank, if they can see well enough to tell) page and sign. So your signatures will be spread through the book all willy-nilly (madness, madness I tell you). This can be hard for kids but it’s a nice touch if you hand the book right side up to the character which is up side down to you. Pen lids are very difficult to get off, click pens are preferable because they’re very easy to use, still they should already be clicked open to simplify things. Offering the character a normal sized to a little oversized (gigantic pens are as bad as tiny ones) pen is very important. An autograph written with a golf pencil probably isn’t going to look very good. The absolute favorite of 9 out if 10 characters (I made that statistic up) are the full-sized Sharpies that click open. They are easy to grip, open and write beautifully. Do not get the mini Sharpies, they are very difficult to grab. When handing a character a Sharpie be careful to give them somewhere to grab that won’t get marker on them. A character will always use one pen from your group or family, no matter how many books you have. It is hard and time-consuming to grab a different pen for each book they sign. Explain this to children so the don’t get mad when Mickey doesn’t use their pen. If there’s more than one character standing together, Chip and Dale for example, and you have more than one autograph book, give them each a pen and book to so they can sign at the same time. Really you should only need two pens since it is rare to find more than two characters standing together. In my opinion if a child isn’t old enough to understand the autograph book it’s really a waste to get them one, unless you are going to use the signatures in a scrapbook or something. If you really want to get your 6-month-old an autograph book, go for it but baby won’t care one way or another. Time to tell a cute story to illustrate this point. Friar Tuck was visited by an adorable 2 to 3-year-old boy. The Friar knelt down and showed the boy as he signed the autograph book. The boy shook his head as he watched and said “Oh no! Don’t do that.” Then snatched the book back and ran to his dad with the indignant proclamation “Look! He scribbled all over it!” It’s also common for toddlers to refuse to hand their book to the character. It just makes more sense to save autographs till closer to pre-school age. It can also be fun to have other items signed by characters, like shirts, hats or stuffed animals. Just know that things like that are hard to sign and the signatures may not be pristine. If you want a shirt signed it’s best to be prepared with something flat to stretch it over, like a book or rigid price of cardboard. This will make it much easier and your autographs will look much neater. Also bring a Sharpie or marker, not a pen for anything but paper. (There are certain things Disney characters can not sign which I will list later).

Of course you’re going to want to take pictures with characters and posing for pictures is one of the most important parts of their job. However, you really don’t need 20 pictures with each character. It’s just rude to the other people in line. It’s totally okay to take a couple of pictures, for instance one with just the kids and one with the whole family. Or give a kid (or adult) a picture alone with his or her favorite character. But it’s really not necessary to get a picture of the kids, then a family picture, then a picture with each child individually, then a picture just with the kids and Grandma then a picture with Grandma and Mom then a picture with each kid and Dad…you get my point. And I’m not making this up there are really people who do this. And after the first few Minnie Mouse will probably just be holding the same pose (while an unseen performer rolls her eyes) as each new grouping of your family runs up for another picture. If you want to see characters but don’t want to wait in line, character dining can be fun but you may not get much time with each character as they usually have a lot of tables to see in a very short time. There are a few locations that are often less busy, Chip and Dale’s Garden Grill at Epcot is usually not too busy (usually is the key word, it sometimes gets busy particularly around Christmas).

Another tip that should be obvious, just wait your turn. I’ve seen families standing off to the side of the line trying to sneak their kids in between other families for longer than it would have taken them to just wait in line. It’s understood that young children will sometimes run ahead and hug a character before they can be stopped. In that case they expect they’ll receive a pat on the back and be gently turned around to go back where they came from. It can be hard to tell if children have gone up to a character with the wrong family, even if the kids look very different from each other, we live in a beautifully diverse world. It is totally within your rights to politely alert a character if there are kids with your family that shouldn’t be. A simple “Oops Pluto, that ones not with us” and the extra child should be kindly ushered away so you can get a lovely family photo. Don’t try to talk your way to the front of the line (everyone knows you don’t have a flight leaving in two hours) or try to stop characters from going in at their scheduled time. There is always “one more” family or group that wants to see them. They’re not being mean and picking on you, they have to go in. Nearly everyone has come from far away and there’s hundreds of birthday boys and girls in the park everyday. The only good reason why people get let to the front of the line or have characters stay out past their scheduled time to see them is if they are with someone who has extreme special needs or is with a wish granting organization like The Make a Wish Foundation (and are probably staying at Give Kids the World). And trust me when I say you wouldn’t want to trade places with one of those families just to avoid lines. (If you are with Give Kids the Word or something like that. Please ignore what I’ve said about not taking too much time and take all the time you want). If you see a character walking don’t try to stop them or shove your stroller or child in front of them unless you want your child stepped on because Piglet can’t see very well. Do wave and say “hi” or hold your hand out for a passing high-five. If you want to meet with this character ask or watch where they ware going, they are very likely walking to a line waiting for them which you can join or if they’re leaving there is a good chance they will be back in two or three minutes. You will usually see someone with the character who you can direct questions to.

Now all that’s left is making sure you know some of the rules Disney characters are held to. They can not sign money, flags (from any nation), clothing someone is wearing at the time, advertisements or anything inappropriate (like a hat with swear words). I’m probably forgetting a few things, so feel free to remind me if you think of more taboo items. They cannot take pictures with inappropriate clothing in view. If you are wearing a shirt with inappropriate material on it characters can refuse to take the picture or pose on away that covers the possibly offensive material. Is it really a good idea to wear your naked lady shirt to a family theme park? Last but not least characters may not hold or pick up babies or children for safety purposes.

This may seem like a lot but really the most importance thing (besides the respect part) is to have fun! That’s what you’re there for, right? So give big hugs, pose in fun ways for pictures, tell Pluto he’s your favorite (he is right?), take pictures to remember your awesome vacation. Take a deep breath and don’t worry so much about seeing and doing everything and enjoy what you’re doing. If you are polite and fun to visit with I can guarantee you will have a better experience. Even though performers are trained to be kind to everyone, its human nature to treat people better when they are treating you well.

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Please Rain on My Parade: Disney Parades and Friendship

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Once upon a time (as recently as last year) I was a performer at a certain popular theme park in central Florida. And yes (magic spoiler alert) I was one of THOSE performers, wink wink (I’m forgoing the “nudge nudge, say no more” so it doesn’t sound like an innuendo. If you thought it was an innuendo, shame on you). Did I enjoy my job? Yes. Do I miss it terribly and sometimes tear up watching Disney travel commercials or even Mickey Mouse Club House? Embarrassingly, yes. In the end however it was a job. A complain about your managers, count down the hours till quitting time job.

The Disney World Entertainment department is vast and complicated. Spanning all four theme parks, two water parks, special events, resorts, parades, shows and probably more things I’m forgetting. When I started there I had just moved to Florida and didn’t know anyone besides my boyfriend (now husband) who I’d moved there with. It’s hard to make good friends in Disney entertainment since a performer could find themselves in a completely different area everyday. If you’re full-time you’re allowed to “bid” a location for the season. This helps but even if you are scheduled your bid location everyday (there’s no guarantee you will be) it’s still only temporary. I found myself making friends in each new bid only to end up at a different location then all of my new-found friends for the next bid season. So for the first several years I worked there I didn’t make any really close friends.

Then something changed, something I had mixed feeling about. Since I first got the job I’d wanted to get trained in a show or parade. I finally got scheduled parade training, unfortunately it was in a parade and role I really didn’t want to learn. I was going to learn a role that had a reputation for being very physically taxing in the Magic Kingdom daily parade as well as general training in the night parade (which I wasn’t as worried about). Now you need to realize I was one of those kids who barely finished the mile run in gym and always brought up the rear. (I’m not sure how I ever survived my job, really). I somehow completed the training then wasn’t scheduled to perform my new role for months.

When I finally did it for the first time….I hated it. Not only was it physically exhausting but I found I actually preferred having one on one interactions with the guests (Disney speak for theme park customers). Many performers prefer parades and shows because they love dancing or they like performing for a larger crowd but mostly because they don’t like the one on one guest interaction. That sounds terrible but I don’t blame them. This might burst your bubble but guests can be annoying, obnoxious and flat-out rude. Let me get something straight it’s NEVER okay to pull, poke, grab, push, hit, grope or physically or verbally abuse ANYONE no matter what they are wearing or what job they are doing. Also not okay to encourage you’re children to do those things, for that matter. Yes, sadly, it’s totally common for performers to be mistreated besides the standards annoyances. Can you really blame people for not wanting to deal with that? Not that I was perfectly patient or impervious to rude guests. For me the magic just outweighed the bad. The moments of playing peekaboo with babies, making a little kid’s day just with a high five or the middle aged women with autograph books exclaiming as excitedly as any child “it’s our first time at Disney World!” All these little magical moments were worth the prodding and obnoxious questions (not to mention the dripping sweat and sore muscles).

Okay, tangent over, back to the story. At first I was rarely scheduled parade shifts, mostly just on overtime days. Then after a couple of years they revamped the parade, meaning they changed the music and choreography and gave the floats a makeover. At first I wasn’t scheduled to train for the new incarnation and I was ecstatic. Then, the week of training, they added it to my schedule and being the good cast member (Disney speak for employee) I was, I didn’t call in sick. This time it was different because they didn’t train very many people to start with so I was scheduled it constantly. Then the worst happened. They “cast” me in the parade. Casting is different than bidding in that you have no say in if or where the powers of Disney will cast you. Then part way through the season they trained me in an even worse role for the night parade, which up to this point had been the easiest part of my day. I have a theory that if you show up to work and do your job well they train you in all the crap no one want to do because they know you’ll show up and do it.
Parades weren’t all bad. In a ten-hour shift I only was actually performing for less than 2 1/2 hours. (Of course there was costume prep time and such as well). Entertainment cast members always get a lot of down time (you know, so they don’t pass out or get heat stroke) but even by those standards that’s a lot of break time. Don’t get me wrong you need the time to recover from performing parades but it’s still pretty awesome. It also gives you time to get to know people. In fact I made most my best friends doing those parades. Even after they changed the parades again and I wasn’t trained in the new ones, we stayed friends. Even now that I’ve moved half way a crossed the country we’re still friends and I miss them fiercely. No offense to the friends I’ve made here but it takes years to build the kind of friendships I had in Florida.
I got use to performing in the parades after doing it every single day, though I can’t say I really liked it, at least most of the time. Have you ever tried doing the same routine to the same short clip of music over and over for 30-45 minutes 5-6 times a week? It’s monotonous to say the least and it was still exhausting till the end. I hoped for rain every day, particularly for the night parade since my unit didn’t go out in even light rain. But now when I look back at my time in the parades department, I don’t think of the sweat, exhaustion, aching back and even bruises. I think of stopping for ice cream in the cafeteria, chatting at lunch and walking from the tunnels (yes Magic Kingdom has tunnels under it. No they’re not very interesting) to the production center with friends. The backstage board games and inside jokes are what I take from those years and I wouldn’t trade them for an easier shift. I hate to say my point is that every cloud has a silver lining because sometimes something just sucks. But sometimes clouds do have silver linings and something that sucks turns out to be kind of wonderful.
Disclaimer: I’m sorry to people who have never worked at Disney if this wasn’t the scandalous tell-all account to were hoping for. I’m sorry to Disney cast members (current and former) if this blog entry revealed too much magic. (We can be very serious about preserving the magic). I tried to only give as many secrets away as I needed to tell the story.