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All About Mickey and The Rest of the Cast


Walt Disney World Resort…laying off people?

Black magic news, bah. And more bah.

And hard to believe, too.

With record attendance and higher than ever revenues, Walt Disney World Resort and other properties should be hiring more cast members…not getting rid of them.

The recent news from Disney was that about 100 Cast Members, who were painters, were “let go….” The phrase conjures up the image of enslaved painters now freed of their shackles and free to pursue their own dreams.

On their own.

But if you asked the painters whether they wanted to go without pay while looking for new jobs, their answer would probably be #$%^*%()&.

Or are you for real?

Disney’s explanation was that hours traditionally fluctuate. And the company is responding to concerns to “continue to deliver great Guest and Cast experiences in the most efficient way possible,” according to Disney officials.

Union representatives seemed to prefer citing overtime costs as the reasons.

Whatever the real situation, to be brutally honest, the loss of another kind undoubtedly arises more passion.

Character loss is always bigger issue

That is characters, not painters…sorry to say.

So it may have been more of a shock to hear that Disney Orlando tickets will no longer mean you may get some in person with Lady Tremaine at the Magic Kingdom in front of Cinderella’s Castle.

It now appears that the wicked stepmother and daughters Anastasia and Drizella will only be found elsewhere. Replacements were not officially named.

But the layoffs did call attention to one special and much-loved aspect of Disney ticket buyers: the characters.

Costumed characters have come a long way since 1955 when lines formed to buy Disney tickets.

In the more than 60 years since Disneyland opened, the parks have gone from rented costumes at special events to characters having specially built meet-and-greet rooms, FastPasses, and hour-long lines. 

Not only have the characters' looks and costumes changed throughout the years, but the interest of meeting and taking pictures with the characters has drastically changed as well. 

Specifically, how did Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and all the other characters come about? Who created them? Why? What’s their future here?

And what’s it like to be a Cast Member for these roles?

And more likely for you the guest: is this something of value during your own visit?

How many of them are there?

This seems like an easy question: how many characters are there?

The numbers are not released by Disney. But some recent disclosures by the Teamsters Local 385 in filings with the National Labor Relations Board detailed 1250 cast members who were characters in Orlando. At any given time, you are likely to find several dozen at the park.

They are everywhere. But perhaps the best way to spend time with them is expensive: character dining meals. Breakfast is the least expensive and usually allows the most time or interaction with characters.

So when others ask us whether it’s worth your money to meet them, we sometimes cite the advice from aformer Cast Member who recently went to a character meal at “Be Our Guest” for breakfast.

Advice:

---Book in advance. There are crowded conditions in restaurants these days, as Disney World Orlando ticket holders quickly discover (One of the best places to book, “Be Our Guest,” is understandably one of the most popular).

---Arrive somewhat early, say 10-15 minutes before your check-in. Do ask for a view from your table when making your reservation.

---The food is no disappointment (the Mickey shaped waffles are a hit, but so is the puffed French Toast, and the pastries are fresh and fruit-filled as advertised). And there is a lot of it (enough to make you seriously consider skipping the next meal).

---Footnote: There’s no doubt the children love the experience. But so do adults. The characters took time and effort to entertain the children, delighting them. And the food was fine, meeting adult requirements.

If you have ever wondered what it’s like to work here, or being a character, the advantages as described by cast members usually come to one conclusion:

Playing characters can be satisfying or not

The joy of seeing children’s smiles. Secondly, the joy of parents.

The pay is not bad, either, or around $15-$20 an hour, at last counting. And you don’t have to work eight hours straight. It’s usually 30 to 45 minutes of being on call, with the rest break time.

But despite Disney efforts to make the costumes lighter and more comfortable, some outfits weigh almost 50 pounds.

There are injuries. In one recent year, injuries were blamed in 282 incidents, often involving back problems.

Sometimes, this is the fault of the over-friendly and well-meaning children (punches and pushes are fairly common). It’s also hot inside that costume (rumors that costumes come with fans are false).

Here are some answers to other questions about characters:

Q: How did these characters get started? What happened?

A: Mickey Mouse (which started it all) came about because of a cartoon rabbit, and corporate disputes.

Why a mouse?

As Walt often liked to tell it:

"Mice gathered in my wastebasket when I worked late at night. One of them was my particular friend."

The best account of Walt finding Mickey can be traced to 1922 when Walt opened a film studio called “Laugh-O-Gram” that struggled for one year in Kansas City before shutting down.

Walt, now in Hollywood, had formed Disney Brothers Studio with brother Roy. Short, animated cartoons led to a Walt character called “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.”

Not so lucky when Disney lost the rights to the popular cartoon creation. At the same time, many employees left in a corporate dispute.

Walt then created “Mortimer Mouse” before others convinced him Mickey was a better name.

Mickey made his official entrance onto the scene in a 1928 short film: “Steamboat Willie.”

Footnote:

These were the first cartoons ever to use synchronized sound effects. Clubs, merchandise followed Mickey

Soon there were Mickey Mouse Clubs for children as well as merchandise and a comic strip.

When Mickey spoke for the first time, in 1929’s “The Karnival Kid” (his words were “Hot dog, hot dog” in the short seven minute, 40-second film).

The plot was simple: Mickey's selling hot dogs at the fair and heckling rival barker “Kat Nipp.” He serenades "shimmy dancer" Minnie with the help of two rowdy cat pals.

Walt was unhappy with how the character sounded and went on to lend his own voice to the mouse until 1947’s “Mickey and the Beanstalk.” He explained then he was too busy to continue voicing the character.

Q: When did other characters start to appear?

A: One of the first official public appearances of costumed Disney characters was in December just a few days before Christmas in 1937.

It was at the star-studded Hollywood premiere of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." 

Among celebrities like Shirley Temple and Cary Grant were the first costumed versions of Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, and, of course, the Dwarfs.  

Their costumes were simple, and just basic. Nuts and bolts variety.

The Mickey, Minnie, and Donald costumes included a full body suit with a pointed sack head with painted eyes and mouths.  Donald also had a large beak for a mouth. 

The Dwarfs were more life-like than Mickey, Minnie, and Donald and were three dimensional. They had full beards.

They did interact with guests and audience members, but not at all like they do today.

Goofy and Mickey on ice

A few years later, the hit show “Ice Capades” featured a segment with skaters Mickey, Minnie, Donald and others in costume. Again basic. But the outfits required a design to allow for skating.

The heads were made of lightweight mesh to allow freer movement and to be aware of their surroundings (an ice skater requirement).

Perhaps strangely enough, the Dumbo and Pluto costumes had four legs. So they contained two skaters (That must have required some extra effort).

Q:Why were there no characters when Disney opened in California?

A:Disneyland opened for previews on July 17, 1955. Opening day was televised on ABC. There were thousands of guests, and a ton of celebrities.

But no characters.

Walt had decided against them, despite their past history.

The reasons why are not clear. But he soon recognized the park would not be the same without them.

Q:Why did characters early on have to wear rented costumes?

A: At first, only “Ice Capades” had the right costumes.

So rented ones had to be used for early Disneyland days.

But Walt, always the perfectionist, did not like the loose-fitting costumes. So he engaged the Imagineers to design new outfits.

Through the next couple of decades, costumes evolved to more closely resemble the performers inside of them.

Q:What were the major changes in costumes?

A:The overriding idea was to make the costumes lighter for the comfort and safety of those wearing them. In 1961, the first modern-looking costumes appeared with 35 characters.

Characters begin to speak to visitors

That was also when Disney started promising visitors the chance to meet their favorite characters. In person.

Soon after that, the characters came out of the parades to begin the roaming of modern times when they greeted guests. At first, these were unannounced or random occasions, with no set schedules.

Visitors did not expect much more in those early days than a handshake and posing for a photo. The novelty of meeting such characters was apparently satisfying enough for visitors.

Q: What are some things you may or may not have known about the characters?

A: This one you know: Characters are often much larger than children.

That’s the case even when characters in films are much smaller or just inches tall.

There are two types of characters: fur characters and face characters. Typical fur characters are animals.

There are only a few human fur characters, such as Captain Hook.

Face characters include all of the princesses, Peter Pan, Jack Sparrow, Mary Poppins and more.

Face characters talk, while fur characters generally do not.

For those lucky or unlucky enough to be hired as characters, they start off in non-talking roles, then are promoted (sometimes) to be talkers.

Mickey, Minnie and others often have oversized, non-moving masks that make up their entire heads.

Visitors find that “Face” characters like princesses and the Fairy Godmother are happy to engage everyone in conversation.

Adults not shy about autographs

Q: Should I be embarrassed as an adult to ask characters for an autograph?

A: The best age for meeting characters may be three to six years old. Psychologists say they still believe the characters are the real thing. But there is no age requirement or limitation. So why be ashamed?

Q: If I stay in a Disney hotel, will I find characters?

A: Maybe. There are occasional appearances in the resorts, but the vast majority are found in the parks. One Disney practice not always known: is that during times of bad weather, characters are sometimes sent to resorts. This usually happens during especially cold winter days or when hurricanes or other threatening weather conditions prevail. And of course, you can find them, characters, at the meals.

Q: How about some clues to locating characters at the park?

A: They almost always have a character handler Cast Member. Look for them with blue shirts and walkie-talkie or headsets. They’re always approachable to tell you whereabouts of “their” character.

Q: What won’t characters do for you?

A: They will happily sign autographs or a spare t-shirt or anything like that. Characters will even hold up a sign or message for a photo with special messages such as “We Miss You, Grandma.” Be sure it’s a g-rated innocent message. No political signs, for example.

No holding babies

And don’t even ask them to hold your baby. Potential legal issues. Lawsuits.

Q: Can you get characters for private events of your own?

A: Yes. They appear at wedding receptions or other events. Expect to pay a high cost for it.

Q: Why aren’t characters found at Epcot?

A: If you visited the park when it first opened, they were not found there.

The original plan for the park did not include them. No fantasy characters were planned.

But starting in the early 1980s, the classics began roaming the park. Some of them dressed for their surroundings.

Old photos show Minnie wearing a Japanese kimono and Goofy in a Scottish kilt.

Q: What new characters are next?

A: We really don’t know. But a hint is that in recent years, Disney’s practice has been to add characters from their latest films. They are generally first found at Hollywood Studios, or in the case of a new princess, often at the Magic Kingdom.

Q: What’s next for the characters

A: New technology is certain to have an impact. Not just for characters who will undoubtedly be getting new and lighter weight outfits and perhaps with more costume-cooling devices. It should also come as no surprise that the highly popular character meetings will be expanded, just as they have in recent years. Perhaps new meeting grounds such as a nightclub where you can meet that evil stepmother. Maybe someday you’ll also be able to meet a Cinderella who already knows your name or a Tinkerbell who actually flew there just to meet you.
Who knows? ###