Former Disney Characters Spill the Tea on What Goes on Behind-the-Scenes

PHOTO: flickr/jinjian liang

Once upon a time at a Disney Park…

It’s an age-old question (that prompts several other questions): How do Disney Park employees and characters, like iconic princesses Ariel and Pocahontas, work their magic? How do they get into character? How do they stay in character? Where do they eat lunch?

Well, I’m here with good news: I’ve spoken to four of them—two former Jasmines, a former Belle, and a former Goofy—and I hope you’re ready for tea time. Yes, you’re tall enough to ride this ride—just make sure your seats are buckled.

At Which Disney Park Were You Employed?

Jasmine #1: I worked at the Magic Kingdom. But I was working in Merchantainment [selling Disney products to guests and providing them with any information they might need about the Park] first, not as a character.

Belle: I worked for Walt Disney World Resort during a Fall College Program. I had shifts at all four parks, but I was primarily scheduled for Magic Kingdom and Epcot.

Goofy: I worked at Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL. As a character performer, you can work anywhere, and frequently doespecially if you’re new. Personally, I worked at all four theme parks as well as doing sets at Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. I’ve worked at least once at most of the resorts [doing] mostly character dining or conventions, including off-property resorts such as the Four Seasons or Hilton. I also worked at Give Kids The World as a character performer as well as a volunteer.

Jasmine #2: I worked for Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventures.

And, Just to Clarify, Which Character Did You Portray?

Jasmine #1: “Parade” Jasmine [different than “Meet and Greet” Jasmine].

Belle: I was cast as one [face] character—Belle.

“I was full on weeping in front of an entire crowd of people, not one of which could actually see me, but reacted to me just the same.”

Goofy: I was a “Tigger / Goofy height” character. There are several characters in that height range, including Tigger, Goofy, Baloo, Bre’r Bear, Queen of Hearts, Captain Hook, Geppetto, Genie, Frollo, Big Al, etc. I think I counted 22 different characters I’ve been in.

Jasmine #2: I was mostly Princess Jasmine. I was approved to play other princesses as well. They liked to hire girls that looked similar to other girls already playing the parts. We had to be within a certain height range and body type and we couldn’t have any tattoos, piercings, or major birthmarks that would set us apart from the rest of the girls.

INSIDER TIP“Meet and Greet” characters personally interact with guests one-on-one, if only for a brief amount of time. “Parade” characters are solely featured on themed parades that typically take place twice at the Park(s) throughout the day: one during the daytime and one at night.

 

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flickr/Carlos

Can You Describe the Audition Process?

Jasmine #1: Just because you make the audition, does not mean that you ARE a character, you have to also pass princess training classes (how to wave, smile/laugh, sign, etc.)

These were open casting auditions as they need more people during the busy season. I went with one of my roommates who wanted to be a character—she convinced me to go. Auditions are primarily based on physical appearance. After filling out an application which included personal questions, physical questions, Disney questions, you then get told to go to a specific room where many people look like you. Here you are lined up as a “coach” starts to do some “animations” or signature movements that certain characters do. Stickers are then placed on people that signify you can possibly portray a character or you should be removed from the audition process. After you are told the character choices, you then go to fittings, where you get measured to make sure that outfits will look appropriate. Finally, they choose you for a certain character position and training begins.

“The autographs must be consistent—and yes, you do go through some training on how to sign each character’s autograph that you’d be portraying.”

 

Jasmine #2: They called the girls into the audition room in groups of 10. We all stood there in a straight line smiling while the casting team sat at a table and stared and whispered about us, and occasionally smiled. I felt like we were standing and smiling for so long my cheeks started to tremble because they were sore. They called out a couple of girls and asked us to stay and the others were cut. After they had gotten through all of the girls, they moved onto teaching us a few counts of dancing to see our coordination and movement. Then another cut was made. From there the final cut was “getting wigged,” which meant they put the princess wigs on you and made you do the makeup according to a face chart. Once you were in hair and makeup, they took a Polaroid of you from the front and of your profile. After that, they offered girls either two-day, five-day, or call-in spots for the parades.

What Was the Weirdest Experience You Had While in Character?

Belle: One of my most memorable moments was at Epcot. I was working my favorite Belle shift that began with working at Akershus (Norway) breakfast in my yellow ballgown, then, after lunch, I would change into my blue “village” costume and visit with guests in the France pavilion. At breakfast, a little girl met mewe’ll call her “Princess Ava”who was dressed in Belle’s blue village dress. I encouraged her and her family to look for me later that day in France because I wanted to change into my blue dress to match her. Later that day, I got a surprise hug from my little twin, Princess Ava! Her parents were very surprised to realize that I was the same Belle they met earlier.

Goofy: That’s easy. I found out a very close friend of mine died about 10 minutes before I had to go out as Goofy at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The managers at the time weren’t very compassionate most of the time, to say the least, and they made me go out on set anyway. About five minutes into it, I started to weep for my friend. Fortunately, the area I was in had background music and allowed me to cry without being heard, but you have to understand how absolutely surreal it was to be going through one of the worst losses of my life, all while acting like Goofy. I was full on weeping in front of an entire crowd of people, not one of which could actually see me, but reacted to me just the same. [To them] I was smiling and dancing and signing autographs, but in my costume, I’m sobbing. I had to make my body act happy but inside I was devastated. I’ve never been able to describe the feeling adequately enough and it was definitely the weirdest experience I’d ever had, in costume or out.

Jasmine #2: Lots of love triangles between performers, people getting caught making out in the floats between parades, male performers trying on the princess wigs, things like that.

Where Did You Take Your Lunch Break?

Goofy: That’s another funny thing about being a character. We spend a LOT of time on break— we usually work for 30 minutes, then are on break for 30 minutes, so our lunch time is just more break time; usually an hour and 10 minutes in total. It depended on where I was at. Sometimes it was backstage at a cafeteria, sometimes it was in our set area. I liked going out into the Magic Kingdom to get Starbucks once they opened up.

What Was It Like Interacting With Other Characters?

Belle: As Belle, I didn’t get to interact with many other than Beast, who was an absolute hoot, but, as you can imagine, he doesn’t talk much. But one day, I had some extra time and I wasn’t needed in any particular location, so I got to meet guests in the hallway near Epcot’s Character Spot with Princess Jasmine. We had so much fun chatting in character and talking with families and, seriously, what a rare treat to hang out with Belle and Jasmine at the same time! Otherwise, some characters would also play “tag” with each other via other guests—”Oh! If you see Mary Poppins, would you please tell her, ‘tag, you’re it!’?”

What Was the Oddest Protocol You Had to Follow?

Belle: Technically, you shouldn’t be telling anyone what you really do…the idea is to protect the magic for little ears and really just for anyone who doesn’t want to know how the sausage gets made, so to speak. The official Disney answer is there is only one Mickey Mouse, only one Cinderella, etc., and all of these characters are timeless. Therefore, if you met Mickey 20 years ago, it should feel like the same experience. The autographs must be consistent—and yes, you do go through some training on how to sign each character’s autograph that you’d be portraying. Ariel should have the exact same red hair every time you see her. So, yes, all the princesses wear wigs, even if their natural hair color matches the face character’s. The unofficial, but globally understood code for Entertainment CMs [cast members] is to tell people that they’re “a friend of” the character they portray. So, yes, I am a friend of Belle.

What Happens if You Break Character?

Jasmine: You will get reprimanded or dismissed, depending on how much out of character you break, or who saw you. However, I’ve never seen anyone break character and I saw my friend inside Chip’s costume fall down and break her collarbone as a child ran and hugged her from behind causing her to fall down.

“I had a friend that was playing Princess Jasmine in the park and she had a dad ask her, ‘Are those things real?’”

Goofy: What would happen depends on what you mean. There’s no training for specific characters. They give you a little synopsis and copy of the character’s autograph, but that’s about it. I had to do all of my own research into how specific characters act and learned the stories they were from by myself. For example, Goofy would never get angry, that would be breaking character. Every time a character references anything from outside their story is considered breaking character. For example, if Tigger were to make a big deal about someone’s T-shirt with a favorite sports team on it, that would be breaking character. If someone were to ask me what I thought about McDonald’s, even making it look like I knew what they were talking about would be breaking character. Characters do things like that all the time. Basically…nothing [happens in these cases].

Jasmine #2: I only performed in parades because I would definitely break character if something happened. I had a friend that was playing Princess Jasmine in the park and she had a dad ask her, “Are those things real?” And you have to play it off! I would have punched him in the face but she replied, “The necklace, yes, my father gave it to me.” You need to be quick on your feet and always have a smile on your face.

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flickr/Carlos

What Were the Benefits Like Working for Disney? What Was Your Favorite Perk?

Jasmine #1: I learned a lot while working for Disney, not just business-wise, but character and relationship building with many people from all over the world. My favorite perk was that I could go to the park for FREE whenever I wanted. I was usually there all of my days off.

Belle: As a fresh-out-of-college cast member, I was pretty starry-eyed at just getting a meager paycheck to wear a princess dress, so I can’t really be too discerning on benefits. College Program students got paid slightly less than full-time CMs, but we did get apartment housing provided by the company that was safe, close to the parks, and only allowed other Disney College Program students to live there. We also got a discount on food and merchandise with a greater discount during the holiday season. My favorite perk, and one I tried not to take for granted, was unlimited entry into the parks. I remember the thrill I felt accompanying a friend of mine to the Magic Kingdom just to get his hair cut at the barbershop on Main Street and then just leaving 10 minutes later. I miss it all the time, truly, and while I don’t have any planned trips coming up, I’m positively itching to take my husband and children to a place that is still absolutely magical for me and hug my favorite bookworm princess.

Would You Ever Consider Working for Disney Again?

Goofy: I would go back to being a character in a heartbeat. I make over twice as much money as I did when I left Disney but I’d gladly take the pay cut to be able to make magic like that again. It was simply what I was meant to do.

Jasmine #1: Yes! If I could I would work for Disney now and forever. I love the park, I love how it makes everyone feel. It really is a magical place and most everyone that I met were amazingly great! I plan on retiring at Disney.