While Mickey and Minnie Mouse had in fact made live appearances prior to the opening of any theme parks – most notably at the premiere for Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937 – they have been a fixture at the parks since the July 17, 1955 opening day at Disneyland. On the live ABC special “Dateline: Disneyland”, famous broadcaster Art Linkletter provided the running commentary during Disneyland’s first parade, which included numerous costumed characters: “This is a real cavalcade of Disneyland characters…. And there’s Mickey and Minnie Mouse and all of the gang cavorting up and down the street. Dumbo and Pluto and Donald Duck and all the other characters are from the Walt Disney costumes created… for John Harris’ Ice Capades, which is on tour with Peter Pan right now around the United States.” The characters have been beloved by park visitors ever since!
The large number of characters in the parks requires a large number of Cast Members to bring such an integral part of Disney Parks and Resorts to life. Many Disney fanatics dream about putting on the famous costumes, but actually being a costumed character involves a lot of demanding requirements. Here are just a few:
Anyone seeking to become a Disney costumed character must go through an audition process. Auditions are held in cities around the country, in addition to Anaheim and Orlando, to find the right people to “bring to life the world famous Disney characters” as the audition notices read. Those hoping to become characters must display good movement, coordination, and high energy – all so that the Disney Casting Director can judge how you would bring a character to life. Most face characters have to start “in fur” before they move on to the face roles, and even then they frequently have to put in shifts as costumed characters too.
6. Measuring Up
In order to maintain consistency in portraying the Disney characters from one Cast Member to the next, there are some physical requirements that candidates must meet. Audition notices request performers who have “slender to athletic builds.” The reason for this is simple enough, since you must be able to fit into the costume. Additionally, the Cast Members must fall within certain height ranges in order to portray the various characters. Although there are variances from park to park, generally speaking the minimum height to portray a Disney character is 3’ 10” which would allow you to be an Ewok. To be Mickey or Minnie Mouse, or Donald or Daisy Duck, requires the Cast Member to fall within the range of 4’ 8” to 5’ 2.” At the other end of the spectrum, Cast Members reaching 6 feet tall and up may portray Captain Hook, Goofy, Baloo, Jafar, and Sulley, with Chewbacca having the largest height requirement of 6’ 6” to 6’ 8”.
One little-known fact about performing in a head-to-toe costume is that large, exaggerated movements are required to bring the character life. Being in a character costume is no time to be subtle! Your regular body movements look small, and your small body movements disappear entirely. You have to project through all the bulk and padding of the costume so that people standing at the back of the crowd catch the personality of your character as easily as those sitting up front. This is one of the reasons that good body control and movement is sought in the character auditions. And many guests don’t realize that so long as the Cast Member has the right height, s/he can play both male and female character roles! Their training includes time spent on how to portray both genders.
4. Sign Here, Please
Not only do costumed characters have to be able to project their character through the layers of material they’re wearing, they also have to be able to sign autographs while wearing gloves – many of which have a fewer-than-human amount of fingers! In addition, the autograph has to be consistent with signatures signed by other Cast Members portraying that character, even from many years ago! Having good penmanship with limited vision and several layers of fabric between your hand and the pen can be very challenging. The only exceptions to this requirement are characters that have fixed fingers, such as King Louie or Sulley, or characters that have limited dexterity due to their costume.
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3. Keep Your Cool
For some unknown reason, certain visitors to the parks take it upon themselves to harass the costumed characters, who want nothing more than to entertain and delight the guests. They yank on tails, pull on costumes, and even punch the characters. Whether they are looking for a reaction or are just ill-mannered, it can truly test the patience of the Cast Members. They have to remain calm and carry on, though hopefully this is after security has escorted the bad apples out!
2. Keep Cool
Wearing a fur costume is pretty much like wearing a shag carpet from head to toe. Your movement and vision is restricted, the costume is heavy, and even in cooler weather the inside of the costume is very hot. In hot weather it can be downright brutal. Cast Members have to keep very well hydrated to avoid having heat issues while performing as costumed characters. And many will tell you that watching your diet is extremely important as well. Too many salty meals will take their toll on your health under such extreme circumstances.
1. Keep On, Keeping On
Cast Members working as costumed characters generally spend their 8-hour shifts in 30 minute on/30 minute off rotations doing guest meet and greets, character meals, and shows and parades. Virtually all of them emerge from their costumes at the end of the shift as a disheveled, soaking wet mess. Being able to work in such extreme conditions requires a lot of strength, perseverance, and maybe even a touch of craziness. But to most Cast Members, it’s worth it to see the look in a child’s eyes when they meet their favorite character.
It takes a talented Cast Member to bring a costumed character to life through the use of gestures and movement alone. Most Disney guests would agree that the Cast Members do an admirable job of delivering true Disney Magic in their performances. Do you have a favorite character moment from the Disney Parks and Resorts?
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