Florida, California, Paris, Hong-Kong, Tokyo or Shanghai... Who doesn't want to spend a vacation enjoy the fun and thrills at one of Disney's 6 theme parks or resorts? We all have a good idea of what they look like and the rides on offer, but what actually goes on behind the scenes? And how do they manage to transport us into a fairytale world where everything is organized down to the last detail? Here's a closer look at life behind the scenes in Disney parks, as told by the workers employed to make our trips to The Magic Kingdom a once in a lifetime journey!
1. The costumes
Disney's all about its characters and their highly distinctive costumes, meaning that the costume departments are a hub of creative activity. For example, the parks stock around a million costumes as Mickey Mouse and his friends need to wear fresh clothes each day and also don special outfits for the parks' numerous celebrations. From making costumes to mending and keeping them clean requires a huge workforce if the characters are to keep their pristine look.
According to a former employee, the furry costumes are the toughest on workers: rain or shine they're required to wear their heavy, claustrophobic outfit throughout their entire shift. At the same time the costume departments do a sterling job... They completely sterilize each outfit and get rid of bad smells or stains so that everyone has a comfortable, clean costume ready for when they get to work.
2. Fake badges
You may have been to Disney World in Florida and wondered why so many workers are called 'Chris'. Everyone has a name badge, but if an employee forgets theirs at home, they'll put on one that says 'Chris from Orlando'. This is also highly convenient for anyone who is actually called 'Chris' as presumably it doesn't matter if their name badge gets waylaid!
3. Always in character
Actors or workers who dress up as a character throw themselves into their roles and may continue to act like their Disney persona after their shift finishes. We don't mean that they'll continue to mimic their character once they step outside the park, but if they're wandering back to the staff quarters they'll keep up their act until out of view of all visitors.
Imagine being called into your boss's office for a disciplinary meeting whilst he's disguised as Mickey Mouse - could you keep a straight face?
4. Never point your finger
You'll never see a Disney worker point their finger at something! They'll always use their hand or their index and middle finger. Why? Because in many cultures pointing your finger is rude and, as an organization that welcomes people from all over the world, doing so is a big Disney no-no. Using the index and middle fingers is also a nod to Walt Disney himself. Disney was rarely seen without a cigar in hand, so when he pointed to something he would raise two fingers. When smoking began to be discouraged, photos of Walt would be retouched so that the cigar was removed, but his two fingers would remain!
5. Secret codes for tricky customers
Answering back is banned in all Disney parks, even if you're faced with the Customer from Hell. It's kindness and smiles all around, no matter how obnoxious a visitor is. That said, workers do have their own way of getting the 'leave me alone message' across. They simply say "Have a magical day", which is polite code for "go f**k yourself!" Even if a visitor doesn't know about this technique, it's also a good way for a worker to warn nearby colleagues or get one of them to come to the rescue!
6. The utilidors
Disney World in Florida is crisscrossed by underground tunnels so that staff can get around the park, trash can be emptied, deliveries received and food delivered. These 'utilidors' are color-coded according to where they're located in the park so that staff can keep their bearings. They're usually out of bounds, but you can go on a 5-hour 'Keys to the Kingdom' guided tour. That's a lot of tunnel walking... Personally we'd prefer to stick to the rides!
7. The Disney Look Book
Disney parks and resorts are extremely strict when it comes to workers' appearance, all of which is documented in an official Disney Look Book. No tattoos, only ear piercings are allowed and the number/size is limited, men must have short nails, women need to keep theirs well-manicured and nail polish isn't allowed. Beards must be short and must not cover lips, whilst haircuts must not hide the ears or reach collar-length. To keep workers in check, there's an on-site hairdresser/barber in each park's utilidors. Body measurements are also restricted to certain sizes.
8. Stickers galore!
Giving visitors a sticker of their favorite character always raises as smile, so workers have plenty in their pockets to hand out. They also carry maps in case someone gets lost.
9. Having fun
Workers who tend to have the most fun are Chip and Dale. To keep in chipmunk mode, workers who play these two will mess around all day long - they may try to pinch a bottle of water, pretend to give a co-worker a gentle kick or simply do something amusingly silly!
10. Keeping it real
So that kids believe they're meeting the 'real' character, actors not only have to perfectly mimic their persona, but also make sure they're not seen with any doubles. So if a park has two Mickey Mouse's, they need to make sure that they stay on opposite sides of the park and use the utilidors if they need to move around. It's also important that they stick to their 'world'. So if Woody fancies giving Sleeping Beauty a kiss, he'll have to do it outside of work hours! Even so, mishaps can occur, particularly during parades.
11. Patience is a virtue
Disney parks are customer-focused, so whatever the circumstances workers must keep their cool, even if a kid tries to jump on their back, tweak their nose, pull their ears or even undress them - although the latter tends to be 'enthusiastic' teenagers and adults!
12. Money talks
Pay rates depend on which character you play. If you wear a costume that covers your face (furry ones, for example), you'll earn less as you don't need to talk or use facial expressions. Characters who show their faces need to use them in order to mimic the character and they tend to spend more time with visitors. Other factors include the number of hours you work and the type of job you do - actor, cleaner, waiter/waitress etc. Experience and length of service are also considered when it comes to workers' salaries.
13. It's not as easy as it looks
Seeing how much time Disney workers spend on their feet or racing around the utilidors, it's amazing that they remain so cheerful. The above is what one employee did in a day!
Disney won't put up with any worker who takes the magic out of their kingdoms. If, for example, you lose your cool or ask for tips then you'll be fired on the spot! And don't assume the most minor of misdemeours will go unnoticed - there are cameras everywhere!
15. Working at a Disney park is about making people happy!
The following tale by a former Disney employee sums up the parks' ethos: he was dressed up as Goofy and spotted a family sitting at a table. One of the kids was autistic. As all characters are expected to wave at customers as they walk by, he did just that to the little boy, who manage a shy smile in return. On his return he again waved at the boy, who suddenly ran towards him and jumped into his arms for a hug. He said the boy looked so happy that it melted his heart. What's more, the little boy's mom said that her son was incredibly timid and rarely showed emotions in front of others! She took a photo of Goofy and her boy, whilst saying that she and her husband had saved up for a long time in order to enjoy a Disney vacation. Her eyes welled up and she gave the employee a big 'thank you' hug!