It's a Living

What its like to be a costumed character at Disneyland

Crystal Nettles recently left Disneyland after five years working in costume, playing such characters as Pluto and Eeyore.

Is there a social hierarchy at the park? Like, the princesses in the parade are cool, and they look down on people in Goofy costumes, or maybe the costume people are cooler?

Well, they had a problem with the face characters—people whose faces are showing, like the princesses—thinking they were better than the full costume characters. But now, when they start, the face characters do a full day in a character suit, so they can see what it's like.

Do you choose what character you play?

When you audition, they take your measurements. Then you're assigned a character based on your height, and what suit looks good on you.

Are any characters considered really lame, and everybody is like, "God, don't make me play that guy"?

Well, some of the characters hurt. Like, Winnie the Pooh has a really big, heavy head. Smaller people play him, because of his stature, and that head can hurt after a while. Other characters aren't safe to take into certain areas: you'll get beaten up.

Beaten up, literally? Where would that happen? 

Well, like areas that are really crowded with kids. You take certain characters in there, and they'll go crazy. Usually it's just that they're overzealous, they jump on you or push you down. And because you can't see well—like with Princess Atta [from A Bug's Life], you've got like a three-inch mouth hole to see through—you can run into people. Sometimes teenagers will get violent; they'll kick you. It happens all the time, and it can get really bad. I've known people who were on disability because of injuries they got. Certain characters really get kicked around.

Which characters? 

Well, Winnie the Pooh, and especially Eeyore, for some reason.

Why would anybody beat up Eeyore?

I know! He's so depressed already. People are evil. Wait, no, don't say that I said that. I'll sound mean.

No, you're right. Beating up Eeyore is evil. Everybody says Minnie Mouse is played by a guy. Is that true?

Not usually. You need somebody with slim legs for that costume, and guys have bigger calves. It's all about the height, so it's more likely the female characters will be played by women and the taller male characters will be guys. But it varies.

You know about the "furry" subculture, right? People with a fetish for cartoon animals? 

[Laughs] Yeah.

Do any of them work at the park? 

Well . . . there was one guy who, uh, led people to assume he was into that.

How? 

Apparently he wore a dog collar, and a tail sometimes. But he wasn't really blatant. He didn't have, like, strategically placed holes in his costume or anything.

What about the guests? Did anybody ever try to pick you up? 

Well, when I did face work, sure. That was mostly just husbands, goofing around. But there are season-pass holders who will basically just come there and stalk you.

I've heard stories about the costumed characters pinching or groping people. Does that really happen?

We have very strict guidelines about when and how we can touch people. They have to approach us; we can't just go up and hug them or whatever. There was a photograph where one of the face characters was tickling a kid, and because of the angle and because when you're tickling, y'know, hands go everywhere, it looked bad. So now there's no tickling. If they want a picture with us, we can put an arm around their shoulder, but—you can lose track of how far those giant fingers extend, and it can look like you're touching the chest. A lot of times, people see us as a free ticket: they'll tell the park we hit their kid, or did something else we didn't do, and they think they can get a free ticket that way. Usually the park goes along with it, because they want good publicity.

How do you cope with the heat in those suits? 

There's no cooling system or air conditioning in the suit, so . . . you learn to deal with it. Some suits are better, like the Buzz Lightyear suit has a big chest plate that acts as a vent. And with Eeyore, if you move up and down fast, you get a breeze that way. But on a 100-degree day, we're roasting.

Do people faint?

Sure. Usually people know they're dehydrated and they make it backstage in time. But once Frollo, the villain from Hunchback of Notre Dame, fainted in front of the guests. Everybody had to surround him with laundry bags from backstage—so the guests couldn't see—and remove his costume.

I imagine you'd get a lot of rashes from those suits. Lots of fungus.

Well, I didn't completely trust the detergent they use . . . if they were using detergent. And the costumes weren't washed every day. So I didn't take any chances. I wore the full under-dressing, padding and gloves. I didn't want any part of the suit touching me. But I was breaking out all the time anyway. That's why I finally left.

Do you miss the job? 

I loved my time there, honestly. I'd like to go back and maybe work seasonally. I do really miss the kids. But I don't miss the drama. 

 
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