In the 1960s, Walt Disney had a dream: He’d turn a San Francisco-size swath of swampland and orange groves in central Florida into a version of utopia where childhood fantasies could spring to life. The Magic Kingdom opened on Oct. 1, 1971—50 years ago last week —beginning a fairy tale that’s panned out just as intended. Over the decades, Walt Disney World has lured millions of pilgrims to a place where dreams come true, not just for visitors but for employees, too.
In fact, there are no fans more devout than the people working at Disney’s four theme parks. Called “cast members,” they are ambassadors of happiness who delight in perpetuating a mythology that never breaks the fourth wall of the Cinderella Castle. In their minds, Tinkerbell is real, there are actual ghosts in the Haunted Mansion, and—most important—there is only one Mickey.
They gave me a chance to become part of their world as the parks staffed up in preparation for Walt Disney World’s golden anniversary, allowing me to discover exactly how the fairy dust is sprinkled on every guest experience. From shielding characters against overeager fans on Main Street, to making elaborate birthday cakes for hippos at Animal Kingdom, to practicing Be Our Guest cutlery choreography, here’s what I learned during a week working at the busiest resort on Earth.
1. No One “Plays” Cinderella, But She Has a Lot of Friends
If there is a hierarchy of Disney employees, on top are those who dress as Characters (that gets a capital C at Disney). But no one is hired to “be” a princess; instead, a team of casting directors holds large-scale open auditions to find a “friend of Ariel” or “friend of Cinderella,” an official term that reinforces the idea that the princesses are real and not merely costumed laypeople. Those actors move through the park on a careful rotation, so guests never see different “Ariels” at the same time.
Hiring cast members for other roles like greeters or restaurant workers has become more inclusive as of late, and the House of Mouse has relaxed rules about uniforms to allow for things like tattoos and larger sizes. But characters who look like real humans—think Belle or Aladdin— are hired primarily based on their height, size, face shape, and skin tone, which must closely resemble those of the animated originals. “They line you up in rows of 10, and you stand there silent and smiling,” says a former Character, who— like many alums—requested anonymity even in retirement. (Disney is fiercely protective of its image.)
Anyone who can’t fit into their (shared) costume gets demoted from, say, princess to princess handler, at least temporarily. The same rule applies if an injury—a broken arm, maybe—could distract from a convincing depiction.
Most princesses “age out” by their mid-20s, says the former Character. Mary Poppins has become a go-to transitional role when a Snow White begins to go a little Snow Gray; most of the time, however, cast members move to another department for a decade or two before returning as a fairy godmother.
2. Adult Guests Either Become Babies or Try Making ’Em
“On more than one occasion, I’ve seen parents just leave their children with Mary Poppins and wander off,” says a former Character. Adults often embrace their inner children at the parks rather than watch their own. “It’s like, ‘Here, stay with her, she’ll take care of you— she’s a governess!’ ” Inevitably, Miss Poppins has to stay Chim-Chim-cheery despite missing breaks to take her disoriented wards to the Lost Child Center.
Even more frequently, parents bully their kids into taking photographs with villains, says a former Character. “I pay $20,000 for you to go to Catholic school to not be afraid of the devil—now smile for mommy!” one woman screamed at her petrified daughter in an attempt to make her pose with Narnia’s White Witch. (The child pulled down her mother’s pants in protest.)
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