6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World

I've given years of my life to the greatest theme park in the world, and here's what you never knew about what goes on inside.
6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World

Disney World is the happiest place on Earth, at least according to Disney's copyright lawyers. That description may fit pretty well for kids and a few adults, but working here is a different matter altogether. Don't get me wrong; it's still a Magic Kingdom. But Disney's "magic" is a multifaceted thing, just as liable to make some dude barf on the teacup ride as it is to create precious childhood memories.

I've given years of my life to the greatest theme park in the world, and here's what you never knew about what goes on inside ...

Epcot Is Full of Drunks

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World
Deror Avi/Wikimedia

On every major holiday, people are shocked -- shocked -- that the parks are crowded. The worst job in Disney World is the Magic Kingdom toll plaza on Christmas Day -- people have driven from Ontario to do the Magic Kingdom at 10 a.m., but oops, we hit capacity at 9 a.m. and there's no more room in the parking lot. What option is left for these people but Epcot?

Matt Stroshane/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Epcot! Experience the culture of the world, without the culture!

You probably remember Epcot as the one with all the weird educational rides, and also that one badass space ride. What people forget is that Epcot also has a fuckload of liquor. Some dejected Epcot refugees try to Drink Around the World, starting at the Mexican pavilion and winding up 11 pavilions later in the U.K. The smart people start at Mexico with a margarita; the dumb ones do straight tequila from the get-go. Because why take the surface streets to Blackout City when the highway is so much faster?

Said blackout usually happens in Italy, when our hapless explorers are five countries deep and fresh off a liter of beer in Germany. Every night we find people passed out in the bathrooms, littering the bushes and trees, dropping in the street. And that's why Epcot has a reputation as "the drunk park."

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World
Gregory Kohs

Not pictured: The magical mound of vomit that had to be avoided to snap this photo.

Tragically, it's also the park with two of our highest-speed attractions -- Test Track and Mission Space -- but plenty of folks try to ride them as many times as possible, in the summer, when it's 90 to 95 degrees in the shade, while drunk. Mission Space, if you aren't aware, is a big centrifuge ride. Don't ride this late in the day: If someone pukes, everyone in the ride wears that dude's tequila-soaked lunch for the rest of the day. Not to mention the sympathy puke.

The Costumes Are Hell

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World
Brad Barket/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

The regular cast member costumes are bad enough -- wool and heavy polyester in a super-hot and humid climate gets disgusting fast.

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World
H. Michael Miley

All those sleeping princesses aren't waiting for a kiss. They have heat exhaustion.

But the character costumes are in a class all by themselves.

They're heavy, they cover your whole body, and they absorb every last drop of the sweat pouring out of every inch of you, so they stink. It's a hot mess. Wearing a full-body costume will also make you go through a total body change: After a few weeks in costume, my sweat started to run clear. Salt just stopped coming out of my pores. You have to change your diet -- you can't eat burgers and fries all the time or you'll pass out.

Edward Russell

Just drink your own sweat. It tastes like hunny.

There's not an inch of your body that isn't wet when you finish a shift. There are ice bandannas you can tie around your neck, vests of ice for parades -- but those all melt immediately, and then you're lugging hot heavy water around. You pretty much just have to suck it up and suffer through. How long you're out there in the heat changes based on temperature: If it's 90 degrees or under, you do the full 30 minutes on/30 minutes off rotation. If it's over 90 but under 100, they might reduce the shift by five or 10 minutes. But the park guests want to see those characters and don't care about how uncomfortable you are, and your manager can always check that temperature in the shade and keep you out there longer.

Then there are the costumes that seem to have been designed to injure their wearers as much as they delight children. The wig for Megara, for example, was so extreme that girls ended up having to seek medical attention because of the strain on their necks.

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World

That hair not being real is tragedy enough.

Meanwhile, the Panic costume needs to be closed by someone else and ends up mashing your face against a metal screen that heats up instantly. Really, any time you can't get into your costume by yourself, you know you're in trouble. I remember struggling through a parade in July when the heat index was well over 100, and I was in one of those horrible costumes that I had been practically sewn into. Well, before the halfway point I was just trying not to pass out, stumbling along, not going over to interact with the kids along the route. When I finally got to the end, I had tunnel vision and was screaming for someone to get me out. When I had finally been unzipped, I shot out of that costume like I'd been squeezed from a birth canal, and I just laid there on the pavement, shivering and dry heaving until the entire parade had finished.

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World
Walt Disney Pictures

Panic's the one on the right. The smiling one.

And before I go any further: Yes, it's all worth it.

You'd be amazed at how happy just showing up as Mickey makes people. It's like being a rock star, with all the photos and autographs and adoration. You really do get to create a kind of magic for people -- the day I die, I will remember what it was like to look out through Mickey's eyes. It sounds corny, but it's true. So try to keep that in mind while I talk about how ...

Visitors Want to Molest the Costume

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World

As Mickey, you get a hand on your crotch a lot. Character training incorporates a male and a female class, because no matter what gender you are, you need to be able to play both, depending on the character. There are plenty of girls who apparently made good Mickeys, because multiple women would slip them room keys or reach out and grab a handful of mouse crotch. (I don't know if that's a fetish or what. Would they insist that you wear the costume to bed?)

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World
David McNew/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Then how would you show them your steamboat willie?

Other visitors just want you to break character -- it starts with poking and pinching, although some people will straight up punch you in the gut to see if you'll make a noise. I once posed with a bunch of teenage boys while in Minnie Mouse costume. On the count of three, two guys clamped down on my hands and the guys on my feet grabbed them and lifted them up in the air while a fifth guy got a picture of his buddies posing around Minnie's bloomers. Then they ran like hell. Why that is the picture you want to use to remember your time at the Magic Kingdom is beyond me, but they clearly came into it with a plan.

In general, there seems to be a weird desire by visitors to "debunk" the idea of Disney characters, like they're blowing the lid off of some scam. The official position of the Walt Disney company is that all characters are real and there is only one of each of them, and the whole park is organized so that no one will ever see two of a character at once -- Mickey is never dining in a restaurant and walking by in a parade at the same time. And we always have to be ready with an explanation of their schedules, because adults try to trip you up, saying they just saw a character across the park, and now here they are over here as well. You have to try to keep a straight face while pointing out that "Well, you had time to walk over here, so Mickey did, too!"

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World
Walt Disney Pictures

No need to scare them with tales of animate clones.

It's so strange to me, because they're the ones who've decided to spend thousands of dollars to come to Disney World for one of their presumably rare vacations. You paid for the very magic we're trying to preserve here, guys. No one wants to see the wires when they go to a magic show, and no one really wants to see five Cinderellas smoking cigarettes in an alley.

But I think just seeing someone in costume messes with people's brains. Visitors will whisper insane stuff to me, like "So glad we got to see you, the kids don't know we're getting divorced after this trip" or "We haven't told the kids yet that their mom has cancer." Why the fuck would you tell Mickey that? Or a park employee dressed as Mickey?

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World

Especially when the park already has a dedicated confessor.

Speaking of Mickey, every single terminally ill Make-a-Wish kid gets to meet him, and that's hard. And because of how often sick kids visit the park, it can be a painfully regular thing. The Fairy Godmother has it hardest: Kids ask her to cure them. If I made it to the second set without sobbing, it was usually a good day.

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People Pretend to Be Disabled to Skip in Line

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World
Orlando Informer Blog, fatchoi/iStock/Getty Images

Like death and taxes, waiting for rides at Disney parks is inevitable. But there are always people who try to cheat their way around that. The most common is by trying to get an assistance pass -- you know, the ones that are supposed to help those folks who have a legitimate disability. There are whole websites out there that will tell you how to scam Disney by faking a disability (last fall, the park started seriously restricting these passes, with mixed success).

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World
xyno/iStock/Getty Images

Kicking visitors to catch "fake cripples" proved controversial.

When I was there, we couldn't really question people: If they claimed to be allergic to the sun but were wearing a tank top and shorts, we still gave them the special pass. Sun allergy was a really common lie, and actually one of the least offensive ways people gamed the system. One dad actually lied about his daughters having been raped so he could get to his precious rides a little faster. It was obvious he'd picked that lie because no one could question it without feeling like a monster.

And somehow, that wasn't the worst. We know who the Make-a-Wish kids are, but the buttons that mark them as such can be bought (people even sell them outside the park). So parents will come in and pretend they have terminally ill kids to try and trick us into a dream tour.

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World
Francesca Rizzo/iStock/Getty Images

They even tell the kid she has cancer so she won't blow their cover.

Really, Disney World is not a place to get a clinic on good parenting ...

Parents Straight Up Abandon Kids

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World
Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Parents want to have fun at Disney just as much as anyone else. Since they can drink at three out of the four parks, that sometimes means ditching the kids as soon as possible. Or perhaps you're a local, but have an autistic child who loves the parks. So you buy them an annual pass and ditch them at the gates so you can have the day free, knowing that the kind and concerned cast members will have your child well in hand by the time you return at the end of the day.

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World
Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Yup, you heard right. There's an annual pass.

While every location has its own not-so-fun quirks, no one likes the areas where you're just corralling people. Parents don't want to be told to watch their kids from a cast member -- somehow, just the fact that they're spending a shitload of money convinces people that there can't possibly be rules. For all of these reasons, the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground was the bane of my existence. The whole place was an open air garden of injuries waiting to happen.

Once, a little girl face-planted off the giant fly and wound up bleeding. She'd been hopping off to get to her mom faster, because the parade was about to start and gravity itself wasn't going to stop that girl from seeing Mickey. As soon as we saw blood, four cast members, including myself, descended upon the wounded girl and brought her a wheelchair. The blood and the pain didn't seem to faze her much, but the thought of missing the parade set her crying up a storm.

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World
Martin Novak/iStock/Getty Images

This story ends either happily or with some kind of Firestarter situation.

That kind of dedication deserved a reward, so I told her to stay right there at the first aid station until I got back. I hauled my way down to the character base where folks were just hanging out waiting for the parade to be over, and I got these nice personally autographed pictures of every character. Then I ran back and said, "I told Mickey you had to miss the parade and he was so upset that he and his friends all signed these pictures for you."

And like magic, the tears dried up and smiles were on faces again. Even on mine ... until I got back to the goddamn playground again to watch the next unattended minor earn a head wound.

If that all makes me sound really dedicated, well ...

Despite Everything, the Employees Are True Believers

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World
Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

To outsiders, this seems like the kind of minimum wage summer job anybody can get. When you see some guy sweating his balls away in a huge furry mascot costume, you don't imagine his job interview was much more intensive than "Are you currently breathing and not a child molester?" But this is actually a very difficult job to get, and a lot of people want it.

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World
Mike Coppola/Getty Images

His Pluto audition was dog shit.

The interview includes a rigorous dance competition. If you make it through, you get a color code based on your skill level. Then you're graded on what they call "animation" -- that's your ability to physically act like a convincing animated character. You have to pretend to wash dishes, or decorate a Christmas tree ... a bunch of different tasks all performed with the mannerisms of a Disney character. And you'll be doing this as part of a group of five to eight people, all of you auditioning in front of a panel of suits who are judging you on how well you pull off Goofy. For the "face" characters (princesses and such), you have to be able to do the voices and accents right.

Oh, and everyone has to be able to do their character's autograph flawlessly. If someone came 20 years ago to get Mickey's autograph and they come back today, it should look the same. And you should be able to sign it with both hands, because who knows what you might be doing at the time.

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World
Hudson Valley Ceremonies

Some autographs even require three hands.

Cast members find out quickly if they're able to hack it. There's a Disney "look book" that shows you exactly how you can look -- you can't wear necklaces, bracelets, or large earrings. No visible tattoos are allowed. The ones who stubbornly insist on wearing blue eye shadow or bracelets despite being disciplined for it are not going to last. Those who remain are the ones who are truly into it -- many have known all their lives that this was where they wanted to work. They grew up not wanting to be an astronaut or a cowboy, just wanting to work at Disney.

There's also a strong cult of personality around Walt. He's absolutely revered and venerated around the park, with cast members frequently saying things like "Well, Walt would have wanted it X way" or "That isn't what Walt would have done." We even have "What would Walt do?" bracelets and pins. Going to the Disney Family Museum or Disneyland is like a pilgrimage for many. Cast members will sob when walking through the Disneyland castle, knowing that they're walking in Walt's footsteps by being there.

6 Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World
General Photographic Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty 

We can neither confirm nor deny rumors that he lives there to this day.

So the people put up with all of the things on this list because they love it (the pay isn't bad, but no one will ever get rich working at the Disney parks). It sounds cheesy, but your whole day is creating these wonderful family moments for people. And while it is a company and of course they want to make piles of money, there is a surprising amount of leeway given to cast members in order to keep the guests happy.

Once, there was this little wheelchair-bound girl whom I helped to the front of a line for Mickey's magic show. Once the show started, I went over to the merchandise cart and grabbed a Mickey plush, saying I needed it for "guest recovery." While the little girl's dad was holding her up to watch the show, I quickly stuck the Mickey sorcerer plush into her tiny little wheelchair.

When he sat her back down, Mickey was waiting right there in the chair for her.

The little girl saw it, then turned around to her dad and said, "See! I told you he was magic!"

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