Do you believe in Disney characters? There's only one Mickey, right? If that's what you think, do not buy this book, because it lays bare—in extreme detail—how Disney hires and trains its character performers and how those performers handle the toughest job in the theme park.
Disney jargon for a character performer is "friend of", as in "I'm a friend of Goofy!" The company doesn't like its character performers to say they are the character. But we're adults, and we know that Goofy is a big head and a costume, and inside that costume is a sweaty but happy cast member who has been trained to walk, behave, and interact just like Goofy. The cast member is the character.
Nicklaus Hopkins played several roles at Walt Disney World besides Goofy: Sheriff Woody, Mr. Incredible, the Beast, Captain Hook, and others. Each of them brought new challenges, new discoveries, and new adventures, in all of the theme parks.
In a fun, fast-moving narrative, Nicklaus relates exactly how he got his job as a character performer, takes you through his unique, vaguely boot camp-ish training as Goofy, and then brings you with him into the parks for guest encounters, cast member horseplay, and all the pleasures and perils of being a Disney theme-park character. Despite the harsh training, the heavy costume, and the sweat drenching his body, Nicklaus loved every minute of it.
Let's go behind the ears!
Chapter 1: Training Week
Chapter 2: Into the Wild
Chapter 3: The Goof
Chapter 4: The Superhero
Chapter 5: The Soldier
Chapter 6: The Cowboy
Chapter 7: The Two Bears
Chapter 8: The Monster
Chapter 9: The Beast
Chapter 10: The Pirate
Chapter 11: Last Meal
When I was four and a half, a guy in a mask tried to kidnap me. My parents did nothing. Well, nothing useful. Dad caught the whole thing on camera. One of those 80s, suitcase-sized numbers that barely fit on your shoulder, let alone in your pocket or purse. Meanwhile, I screamed bloody murder. Eventually, I resorted to self-defense, trying to knock loose my assailant’s buck teeth, clawing his whiskered snout, grabbing an ear and yanking, then finally punching him in the nose. His big, round, rubber nose.
This did little to deter him, and I resigned to defeat in the form of a giant, death-squeeze hug. My world went black. When I opened my tear-filled eyes a few seconds later, he was gone. Dad was still rolling. Mom was straightening my Mickey ears. And I…well, I was hooked.
I dried my face on my sleeve, cracked a smile, and ran off to find my new best friend, giggling all the way. Until a five-foot duck, who I thought wanted to eat me, appeared out of nowhere, and I kind of freaked out again. But, the point is, I survived.
What’s more, I watched the tape a hundred times when I got home. Begged my parents to take me back to that beautiful, nightmarish playground that stood a mere eighteen-hour mini-van ride away. Loved every minute of every trip down to Florida whenever they agreed. Dreamed of being a part of it all myself someday. And, when the chance came as a kid out of college with a wife and big dreams, but no real job prospects, I headed south and threw my lot in with the Mouse.
After all those years, I finally had a mask of my own. And since Mom and Dad, and the U.S.S. Camcorder, weren’t there to capture all the screaming and crying and smiles and laughter this time, I figured I’d better write it down. This story. My story…of Mouse and men, of big, round, rubber noses, and, yes, even the occasional man-eating duck.
Nicklaus Hopkins makes his living as a professional writer and college professor. His work has appeared in over forty television shows and numerous print publications. He and his wife, who is also an author, reside in central Florida and visit the Mouse as often as possible.
Disney World character training is more than just zipping up a costume and skipping out to the park. Much more. Kinda like boot camp...
The twelve of us that made up our character training group—ten girls and two guys—were ushered into a large room, laid out like a dance studio. Bare floor, mirrors on the wall, stretching bar…you get the idea. The lot of us had spent the past three days in lectures, discussions, film screenings, and acting classes…and survived. Now, the moment we’d all been waiting for: the coronation, crowning, bestowing of head upon body. The eyes, ears, and faces of the greatest entertainment company in the world were about to become our own. It was like Halloween, Christmas, and Graduation Day all rolled into one.
Against the wall sat a line of smiling Disney character heads. The sight was somewhat unnerving, like stumbling into a Trader Sam-inspired horror flick or something. Odd, to say the least, when you’ve watched and laughed along with these iconic likenesses so many times since birth that you practically recognize them as family members. I’m not just talking about film and television, either. For someone who frequented the Disney parks as much as I did growing up, these were the faces on which I’d planted sloppy kisses as a toddler, posed for pictures beside, and shyly whispered autograph requests to.
“Weird.” “Freaky.” “Now, that’s just wrong.” Those were only a few of the comments from the group, as we huddled in the far corner of the room, as if maintaining our distance out of respect for the beheaded.
Once the shock wore off, and we began to inch closer, however, the adrenaline kicked in again.
“Go ahead. They don’t bite,” said the trainer.
The majority were mice and ducks. Only one dog in the bunch. Being the lone member north of six feet in height, I knew he was all mine.
We approached cautiously as a single line facing off against our new identities.
“We don’t have all day,” said the trainer, his patience wearing thin.
I took the plunge, kneeling and scooping up the head. I held it aloft in my hands like it was the Holy Grail. I may have imagined it, but I could have sworn for a second that the bland fluorescence of the room turned to a shimmering, almost blinding light, and a choir of Tinker Bells began to sing. The heavenly buzz of pixie wings was cut short, however, by my sinning mouth.
“Oh, shit,” I said, nearly dropping the heavy noggin. I grabbed onto the big rubber nose and held on for dear life. Solid son-of-a-bitch, aren’t ya?
Somewhere down the line, a Minnie-head crashed to the floor.
“Careful,” scolded the trainer. “Heavier than they look.”
The tiny girl at fault turned redder than the bow between her counterpart’s mouse ears.
The trainer made his way down to me. “Heaviest one of all,” he said giving the snout a pat.
“It’s the hat. Adds an extra ten pounds.”
I turned the mask over in my hands a few times, getting a feel for its size and weight. The trademark stovepipe cap was permanently affixed. Coupled with the face’s elongated snout, it gave the piece an awkward distribution.
I brought it close and sniffed. No Disney World smell in there. More like someone had dumped a cocktail of various bodily fluids inside, then spiked it with Windex.
Cries of pain from a couple of the group members interrupted my inspection.
“Owww! How are you supposed to…”
“What the hell? This thing is scalping me.”
The trainer shook his head and went over to assist. He helped pull the mouse heads off two of his charges, untangled the hair of another. “Not so fast. You’re skipping some steps.”
First he chides us for being too standoffish, now for being too eager. He was definitely enjoying this.
He began handing out white, square pieces of fabric.
“I surrender,” joked one of the girls, to whom his last comment had been directed, as she waved it overhead.
“Skull caps,” he announced, holding one in the air.
“Ah, do-rags,” corrected my buddy, the only other guy in the group. He placed it on his head.
“Exactly…step one,” said the trainer.
We all followed suit. The white squares were much smaller than an actual handkerchief, and had thin ties on two corners.
A couple of the girls helped us guys secure them, tucking our hair under the edges.
We finished and collectively flashed a thumbs-up to our trainer, proud grins showing, as if we’d really accomplished something.
“What do you want? A turkey leg?” he said in response, trying not to smile at his own joke. He retrieved a box from the corner and dropped it in the middle of us. “Step two.”
Inside lay a tangle of plastic.
I stepped forward to fish out whatever the hell “step two” was. I grabbed and pulled, and out came a line of the objects—all intertwined.
The trainer chimed in with his favorite word. “Careful.”
I apologized and began sifting through the mess. What I ended up with looked and acted a lot like the guts of a construction helmet: the adjustable apparatus that keeps your head safe and secure within the harder plastic shell.
We all put them on and began sizing accordingly.
“Feel comfortable?” the trainer asked the girl next to me, after she’d finished.
“Then you’re doing it wrong.”
He explained the fit needed to be extra tight, in order to support the considerable weight of the masks.
We adjusted further, pulling tight enough to release a handful of yelps from those members with either low pain tolerances or fat heads.
My scalp tingled from the snug plastic. I looked around at my fellow trainees.
The girl next to me had a double fold in the skin between her eyebrows, due to the tightness.
My buddy winced as he struggled to rescue his ears, pulling them out from under the plastic. Once free, he began raising his eyebrows repeatedly, to be sure he still had mobility in his facial muscles. Each time, the line of circular indentations across the span of his forehead—red enough to be a permanent tattoo—peeked out from under the gray sizing band.
“Sucks,” he said, struggling to move his mouth.
The trainer heard and sneered. “This is the easy part.”
Continued in "Of Mouse and Men"!
Quick! You're in Epcot, in a Mr. Incredible suit. A young guest (translation: rotten kid) takes a swing at you. How do you handle the situation? You don't let the little bastard get away with it.
The only real problem I had with a guest during my run as Mr. Incredible was of the exact opposite nature. At the time, Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story 3 was a few weeks from hitting theaters, so it was announced to all of us in Animation one afternoon that we’d be displaced for a couple days. The interior of the building was to receive an update in the form of a brand-new set location to help introduce the park’s newest character, Lotso.
Every group of characters was reassigned to various locations around the park. For the Incredibles, this meant we’d be forced to leave the air conditioning (actually, with the amount of guests packed inside the animation building at any given time, the temperatures were sometimes worse inside than out) and set up shop outdoors, next to a large planter that was positioned near the exit of the building’s theater. The short film inside would still run during the refurbishment, but guests would be made to exit immediately afterward, rather than ushered into the larger, open section of the building where meet-and-greets took place, per standard operating procedures.
The location actually proved to be a lot easier than our regular setup. Hardly anyone visited the film—even when the building wasn’t under construction—so the guest-flow was minimal. Since we were somewhat tucked away on one side of the building, guests roaming that section of the park couldn’t really see us, either. We did a lot of standing around and chatting with our character attendants for a few days. Ice-Cube Frozone also got some more practice in on the perfect cast, and I honed a few new stamp/chop moves. Every time the automatic doors from the theater would creak open, we’d snap to attention, ready to welcome any outbound guests. Usually, there weren’t any. Every so often, an older couple would slowly emerge, maybe wave and smile as they passed, showing no real interest in a full-blown interaction.
Things remained quiet until midway through the second day in our improvised set location, when the doors opened to the sound of a screaming boy, probably twelve or thirteen years in age. He’d been fighting with his parents; I caught just the tail-end of a very impolite directive aimed at mom and dad, which contained a certain four-letter verb. He was a few steps ahead of them, looking as if he were planning on leaving them behind.
I was standing about twenty feet away, facing the theater doors. Frozone and our attendant were ten feet off to my left.
When the little brat saw me, hellfire ignited in his eyes, and he took off running at full-speed straight toward me.
At first, I thought he might just be overly excited to meet me, and so I took a step in his direction. When I saw in his deranged face that this was not the case, I froze in my tracks. He was coming fast, and I didn’t have much time to think. Of course, had we not been at the Most Magical Place on Earth, I could have easily just thrown up a clothesline. But, considering how any sort of contact—even self-defense—would likely bring about a lawsuit, I resolved to simply stand my ground, arms at my side, free and clear of any assault charges.
His arm—fist, rather—did not have any qualms, however, about physical contact. As he drew within punching distance, he did just that. He wound up and planted one with all the force and momentum of his barreling body, square in my gut.
Thirteen years of age or not, when anyone lets you have it in the stomach, you’re gonna feel it. And feel it, I did. I reeled backwards, gasping for breath.
He started laughing maniacally.
His parents, who’d been trailing along slowly—probably hoping to lose their gem-of-a-son—saw what had happened and started yelling.
It only made the kid prouder of what he’d done.
I fought the urge to throw up in my mask—or to retaliate. There was nothing I could do, not even reprimand the little bastard. Or, was there…
His parents were still several steps away, their weary faces betraying how thrilled they were to have to engage in another shouting match with their progeny.
I steadied myself and bent over slightly, so that the two of us were eye-level. Cockily, I raised my glove and pointed at my chest, daring him to strike again.
The fire in his eyes raged, and he took the bait. He coiled and let fly an even harder blow than the first.
A loud, hollow thud echoed through the humid Florida air.
Punchy fell onto the cement, howling. He grabbed his fist and looked up toward his parents with watery eyes. “It’s broken,” he kept saying over and over in a weepy voice.
His parents had no sympathy. They grabbed him by the injured paw and jerked him to his feet.
He screamed from the pain and started to full-on cry.
With a grin to match that on the mask I was wearing, I adjusted my rock-solid chest-plate, pulled up my briefs, and walked with a slight swagger back over to Frozone and our attendant. Subtle fist-bumps all around.
Continued in "Of Mouse and Men"!