Wild Kingdom: An Excerpt
In a hard-luck year for Disney, what are Mickey, Goofy, and Pluto doing to blow off steam? Getting wasted, hooking up at pimps-and-ho’s parties, trying to get Cinderella in the sack. In this exclusive excerpt from “Wild Kingdom,” Tyler Gray tours the underground hangout of the long-suffering, hard-drinking, cross-dressing denizens of Disney World.
by Tyler Gray
Before new characters are set loose on Main Street, they must agree not to talk about what goes on behind the scenes. Only then are they allowed into the secret 1.5-mile network of tunnels (formally known as the “utilidor”) that allows costumed employees to move through the park, take breaks, and relax, far from public view. Walt Disney worried that the sight of characters out of context would be disturbing to visitors. Thanks to the tunnels, a cast member dressed as an old-timey cowboy, say, can travel from the employee parking lot to Frontierland without disrupting a perfectly themed jungle scene in Adventureland. Characters typically spend several hours a day concealed in the underground city, a dank place that is in many ways the inverse of the spotless dreamworld served up to visitors aboveground, most of whom are unaware of the bustling scene below.
During my backstage tour I glimpsed a small portion of the tunnels myself. The floors were sticky, and they smelled faintly of sweat, cooking oil, and garbage. Trash is whisked through tubes running along the tunnel walls and ceilings and ends up at a collection point hidden behind the Splash Mountain ride, or at recycling spots throughout the 30,000 acres of Disney property. Aboveground, guests and characters bounce gaily to “It’s a Small World.” Down below, a thin-sounding PA system blares commercial pop. In between songs an announcer hawks Hyundais to cast members on break.
The social hub of the underground is a gathering spot known as the “zoo,” a stark area with the atmosphere of a postgame locker room, where troops of headless mice, chipmunks, and dogs gather between sets to rest and refuel. The zoo features televisions, a fridge, and couches where a hungover Pluto might grab a few winks. The notice board here, several characters told me, is the best way to find the evening’s party location.
If the zoo is the place to unwind, few areas in the Magic Kingdom are as un-settling as the head room, a cavernous storage space where roughly 250,000 Disney World costumes rotate into circulation among thousands of employees. Here, hundreds of Minnies, Donalds, and Mickeys hang side by side, their lifeless heads impaled on posts. Half-dressed characters stroll in and out holding heads under their arms, adding to the surreal mood. For some, staring into the lifeless eyes of beloved childhood icons proves to be an intensely creepy experience. You might shuffle into the head room tired, aching, and feeling none of the magic, only to be mocked by row after row of the relent-lessly jovial look on your character’s face. “You go in there and you see 30 to 40 Mickey Mouse heads,” says former Mickey and Minnie Jodie Rocha, “all with that big old smile.”
For even the most well-adjusted cast members, the reality of the job soon takes its toll. This in turn can lead to subtle acts of subversion — or retaliation. To alleviate boredom during parades, say, a Pluto might work playful punches and smacks into a choreo-graphed set. An employee in a Country Bear costume might break into a moonwalk, totally out of character for a down-home bear. Though speaking in costume is a fireable offense, slipups are fairly common. One former Minnie, Susan Santamauro, admitted to having shouted at kids to “get back” when they rushed her. Three Plutos told me a story about another Pluto who, toward the end of his 30-minute set, dealt a verbal blow to a pint-size tormentor. Parched from the heat and dying to get backstage, he couldn’t break free of one kid who wouldn’t stop pulling his tail. At his wits’ end, he leaned down so other parkgoers couldn’t hear and whispered through clenched teeth, “You…fucking…leave…me…alone. And if you tell anyone about this, no one will believe you.” Pluto then ducked into the utilidor to chug Powerade; the child scurried away in terror.
For a time the fantasy of character life is a kind of drug. When the initial fix fades, not surprisingly, cast members often seek a different high. Several told me that marijuana, cocaine, and other psychopharmaceuticals are common at character gatherings, and that sneaking out to smoke pot between sets is de rigueur among a few. Trevor Allen, a former Disneyland Pluto who wrote a play called Working for the Mouse, relates an incident when Winnie the Pooh dropped acid, went on set, literally tripped, and rolled down a flight of stairs onto Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A.
Disney’s policy is to terminate any cast member caught using drugs, but it’s sometimes difficult to differentiate between the effects of drugs and those of heat exhaustion and poor vision (the Pooh in Allen’s story, for example, wasn’t fired). Disney even has its own undercover cops, sometimes called “-foxes,” who secretly watch for minor infractions.
Despite Disney’s obsession with control and secrecy, some of the characters’ more colorful hijinks have been documented on video. In 2002, his last year as a Disney trainer, Justin Alt shot a film in which two Disney characters (Judge Claude Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Philoctetes from Hercules) engage in deadly combat. In the end the loser is decapitated. Alt posted the grisly clip on his website, where it remains. Disney supervisors, he says, tend to look the other way during the filming of such videos, because they consider them important for employee morale. “The subject material came so easy for us,” Alt says. “We live it. We love it. We hate it.”
While reporting this story I also obtained several films shot for screening at annual character banquets. One, sent to me by an anonymous source, was clearly produced with a certain amount of Disney foreknowledge. Captain Eeyore is a bawdy send-up of Captain EO, a 3-D intergalactic dance film starring Michael Jackson that had a run at Disney parks from 1986 to 1998; it features a sophisticated soundtrack, fully choreographed dance routines, and expensive special effects. Other, more lo-fi videos were obviously never intended for distribution outside character circles. In one, Snow White, Alice, and a few other female characters bump and grind their way through elaborate stripteases. In another, a clueless tourist is rushed and savagely beaten by a horde of characters, including Minnie, Tigger, and Goofy. Later in the same video, men act out beatings on their female coworkers so they can steal their wigs and dresses, put on their makeup, and venture into the park dolled up in Disney drag. Sexual themes are common. In one skit a pickled Pocahontas is seen wandering through Disney’s manicured landscape. When her legendary lover, John Smith, enters the scene, the squaw pretends to drown herself in a man-made creek, but the blond, handsome Smith is distracted by a well-built young brave wandering by in a loincloth.
The scenario is apparently an inside joke about the high concentration of gay characters at Disney World, which is something of a sore subject for the Mouse. In 1996 Disney was among the first companies to bestow domestic partnership rights on its employees. Soon thereafter, a coalition of Christians led by the Southern Baptist Convention staged boycotts. The park’s gay constituency, however, was undaunted. Every spring Disney World finds itself host to Gay Days, a gathering of more than 125,000 gays, lesbians, and bisexuals identifying themselves to one another with matching red T-shirts. There’s no official head count among character actors, but reliable sources estimate that one in four is gay. Whatever the real number, it’s clear that for at least a week every year, Main Street U.S.A. transforms into a gay hot spot that rivals the Castro or Chelsea.
The action doesn’t stop when Gay Days are over. With a giggle she might have borrowed from her character, former Minnie Mouse Susan Santamauro recounts hearing about an episode aboard a van shuttling a half-dozen sleepy employees to a character breakfast at Disney’s Polynesian Resort. A cast member turned around to discover a Pluto and a Goofy taking turns going down on each other in the back seat. According to Santamauro they were written up but not fired. Working for Disney, she adds, “was just the most promiscuous situation I’ve ever seen.”
Jodie Rocha, who played Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and five of the Seven Dwarfs at Walt Disney World from 1996 to 1999, also describes a sexually charged environment, and not just for gay actors. She recalls that swiping wigs and pieces of costumes wasn’t uncommon, especially for theme parties. “I remember going to a pimps-and-ho’s party,” Rocha says. “Of course, there was all the alcohol you could imagine. They had a bondage room upstairs. Porn was playing. They had the toys up there. There was truth-or-dare, and everybody was making out with everybody.”
“For $6.50 an hour you have to do something to make it enjoyable,” she says.
Excerpt reprinted from Radar’s Summer 2005 issue.