At Disneyland in Anaheim, Walt Disney World in Orlando, and at international Disney parks around the world, guests flock to the Happiest Places on Earth to immerse themselves in a fantasy. While rides and attractions are often worth the price of admission—which starts at $109 at Walt Disney World and varies depending on the day and location—it’s the chance to interact with classic Disney characters that often makes for lasting memories.
Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Pluto offer plush hugs; Pixar characters like Buzz Lightyear look like oversized toys; princesses like Cinderella and Ariel from 1989’s The Little Mermaid offer a fairy tale atmosphere.
Behind these guises you’ll find character performers—Disney employees who are tasked with breathing life into iconic figures using body language, improvisation, and grace. (Unless you’re Goofy.) When we last spoke with some actors in 2015, they talked about height requirements and practicing character autographs. We thought it was time for another peek behind the curtain, so we spoke with a trio of former performers. Here’s what they had to say about uncomfortable costumes, princess cliques, and proper baby protocol.
(Just remember—cast members don’t tend to reveal that they “play” characters. They’re “friends with” characters. Mickey and company are, after all, as real as your imagination allows.)
1. There are some things off-limits for Disney performers when taking pictures.
Nothing commemorates a trip to a Disney park like a photo opportunity with a costumed character. This can either mean a “fur” character with a suit that covers their entire body (Donald Duck, for example) or a “face” that can use their natural expressions like any of the Disney princesses around the park. But according to Sandra, who was friends with Belle from 1991’s Beauty and the Beast at Walt Disney World, some might decline a picture if the circumstances aren’t right.
“As far as when we are in character, we are discouraged from posing in front of restroom entrances, as well as posing with guests wearing explicit or politically-based apparel,” Sandra tells Mental Floss. “Anywhere else was generally not off-limits, though most of our time was spent meeting and greeting in a specific place. I had a little more flexibility when I had shifts as Belle in the France pavilion at Epcot, where I would sometimes wander through the French bakery and the fountain before going to meet guests.”
2. Disney performers stand a better chance of getting hired if they look like other performers, not just the character.
If anyone has ever told you that you bear a striking resemblance to Belle, Gaston, or any of a number of Disney characters, don’t assume you’d land a performer job at the parks. According to Sandra, casting directors are sometimes more concerned with performers who look like one another, not the cartoon.
“I’ve actually had several friends in entertainment that were ‘disapproved’ [let go from] a role because there were new cast members that were cast and they had a completely different look,” she says. “For the most part, facial structure, physique, etc., that are similar to an animated character are all very important, but the fact is that if there are, say, 12 Cinderellas in the parks at any given time and they don’t look very similar to one another, that sort of ruins the magic for families that may meet more than one of these performers during their trip.”
3. Disney princesses can be a little difficult.
While all Disney performers must start out as a fur character, graduating to princess duty can mean a class distinction. “When you’re a princess, you only have to be scheduled one fur shift every six months,” Jessica, a onetime Disney performer who was friends with Lady Tremaine, tells Mental Floss. “And you can call in for that shift. So there are face performers who haven’t been in a fur costume for years. There’s definitely a hierarchy. It’s not only face versus fur but also within face characters. If you’re a villain, you’re bottom of the barrel. I identified more with fur characters. The princesses were seen as the standard.”
Sandra had a similar experience. “The hardest parts of my time at Disney were the challenges backstage,” she says. “Some performers were cliquey, mean-spirited, and stand-offish. Many were just as warm and kind as their animated counterparts, but it’s true that some of these performers were snobby and it made for a rougher work environment.”
4. Disney performers have a quota to meet. (Literally.)
If your time with a Disney character seems fleeting, it’s because they’ve got to meet their numbers. While performing as Lady Tremaine, Jessica had to make the restaurant rounds without slowing down. “They have a number they want performers to hit,” she says. “For me, it was less about people and more about going through the entire rotation. My set was 45 minutes, with 15 minutes off. I’d do four sets per night. In 45 minutes, I’d have to see the entire restaurant in that time. If I was late, I would get in trouble. It was my job to make it through the rotation in that time. So you had about 40 seconds per table in that dining location. That’s not long, especially for a character you’re talking to.”
5. Disney character attendants are the unsung heroes of the parks.
Fur characters are usually watched over by character attendants—also known as character hosts—to act as their eyes and ears in crowds. (Since they can talk, face characters aren’t as badly in need of an escort.) “It’s a really hard job,” Jessica says. “I have a lot of respect for the attendants. They’re the ones who get yelled at by people who are upset the line is closed or told they ruined someone’s vacation. They get abuse. A guest isn’t going to treat Cinderella that way. But we were protective. If I saw mistreatment, I wasn’t cool with that. I made it clear attendants were to be respected.”
6. Disney performers are sometimes just spares.
Being a character performer at Disney often means being assigned to a variety of shifts. According to Mikey, who was friends with Goofy and a variety of other characters (Tigger, Geppetto, Genie, the Sheriff of Nottingham), performers usually find themselves in an atmosphere shift, which puts them right in the park; at parades; at special events like corporate dinners; or as spares.
“Spares [are] cast members that are on call in case of an injury or if someone gets pulled to a show or [if] a character just wants to go home early,” Mikey tells Mental Floss. “Some people hated it but I loved being a spare. You never knew where you’d end up and some days I would literally do absolutely nothing for hours and hours. I played a lot of Uno and frequented the cafeteria.”
7. Disney performers have mandatory exercise.
Owing to the physical demands of being a fur character with a heavy costume—or a face character on their feet much of the day—Disney typically offers some kind of fitness regime at the start of a shift. “Warm-ups are done at the beginning of your shift and they’re mandatory,” Mikey says. “They are led by [warm-up] coaches that have special training. There was also a physical therapist available to us. The exercises we did depended on the coach. Some of them went through basic stretches and cardio and others went for pushups and squats. It also depended on the cast. There were times I was totally into it—usually [for] parades or when I’d have to do bigger characters like Br’er Bear—and other times I was lazy and just went through the motions.”
8. Disney performers wearing fur get skittish because they can’t see well.
Try not to sneak up on a fur character. Because they have virtually no peripheral vision, being touched from the side can be startling. “The fur characters are all different in terms of the places they see out of,” Jessica says. “You may think you know where they see out of, but you don’t. Tigger, you will never know where he sees out of. The best way to explain it is to pretend you have blinders on, like a horse. You can only see in front of you. Then pretend you have something between both eyes, like a book. And you can’t put your head down. You can’t look at the ground because the character head sometimes rests on your chest. You can’t whip your head from side to side because you might hit someone with your nose.”
9. Disney performers aren’t supposed to hold babies.
Parents often toss their newborn Disney fans into the arms of fur characters, but it’s not a good idea for the reasons we just mentioned. They can’t see well, and they have giant cartoon hands. “You can’t see,” Jessica says. “I’ve had people tossing their baby at me. The procedure for that is getting as close to the ground as possible. When I was Pluto, a baby was given to me and I kneeled down. I got the baby as close to the ground as I could.”
10. Disney performers are never supposed to meet their doubles.
It’s a given that in a park as sprawling as a Disney location, multiple performers will be on hand to be friends with characters in different areas and in different shifts. “In the old Toontown location in Magic Kingdom, for example, there were two different rooms where guests could meet Belle, Aurora, and Cinderella,” Sandra says. “As guests would come through the queue, character attendants would ensure that some of those guests were funneled into Room A, and then the door to Room A would close, and other guests were ushered into Room B. Both sets of guests would meet the same three characters, but they’d be played by different performers. This is often the only way that these meet-and-greet queues can be quick enough.”
But accidents do occasionally occur. In one infamous 2019 gaffe at Disneyland Paris, two Cinderellas accidentally came face to face with one another.
11. Disney performers need to watch canonical movies to learn their character.
Not many jobs require you to sit down and watch classic animated movies, but then, not every job is with Disney. To make sure performers have a handle on a character’s history, they’re tasked with viewing the canonical movies they appear in. “For face characters, since you’re speaking, you watch the foundation films so you can stick to the storyline,” Jessica says. When playing Lady Tremaine, she modeled her performance off of the Disney animated version of the character from Cinderella, ignoring the takes from the Rogers and Hammerstein musical and live-action film.
12. Disney princesses might be called upon to play Pluto in a pinch.
As time goes on, a face performer might settle into their role as a princess, no longer expected to fulfill fur duty. But there are some exceptions. “I was pulled from a ‘spare’ shift as Belle, where you show up as a substitute for any call-ins that day, to a Pluto meet and greet one day at Epcot, but this seemed like a pretty rare thing,” Sandra says.
13. Disney performers can work at any park.
There’s no need to stay in place when you’re a Disney performer. Once trained, characters can float to any of the parks in the United States or abroad, like Disneyland Paris or Hong Kong Disneyland. “I ended up getting hired at Walt Disney World, but all character performers, whether they’re face or fur characters, are global,” Jessica says. “I ended up going through every park.”
Of course, being an itinerant Piglet isn’t required. “You don’t have to. They can’t trade you willy-nilly. They have to offer you a position there. They could send you to Hong Kong for a year or two, but you’d still have a job at your original park.”
14. Disney performers are not huge fans of Buzz Lightyear.
Few fur costumes are comfortable, but for some performers, the bulky attire of Buzz Lightyear from the Toy Story franchise is close to intolerable. “Physically, Buzz Lightyear is very difficult,” Jessica says. “The costume is heavy. I think they’ve remodeled the jetpack over the years. When I wore it, it was upwards of 35 pounds. It rests on your shoulders. Also, the ball joints on Buzz are painful if they don’t line up with yours. If the knees are above or below yours, you’ll get a lot of bruises.”
15. Disney performers might be eating next to you in plain sight.
There is virtually no chance you will ever see Tinkerbell emerge from a public bathroom stall at a Disney park. Characters and other employees have a “backstage” area where breaks are permitted. But that doesn’t mean public places are completely off-limits to them. “What’s kind of fun is that, as character performers, we could be a little sneakier than everyone else,” Sandra says. “Characters in fur roles would wear a company-issued gray shirt and black shorts, our ‘basics,’ under their costumes, which made it easier for us to walk into guest areas for our lunch breaks. At Animal Kingdom, for example, some of us would walk in our basics to Flame Tree Barbecue for lunch. As face characters, we would have to remove our wigs and most of our makeup, but we could walk in street clothes to a guest area on break.”
16. Disney princesses can sit, but Disney villains never kneel.
According to Sandra, there were no hard-and-fast rules about face or fur characters crouching over to get pictures. “We didn’t do it all the time, but we never got in trouble for sitting down,” Sandra says.
But Disney villains live by a different code. “With Lady Tremaine, I had a hip cage giving the dress a shape,” Jessica says. That made it difficult to sit. But even without the cage, she wasn't supposed to squat. “Fur and face characters are allowed to kneel. Except for villains. You’re not supposed to."
17. Disney character performers still smile, even under the fur.
Their giant fuzzy heads may lack expression, but Disney performers in fur costumes still crack a smile. “I can only think of two or three times I didn’t smile for a picture,” Mikey says. “Pardon the expression, but I would have the silliest and goofiest smile in every single picture … When you’re Tigger, you are Tigger. You are the celebrity. You can put anything that worries you aside and be someone incredible. I couldn’t help but smile.”