Being FaMOUSE: Confessions of a Disney Cast Member
Disney Don’t Do Ugly
by Dewey McGeoch
I was hired by Disney because I was handsome. If you wanted to land a job with Mickey Mouse back in the eighties, it helped if you were easy on the eyes. It was common knowledge that Disney didn’t hire ugly people. At seventeen years old I was painfully shy and cripplingly insecure about how I looked, so it came as a complete surprise when I discovered that I was good-looking enough to be asked to join the club. I didn’t want to jinx it. I was careful not to boast to others about my good fortune. I was as humble and as grateful to have that job as a teenage kid who thinks he’s ugly could be.
Sadly, I was never aware that I was a cute boy. A childhood filled with cruel insults about my appearance from my own family members made certain of that. Being hired by Disney was my first experience with feeling accepted. I felt that I was finally a part of something meaningful. I took immense pride in my position as a “Merchandise Host” at the Emporium, the largest and busiest souvenier shop on Disney property. I worked hard to be a model Cast Member and I took seriously everything I’d learned at the Disney University about providing excellent guest service. I dutifully kept my hair short and trimmed above the ears. Remaining clean shaven was effortless since I couldn’t grow facial hair anyway. I strived to become the perfect example of “The Disney Look.”
The first time that I visited the Costuming Department to be issued my work clothes, I was assisted at the counter by an overweight young girl not much older than myself. I noticed that many of the people who worked in the department (which was hidden within the elaborate tunnel system beneath the Magic Kingdom park) were obese as well. Accompanying me this day was Sharon, a senior cast member who’d been working at The Emporium since the park opened in 1971. Sharon pointed out to me (with a certain air of contempt that I will never forget) that Disney didn’t allow fat people to work “on stage,” a term referring to any job that was in guest view. When I expressed that this seemed unfair, Sharon retreated a bit and assured me that it wasn’t because they were overweight really, it was because the company didn’t carry costumes in their size. I wondered how she failed to notice that the costumes they were wearing at that very moment fit them just fine. But I chose not to rock the boat. I was seventeen, thin, and grateful to be there. I accepted Sharon’s explanation as fair and reasonable. As I hung up my costume in my new locker, I thought to myself haughtily “If they want to work upstairs badly enough, they’ll lose the weight.”
In return for the reward of finally feeling as though I belonged, I willingly obeyed all Disney rules and regulations without question. My fingernails were clipped and clean, I wore no distracting jewelry, my shoes were shiny, I pointed with two fingers (never just one), I memorized where every nearby restroom was located, I committed to memory the times and locations of every character appearance in the park, I never replied to guest questions with “I don’t know” but rather “I am not sure. Let me find out for you,” I was extra kind to children and, most of all, I smiled. A lot. I smiled until my goddamned cheeks hurt. All day. Every day.
I was the model Mouseketeer.
On a day off from work, I was sitting in the backseat of my friend Chad’s car as we sped down the highway. There were two girls in the car with us. One minute we were all laughing and joking around and the next I was waking up in a hospital bed, dazed and confused. The nurse explained that I’d been in a car accident. Chad had lost control of the car and we’d plowed into the back of a semi. Chad was fine, but Lori and Kellie had suffered a broken ankle and a fractured cheekbone respectively. The nurse handed me a mirror and I saw reflected back at me a face bruised and puffy, with a four inch gash upon my forehead. My hair was shaved in a line from crown to nape in order to make room for the row of spidery stitches that zipped shut my angry wound. I remembered nothing of the accident. We were all very fortunate to have escaped with relatively minor injuries. I had to miss a week of work before I was strong enough to return.
“We can’t let the guests see your wound. It just isn’t magical.”
The day that I arrived back to work, I didn’t make it past the time clock. I was quickly summoned to my supervisor’s office above the store. I sat down in the chair in front of his desk and prepared to tell him the whole emotional tale of my perilous misadventure. He wasn’t interested. He rushed to inform me that he was glad that I was “okay and everything,” but that he regretted he couldn’t allow me to return to my role on stage. I couldn’t understand it. I hadn’t gained an ounce since the accident. If anything, I’d lost some weight.
“We can’t let the guests see your…wound,” he said with a tinge of disgust. “It just isn’t magical.” He handed me a slip of paper to take to the Costuming Department so I could pick up a replacement costume. I couldn’t believe it. I was being banished to the underground stockroom until my gash was healed and my hair grew back.
“Are you serious?” I said. “You’re sending me into the tunnel because I have an injury?”
“Dewey,” my supervisor said, clasping his hands together and leaning forward onto his desk. His glass Cinderella paperweight reflected his face, distorting it grotesquely. “Our guests visit us to escape the horrors of the outside world.” In reference to my stitches he added, “Do you want to ruin someone’s magical experience by allowing them to see that?”
“This is so unfair.” I said. I couldn’t believe I was being penalized for how I looked!
Much like an out-of-touch politician justifies as rightful his bounteous vacation days and premium health benefits while his constituents work sixty hour weeks and suffer inadequate medical care at overpriced walk-in clinics, I arrogantly justified the privilege of working “on stage” as my right because I was good-looking and thin. I’d convinced myself that my situation was different because, in my stilted logic, an overweight person was overweight by choice, I was unsightly merely because of an accident beyond my control.
It was a long time before I understood what a big, fat hypocrite I was. In the beginning, it made perfect sense to me why the company wanted to keep overweight people out of sight. Fat people ruined the magic for everyone else. I fully understood that Mickey Mouse had a wholesome, family image to protect and should go to whatever lengths necessary to do so. But when the rules applied to me, suddenly their practices seemed unethical.
It was fair until it was me.
I spent the next two decades working for Disney. When I was hired I was seventeen years old, an empty vessel with no real opinions of my own. I was the perfect candidate for becoming a compliant Disney Cast Member. Just like Alice in Wonderland, I eagerly sipped without question from the vessel that read “DRinK Me.” Fortunately, however, over the ensuing years I grew as a human being. Despite the rigid Disney Rule Book, I developed a free will and a personality all my own. As a result, I was called into the supervisor’s office and dressed down with a sinister “OFF with his head!” more times than I can remember. I was branded “too passionate,” a “loose cannon” and (the worst complaint of them all within the Disney culture) “not a team player.” Inevitably, like Alice, I grew too big for the Mouse House and had to break free.
Overall the years I spent with Disney changed my life for the better. However, I think that if I were handed a bottle that read “DRinK Me” today, I might not so eagerly guzzle it down.
But I’d still take a sip.