Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The dark underbelly of Disney's "magic"...


 Aug 1, 2011 (Updated Aug 1, 2011)
Review by    is a Top Reviewer on Epinions in Books
Rated a Very Helpful Review

    Pros:Well-written and revealing.

     

    Cons:Tarnishes Disney's squeaky clean image.  A bit self-indulgent.

    The Bottom Line:Take a peek behind the facade at the Magic Kingdom.

    When I was growing up, I was a big fan of amusement parks.  Two of my three older sisters had jobs at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, which meant my childhood was punctuated with free passes to Anheuser-Busch's version of Europe.  In 1989, when I was on the edge of seventeen, I took a job at Busch Gardens and spent four summers peddling ice cream in a fake German village.  From the very beginning of my employment at Busch Gardens, it was impressed upon me and my colleagues that we were there to create a special experience for park guests.  There were many rules to follow in the interest of promoting a wholesome family friendly image.  All Busch Gardens employees were referred to as "cast members" and our uniforms were called "costumes".  We were encouraged to think of ourselves as entertainers, rather than mere ride operators, sweepers, or food service employees.

    Some park guests really did buy into the fantasy; one time, I was even asked if I was really from Germany, the way park employees are at Walt Disney World's German pavilion.  Although the job was fun and I made a lot of friends, I eventually grew weary of the political nature of Busch Gardens and the tourist trap quality of amusement parks in general.  I stopped working at Busch Gardens in 1992 and, save for a couple of isolated visits, have pretty much left behind my love of amusement parks.  I am still somewhat fascinated by them, though.  That's why I decided to read Chris Mitchell's 2010 book Cast Member Confidential: A Disneyfied Memoir.


    Who is Chris Mitchell and how did he end up working for Disney?


    At the beginning of Cast Member Confidential, Chris Mitchell explains that he was in need of a little magic.  He had come to Orlando from Los Angeles, running away from his career as a sports photographer and his mother's cancer diagnosis.  He applied for a position as a Disney photographer, hoping to find a diversion from the bad turns his life had taken.  He easily landed the job, though the man who hired him could tell he was overqualified for the position.


    Chris Mitchell's new job was to take pictures of Disney characters posing with guests at Animal Kingdom.  Aside from that, Chris Mitchell, like everyone else who worked for Disney had to follow "the rules", rigidly enforced so that no one spoiled the Disney magic for paying customers.  Mitchell's boss, Orville, handed him a thick cast member handbook and ordered him to study it.  He would learn such rules as never to make hand gestures or eat in front of guests while he was working.  He would get a haircut that complied with Disney's strict appearance guidelines.  He would, above all, learn that the most important rule of all was never to "break character".  When he was on the job, Mitchell was never to behave in a way that went against the Disney image.  That meant he had to smile, be very friendly, and basically not be real.

    Mitchell explains how Disney characters are selected for their roles; the hiring process is brutal and exacting and requires much more than just acting skills.  Because of that sacred Disney image, characters must be the right height, have the right look, and be willing and able to never break character no matter what, even if someone else's life depends on it.  Mitchell describes some of the "face characters" he knew who worked very hard to perfect their impersonations of Disney characters, right down to employing method acting techniques when they were off the clock.  He knew a woman who completely changed her lifestyle just so she could be more like Cruella Deville, a character role for which she had worked very hard to obtain approval to perform.


    A peek behind Disney's backstage 

    Of course, no human being can behave like a Disney character all the time.  From the beginning of his stint at Disney, Chris Mitchell is exposed to the people behind the "magic".  He immediately finds out that the squeaky clean characters he follows around all day have much darker alter-egos.  He runs into Disney employees who are open homosexuals, binge drinkers, drug users, and one guy who commits vigilante acts for good causes.  He offers glimpses at Disney sponsored housing communities for employees at the many Disney themeparks in the Orlando area.  Your college dorm might have been party central, but chances are excellent that it would pale in comparison to the apartments rented by Disney employees.  Aside from a look at the party habits of Disney characters, Chris Mitchell also offers a poignant look at all the talent that has washed up in Orlando, people who, just like Mitchell, had run away from the demons of their lives outside the Magic Kingdom.  He also offers a little insight about park guests who are Disney fanatics.  Called "collectors", these guests keep Disney employees on their toes.  


    My thoughts


    I mostly enjoyed reading Chris Mitchell's book.  I have never so much as set foot inside a Disney theme park, but I've still been affected by Disney.  I've seen Disney movies and television shows, and have heard Disney music and stories about Disney vacations from friends.  I can't deny that Disney productions are usually very entertaining, if not a bit too perfect.  As a kid, I always wanted to visit Walt Disney World, but now as an adult, the prospect of going to theme parks isn't nearly as interesting to me.  I still love to get a vicarious experience through reading tell all books like Mitchell's.  An added bonus is that Mitchell is a decent writer who has a knack for turning creative phrases, even though some of his metaphors are a bit bizarre.


    I will warn that this book may be disheartening for some readers, especially those who really love Disney.  If you want to preserve the Disney magic, you might not want to read this book.  it really offers a jaded look at Disney and reveals its "magic" for what it really is.  Moreover, I got the feeling that while Mitchell did get a book out of his experience at Disney, after less than a year on the job, he also lost some of his idealism.  The author also occasionally comes off as a jerk, although in fairness to him, he does sort of admit his jerkiness.      


    This book reminds me just a little of a South Park episode that aired a couple of years ago.  The South Park kids end up revealing Mickey Mouse's money hungry dark side which uses the Jonas Brothers to exploit little girls from wholesome families.  The episode was funny, but also kind of dark and sinister.  In some ways, this book is that way too.  It makes Disney out to be a greedy corporation staffed with a lot of characters with poor character.

    Overall


    Disney is famously protective of its image and seeks to create "magic" for the masses.  That means the people who work for Disney have to follow a lot of rules, much like the ones I had to follow at Busch Gardens.  Of course, Disney's rules make Busch Gardens' rules look positively lax.  This book offers a fascinating look at what goes into Disney's brand of corporate magic, though I have to admit that after reading this book, I'm even less inclined to visit Disney World.  I'll stick with luxury cruises on SeaDream I.


    For more information:  http://castmemberconfidential.com/

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