Whichever Disney characters were most popular during your childhood, did you ever pretend to be one of them? Who hasn’t tried to talk like Donald Duck? Chances are you may have dressed like a Disney character for Halloween. How do you think it must feel now to the adult employees at Disney who make their livings wearing those costumes? You know they never imaged they would one day be marching down Main Street Disney dressed like a duck. Or flying down a wire in a Tinkerbell tutu. But. They are.
Disney employs over 130,000 people but the creme de la creme is being hired as a character actor. The competition is fierce for these positions and a very small percentage of those who apply ever get hired. Even once a person does get hired for one of these positions there are many rules they must always remain cognizant of. Disney has no tolerance for those who do not at all times portray their character according to the strict guidelines provided.
What it Takes to be a Disney Character
There are fur characters and face characters. Fur characters are not allowed to speak under any circumstances. They can only gesture and it usually involves wearing a huge hot furry suit which covers them from head to toe. Face characters, also called look-alikes, are characters with human faces such as mermaids and princesses. Face character jobs are much tougher to land as additional factors must be taken into consideration.
When applying as a character actor, applicants are first evaluated on things which are totally illegal elsewhere, but it all makes perfect sense at Disney. Since character actors work in shifts, they have to share costumes. So this is one of those cases where size really does matter. There can be no 6-feet Mickey’s or 4 feet 11 Goofy’s. If a hopeful is applying to wear the suit of whichever character Disney is hiring for and they aren’t the proper height, they get shown the door and asked to leave.
There are also age requirements which once again would be illegal for an employer to ask elsewhere. Applicants must be at least 18-years-old and no older than 27. Some of the characters are demanding to play and there is concern that older people may not have the stamina to remain in a big hot furry suit for hours in the heat. How would it look if Goofy passed out during the parade and the paramedics had to be called in?
Once someone is hired, they might also meet the height requirement for other characters and be asked to play multiple roles. A previous employee said she played both Chip and Dale, six of the dwarfs, and Winnie the Pooh. This also involves learning the antics of each of the characters portrayed. No one simply puts on a costume for the first time before studying the character they are about to become.
As a note, most male performers must be tall if they have a desire to be a face actor. Since they will be required to play characters like Tarzan, Gaston, and Kristoff, chances of employment are limited for guys under 6-feet tall. Even if they are 6-feet or over they must also be weight proportionate. A 350-pound Tarzan is as much out of the question as would be a 6’3″ 110-pound Kristoff.
For females, slim and trim with a pretty face wins the brass ring every time to play a face character. Wigs and colored contacts can transform anyone into a character so hair and eye color are far less important. Heights can vary a bit since someone playing Tinkerbell can be anywhere between 4 feet 11 inches and 5 feet 2 inches, while Snow White can be between 5 feet 8 inches and 5 feet 10.
Fur character auditions can run up to a full six hours. Applicants must run through a series of animated improvisations based on whatever imaginary scenario they are given. One auditioner said she was asked to play the role of a pregnant cheerleader. If auditioners can act out the stupidest of characters created on the spot, there is a good chance they can also learn the actual Disney character they are selected to play. Cuts are constantly made throughout the day. Whoever is left when the dust settles gets to put on an actual fur costume and do yet some more acting. Once this is accomplished and the person doesn’t get sent home, there is a good chance they got the job.
Applicants for face positions are made to line up while a panel of judges stares them down. They are asked to smile, laugh, and make other odd facial contortions. Just based on their looks alone, more than half of them get cut immediately. They simply did not fit any of the roles the Disney executives were looking for. For those not sent packing, the tedious and stressful audition has only just begun. The remainder of the selection process can take up to two full days as the applicants are run through the ringer.
For those already acting out face characters, Disney supplies all of the makeup to achieve a uniformed look but it is up to the individual performers to learn how it must be applied since they will end up having to paint their own faces. And, they better learn how to get it right. As a steadfast rule, wigs and costumes can only be put on after the makeup has been fully applied to avoid smudging any of it on their costumes during the process. Costumes are expected to be kept clean and spotless at all times.
During their intensive training program, face actors must watch cartoons of the character they were hired to portray and learn to mimic their movements, gestures, and speech pattern. Every character has their own unique signature the actor must learn.
While it may not be quite so easy to get hired for an acting position, Disney only makes it this way to assure each and every visitor gets the best experience possible and it would hard to argue they aren’t the best at doing so.