It's An Issue Not Even Donald Can Duck: Is Disney World Oppressing the Mouses?
10/26/1981 at 01:00 AM EST
Mickey Mouse is bucking for a raise, and Goofy wants more job security. Several of the Seven Dwarfs are hot under the costume about working conditions, and Minnie Mouse has lost her job. Golly. Labor trouble in the Magic Kingdom? It sounds like the Wicked Queen's most insidious fantasy. But this month, as Disney World near Orlando, Fla. began to celebrate its 10th anniversary with "the world's biggest party," the griping was all too real—and Disney officials were wishing upon a star that it would just go away.
It's not that the 300 employees who mingle with the tourists, dressed up as Disney's most memorable characters, don't enjoy being objects of fantasy. It's just that some of them think Disney management has been coming on like Scrooge McDuck. They have complained that their costumes are heavy (up to 30 pounds), their paychecks are small ($4.10 to $5.20 an hour), and the "leads" who escort them around the park aren't always there when they're needed. But one of the characters' bitterest grievances is the company's policy of reauditioning them—and frequently giving them less desirable jobs—after only two years. "They get burned out, lose their verve," explains Disney World spokesman Charles Ridgway. "It's not fair," objects a former Mickey who quit Disney World after being reassigned to the laundry room. "I loved what I was doing and I want to be back there."
Being there, of course, isn't all fun and games. On hot days the furry costumes get "pretty nasty," says a former Pinocchio, and the leads are not the most reliable bodyguards. "It's really important to watch out for Mickey, Minnie and Pluto—the popular characters," says a 4'3" woman who spent three years in various roles. "I played Mickey a lot. I was always getting beat up, and when I'd look for a lead there wasn't any." A few characters reportedly have sustained broken bones at the hands of overzealous fans, but most suffer only harassment. "A lot of times people will pull your nose and your ears," says one victim. A former Minnie has another complaint. "One guest grabbed me by the boobs and started walking off with me," she recalls. "He wanted to take me back to his hotel."
After reports of the characters' discontent first appeared, Disney World management held two forums to listen to their grievances. Afterward Dennis Despie, a Disney vice-president, announced that the characters were scheduled for a raise early next year and that he would consider making the pay increase a bigger one. He emphasized, however, that almost none of those depicting the characters are professional entertainers—the jobs usually go to energetic young people. Adds Ridgway: "For the most part, what they do is stand around and have their pictures taken and shake hands and react to the crowd." That may not sound terribly glamorous, but the job clearly has its rewards. "Even if a supervisor jumps all over you and you go out on a set real upset, you get one little kid just smiling at you and everything goes blank except for that one kid," muses a Goofy. "This is the best job I've ever had in my life."