My report last week (link) that Disneyland, in an effort to increase PhotoPass sales, was considering a ban on "atmosphere characters" has outraged theme park watchers—including the executives at Team Disney Anaheim.
Park management claims that it has no plans to prevent certain characters from roaming in their general areas, and that a recent move to tying more and more of them into scheduled meet-and-greets has been in response to feedback from guests who want to find characters more reliably.
My sources—multiple cast members working in and with the character department—stand by their contention that management has presented a plan to eliminate roaming in the coming months.
So, my thanks to everyone who contacted Disney over the past week. Evidently, the message has gone viral, and the park has been swamped with complaints. Even famed blogger Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News (link) has joined in.
With Disney's statement, we can consider mission accomplished, at least for now. The company has officially gone on record as vowing that roaming characters will remain. We will hold them to their word.
Here's some of the reaction from MousePlanet readers. Disney can expect a far heavier onslaught should they fully implement this ridiculous plan:
Ken copied us on his e-mail to Disney:
Subject: Character Lockdown/PhotoPass Grinches
To whom it may concern,
Please reconsider the policy of locking down characters to PhotoPass locations in order to simply maximize profit. The loss of more spontaneous experiences, like riding an attraction with a character, is detrimental to magic in the parks. Admittedly, these experiences are like winning the lottery—not many get to experience them, and luck plays a chief role on whether or not they happen to us.
But it must be pointed out that park marketing materials (videos, photographs) still trade heavily on the idea of children being surprised and hugged by their favorite characters. If this "PhotoPass locations only" policy persists, these clips and photos will be a flat lie.
Disney has always flirted with the edge, balancing delightful, surprising, no-extra-charge magic for guests and gate-keeping/stage-managing/extra-costing everything to death for maximum profit-per-square-millimeter in the parks. This policy crosses the line, and please don't insult us by giving us some scripted line about the fact that PhotoPass photographers are able to use my camera to "make magical moments for free." This isn't a misunderstanding over what costs and what doesn't; it's about an erosion of show quality. Spontaneous character interactions, while rare, are especially memorable and irreplaceable with stage-managed "celebrity appearances" at designated locations where we line up like cattle for meaningless, magic-lite moments with characters. The idea that my little girls will never get to ride the Carrousel with Mary Poppins or the Teacups with Alice makes me very sad indeed, particularly in light of the fact that Disney promotional materials will surely continue to "promise" this as a possibility.
My wife and I were in California Adventure a couple of years ago, and I was clowning around with a door graphic on a construction wall in front of the Monsters, Inc. attraction, pretending to try and open the "door" for my wife's camera. Nearby, Frozone was out walking the park. Apparently he spotted us from a couple dozen yards away, and ran over to us, even leaving his "assistant" behind for a moment. We had a completely spontaneous, unscripted, un-stage-managed interaction with this excellent cast member. We snapped a photo, of course, but it wasn't about the photo. I'll go to my grave remembering that Frozone (who isn't even among my most favorite characters) spotted us and came to make a moment with us. I'm a rational adult who is fully aware that the person inside the Frozone costume was just a very fit teen/20-something individual working for a few dollars an hour, but he threw himself into that low-paying position with alacrity that would have pleased Walt Disney. That's the kind of magic only Disney has ever bothered to try and create. Don't destroy it by confining characters to designated meet-and-greet locations where the quality of interaction moves from truly magical to mundane.
On the other hand, if you were to invest in and implement "interactive Mickey" on a permanent basis and expand that technology to all the other furry characters at designated locations, you'd have improved the experience of meeting the "rubberhead" characters immensely. Here's the only instance where a locked-down interaction would actually be a major bonus rather than a bummer. That technology more than lives up to the high standard of magic for which Disney is justifiably renowned. Adults and children alike are completely drawn in and awestruck by that excellent idea. (And then let the face characters continue to roam and interact freely.)
As always, wonderful article. Your article brought back to mind Mickey's Halloween Party with my daughter two years ago. My daughter was Maleficent, the only little Maleficent I saw. As she walked in DCA, she encountered Cruella de Vil, the real Maleficent, and the Evil Queen from Snow White. Cruella grabbed Hallie's hand, brought her over to the rest of the lady villains, and declared, "Look, she's one of us!" The next 10 minutes were sheer magic. I don't even know that I took many pictures. I was just enthralled watching my daughter interact with these characters, being cheered by them, being photographed by others with them. They posed, they joked, they called Hallie their "sister," and asked her to help them dispose of that "pink princess thing" over on the pier. It was utter magic.
Contrast that with her experience in Mickey and Minnie's line. It was long, our feet already hurt, it moved slowly, and we ended up with one or two photos, a hug, and a wave. It was Mickey, sure, but it wasn't the magic that happened 30 minutes before. I can see those moments with the villains over and over again, and that is what we hold dear. You couldn't have PhotoPassed the moment if you tried. PhotoPass would have ruined and robbed the moment. It was no one but these villains and Hallie for those few moments in time. Isn't that what Disney is all about?
This is about Disney making money on our memories. They do so much of that already. Do they have to make a buck on every single one? Can't one thing just be magic and in our mind, not surrounded by a border with a date on it?
Thanks for listening!
I don't agree with limits being set on the characters. The characters are part of the Disney magic in itself. Had it not been for Walt Disney creating characters like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy, just to name a few, theme parks like Disneyland and Walt Disney World would never have been thought of in the first place.
I have always thought highly of Walt Disney's work and still do to this day.
I also think it's unfair that the characters don't get to ride on the rides anymore, either.
If anyone has a say as to what the characters do, it should be up to the Disney Company, or the Disneyland president. I hope they reconsider or come to some kind of agreement.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.
Whom at management do I need to contact (daily, if I have to) to prevent the neutering of the Character Department? I am a former theme park entertainment employee and worked as both a singing kids' musician and a "felt-head" character. Interaction is so important, and both of my previous positions have been stripped away at my former employer. As Disney goes, so goes the entire theme park industry.
Do you have any contact information that I can email or call? Thanks.
Similarly, Justin writes:
Loved your article. As a father of two young girls, who enjoys nothing more than the unexpected magical moments found at Disneyland, this ban is disappointing.
Is there a forum to complain to Disney management?
Matt and Justin, You can contact Disneyland Guest Relations at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for joining the fight!
A cast member also encouraged outraged fans to contact Guest Relations, and writes:
If there is enough negative feedback, the idea could be squashed before it is implemented. I think you can expect to get some heat for leaking this story out. You probably made no friends with PhotoPass management.
I was talking to a friend in Entertainment. There is talk of them breaking free of PhotoPass and becoming a separate department again. The Character managers and their cast members are not happy being ordered around by people who have no knowledge or idea what their department does.
I for one don't mind the fact that designated meet-and-greet areas have been set up. Countless were the times we would come across a character and eagerly wait for an opportunity to take a picture, only to have another family push their way ahead of us. Last year, we came across Pooh and Tigger in their spot next to City Hall, where there was a civilized, organized line. And even though we were two adults, each character gave us an appropriate amount of interaction and attention. And you can still have someone take a picture with your own camera, so you don't have to buy the PhotoPass shot.
Dsnefan, if your only expectation from the characters is to take their pictures and get their autographs, this planned change makes complete sense.
For those of us who have come to know the characters as part of the atmosphere and part of the entertainment, this would be a most unwelcome change.
Wow. I just read your article. Walt Disney would be turning over in his grave right now if he knew this was happening.
We all need to get together and get to the head person of Disneyland and fight this.
My father worked for Walt Disney in 1956 in Burbank in the Animation Department, and Walt himself would be completely disgusted to see this happening. His vision was to make a happy and magical place for children.
Your article is very well written.
I hope that this can be stopped. I say get rid of the photo people and bring your own camera. I understand that probably won't work, but this just breaks my heart.
Perhaps an appropriate response would be for a large number of people to get in lines at character photo places, but to only take pictures themselves and tell the photo person that they are not going to pay for photos until the park's policy is changed and characters can wander.
Since this is obviously being done for money, stop the money.
Honestly, this reads like another cast member-originated "Walt is dead and the sky is falling" story.
I get to Disneyland pretty frequently, and the characters are pretty much ALWAYS in one spot. I've never seen a PhotoPass photographer who wouldn't snap a picture with a guest's camera, even though most of those guests probably aren't even keeping track of their 'Pass card.
Walkaround characters tend to do little more than obstruct already-crowded walkways Bdue to the guests that line up for... photos and autographs. The cast members who play these characters don't want to be "restricted?" Shut up and get a different job. The guests are there for photos and autographs. Yes, it's "magical" (can Disney go for one year without using that word?) to see Mary riding on the carousel. And then she"s mobbed by guests wanting... wait for it... photos and autographs.
The characters are there for one reason: Guests. Guests are there for two reasons: Photos and autographs. Characters aren't decor. The way kids are these days, characters are an attraction in and of themselves. The Matterhorn doesn't "walk around," so why should Alice or the Queen of Hearts?
Frankly, characters riding Small World or the carousel or whatever, that strikes me as cast members indulging themselves. Sure, a couple dozen guests see that and think, "Oh, that's neat" (before lining up for photos and autographs), but it's hardly something most families put on their Master Park Touring Plan.
Disneyland (and most Disney parks) isn't a let's-go-every-weekend thing. For many families, it's once in a lifetime. The park has primarily evolved to support that, and this is just another example.
Every time park management makes a single change, cast members leap to cry "foul," typically blaming a profit motive. Typical W-2 mentality. Put them in a management position for a couple years and they'd change their tune. You do what's right for the guest only because that's what pays the bills. If the extra PhotoPass sales (and I sincerely doubt that restricting a few errant characters is going to cause sales to skyrocket) boosts sales, then maybe that's a few less people who get laid off the next time the economy slumps, eh?
Every time the company makes a move like this, cast members always seem to vocally associate it with profit-mongering. It's getting boring.
Don, thanks for the note. I appreciate it. Terrific arguments, even though I personally disagree with them.
For me, I appreciate characters' role in interacting with and entertaining guests. The more the characters are restricted, the more those interactions are staged, the more I think they might as well be replaced with plywood cutouts.
I just read your article about PhotoPass. I have to say that I am a bit offended at the pointing of the finger towards the PhotoPass department. I happened to be a PhotoPass photographer and I love my job very much. I do not in any way shape or form tell the characters where to go or what to do. We have designated locations for guests to meet the characters because they complain about never seeing anyone. I can't tell you how many times I have been with the Princesses or Mickey Mouse and other characters and they are trying to spend time with the kids and the parents are too busy trying to get their kids to turn around and take a picture right a way so they can move on. It is not the photographers that are in a rush, it is the families.
Foxxy, Please don't get the impression that I have anything against the service PhotoPass provides or, even more so, the PhotoPass photographers themselves. It's obvious you work hard and offer a valuable service.
This change is not being pushed by PhotoPass photographers, but rather by PhotoPass management. And no one is complaining about current PhotoPass-covered meet-and-greets. There are just a lot of us out there who think the characters should be allowed to be experienced in environments other than a PhotoPass-covered Meet and Greet.
There are free-roaming characters, yes. The reason why Disney has meet-and-greet locations is so no harm gets inflicted upon them. I just worked with Woody and Jessie the other day. Jessie told me that when she is on her own that she gets mobbed. When she does try to roam around, guests become angry because she does not stay in one place long enough. We have had guests become violent and even make accusations of racism towards us.
I see everyone's point how they would like to have more of those candid moments with the characters, but again realize certain practices are put into place for everyone's safety. Maybe if the guests would slow down and remember they are at Disneyland to have a magical time with their families things could go back to they way they were. Like I stated before, everyone is in such a hurry that they are too busy throwing their children and themselves at the characters so they can move on to the next bigger and better thing.
Have you ever heard of the quote Walt Disney said? "We do Disneyland more than the idea of money." Shame on you! Let the characters free!
(Send an email to David Koenig)
David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.
After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999) (All titles published by Bonaventure Press).
He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.