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David Koenig
Mailbag — Week of October 29, 2001

Cast members, present and past, weighed in on "Costume Foolery."


Alex wrote:

Whenever you criticize a department I'm sure you get a few indignant emails that consist mainly of "we do the best we can." That is not where I am coming from. I hate the indignant.

I was in the costume department back in 1991. It's weird; what you describe is just not the way I remember things (but I can imagine it's that way now).

I'm sure cast members would laugh at this if they read it, but the crew I was with took our jobs very seriously. We were fast, even if it didn't seem like it from the outside. When a bell rang, it was a race to the window. After a couple of weeks I was very familiar with the crazy number of costumes and rarely forgot anything.

Rude? I can't really remember a conversation consisting of more than "Coke Corner" or "Plaza Pavilion." Even past that, the people I worked with were pretty nice (some more eccentric than others) and didn't have rude personalities.

MousePlanet has zeroed in on the major flaws in Disneyland's corporate culture. I saw the beginnings of it back then. I have fond memories, don't get me wrong. But the money was JUST BRUTAL. I don't know how these guys stay around for more than a few seasons. How can you keep dedicated and trained people with the most minimum of wages? On top of that, I don't remember exactly how many were in my department, I think it was between 30 and 40. (I could be way off, I only worked with about 10 guys at a time). Only TWO were actually full-time, and they wanted to "phase them out!" They didn't want to pay a single dime for health insurance.

The managers directly above us were not really to blame for it. The only way they could get ahead in the company was to cut budgets. We were understaffed in 1991; I can only imagine what it is like now. My point is that service was always number two to cost cutting. We were running on fumes, but we were always too expensive.

This cast member shopping thing will fail. Are these guys on crack? Bedlam, mayhem, disaster! If the new Costume Building is anything like the old Costume Building, it is going to be a new corner of hell in there with cast members running around. That's just what everybody needs, another war to fight. All to save money on a handful of part-time minimum wagers. Lame, Disney.

I usually don't write email like this. I think the reason I wanted to chime in is because I really have good memories of the people I worked with, and I think the costume department always got an unfair rap. At the time, I had no idea how far Disney would fall. Where is rock bottom?

A Costuming employee wrote:

I read with great interest your article about the changes going down with cast costuming. The article intrigued me as it showed the views of both supportive and non- supportive cast members. I am a costuming cast member and I would be on the non-supportive side. It is my hope that this program does not work out. It's going to be a disaster.

The real reason I am writing to you is to address some things in your article. First off, I must defend my fellow cast members from the following quote: "I've been complaining for as long as I can remember about how moronic the costuming cast members can be," one host said. "They are the regular butt of many an inside joke at the resort and if ever one is late, all they have to do is blame it on costuming and there will be no questions asked!" Costuming cast members are labeled as moronic?

Most of the people, such as myself, who work back in costuming do so because they don't want to be on stage. They don't want to deal with rude guests so they choose backstage and costuming thinking, in error, that they'll get to deal with happy-go-lucky cast members. Unfortunately, we end up having to deal with some of the rudest people in existence. Yelling at us because they're late. If they walk up to the Costuming Building 10 minutes before their shift to get a costume for a location that is a 10-minute walk, it's not our fault if they're late. They should have planned better! Morons we are not. We know what's in that building and where it is. Something very few of them do. We do our jobs well. The only good thing I find about this shopping idea is that they will learn that our job is not easy.

Secondly, is this: "Most employees, however, are up in arms." All I can say is, thank goodness! I hope that if they find they don't like the shopping idea that they voice their concerns to costuming management, their own management and their union. As I said before, the fact that they will find out that our job is harder than it looks is the only good thing I can see coming from this. I think it's going to be a horrible idea. I've worked in retail in the past, and it's going to turn into a situation like that with us cleaning up after people who just don't care that they're making more work for us.

We've been told that our labor hours will not be affected. We operate by how busy the park is and that will not change.

We'll still need to know all the costume pieces because we'll still be on the floor helping so the shopping isn't going to change that. And as for cast members knowing their costumes, they're going to try to make their own combinations. They already try that and we have to tell them they can't have that piece. What are we supposed to do when they get their own stuff?

The second level of clothes is at a height accessible to an average-sized person. Most of the third tiers are movable and don't require a ladder to reach the clothes on them, just, from what I've heard, the help of a costuming cast member to assist in operating the tier. Anything that does require a ladder will be retrieved by a costuming cast member. We also have lots of stepladders around which, I believe, cast members will be able to use. There will be at least one cast member per row or two rows to assist cast members in retrieving garments off of third tiers and high shelves.

All the costume pieces are very conveniently located near each other. Right now, there's only one exception I can think of to that rule and I'm sure that will be remedied soon. They're still trying to get it all worked out as to where costumes will go.

I hope that this has given you some insight into the Costuming Building from a cast member's point of view.

I agree wholeheartedly that many who look down on Costuming cast members have no idea how difficult your jobs are. They're about to find out.

An ODV cast member served up:

Well, before I jump on Disney for this latest idea, I would just like to point out that even the original costuming system had its flaws. It had, as I recall, 12 windows, 1-6 were women's and the rest were men's. They were grouped so that one was for all New Orleans/Critter Country / Adventureland costumes, one was ODV/Custodial/Maintenance, one was Main Street/Frontierland, etc. The same cast members worked those windows, so they knew the costume you needed when you came up and said, "ODV Frontierland" or whatever. However, for some inexplicable reason, they still took 10-15 minutes to go get it.

The new Costuming Building was an even bigger disaster, because every costuming cast member had to know every costume, which of course they didn't, so it took them five minutes to look up what came on the ODV Frontierland costume, five minutes to find it, and three to five minutes to get it down. Then they had to remember what window you were at (turns out this is not so easy either, apparently). Now, supposedly, the computer told them what costume to get, but for some reason, I always ended up receiving the Disney Gallery costume instead (not that I minded, it's a much nicer costume, but my leads did).

This new system could work if implemented properly. The problem is that if it is implemented properly it wouldn't cut any labor hours, which is what they are looking to do. They would need several costuming cast members around helping us locate our costumes and get them down, and several more checking them out. Of course, when this opens there might be enough, but probably not. Either way Disney will eventually cut down the costuming staff and pretty soon it will look just like a bank—10 checkout lines but only three open. And the line will be 15-30 minutes long, and it won't solve anything, except that Disney will on paper save some money.

The funny thing is, they really won't. On paper, every department will show small increases in their labor hours (overtime from first shift because second shift is late), but costuming will show a significant decrease in their labor. Thus, some manager somewhere will get a bonus, because there is no one person who looks at the whole thing and realizes that they are really spending more in overtime if they total it all up then they are saving in costuming labor hours. Plus, morale among the whole front-line cast at Disneyland is lower, and that makes for a less positive experience for the guests, and they may decide to skip on some souvenirs or worse yet go to Universal next year. For a company that loves money so much, they aren't very good at math.

A Disneyland veteran submitted:

Allow me to make some corrections and add some additional information to your "Costume Foolery" article.

The Teamsters union is currently looking into the costume shop program. It is possible that this may go to the Labor Board. The main problem seems to be the "free labor" aspect.

Interestingly, a survey done by Disney indicates 80% approval for Costume Shop among the Fantasyland/Toontown cast members. There are some of us who believe that Disney is throwing away some of the negative feedback.

The Wardrobe Department apparently has made a concentrated effort to convince their cast members that Costume Shopping will result in no reduced work hours or layoffs. Surprisingly, most Costume cast members believe this. Most of the old timers, however, do not.

Costume Shop was in the plans as early as 1997-98.

Actually, the average cast member is able to reach the second rack. Though with a stretch. (Which brings us to the problem of shoulder injuries which plague wardrobe.) The third rack is not meant to be pulled from. There is a lower access point which costumes can be rotated to.

(Regarding the "flawed" design of the Costuming Building, shown above), I can not begin to express my hatred for costuming, but I have to defend them here. The building layout was actually designed by Sue Clemmens, who was a supervisor and manager in Costuming for longer than I've been with the park. She is widely considered by the old-timers to be one of the best managers there. When designing the layout, she went up to every hourly wardrobe person and asked for their input as to what they would like to see in the new building. She showed them the blueprints, described where things would go, and asked their opinions. This was not a building slapped together by someone who did not know what they were doing or who did not care. I have to give full marks to Sue for doing her best.

Now, I do not know if her final plan was what was used or if someone else from outside came and changed things. That I would have to leave for someone who would be in the know on that. But the H-5 Costume building was not haphazardly put together. At least, not when costuming was designing it.

Thanks for the added information.

Although I don't doubt that management is stressing that the new system will result in no reduced work hours or layoffs (they may even believe this themselves), the main idea is to reduce overall labor costs for the department. Perhaps that can be achieved merely through hiring freezes and transfer out of the department. But eventual layoffs or reduced hours wouldn't surprise me.

Also, if Costume Shopping was in the plans as early as 1997-1998,

(a) why wasn't it used from the start at the new building?

(b) why wasn't it incorporated at least long-term into the design of the building?

The cast member replied:

As far as (a), it was because the costumes needed to be individually bar-coded, from what I understand.

I don't know the answer to (b). Of course, I could never understand half the stuff costuming does.

A merchandising cast member rang in:

I agree with you that the costume shopping thing is a BAD idea. Not only does it lay people off, but it inconveniences the other cast members. I can't wait till the unions hear about this.

Alumnus Gary wrote:

This sounds like a lot of whining. I'm sure this is not the biggest problem that Disneyland cast members have. Holding on to their jobs and not losing too many work hours would seem to me to be higher priority.

I worked at Disneyland from 1968 to 1972. I would have been happy back then to do my part to get the company through hard times. Getting a costume was just not that big a deal. Who needs training to get on a ladder or step stool (give me a break)?

David, I'm usually in agreement with most of what you write. I work for Boeing (in Anaheim) now. All industries have been trying to do more with less people. Numerous company services have been converted over to "self-service" in the past few years. We are going through difficult financial times as well. To stay competitive, we are forced to cut back on things that do cause difficulties and inconveniences for everyone. It's called survival! The bad times won't last forever.

Patrick added:

Just thought to add that Parking Lot and Facilities costumes are not available in any of the costuming locations you list. They have their own costuming location in the N-7 building (next to the service garage). Everyone always seems to miss that location.

Thomas offered:

Reading your article reminded me when Universal Studios- Hollywood opened their new "wardrobe," I think it was in 1995. Previously, employees just exchanged their uniforms one for one at the counter when they came to work or when they left. When the move was made to the new wardrobe, each employee was issued something like two or three uniforms and they were placed in a wardrobe bag like the ones you put suits in when you go on a plane.

To make things worse, this bag was now your locker. All the lockers were removed and employees were forced to live out of these bags. They were allowed to have locks, but what a mess. It seemed to me the lines got longer and bags and assigned uniforms were always getting lost.

As you said in your article, the old way worked fine for over three decades. I feel the same was true at USH. It was fine that they moved to a new building, but they didn't have to introduce technology into this section of the business.

Finally, two leads responded to criticisms by readers that they should have been grateful for their recent low-budget appreciation event ("Leftovers For Leads").

A DCA lead wrote:

I was just reading the responses about the recent lead event. I think the leads were complaining about the lack of thanks this event seemed to show for us. Believe me any recognition of our hard work is great. Most of the opening crew trainers were also leads. You do not know how hard we worked to get an unready park open in time.

I remember training three to four people from 5 a.m. till 1:30 p.m. and then working until 11 p.m. that night cycling and testing a ride. We all put in many 16-18 hour shifts and worked 6-7 straight days. Some of the trainers even had double training shifts. Try training over the course of an 18 hour day. It gets draining by the end of the night.

About a week before the soft opening on January 6, there were maybe 10 people who were signed off to work Screamin'. We all joked around how the one well qualified trainer would have to spend the last week working double training shifts all seven days. The sad part is that it came close to happening.

The first two soft openings the same crew opened and closed the park. That's because we didn't have enough cast members. Then throw in the fact that we also had CDS to deal with. Basically we were given the sheet and told to have it. No one knew how it worked. It took about a month to figure it out.

Then once we opened all the leads worked their butts off to make something of this fiasco. Many sacrificed school for the semester. Either not going or dropping out to work 40 and up hour weeks. It is not an easy task to work full time and go to school full time.

Lastly we had to deal with the insane budgets put on us and the many, many, many open shifts because of a lack of cast members. All I have to say is that many wonder how we pulled off operating those rides understaffed with tired cast members who were on overtime or a sixth day.

We just felt that for all the hard work such as 18 hour days and sacrificing school and social life, we felt under-appreciated at this event. Not much was done to show that they appreciated what we did to get DCA open. Thanks!

A Disneyland lead added:

I was reading some of the latest mail form your Mailbag today. I just wanted to respond to some readers thoughts that the Disneyland Resort leads that responded negatively to the "lead event" were ungrateful. If there had never been a lead event at all, we wouldn't be upset. We didn't expect anything from management for our hard summer's work, we never got anything before. The point was that they tried to show us appreciation and ended up showing us the company's unwillingness to truly thank us for doing management's job for sad hourly wages. We were insulted by their show of "lack of budget."

We don't blame management. We know that this was not their idea, and they had no more control over it than they do over layoffs. It's the company that we're rolling our eyes at. Old-timers told us of past annual lead events held at the Disneyland Hotel ballroom (one shown above). Leads were invited by invitation only, given drink coupons for a bar, and served a lavish dinner and dessert. They were given a chance to win a raffle for expensive prizes such as televisions and VCR's, and everyone in attendance received a gift.

We know that the company is capable of better, but unwilling to follow through. As for those that said they don't understand why we expect Disney to treat us better than other struggling companies out there, I say: it's Disney, they promised us better. We are expected to have a higher work ethic and treat our guests better than any company in the country, we deserve a little more. We have to put up with so much crap from the public and the company, and we have to wear a smile through all of it.

Last words? If you've never been a lead for Disney or even a cast member, stuff your opinion, you don't know what you're talking about.


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.

You can contact David here.


Click here to go to David's main page for a list of archived articles.

Visit MouseShoppe to purchase copies of David's books. (Clicking on the link opens a new window.)


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