You've Got Character

by Adrienne Krock, staff writer

The Disney Parks are filled with opportunities to meet our favorite “Celebrities” in real life!! The parks offer designated character meeting locations, “spontaneous” opportunities in the parks and character dining meals, along with cast members to help take pictures with our own cameras and/or PhotoPass photographers. With so many choices we asked the Parenting Panel: What are your best strategies for visiting characters in the parks?

Chris, also known as GusMan, is always planning his next family trip to Walt Disney World and loves to help others plan their trips as well through sharing his experiences. Chris writes:

When it comes to visiting a Disney park, many people focus their planning around dining, attractions, and lodging. However, while I think it would be hard to forget to see Mickey and Minnie while at the parks, during my first trips I recall saying “Look! There’s Goofy!” Or “There’s Lilo and Stitch!” Those exclamations usually ended up with us in line, waiting for a picture and autograph. And I have to admit, there were times where we stood in line for characters and I didn’t even know their names!

What’s nice about meeting characters at WDW is that there always seems to be multiple chances to see the same characters every day. Not to mention that certain characters can be seen at each of the different parks. The fun part to that option is that the characters’ costumes tend to share the theme of the park itself. But that also means that if you or your kids really like to get pictures with the characters, you are in for additional lines. (I lost count as to how many different outfits Mickey wears.)

I think when it comes to meeting characters, this is where some discussion with the family is time well spent. Because there are so many places to meet characters, not to mention all the different characters along the different paths, it is almost a planning point in and of itself. Some things to think about and/or discuss include:

  • Are there any special characters that your children have their hearts set on meeting or getting their autograph? Know in advance who the “must see” characters are.
  • Are you willing to sacrifice times enjoying attractions and hunt down your favorite character? I think this helps understand priorities and sets expectations between parents and children.
  • Are the characters you want to meet even available for meet-and-greets? Some characters are hard to find or may not be around all the time. (Do you know how many trips it took to finally find Daisy so my daughter can get a picture with her?) The feedback you get may start its own need for research so you know where to go to find that special character.
  • Are you willing to spend time and money enjoying a character meal if it means a guaranteed time to meet that special character? (More on that in a moment.)

For my daughter, meeting the characters was a quest. She wanted to get as many autographs and pictures as possible. We would ask cast members the best way to meet different characters in different parks and would almost plan our day around that. (Wish I had some of the phone apps of today back then.) However, once she accomplished that goal over the course of a few trips, she was on to new things. At the same time, my son really does not have the desire to wait in line for a autograph or picture. In essence, desires change and priorities can be different between family members. Sometimes, you may have to adapt to those differences.

Character meals are a great way to meet characters, and enjoy a meal at the same time. Some of our best character interactions were at places like Chef Mickey’s at Disney's Contemporary Resort or Cape May Cafe at Disney's Beach Club Resort. Sometimes the interaction seems to be more relaxed, and personalized, depending on the eatery, which may contribute to a better experience. When we first started touring, we hit nearly every character meal that we could find just so we would not have to hunt characters at the parks. The problem is that the cost of doing so adds up. While you may get to experience the characters this way easily, it’s somewhat hard to justify the overall cost.

Consider the “designated” meeting spots, such as the Character Spot at Epcot. It is really nice to have a dedicated, air-conditioned area where guests can meet with characters all day long. Sure, you may have to wait in line for a bit, but at least it also acts as place to cool off. Also, if you are a Disney Visa cardholder, there is a character meet at Innoventions West at Epcot, as well. This is a relaxed meet with random characters just for cardholders. There is also a PhotoPass photographer there as well. In addition, you get a free 5-by-7 of one of your pictures. Between the two areas, you can many of your character visits out of the way in one park, which can save a lot of time.

To this day, I love walking underneath the train tracks only to be greeted by different characters lined up around the beginning of Main Street. It puts a smile on my face and it reminds me where I am. We may not stop and see all the characters all the time, but as a big kid at heart, I still love saying hi to Mickey and his friends.

Mary Kraemer is an avid Disney fan and travel consultant with CruisingCo/MouseEarVacations who loves to travel with her husband and children to Disney destinations as often as possible! Mary shares:

My kids have been lucky enough to visit Disney parks several times a year for their entire lives. Our experience with characters has changed over time, from the time our kids were babies up to the present, in their early teens. They moved from the phases of Magical Believability (my favorite) to Suspension of Disbelief to Understanding There’s Really A Person Inside That Outfit. Even now, we all prefer the Suspension of Disbelief mode while we’re at a Disney park or on a Disney ship.

When my kids were very young, part of the magic of a Disneyland visit was seeing characters in real life, although they reacted to characters in different ways. My son liked seeing characters from afar but would hide or avoid a character up close. It didn’t matter whether it was a ‘"face" character (such as Cinderella or Aurora, where you can see the character’s human face) or a "rubberhead" character (such as Mickey or Tigger—where the head is part of the character’s costume). My girls, however, never had a fear of characters and, as a result, we have several years of Disney photos of the girls with characters, but not my son with the characters. Fortunately, he outgrew that phase and loved meeting characters as much as his sisters.

As preschoolers, my kids would start their day at Disneyland with a visit to see Ariel in Fantasyland (before that area became Pixie Hollow). This location was an early dedicated character "meet and greet" location. These type of locations have become fairly standard at Disneyland and help the guest-character interaction remain orderly.

Back then, meeting characters was more spontaneous (although we were known to hang out near the Baby Care Center because characters would enter/exit the park from backstage there, so we’d have a prime chance to say hello). One of my fondest park memories was a beautiful and charming Cinderella (is there any other kind?) who met my daughter in the morning, walked with her hand in hand toward the castle, and then remembered my daughter by name much later that same day as she stopped to chat and ask how my daughter had been enjoying her day. This kind of character interaction is completely magical to a little girl.

If your goal is to visit with as many characters as possible without standing in lines, then character meals are the right choice for you! Another part of the benefit of character meals is the opportunity to see characters not often seen in the parks. After my kids would rather go on rides than stand in line to meet characters, they still really enjoyed character meals.

My kids still like seeing characters because it adds to the wonderful atmosphere of being at Disneyland, Walt Disney World, or on the Disney Cruise Line. Usually we smile and wave, and occasionally enjoy getting a photo with a nearby character as a reminder of yet another happy Disney day.

Kim, her husband Scott, and two sons (11 and 16) live in Texas and have been frequent visitors to WDW since 1994. Kim and Scott are always planning “the next trip.” Kim shares:

One of the elements that make WDW stand out is the characters, and some of our favorite memories come from experiences with the characters. Taking a break from the heat, lines, and crowds to cool-off, eat, and enjoy family makes the character dining a win-win. Early dining reservations are a must, and remember to bring the autograph books and camera.

While we think that character dining is the way to go to meet characters, we also feel that stopping to get a photo and autograph from characters out in the parks is important to the over-all experience. Give yourself permission to skip or delay a ride and stand in line to meet and interact with the many different Disney characters – especially if the character is important to your kids. Stitch playfully knocking the hat off of my husband’s head is a happy memory. My mother-in-law once met Prince Charming underneath the castle and didn’t believe he was real! I still feel silly thinking about when I started pointing excitedly at Mary Poppins and saying over and over, “Look it’s Mary Poppins!” After all, I’m a fully grown woman.

My favorite memory of all is my 11-year-old son at Epcot in England coming across Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet, and Pooh. As my 4 year old saddled up to get the autograph, Tigger started play boxing with my older boy. Suddenly my “too hip for the road” preteen was hamming it up with the Hundred-Acre Wood characters. That picture hangs on my family room wall reminding me every day what Disney means to me. If you want to get one of us to laugh or smile all you have to do is mention the Contemporary Breakfast and Scott’s grandma with Mickey Mouse. All of us love the memory of his 80-year-old grandmother swinging her napkin over her head and grinning ear to ear as Mickey and Minnie came around to give her a squeeze. I love the picture of both my boys with Belle taken on our way in to eat at the Akershus restaurant breakfast at Epcot. Our kids love the parade of the Winnie the Pooh characters at the Crystal Palace.

We all endorse going to the character dining at WDW. The extra character time afforded by dining is well worth it, and the food is fantastic, as well. Interacting with the many Disney characters is an important part of all our trips. We are never too old to enjoy the magic of remembering what it is like to be a child and play. It’s why I can’t wait to take my next trip and I will have my autograph book tucked in my purse with a pen.

Monica is a mother of 3. She loves Disneyland and all the magic it brings to her family! Monica offers:

My family and I usually do the character dining at Disneyland. I like that a little better just because the characters come to you and there's no waiting in long lines. We can sit down, enjoy a meal and wait for them to come to our table. We get to meet about five to six princesses at Ariel's Grotto at Disney California Adventure, about five characters at Goofy's Kitchen at the Disneyland Hotel and about five to six at Minnie's Breakfast at Disneyland. Those are the only character dining places we've done so far. Just by doing that my daughter can fill up an autograph book and get pictures pretty fast. When we are on a budget we keep an eye out for characters. I think the best time to meet them is right when the parks open. The lines seem shorter because everyone is heading to the rides to get in line. Another way to meet the princesses is to go to the Fantasy Fair but get in line early for that. The one thing we can't miss is visiting Mickey's House. That is one line I will stand in with no complaints.

Sometimes if we get lucky and Walt's magic is on our side we might just run into a character. That has happened to us a few times. If you stand in line to meet a character make sure to ask a cast member how long they will be out. You can also ask the person in front of you how long they have been waiting. That is very important. You do not want to get close to the character then have them leave just as you get to the front.

MousePlanet columnist Chris Barry his wife Diane, 11-year-old Samantha, and twin 8-year-olds, Casey and Alex, live on Long Island and are all major Disney and Walt Disney World fans. Chris wraps us up well:

Let’s face it. For a while there it’s all about the characters, isn’t it? My daughter’s first trip when she was 4 was more about meeting her favorite characters than experiencing rides and attractions. We waited on many, many lines in every park for as many characters as she wanted. The joyous look in her eyes and her total belief that this was the actual Minnie Mouse or the real Mary Poppins was always worth the effort. Some of those character meets are our favorite memories. Our sons had the same experiences with characters. Meeting Buzz and Woody or Mickey and Goofy was of the utmost importance and we happily obliged them.

This continued for many years. Now at the ripe old age of 11, she’s not so interested in meeting them as she is just seeing them. The same goes for the 8-year-old twin boys. They seem to have given up on waiting on long lines to meet the Disney characters. If it’s easy and there’s no line, they’re still in. If the line is long and they’re hot, or they’re in the mood to get to an attraction, they’ll pass. They are, however, very into spotting them and seeing if they can spot ones that are unique or ones that they’ve never seen before, especially in parades or shows.

This doesn’t mean that we’ve given up on character meals. That’s a different story. Our favorite breakfast at Walt Disney World is The Crystal Palace at the Magic Kingdom. The food is great. It’s a beautiful room and meeting Pooh and his pals is still fun for everyone, the adult kids included. The kids still relish these moments with the characters, but now it’s on their terms. At a character meal, you’re comfortable, you’re sitting, it’s air-conditioned and most importantly, they come to you. We take plenty of pictures, get autographs and clown around with the characters. It’s still fun and I don’t see that ending anytime soon.

Our best tip for character meals is whenever possible book the latest reservation of a particular meal. For example, at The Crystal Palace, we always book breakfast as late as possible, around 10:30 a.m. or 10:45 a.m. We have a piece of fruit or some cereal in the room before we leave, get to the park at opening, enjoy just about all of Fantasyland and then head over to breakfast. The benefit here is they are on the cusp of lunch and the place is usually pretty empty. A near-empty room gives you much more time with the characters. We’ve never felt rushed either. There’s no long line of guests waiting to come in because it’s almost between meals. We’ve done this at the Cape May Cafe at the Beach Club, as well, and it’s always worked out for us.

As far as meeting characters in the parks, when the kids are a certain age, just expect it and go with it. It’s part of the experience. For the younger kids, it might just be the biggest part of the experience. Enjoy it while you can. It may fade. Although, this 42-year-old kid has made his children wait almost 30 minutes in a queue just so he could meet Sorcerer Mickey at the Studios, so maybe it’ll never fade.

It's your turn—keep the discussion flowing!

Visit the Parenting on the Parks section of our MousePad discussion board, and share your opinions about this topic (link), or send your suggestions via e-mail (link). Reader-submitted tips might be used in a future article, and you might be selected to participate in an upcoming panel discussion!