Collaredby David Koenig, contributing writer
Disneyland's furry "friends of Mickey" are up in arms about a major change to the department slated to be formalized within the coming months.
Although Disney denies the report, the park's atmosphere characters, once known as "walkarounds," are reportedly about to be prohibited from walking around. Instead, every character will be confined to a precise location, making it easier for a Disney's PhotoPass photographer to capture the marketable moment on camera.
Certainly, Disney parks have been impeding the character's freedom and mobility for, literally, decades. But it originated from more noble motives. Through the 1980s, the top guest complaint was that visitors couldn't find Mickey or their other favorite character. And that, even if they could find the mouse, he was mobbed with fans and difficult to reach. So the parks began restricting Mickey and a few other favorites to certain spots, like the northeast corner of Town Square, and setting up increasingly organized queues to meet him. Those evolved into permanent meet-and-greet stations, such as Mickey's Movie Barn in Toontown.
Organization, however, had its price. Lost was the excitement of, while walking through the park, unexpectedly coming across a favorite character. And the interactions themselves became more perfunctory; the characters were no longer your huggable pals, but now celebrities—roped off and busily scribbling an autograph for the next in line. You still had walkarounds, but they were fewer.
But the biggest changes started in late 2009, after Disneyland merged its PhotoPass and Entertainment departments. Management held a department-wide meeting in August 2009 to announce the merger and gush over all the opportunities there would be for the two divisions to work together even more closely. The cast members quickly put two and two together.
As one employee told me just after the meeting, "The motivation is money. Characters + Photopass = Money. What is now being discussed by their upper management is the elimination of the 'atmosphere characters.' Those are the characters that guests can see roaming the park. That means, if management gets their wish, the only way you can see a character is at a PhotoPass location like Pixie Hollow or at a restaurant like Goofy's Kitchen."
As another character commented, "It wasn't so much a merging, as PhotoPass more or less swallowed Entertainment and now has considerable control over that department. PhotoPass's primary concern is profit via the photo packages sold online and on Main Street. All they want characters to do is stay in one place, sign autograph books, and have photos taken by the PhotoPass cast members."
Since then, the number of walkaround characters has been drastically reduced. Nowadays, the only true roaming characters are Peter Pan and Snow White's Evil Queen in Fantasyland—and they usually appear on alternating days. There are a few others, but they're restricted to a general area, such as the Mad Hatter and Alice meandering around the Mad Tea Party.
In addition, the character continued, management's "desire for profit led to a recent ban that chipped some of the magic away from the park. You used to see characters on the open-air attractions from time to time. Hatter/Alice rode Storybook [Land Canal Boats] almost daily, and Mary Poppins was often seen riding Jingles (the lead horse on the King Arthur Carrousel) side-saddle as only a proper lady should. This created a unique moment of undiluted Disney magic for the families who experienced the attraction with them. Nothing could surpass watching your star-eyed little girl riding alongside Ms. Poppins on the carousel! The interaction between characters and children has always been the heartbeat of the park, the quintessential Disney moment. Obstructing that is nothing short of a crime.
"Well, you no longer see characters on the attractions, because the PhotoPass superiors have banned it. Their reason is simple: the 12 minutes that Mary Poppins spends on Jingles with delighted kids riding alongside could be spent gaining profit via PhotoPass. That's 12 minutes of missed (possible) photo sales. Oh no! Can't have that! The same goes for any character who 'wastes time' on an attraction. So, yes, PhotoPass enacted a policy that bans characters from wasting profitable photo time to make a special memory for a few lucky guests."
"That was heartbreaking enough for all concerned (save PhotoPass managers, I suppose), but it's about to get worse. PhotoPass management has set their sights on all character interactions that do not have the characters stand around and take photos with a PhotoPass photographer handy. Musical chairs and charades with Hatter and Alice, storytime with the princesses, those lovely impromtu games of tag and duck-duck-goose—everything is set to be banned by PhotoPass management by the time the new Soundsational parade debuts. It's possible that they'll even go after the minor shows that involve characters outside of the parade and Fantasmic! PhotoPass wants characters who will do little more than stand in one place for photos, and they are well on their way to reaching that goal."
He said the majority of the character department is "disgusted, but mostly powerless" and predicts that "if this second ban becomes a reality, one can fully expect to see a very large portion of the hourly department cast members quit their jobs. PhotoPass knows this and does not care, because character cast members are 'as replaceable as Dixie cups.'"
Another character has resigned herself to the inevitable. She suspects the only ones who are upset are those who will be personally impacted—the handful of characters who love to roam around, but will now be restricted to a set location, under the watchful eye of a cameraman. She's equally confident, she says, that "nothing will change with princess storytime at Princess Fantasy Faire. They are in a controlled environment, which management loves."
Personally, I disagree. I think me, my children, and thousands of other guests will also be personally impacted. Remaining opportunities to interact with characters personally and casually in a non-staged environment are precious few. Disneyland needs its guests to be able to share an adventure with the characters—not just to pose with them
So I'd suggest that if you, dear reader, have previously enjoyed or in the near future find yourself enjoying an spontaneous, unforgettable experience with a walkaround character, let management know about it. Your voices are the reason why Jack Skellington and Sally continue to make annual appearances by the fountain in New Orleans Square.
The characters may have to take this change sitting down. We don't.
[Editor's note: This article was revised January 24, 2011 to include Disney's denial in the second paragraph, and a correction from the Queen of Hearts to Snow White's Evil Queen in the eighth.]