Theme park cast member stories: The Mouse is always watching
Written by Robert Niles
Every Monday (Tuesdays in holiday weeks), Theme Park Insider editor Robert Niles shares one of his stories from working as a cast member at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. If you have ever worked at a theme park and have a story you'd like to share in this weekly feature, e-mail Robert.Tweet
My first summer at Disney World, I worked merchandise in Tomorrowland. As a merchandise host, I didn't move around to various shifts and locations the way I would in later years when I worked attractions. Every evening, I pulled the same shift - 5:30 pm to 1:30 am, closing register at what was then known as Mickey's Mart. (It's Mickey's Star Traders now, I believe.)
You'd think that working in "Tomorrowland," Disney's stores would have employed the latest retail technology.
Yeah, and over in Frontierland, they had real cowboys and Indians working the rides.
Nope, in the summer of 1987, while mall stores had new-fangled things like magnetic stripe readers to charge credit cards, we were still processing cards with manual carbon imprints. To see if a card was valid, we had to look for the number in a printed booklet of lost and fraudulent cards.
And we thought we had it lucky. In the other stores in Tomorrowland, checkers were still using old manual cash registers, ones that did not have electronic displays, but little metal pop-up digits. To compute the sales tax, you had to read the "fine print" numbers on the bottom of each digit, add them across in your head, and then add that amount to the register's total.
Tomorrowland? Try Hooterville.
If Disney hadn't yet coughed up the dough for modern cash registers, it did not skimp on one other important component of retail - security. I discovered that one evening when a guest tried to pay for his kids' souvenirs with a fake $50 bill.
They guy's kids probably could have drawn a better fake. This was, literally, a two-sided photocopy of a $50 bill. In black and white. The guest was Brazilian, and didn't speak a word of English; he'd likely never seen a real US$50 bill before and didn't know better.
SOP [standard operation procedure] when accepting a bill of $50 or larger was to show it under the counter to the checker next to you, to confirm the bill wasn't a fake. With a lame attempt at ESP, I hiked my eyebrows as I held out the fake to my co-worker, who dropped under the counter as if he'd been shot when he saw it. He waved his hands and shook his head so hard I thought I soon would be having to call a medical unit as well as security. I mouthed "I know" as he got back to his feet, excused himself to his customer and dialed the lead's office on the phone next to his register.
With the speed of retiree driving a K-Car on I-4, I made change for my customer, trying to stall while my co-worker made the call. Seconds later, he told me to finish the sale and close up for an immediate "break."
I tried to keep my eye on the customer as I walked around the counter, toward the lead's office. But before I could walk five steps, a large man in sunglasses grabbed me by the shoulder.
"Come with me," he said, as I broke eye contact and lost sight of Mr. McFakebucks.
The man pulled a walkie-talkie from his pants pocket and muttered, "I'm with the checker."
Sixty seconds hadn't passed from the moment McFakebucks passed me the bill and Disney's plainclothes security already was on the scene. He told me to take off my nametag and walk with him around the area while we looked for McFakebucks and his family.
Three minutes later, I found them, standing under the Astro Orbiter platform, in his red baseball cap and holding his crisp new Disney shopping bag. Security guy muttered something else into his walkie-talkie, then grabbed me again by the shoulder, pulling me away. As I looked back over my shoulder, I saw two more Disney plainclothes security guys converging on the McFakebuck family.
Thirty minutes and about 500 forms later, I next saw the McFacebucks in a small conference room in the tunnels under Main Street, when another security supervisor walked me by to ID the suspect. Mrs. McFakebucks saw me, pointed, and called out what sounded like "the man from the store" in what was probably Portuguese but sounded close enough to Spanish for me to get the gist. The supervisor hustled me away.
He then explained that Mr. McFakebucks was a journalist from Brasilia, who'd bought the fake money in a marketplace in Brazil, thinking he was getting real American bills. He was as much a victim as Disney, which was letting him go. The fake money would go to the Secret Service, along with whatever information McFakebucks could give about where he'd bought the phony cash.
"Hey, this happens every day here," the supervisor told me, pointing at a locker filled with fake cash, awaiting delivery to the Secret Service.
So how was the security guy able to get to me so fast?
"When your lead called it in, we radioed the undercover in the area," the supervisor explained. "We always have a plainclothes agent in every major store in the park."
So there you go. Wherever you go at Disney, Mickey's always watching you. Don't mess with the Mouse.
Former and current theme park employees, please share your favorite security-related stories, in the comments.
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Stories from a Theme Park Insider offers a warm and often-funny look at what it's like to work inside the world's most popular theme park. It's a great read for theme park fans!