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Theme park cast member stories: The Mouse is always watching

By Robert Niles
Published: June 1, 2009 at 11:25 AM
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.

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.

Readers' Opinions

From 71.177.250.72 on June 1, 2009 at 11:52 AM
As a former "plain clothes" security cast member from Disneyland the story seems a little high handed for those days. Maybe a little nostalgic and embellished remembering details from so long ago. Our "friend" from WDW Security always told us at Disneyland they did not have as much need for plainclothes security in those days as their operation was much different was ours.

Even in our "glory" days there may have only been 4 to 5 plainclothes working at one time on the busiest days, let alone have one in each store.

Fun story, but from experience seems a bit far fetched.

From Robert Niles on June 1, 2009 at 12:06 PM
I always wondered how much the supervisor guy was telling me the truth, and how much he was giving me a line, trying to be impressive. FWIW, though, he did say they were just in the major stores, which were Emporium, Mickey's Mart and two others (Adventureland and Fantasyland, I think.)

But the first security guy really was right there as I walked around the corner. Whether that was omnipresence, or dumb luck, hey... I won't know. The speed with which he appeared deeply impressed me, as it completely freaked me out. That was the only contact I had with security during my time in merchandise.

Now, in my time with attractions, well... there are many security camera stories to be told in future weeks!

From Robert Niles on June 1, 2009 at 12:02 PM
And I was stretching the truth about the 500 forms. It was 30, tops. ;-)
From Will Chilcote on June 1, 2009 at 12:29 PM
Wow, its shocking that Disney would even let it go as far as letting you take the bill. I have a vast amount of retail experience and I have never worked any where that would even let you take a fake bill. Every where I have ever worked, the cashier would refuse the bill and ask for another form of payment. If there was a problem either security or a manager was called and the company policy was explained to the guest.
From TH Creative on June 1, 2009 at 2:27 PM
When I was 19 years old, I was recruited to work in THE BEST JOB at Walt Disney World. And no Mr. Rao, it was not Jungle Cruise Skipper.

Blessed with a youthful appearance and boyish good-looks (hey, check out the profile pic gang!) on three occasions, for one week periods, I worked in internal security as a Walt Disney World shopper.

(From this point on try and read this post as if it were written by Raymond Chandler).

I was working the seven to three on the river, when one of the stiffs (leads) on the dock sent me upstairs to bring some paperwork to the suits (supervisors). It was early in the afternoon and I jumped at the chance to get out of the Florida heat and into the AC. Like a good boy I traveled up to MO-7 (the main offices for Main Street/Adventureland Operations). I walked into the supervisor’s office. It was a large room used by several of these neck-tied chimps. There was Doug, Rob and a dame that I didn't recognize. Rob introduced me "This is one of our new Magic Kingdom College Program Students. Sez his name is 'Tim.'"

"Tim, eh?"

"Some people call me Tim."

"Well I'm Mary," she said sticking out a hand. "I'm your area manager."

"Pleased to meet you."

"So tell me, Tim: Do you drink?"

I was a college student and at the time the drinking age in Florida was 19. If I had wanted to be honest I would have responded "only when I am awake," but the fact she was my boss caused me to reign it in a bit. "Yeah. I drink socially."

Mary smiled, "Well I might have a little job for you, Tim."

Rob caught my eye, "You have no idea how lucky you are."

A few weeks later I was scheduled to report to Internal Security. When I arrived I was introduced to my boss, an older, rubber-faced mook by the name of Joe. Joe was friendly enough. He had come to Disney by way of the Philadelphia PD. His old job (and I swear this part is true): Homicide. "I like working for Disney.,” he told me. “It's nicer dealing with people who are still alive." A few moments later Little Miss Sunshine entered the picture. Cute, short and blonde, I was told by Joe that she would be my partner. My mood brightened -- right up until I saw the hand candy riding her left ring finger.

We sat in a small conference room where Joe laid out the job. Besides the Magic Kingdom, Disney was operating hotels, restaurants, the new EPCOT Park, a speakeasy and a bootleg whiskey operation out of the Canadian Showcase ... sorry .. I got carried away.

Anyway, beyond the gates of the Magic Kingdom Mickey was slinging hooch. Blondie and I were assigned to visit the bars, order a drink, toss it back, pay for the drink and then come outside and report whether or not the server had checked our IDs.

Both the skirt and I sat back in our chairs. "I don't want to get anyone fired," she said.

Joe shook his head and waved his hands. "No, no. They can't get fired. You two are both 19. It's legal to sell you alcohol. This program works because it seems every time a bartender or server gets a warning they never let a younger looking guest slip by them again. What we're doing is preventing any kid who is actually underage from getting his hands on a cocktail. And we can't send underage kids in to order drinks, because we would be accused of dressing them up or making them up to look older."

I nodded at the girl. "I'm in!"

So for the next five days Pepper Anderson and me romped around WDW getting liquored up. And (like I said) it was the best Disney job EVER! Disney paid for the booze. And they paid me by the hour to do the "work."

They had to keep food in our stomachs or we would have been completely schwacked in under three hours. Disney paid for the food. During the three times I worked in the program over a year I ate at virtually all of the restaurants on the property. During my second stint, I got eight hours OVERTIME to attend one of the Sunday champagne brunches.

While my blonde partner only stayed for the first tour of duty, on my second and third time around I worked with three other cast members -- another guy and two girls. We'd split up, mix and match. I remember Joe and his partner laughing as they watched us in Captain Jack’s Oyster Bar, when me and the other guy came in and sat down for a beer. Then the girls came in and we started chatting them up. ("Where are you from?" "Really?!" "We're down here on vacation too!" “We should hang out together!”)

At the end of the workday you filled out some reports. Everyone in the security office knew what our assignment had been. So they were always goofing on us ("How many fingers am I holding up?" "Walk this straight line.")

But, bringing this around to the original topic of the thread, it was on a busy December afternoon, after I did my last turn as a shopper, that I was in the Magic Kingdom. It was after Christmas and the park was crowded with people who wanted to see the Holiday Parade. While walking along Main Street I spotted Joe. I walked over, shook his hand and wished him a Happy New Year. As I moved on out of the corner I've my eye I spotted another plainclothes internal security officer that I had met from the job and not too far down the street I saw a third.

I chuckled to myself. Took a final drag off my cigarette, tightened my trench coat's belt, and glided away into the fog .... crowd ... not "fog," I meant "crowd … and it was a denim jacket … and I had a mullet …

From Pyra Dong on June 1, 2009 at 6:00 PM
TH, I had a great time reading your story.
Sigh, besides thinking that being an undercover ID checker would be the perfect job for me-- people are always suspicious of me when i buy alcohol b/c I'm a petite Asian who drastically changed her looks since her driver's pic was taken-- I've always had a small dream of being a plain clothes security. What experience do you need with that?
Grr, on the other hand, with my appearance, maybe no one will take me seriously.
From Eric Malone on June 1, 2009 at 8:22 PM
I don't drink much, but hey, I'd take that job in a heartbeat. Never a bad time to start if they're gonna pay me to do it.

Anyway, can't say I've had many run-ins with security as a visitor to the parks, but I'm willing to bet they tighten security up something fierce for Grad Nights, because I saw a lot of people at Grad Night that didn't look like a teacher, chaperon or a cast member.

From James Rao on June 2, 2009 at 3:10 AM
Excellent tales, Robert and TH. I would add that combining TH's booze slinging job with the bad pun slinging job of a Jungle Cruise skipper might enhance the Cruise just a tad!

But then, I am sure both of you have a story or two you will never tell along those lines....

From TH Creative on June 2, 2009 at 3:19 AM
I'm also wondering about the "plain clothes" (anonymous) poster at the top of the thread. I am guessing he was a so-called "Fox" -- a guy who stood around retail store watching for shoplifters and cast members that short change guests.
From Anthony Murphy on June 2, 2009 at 7:52 AM
Suprised they let you take your eyes off the person with the fake bill. I know you didn't want too! At the Disney Store, we need to literally watch a person from beginning to end to minimize "shrinkage". In a somewhat related story, the video about shrinkage they used to show us to train was to the music of Fantasmic in which "guests" would swipe things off the shelves when the fireworks in the show would be going off!
From Raymond Sydowski on June 2, 2009 at 9:24 AM
I remember walking into the front of the Animal Kingdom in the morning and playing "Spot the Property Control Officer".

Keep an eye out and you'll be able to spot them if you're sharp enough. I don't want to give anything away and make their jobs harder, but once you spot one, you'll know what to look for.

I worked at a bank in Orlando, and the VP of Bank Security was once one of the head honchos over at the Animal Kingdom Park. He said certain large tour groups could be a nightmare. They called them "Olympic Shoplifting Teams". Kids would descend en masse into a store, take a few things and then scatter...

From 66.215.73.207 on June 2, 2009 at 5:33 PM
I always have fun looking for undercover security and other plainclothes position. Anytime I see Push (the talking, moving trashcan) I have a little challenge to see how quickly I can spot the CM. I also try to spot undercover Crown Vics and Chargers on the freeway, etc. Once you know what to look for, its pretty easy and very entertaining.
From Joshua Counsil on June 3, 2009 at 10:47 AM
Great stories.

TH, that sounds like the world's greatest job. I would absolutely love to have that job. Drinking in Disney and getting paid to do it. Amazing.

From 71.177.250.72 on June 3, 2009 at 1:08 PM
RE: TH Creative Comments

Yes I was a "Fox" officer amongst other duties in Security. It was not as glamorous as one might think but it was a fun job non the less.

Disney's SOP for counterfeit money was and still is to accept the money as real. Get a description to security and try to keep am eye on person passing the money if possible. Most of the time if was bad luck on the part of the person passing the bill; they had received it as change themselves or even from a bank which happen to me once. A few times it was on purpose and we would get multiple calls from different locations with the same descriptions.

As far as being able to "bring someone in" for shoplifting, the "rules of engagement" were very strict. No one is just waiting at the exit gates and accosting guests for shoplifting. IF someone was brought to Security, you can bet a very strict "chain of observation/evidence" was adhered too. There are always exceptions but they are not the norm. If I brought you in, you were caught red handed and I had all my ducks in a row. I NEVER had a case overturned.

From 72.243.43.210 on June 5, 2009 at 11:47 AM
Stop bashing the storytellers. Who cares if every detail is spot on. The joy of stories and storytelling are the wee bits of embellishment that keep it interesting.
From 71.57.128.86 on June 8, 2009 at 11:36 AM
As a guest to EPCOT in the 80's I once saw a uniformed Disney security guard draw his revolver and enter a door in a wall near the Oddyssey restaurant. Since I was a teen I was more fascinated than afraid so I stood around the scene for 10 minutes or so but the guard never came out and no one else went in. I eventually got bored and left the area but I've always wondered what was going on.

[Editor's note: Disney's security doesn't pack. Sure that wasn't a Jungle skipper? ;-) ]

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