Will Talking Mickey change the way people react to theme park characters?

August 22, 2011, 12:13 PM · One of the highlights of last weekend's Disney D23 Expo in Anaheim was getting to see Talking Mickey in person for the first time.

Talking Mickey shared the stage with Disney Parks Chairman Tom Staggs during the Disney Parks presentation on Friday, then made appearances on the show floor on Saturday. Here's a look at Mickey's banter with Staggs:

Talking Mickey's certainly convincing, with mouth movement in synch with his speech and eye blinks that reinforce the illusion of liveliness. But adding speech to Mickey's repertoire fundamentally changes the way that this icon interacts with his audience.

Without speech, Mickey relies on elaborate pantomime to communicate. But if Mickey's to become a full-time talking character, he won't be able to move and gesticulate in exactly the same way. It'd be too much. A talking Mickey has to tone down his movements to avoid coming across as Manic Mouse instead.

In the presentation with Staggs, I though Mickey was trying to find a balance - reacting with mime while Staggs was talking, then calming his movements a touch when he spoke. After all, the current Talking Mickey isn't always taking. He uses speech as a change of pace, an attention-grabbing interlude to his physical communication.

I couldn't help comparing this Talking Mickey with the (silent) Mickey we met in Orlando last month. We visited the new Town Square meet and greet in the Magic Kingdom, where Mickey and Minnie greeted us in their green room. Minnie spied the "Happy Anniversary" buttons that my sister and her husband were wearing, and moved in. She grabbed my sister by the wrist of her left hand, then dragged her over to Mickey. (My sister willingly played along.) Minnie pulled my sister's left hand up toward Mickey's face, pointing to the diamond ring on my sister's finger. She seemed to glare at Mickey, tapping her foot in apparent frustration, as Mickey shrank, took two steps back and shrugged his shoulders.

It was brilliant mime acting. And completely hilarious.

But how does that scene play with Mickey being able to speak?

Obviously, it wouldn't be fair to have a talking Mickey appear with a non-talking Minnie, or other characters who aren't officially mute. We'd lose the fun of such scenes if Mickey were greeting us alone. But if Mickey and Minnie both could speak, how would the meeting have changed? Would the characters have been as physically engaged with us? If they'd tried, would we have let them?

Would little children find a talking Disney character more intimidating, and potentially frightening, or less?

I don't know. All I know is that speech changes the social dynamic between a theme park character and the guests he's meeting. I'd love to hear what you think about this, and especially to hear from anyone who has played a character in a theme park. I think it's fascinating to think about how guests (especially little kids) will change their reactions in response to a talking theme park character.

Your thoughts?

Replies (17)

August 22, 2011 at 12:39 PM · It will require a different kind of actor inside, one who is able to think fast and respond appropriately verbally, not just physically. Some kids are going to say "the darndest things" and Mickey will need to be able to react quickly. I suspect that kids will want to spend more time with him, since he can actually talk to them and not just mime. His handlers will need to keep the line moving and keep the meet and greet from becoming an "audience" with The Mouse.
August 22, 2011 at 12:47 PM · What I find absolutely magical about the silent Mickey is that he (and all of the other silent characters) can communicate to anyone via mime... no worries at all about the language barrier! Young, old, English-speaking or non-English-speaking, never a problem. I realize some guests may have had issues with a non-speaking Mickey, but I, for one, love him that way.
August 22, 2011 at 1:33 PM · Very interesting. I had no idea something like this was in the works. I was pretty impressed watching the video, but have mixed feelings about the situation. As one of the other comments noted, mime is a more of a "universal language" so non-English speaking guests at Disney can also enjoy encounters with characters. IMO, a recent application of new technology was well untilized in the Monsters inc. attraction at MK and Turtle Talk at Epcot.

On a related (or unrelated) note, I thought of the mime at Seaworld who does his routine before each of the Clyde and Seymore shows. Very funny and well-done entertainment. In our current age of technological wonders, we can still find enjoyment in simpler and time-honored art forms.

August 22, 2011 at 1:59 PM · I agree with you that Mickey needs to tone down the manic energy just a bit to make the talking seem a little more natural...

But what they really need to work on was that Tom Staggs character.....he just didn't seem very lifelike to me....

August 22, 2011 at 5:56 PM · A very nice effort by Mr. Niles. An equally enjoyable effort from James Koehl, Sandy MacGowan, Jeff Elliott and ESPECIALLY Ed Newman -- who had the insight to remind us of the performers working the preshow at Sea World's Clyde and Seymore production.

Indeed, Mr. Newman beat me to the punch. Mr. Niles' offering made me think of the great Marcel Marceau. I'm somewhat self-conscious about offering praise to Monsieur Marceau. While working on 'Men In Black: Alien Attack' I'd heard the design team wanted to include a mime in the "zap-every-alien-who-moves" attraction. Not because the mime was supposed to be an alien, but rather because the fiedish creative types desired to learn how many people just wanted to shoot a mime.

But this topic is somewhat timeless. Remember the plot from 'Singing in the Rain?' Where a movie studio struggles with the challenges of ushering a valuable starlet from silent films to "talkies?"

Would Chaplin have ever become Chaplin had he spoken in 'The Kid' or 'City Lights?' Would a talking Harpo had upset the balance and chemistry of the Marx brothers -- reducing the rich and anarchic nature of their performance?

I know so many people who work in the entertainment department at Walt Disney World. And at every opportunity I remind them that what they do every day is every bit as big as broadway.

When I offered that opinion to a friend who does not work at Disney, he responded, "No, it's bigger."

I read somewhere that Disney is being very cautious about introducing talking characters to the parks. And I am condfident enough in the company to believe it won't pull the trigger until it is absolutely certain it would produce a positive experience for the guests. Espcecially since there has been no request by park patrons to add speech. This is Disney's own initiative. Their own choice.

What's more in a Youtube/camera phone world, caution should be the basis of any approach.

August 22, 2011 at 4:24 PM · It would be interesting to see how different meeting the character would be compared to the current Mickey. I noticed that the Magic Kingdom used the "talking Mickey" in the opening of the park show. The actor still moved around as usual, but I think it worked due to the guests being far enough away that it wasn't overpowering.

If people, especially children, were meeting Mickey with the moving mouth and eyes, I'm sure a few would be slightly "put off" more so than now.

Its a balancing act that Disney will need to thoroughly test to get perfect, but it is a nice addition, although I agree it would need to be part of every character meet and greet to make it work.

August 22, 2011 at 4:33 PM · I suspect that the interactions with Mickey will be similar to what folks have with Princesses & Fairies now. They'll still be popular and fun, just different. I don't see a talking Mickey being any more frightening to kids. The little ones frightened by mute costumed characters are just as frightened by talking princesses (or Mickey)up close.
August 22, 2011 at 4:36 PM · If Mickey starts talking with guests, he will say that he is underpaid and doesn't have dental coverage.
August 22, 2011 at 4:52 PM · How is talking Mickey any different a social dynamic than a talking face character? (Mary Poppins, Bert, princesses, Mad Hatter, Alice, Peter Pan, etc). It is a natural evolution and I welcome when all walking characters talk with guests as they do in their movies.
August 22, 2011 at 6:33 PM · "The talking Mickey is the real Mickey". Words spoken by my 5 year old daughter during a recent visit to WDW. We visited Mickey at his home & after leaving she said, that's not the real Mickey. When asked why she said he doesn't talk or move his mouth. She went on to further explain that the real Mickey was at the show on the castle fore court, because... "the talking Mickey is the real Mickey"!
August 22, 2011 at 6:35 PM · The new talking Mickey is very convincing. Disney has been successful in meddling in the Mickey Mouse design before when they introduced C-G Mickey that I still find pretty abominable. However, my 18-month old son, who loves the C-G animated Mickey Mouse Clubhouse did recognize the traditionally hand-animated mouse in an instant, so they must have done something right.

The only problem I foresee is that every Mickey now needs to be a talking Mickey. Kids that are initially introduced to this new character will need to be spoken to in future meet-and-greets, so Disney has to go all in with this new character for it to really work.

August 22, 2011 at 7:08 PM · The idea of talking characters looks and sounds SO promising. But I do agree Mickey can't be the only one that can talk. Maybe the more well-known characters (Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald, Daisy, Chip & Dale) can have speaking abilities. The "different kind of actor" can take on these roles while those that specialize in pantomime can take the roles of the other characters.

If Disney can make this possible, I think its only fair to give the speaking ability to other characters from non-Disney amusement parks, even beyond that to sports teams, TV shows and live theater. The possibilities are endless.
But what I really want to know is how the technology behind talking characters actually works.

If it's done the right way, I don't think the experience will be scary for children. If the characters talk in the right tone and know how to deal with children and other people, it will work out just fine.

August 22, 2011 at 7:29 PM · Having worked with costumed characters for the last 18 years, I'm not at all sure how I feel about this.. I was impressed with the technology when it was first introduced, but the more and more I thought about it, the more it worried me. As someone else said, if they did this, it would have to be EVERY Mickey that talked. But what happens when the Mickey at Magic Kingdom doesn't know that just yesterday Animal Kingdom Mickey asked you if your favorite food was chicken nuggets? I am intrigued and excited to see how else Disney will use this technology, but I am frightened that we will be doing more harm than good on all the children experiencing it.. (this doesn't apply to the Disney Princesses, or Turtle Talk, because how often do you revisit those specific areas, and in the case of the Princesses it is often the same people Mickey is EVERYWHERE..)

as for the specific video.. not sure the actor quite understood the character, the movements didn't really say Mickey to me..

(and yes, this may very well be the ONLY time I will refer to a costumed character as such.. they are REAL!)

August 22, 2011 at 8:09 PM · If Mickey were to come up and talk to me, this 25 year old would feel like a kid again.
August 22, 2011 at 8:17 PM · My kids always wondered why Mickey never talks. I welcome this
August 27, 2011 at 12:34 PM · When I went to Disneyland at age 5 I saw Winnie the Pooh. He scared the CRAP out of me, because his nose moved. I can still remember being scared of the wiggling nosed Pooh Bear. I don't know about talking Mickey. Part of the joy was always the silent Mickey who waves & hugs you. Kids will want to have a full on conversation with talking Mickey, like with the princesses. But if Mickey talks, they all have to talk or you will have parents scrambling to explain why Mickey talked to them but not Donald.
August 28, 2011 at 8:38 AM · Has anyone seen Dream Along with Mickey at the Magic Kingdom recently? When I said talking characters should should be applied to "well-known" characters other than Mickey, looks like that's becoming a reality...


Though I think the character dialogue was probably pre-recorded, this proves that there may be more talking characters on the way.

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