On the whole White Rabbit/Black family thing...

February 8, 2013, 1:53 PM · Another controversy has unfolded in “The Happiest Place on Earth.” A San Diego family has accused the cast member playing the “Alice in Wonderland” White Rabbit of snubbing their black children in favor of white children in the Anaheim park. The family, who have filed a lawsuit against the company, also say they were offered VIP tickets and $500 in exchange for signing a confidentiality agreement after they complained to park management.

Jason and Annelia Black say the cast member acted as if he/she did not want to hug or touch their children, even turning his back to them to openly embrace a family of white children who approached. Apparently, the White Rabbit even “flicked” the children's hands away if they tried to touch him. Photos taken show the White Rabbit without his arms around the children.

The New York Daily News has all the details here.

It's a delicate situation to which we don't have all the facts, but it certainly invites discussion. It creates sensational headlines that seem like they might have been written as a fictional, ironic article for The Onion. The White Rabbit snubs a family whose actual last name is Black? That's mind-boggling in its own right.

How well can the cast members in costume actually see the children at their feet? Can some or any of the White Rabbit's behavior be written off as accidental/coincidental? We don't know the cast member here, and it isn't fair to judge his or her behavior without the all the facts, but clearly the Black family felt “horrible” at their treatment and that is certainly not how Disney wants its Guests to feel.

The other issue to contemplate is how Disney management handled the situation on the day of the event. Offering upset Guests freebies as compensation is standard practice, but asking them to sign a non-disclosure/confidentiality agreement in exchange for upgrades and cash back seems like it would look shady if things “didn't work out” and the situation landed in both the legal court and the court of public opinion. What do TPI readers think of this situation?

[Editor's note: Thanks to Rod for submitting the post. Follow me into the comments for my take. -- Robert]

Replies (10)

February 8, 2013 at 1:55 PM · A few thoughts:

First rule for meeting characters in the park is: Never initiate physical contact with a theme park character. Character performers in covered-head suits might have a limited field of vision, and sometimes have limited mobility and a somewhat precarious balance. Always let them initiate the contact. If they put up a hand, you can give them a high-five. If they extend a arm to one side, you can move in for a side-by-side pose. If they hold both arms to their side and motion you in, it's okay to hug.

But the character always gets to decide what physical contact to have. You have no idea what it's like in that suit. Some suits enable performers to get more active with guests than others do. Maybe the character performer just cramped up after stooping over for so many hugs with little kids, and has to just go with high-fives and stand-up poses for the remainder of his/her stint. Who knows?

Approach a character with a friendly attitude -- wearing a smile and greeting the character by name. Don't rush the character. Just step forward from the line when it's your turn and wait for the character to direct you to come closer. Even though the character can't talk back (the elusive "Talking Mickey" notwithstanding), don't be shy about verbal interaction. Every performer I've ever met loves grateful, friendly guests who know to stay in the character's field of vision and to respect the character's space.

That said, if you feel like you were treated badly or unfairly during any encounter with any cast or team member at a theme park, you have every right to complain. You should note the exact time of the incident, the exact location, and the name of the person about whom you wish to complain. Complaining about "the guy playing Mickey Mouse around 2 o'clock" won't help anyone. Different performers come and go playing the same character in the same location, often for just a few minutes at a time. A performer switch easily can explain widely different behavior by a character. Experience and physical health go a long way in how you play a character.

In my experience, theme parks take guest complaints seriously, and will follow up. Cast and team members do get fired as the result of verified complaints. Even if the guest's complaint turned out to be inaccurate, employees get reprimanded for failing to handle the situation in a way that would have prevented the guest from complaining. And even if an employee was completely not at fault in an incident, a park might still offer compensation to a guest who felt bad/angry/frustrated, simply because the park knows the cost of bad publicity from a frustrated customer and wants to prevent that.

Now, to the subject of lawsuits. Anyone has a right to sue over anything, and -- contrary to what you might have heard -- the court system generally does an excellent job of determining which suits have merit and which don't. If a case sounds fishy, the odds are overwhelming that a defendant's lawyers and a jury will feel the same way if that turns out to be the case. And if you want to ensure that the system works the right way, then be sure to show up for jury duty the next time you're called!

Theme parks are very good at math. They investigate claims and have a strong sense of what a court might find their liability to be. Even when they believe they won't be held liable at all, they know the costs associated with allowing the case to get to the point where a jury rejects the claim. So they do the math, and offer the would-be plaintiff a sum a bit less than the amount the company thinks it'd have to pay by going to court.

If the plaintiff was going to get nothing by going to the jury, hey, they get free money this way. But that still saves the company money over letting the case get to that point. So, in general, you've got two types of people who actually go to court -- (1) those whose claims are so solid that they are certain of winning and don't wish to be bound by a non-disclosure agreement in accepting a settlement, and (2) those who are so clueless as to believe that they're in group (1).

I find it frustrating in cases such as these that we hear about the suit being filed, but almost never hear the result, especially in cases involving people in group (2). They never want to tell anyone they lost, and the company doesn't want to remind anyone about an unpleasant incident. That leaves it to reporters to track the case to completion, and frankly, I've worked the courts beat before. Keeping track over cases over months and years in a pain in the rear, especially for relatively minor incidents such as feeling snubbed at a character meet and greet.

February 8, 2013 at 3:40 PM · I truly believe that this family felt like the costumed character either 1) turned their back on their children or 2) Seemed friendlier to another group of children.
I have 2 grown children that attended many theme parks when they were young, and I take my grandson to theme parks frequently. So this is just a possible theory: We have all caught the tail end of a costumed character show, while they were walking away with their "handler". Many kids, including my own, have run up to greet them as they are walking away from the meet & greet line. Sometimes they stop- and acknowledge your kids, and other times your kids run back- momentarily sad- because the character didn't see/greet them. I also understand the level of frustration with trying to show your kids the best time EVER..especially if it's a once in a lifetime trip.
I have worked as a costumed character- not for Disney Parks- but I played a dinosaur for 9 months. It was an insanely hot costume with a backpack/heavy battery,and a small fan inside. The suit inflated, so I had very little contact with things that were outside the costume. If a child waited in line, ran up to me & high fived or hugged...I could barely function. My handler made sure that I didn't step on anyone or fall (and yes- kids pulled my tail and ran up behind me & kicked me every once in a while). I was a 30 year old mom of two, so it was kind of odd to be struck by random kids, but I didn't feel a thing. The most important thing was to dance, put your arm around people & pose for pictures. I sure hope this incident at Disney was a misunderstanding. I have a feeling it was, but if it wasn't I am 100% sure that Disney Parks cares just as much about this family that they do about every other family. Like I said, if it's really true that the character was "friendly" with another group, it would make you feel slighted. But I also can imagine many different reasons that this incident could have happened.Especially if a chaotic scene of rushing children came toward the character.
February 8, 2013 at 6:11 PM · Since I wasn't there and didn't see what happened, it is hard to figure out. But the family is only looking for a public apology and the cast member to be terminated.

A second family just came forward with the same accusations.... perhaps Disney has some explaining to do. Get this.... their last name is White.


February 8, 2013 at 6:56 PM · And the second complaint is about Donald Duck (and that character happens to be the same color of the rabbit) Although it said the original complaint only listed a child being ignored.

That said, if more claims arise (whether legit or not), I expect Disney will act very soon....

February 8, 2013 at 10:26 PM · I guess the story is possible. But seriously, is it probable that there is a character actor who actually hates black people? And somehow they made it through the Disney hiring process? And their handlers never once noticed the character avoiding black kids before? And no other black family ever noticed this and complained?

As for the "2nd complaint", maybe it is true; but it should be clear that there are a lot of people who would lie to get free tickets, or a shot at a bigger prize. And people don't file lawsuits "just to get an apology" -- what lawyer would sign up for a no-money lawsuit either?

If there is really a character who won't touch black kids, they should be fired. But why would such a person even take a job like this?

If there were complaints already on file against the character, I'd have to think Disney would have fired them already; and certainly would have fired them when this family complained.

Sadly, there are more than a few people who go around setting up incidents like this, in order to file lawsuits and make big money. If you have friends who are waiters at a restaurant, ask them about it -- restaurants are a favorite target.

February 9, 2013 at 6:29 AM · Thanks Robert for your extensive comments on this subject. Your hands on experience with Cast Members and costumed characters sheds a lot of light on the subject. Just to be clear, my post isn't suggesting the Black family's assetions are true or false. I just thought this (and the more recent, second complaint) was a topic worthy of discussion.
February 9, 2013 at 6:26 AM · This whole situation reeks of people looking to find racism where there is no racism.

I can tell you of many times castmember friends of mine would run into situations where guests of the park would find a way to get offended by the most innocuous of things. From the perception that they were the only person NOT greeted as they came onto the ride (it must be because they were Hispanic)or that girl who plays Princess Tiana barely spent two seconds with my daughter when she spent a whole minute with that other girl (it must because we're white and those kids were black).

Obviously, none of us were there when this particular situation happened, but it just kind of smells fishy.

February 9, 2013 at 8:50 AM · While aware of the situation, I haven't followed this story TOO closely, but I have noticed there's been no report (that I'm aware of) concerning the behavior of the children. These kids - and their parents too, for that matter - might have been hounding and bothering and teasing the character to such an extent the character finally lost patience and hoped by ignoring them they would leave him/her alone. While maybe not 100% Disney behavior, that's certainly understandable human behavior and the problem, if there is one, isn't with the cast member but with the parents who don't control their children.

Also, where was the non-character cast member character attendant who should be watching for these things??

February 9, 2013 at 10:20 AM · Excellent response Robert!

I find this story a little odd and something I would think would be pretty hard to prove.

February 10, 2013 at 11:14 AM · On one hand, my knee jerk reaction is to simply dismiss this out of hand... I mean its Disney, even if someone who works there has some sort of prejudice, they wouldn't really be able to express it, right? The mouse is always supposed to be watching, right? Its just our runaway legal system gone mad, with someone looking for a quick payday, right?

However, noone seems to be reporting a number that the family wants... beyond an apology and dismissal of the Cast Member... Personally I take issues with customers demanding staff members being dismissed anywhere, but that's just me.

Presuming the reason noones mentioned money is because they don't want any... then all of a sudden the claims start to seem plausable and reasonable..

Either the Lawyer is a master of PR (in which case, Disney hire the guy), or theres something to this (even if it is just a simple misunderstanding).

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