Be smart to help keep theme park characters safe

December 28, 2019, 1:27 PM · If you think it's rough visiting Walt Disney World and other parks on a week like this, when crowds pack every queue to overflowing, just try working in them.

Having worked in attractions operations for several years, I had more fun working in the parks than any other job I've ever had. (Yes, including this one.) But it's still work. Managing crowds isn't just stressful, it can be dangerous. And few cast or team members endure more physical stress and danger than the "good friends" of costumed characters.

The Orlando Sentinel's Gabrielle Russon recently documented several cases where Disney cast members filed police reports following incidents where guests injured them in the parks. It's part of the newspaper's "Laborland" series, detailing the tough working conditions faced by employees in Central Florida's tourism industry. (And this is where I try to lighten the mood by making the obvious joke that the Sentinel really should have kept with the established style and called its series "Labor World.")

For those of us who follow the theme park business, hearing about character workers getting hurt is nothing new, unfortunately. Character heads restrict your vision, while framing and supports within the costumes restrict your movement, as well. That's why parks send their characters out with escorts to help protect them, and guests need to do their part by affording theme park characters a complete respect, as well.

One comment in the Sentinel's report, though, illustrated the problem for many guests. It came from a man whose mother-in-law injured the neck of "Mickey Mouse's friend" by patting Mickey's head too hard, too many times.

"The family was confused whether Disney has a no-touching rule for the costumed characters, since they give high-fives and hugs to visitors, he said."

Oy vey. Here we go.

Just because a theme park character initiates contact with you does not allow you to initiate contact with it. Look at it this way: Just because someone consents to what they want to do doesn't mean that they consent to what you want to do, too. (This applies to much more than theme park visits, in case that point is not already obvious.) You can extend your hand for a shake or high five. You can open your arms for a hug. But it is up to the character to make the actual, physical contact.

Theme parks' cast and team members have been through way more character meet and greets than you have. They are the experts. So let them be in charge. They know how to keep the character safe while also getting you the amazing memory and photos you want. (While keeping the line moving, too!)

A few years ago, we published a guide called How to meet and greet a theme park character, and that advice still applies. When you see characters out in the park, look for a queue of people waiting before rushing up and getting in their space. Once it is your turn, wait for instructions, either from handler or characters themselves. They will invite you to approach, show you where to stand and "read" you to figure out how to make this a great moment.

I've been there before, waiting for a character only to have your child melt down when your moment comes. But remember that these park employees are literally professionals at finding ways to make kids comfortable. What they need from you is for you to act comfortable, too, so that together you and the character can create a nonthreatening environment for the child. That doesn't happen if you rush up to grab or pat or hug the character to try to show your kid that the character is "nice," like that grandmother did.

Just because most characters can't speak does not mean that you shouldn't talk to them. Say hello to characters like you would to an old friend. Introduce them to your child. Allow the character the opportunity to put your child at ease. If it's just not happening, don't blame your child. Just comfort them and carry them away. No matter what happens, thank the character afterward. Staying calm and not getting frustrated "sets the stage" to make a second attempt at meeting the character go well, instead of forever scarring your child for future meet and greets.

This is how we all avoid the mistakes that can lead to character performers getting hurt. Now, for people who intentionally attack characters, they deserve every punishment that the parks and local police can dish out. Attacking a character is the quickest way to earn a lifetime ban from a theme park, as it should be. Every theme park I have visited in the United States has had on-duty, uniformed law enforcement on site, helping park employees quickly request charges against those who harm them, as well. None of the incidents the Sentinel reported ultimately led to charges, but that has happened in the past with other incidents.

I assume that anyone reading this never would dream of intentionally harming a park employee. But I do want to do everything I can to raise awareness so that none of us inadvertently puts a park employee at risk, either. Character meet and greets can provide some of the most amazing memories during theme park visits. Be smart and let the pros do their jobs without interference, and you increase your chances of making one of those wonderful memories.

Replies (2)

December 28, 2019 at 4:34 PM

I am writing under the assumption that a large percentage of the TPI audience are experienced theme park enthusiasts who've come to appreciate park employees -- regardless of their role/position.

Having said that, as someone who is close to a worker who plays a park character, thank you for publishing these thoughts. Even under the best circumstances, a character's job can be physically demanding. Hours, days, months and years of "stand, kneel, hug, wave, pose" can take a real physical toll on a person. When you throw into the mix the reality of dealing with thoughtless (ignorant) or outright bad people just magnifies this very real problem.

And while park operators make a solid effort to protect all of their employees here's hoping they remain vigilant.

December 30, 2019 at 8:53 AM

This is some really great advice here. The thing that always gets under my skin are the immature jerks who try to be clever/pedantic with the characters, as if they are the smartest person in the park. There are thousands of people that want to have a moment with these characters, and while I think it's amazing that the performers are able to make it as personal and customized as possible for each and every guest, people still need to be considerate of others - spend your 30-45 seconds, take your photos, and move along.

I think everyone would have a much better experience if so many people didn't have the mindset that everything needs to be "special". If you're lucky enough to get a special character interaction, great, but don't spend minutes trying to goad them into giving you a plussed experience.

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