Disney Gets a New 'Look' for the 21st Century

April 13, 2021, 7:30 PM · When I started working at the Walt Disney World Resort back in (coughing fit), one of first things I was handed at my "Disney University" orientation was a booklet called "The Disney Look."

In this publication, Disney explained and detailed its appearance guidelines for theme park cast members (like me!) who would appear "on stage" - that is, in front of guests (i.e. customers). As a young white man from a conservative family, all I had to do to conform to the "look" was swap my loafers for tied dress shoes while at work. I wore no beard or mustache, kept my hair trimmed above the ears and collar and did not have any piercings or tattoos. Easy.

The Disney Look
I can't believe I still have this.

For women in the cast - including my future wife - compliance was a bit trickier. Earrings had to be smaller than a dime, makeup had to look "natural," and hair had to be a single "natural" color. That usually meant buying some different lipstick and laying off the mascara, but most young white women found sticking to the look not much more difficult than I did. After all, the "Disney Look" was designed for us - young, usually white, workers from households that had had enough money to take us to places like Disney theme parks when we were kids, drawing us to want to work at Disneyland or Walt Disney World.

Disney adopted the look as way to quickly visually communicate to its guests that Disney's theme park cast members were respectful and responsible people whom they could trust and who stood ready and eager to help them with their day. It was a shortcut. Rather than employing people with a wider variety of personal looks and allowing them to keep them, Disney sought to reassure its guests with a cast that sported a consistent look that reflected a specific, conservative standard of appearance.

That Disney thought that this particular visual shortcut would be associated with promoting a responsible and helpful image - and that other styles of appearance would not - tells us something about the inherent social biases that existed within much of American society, as well as the management of The Walt Disney Company, in the mid to late 20th century.

But that century is over now. Society has changed - not by happenstance, but because good, honest, responsible, and helpful people whose hair, faces, makeup, head coverings, and jewelry did not conform to conservative social ideals spoke up and fought for the right to be included as equals in communities from coast to coast. Today, Disney officially welcomed many of them into the Disney Parks family by announcing that it would again revise its cast member appearance standards.

Disney framed the change as an outcome of adding "Inclusion" as the Fifth Key in its theme park operations. But business considerations drive this change as much as lofty idealism might. The longer that Disney held to its traditional appearance guidelines, the smaller the percentage of an increasingly diverse labor pool that Disney would be able to hire from would become. That would make it harder for Disney to hire and retain an actually respectful and responsible cast who stood ready and eager to help.

Disney's long been able to get away with aggressive appearance standards by calling its employees "cast members" who were "cast" into positions rather than hired into them. You're not just doing a job at Disney, you are playing a role, and in that situation, maintaining a specific appearance long has been accepted as a part of the gig.

But that's still supposed to be your name on your chest when you work on stage at Disney. You might be playing a role inside the parks, but you're supposed to be playing yourself in that role. Cast members cannot act like themselves, however, when Disney's appearance standards demand that they compromise their identity.

Disney's increasingly diverse guests also want to see people who look like they do among Disney's cast and characters. Without that, a cast member's greeting of "welcome home" feels hollow, even cynical.

Yes, appearances matter. And that's the whole point. A welcoming, inclusive Disney theme park must employ people from the wide variety of races, ethnicities, cultures, religions, genders, and abilities that make up our society today. And it must not pull a Wanda Maximoff by transforming them to conform to the look of 1950s suburban, white America. To be truly inclusive - of both guests and cast - Disney's standards must accommodate a wider range of cast member appearances than it has in the past. Disney needs a new look for the 21st century - one that looks like the 21st century.

Disney ought to encourage and support a high level of customer service from its cast members. An outdated visual shortcut does not do that, however. Accepting and supporting its cast members can. That's why I was happy to see Disney take the step that it did today.

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Replies (18)

April 13, 2021 at 7:50 PM

Hopefully this leads to Disneyland/Walt Disney World to have official Pride Days in the park instead of monetizing on the unofficial fan events.

April 13, 2021 at 8:04 PM

I don't know how I feel about that if it results in cutting out the organizers who have worked so hard to build these events over the years.

April 21, 2021 at 9:02 AM

Thanks for sharing this post! This is so wonderful idea to update 'Look' for the new century! My family members like the Disneyland theme park as a place for spending a vacation. Currently, I am working as a writer at this https://assignmentbro.com/us/do-my-assignments writing service where I help students with their writing tasks. I hope modern busy people will spend some free time in a wonderful place like Disneyland park when the pandemic is over.

April 14, 2021 at 5:27 AM

“Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday tomorrow and fantasy”. Of course that’s too hard and too expensive for the corner cutters and cost cutters at Disney today. I’m sure Disney does want to be inclusive, but they also don’t want to have to pay people more to get people willing to adhere to Disney’s old standards. Meanwhile Disney World will look like a giant IKEA by the time they’re down renovating everything. At least when that’s happens the cycle will start over again and hopefully whoever’s in charge then will care more about theme than about cost.

April 14, 2021 at 5:36 AM

Randy Keith's post is incoherent.

April 14, 2021 at 6:25 AM

Robert Niles: "Disney's long been able to get away with aggressive appearance standards by calling its employees "cast members" who were "cast" into positions rather than hired into them."

Me: I think "get away with" is not necessarily the proper phrase to include here. All kinds of companies have policies regarding personal hygiene and appearance. These requirements are not and have not been unique to Disney.

April 14, 2021 at 8:22 AM

Not really. Both of my points have to do with how Disney is eliminating what made them unique. Renovations with similar designs and less attention to detail are eliminating the sense of time and place they previously had. And so will the relaxed dress code. Since it’s harder to find people who are willing to adhere to Disney’s standards, especially at the rate Disney is paying. It is easier reduce or eliminate those standards, even though it hurts the theme. And to be fair accuracy isn’t always a good thing or even possible, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored entirely, which has become the case with Disney lately.

April 14, 2021 at 8:39 AM

I think it's an interesting dichotomy that Robert brings up with the nametags. CMs have their name (and home town) pinned to their chest (unless they're playing a character), and I never really thought about how prominently Disney has advocated for individuality through this simple gesture and uniform standard. Yes, you do represent Disney when you're "on stage", but you're also representing yourself and to a certain extent your home town/country. That individuality can often be distracting as guests strike up conversations with CMs regarding their home town just as much as a prominent and/or interesting tattoo might do. The question then becomes, what is a "good" or "desirable" distraction, and what is a "negative" or "unwanted" distraction. For me, that's a tough line to draw, and I think Disney creating this grey area will be incredibly problematic.

April 14, 2021 at 9:20 AM

Good point Robert and thanks Russell for phrasing it that way. It seems like there will always need to be a balance of the individual and the total experience. And that balance will grow and evolve. It makes sense we grow evolve too. I like that idea a lot. It makes me things more about the journey than any destination.

It will also be ok to be sad about the things that have changed and are no more. Just as it will be ok to be relived that the old ways are gone. Feelings are valid.

April 14, 2021 at 9:22 AM

RK: "Renovations with similar designs and less attention to detail are eliminating the sense of time and place they previously had. And so will the relaxed dress code."

Me: Confused by "dress code". CMs still are wearing designated themed wardrobe.

April 14, 2021 at 9:49 AM

@RumbleMike - You're so right, but as our society has shown over history, there are waffles in trends and acceptable behavior/appearance. The recent acceptance of tattoos and other body modification is the real-life and prescient application of Dr. Seuss' story about the Sneeches. At some point, people with "stars upon thars" seeking not only to be individualistic but also trying to be "hip", will be in the majority with the "plain-bellied" among us the new "hip" trend setters. In the end, Sylvester McMonkey McBean is the only one who benefits as we can all be unique without needing to sport a unique or trendy look.

April 14, 2021 at 10:26 AM

Like many major corporations, Disney in recent years has fallen all over itself trying to prove how enlightened, diverse and progressive it is (some changes needed and some plain silly). But Disney is not doing this to be diverse or enlightened.
Make no mistake about this-- it is a practical move-- they can't get enough employees. Most teenagers really don't want to work anymore. College students are studying abroad and doing required internships and service projects. That's a large chunk of the former application pool. Disney Parks are open year round and they need a LOT of employees and simply can't get them. A friend of mine runs two Chick-fil-A restaurants-- which traditionally tend to attract a higher caliber employee. He's now so desperate he'll almost hire on the spot anybody who walks in. Plus, he can't crack down on those he does have if they pull attitude or skip shifts. There just aren't enough willing workers out there.

April 14, 2021 at 12:33 PM

Formerypgi: "But Disney is not doing this to be diverse or enlightened.
Make no mistake about this-- it is a practical move-- they can't get enough employees."

Me: There are CMs still sitting at home waiting to be called back. Many who have been called back are working in roles that were not their original positions. So ... Your assertion seems a bit off.

April 14, 2021 at 12:53 PM

Props to Russell for working a Sylvester McMonkey McBean reference into this, BTW.

Ultimately, I think Disney is going to need to lean harder on its costume design to create the literal uniformity that it desires among its cast members, both collectively and at specific locations. And if Disney has to go back to washing and caring for its own costumes in order to help do that, I'd be happy with never seeing a non-tour-guide Disney costume off property ever again.

April 14, 2021 at 12:56 PM

That's true TH, but I think Formeryogi was referencing pre-pandemic hiring conditions, which from all accounts would be accurate (and will likely be an issue again in the not so distant future). While Disney may have many CMs waiting in the wings to be brought back, once the parks and resorts return to full capacity, the positions manned by CMs that did not stick with Disney through the pandemic and the additional staffing necessary for the growing properties will need to be filled.

The relaxing of the appearance standards now allows Disney to prepare for the hiring initiatives that will be needed in the months ahead once any remaining furloughed/reduced hour CMs are brought back full time. Relaxing of appearance standards has been happening around the business world - famously, the New York Yankees are the ONLY MLB team still enforcing a no facial hair policy which affected recent acquisition Rougned Odor - so it's no surprise to see Disney make some changes, but the magnitude of the changes here are a bit surprising for a company that has always maintained a very clean-cut, conservative image.

April 14, 2021 at 2:34 PM

All this tattoo talk makes me wonder what kind of Disney fan tattoo groups will start springing up. I know someone who has the original EPCOT attraction symbols tattooed down their arm. I've yet to hear anyone say anything negative. (I realize someone probably thought it was not great and had enough sense to keep it to themselves.) But I love the idea of folks sharing their fandom in a new way.

April 15, 2021 at 12:02 AM

Tatoos are about as "un-Disney" as you can get. Maybe Disney needs the manpower, but I don't see what's progressive about defacing your body with ink drawings, or about hiring these people when it runs contrary to Disney's family image (and some tats are downright offensive, or just exhibit unpleasant imagery).

April 16, 2021 at 5:24 PM

Russell: "The relaxing of the appearance standards now allows Disney to prepare for the hiring initiatives that will be needed in the months ahead once any remaining furloughed/reduced hour CMs are brought back full time."

Me: Pure conjecture. To claim Disney has made thia change because it's the same employer as a model as Chick-fil-A is silly.

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