Memoir

The Crushing Weight of a Giant Chipmunk Costume

At age six, I couldn’t imagine anything more magical than working with Mickey and Friends. As an adult, it took three mice, a mermaid, and a purple-robed Merlin to help me escape my dream-crushing day job at Walt Disney World.

The Crushing Weight of a Giant Chipmunk Costume

I was six. My family was at Disneyworld, making our way through Fantasyland toward the carousel, when we heard a chorus of trumpets.

“Hear ye! Hear ye!” a voice boomed from a loudspeaker.

A man appeared, slightly crouched, in satiny purple robes, a long white beard draping practically to his legs. In a smaller, sweet and croaking voice, he spoke.

“Ahem,” he cleared his throat. “Hear ye! Hear ye!” he shouted in a British accent, tr- tr- tripping over his words, his voice sliding up and down whole octaves. “By proclaim-, proclaim-, proclamation of King Arthur, I am here to find a temporary ruler of the realm!”

“Mom. Mom!” I yelled. “Stop! Everybody stop!” Through shouts and taps on shoulders and hand squeezes, the message was received by all four of my sisters.

“Sarah wants to stop here.”

I moved slowly toward the front of the semi-circle of spectators and watched him, spellbound.

Merlin.

He revealed a wooden divining rod and a mystical “eeeeee” tone sounded. He wrestled with the thick branch as it pulled him quickly back and forth, a start-and-stop sideways, stopping briefly in front of several people. He stumbled, unable in his old age to keep up with the fickle thing.

Finally, the divining rod stopped in front of a sturdy man, whom Merlin led to a silver sword buried firmly in a large stone. Merlin explained the importance of the word “Alakazam!” and instructed us to say it at the same moment the man put his hands to the sword.

There was a swell of music, a chorus of “Alakazam!” and…nothing.

The man could not budge the sword.

Merlin coughed and stammered, returning to his divining rod and scolding the branch for getting it wrong, this old thing. The temporary ruler of the realm had to be someone who truly believes in magic, he said.

“I do! I do!” I shouted, my arm flying up, my whole body bouncing, begging to be seen. I wanted to be the one pulled up onstage. I wanted everyone to cheer for me, and see how special I was. “Please! Please!” I cried out, because I just knew I believed in magic more than anyone else did.

The divining rod drew toward me, Merlin tripped a bit and I thought, “Yes!” But, the rod swerved and pointed to a little girl who was wearing a Cinderella nightgown as a dress.

He led us again in a chorus of “Alakazam!” and this time, with the child’s hands on the top of the sword, it rose up with a triumphant flourish. Cheers and applause.

I was devastated. I did not get a chance to show everyone how special I was, or how much magic I had inside of me. It wasn’t fair. I believed. Tinker Bell, the Fairy Godmother, and Jesus had all taught me to believe.

Seventeen years after that Disney trip, it’s my second year working at Disneyworld, and my first day in a new job at Ariel’s Grotto.

I arrive at the Grotto, a watery pocket of Fantasyland where guests can meet Ariel from “The Little Mermaid.” Nearby, a bronzed statue of King Triton, water spurting from his trident, arises from a shallow green pool. There’s spongy flooring and a small, wet play area with jumping fountains, a fancy version of playing in the sprinkler. Yellow and orange starfish punch up the gray-rock cavern. Seaweed dangles from a wide shell-shaped throne.

My job is to monitor guests’ interaction with the red-haired mermaid, played by a glamorous girl wedged into sparkling aquamarine fins, her lips painted with coral lipstick and her large, possibly contact lens-enhanced blue eyes punctuated with feathery false eyelashes. This Ariel looks to be about nineteen, her petite hips settled firmly into her tail; long legs enveloped by luminescent scales.

Wearing my assigned wardrobe — boxy, mustard-yellow sailor pants and a formless beige peasant shirt — I watch Ariel reach out to embrace her admirers, and feel a pulse of jealousy as adult eyes linger over her glossy purple-shelled breasts.

In college I played the comedienne sexpot Bianca/Lois in “Kiss Me Kate.” Wearing fishnets, I had sung the suggestive “Tom, Dick, and Harry” while dancing atop a large table, jumping off into the arms of three smitten, strapping suitors who carried me offstage, horizontally, their strong arms wrapped around my knees, thighs, and shoulders.

Here, I am not the talent. I am not pretty. I am not funny. And, I am not particularly trying to be. I don’t know where that person has gone.

I feel slightly more important when I’m asked, due to a recent incident, to protect Ariel, vulnerable with her delicate scallops, from “accidental” brushes against her chest, and from furtive hands that casually molest her bare torso, or the curve of her too-human body just beneath the thin fabric and sewn sequins.

The soggy lagoon smells of chlorine and pennies. There are two more hours until lunch, then three more until I can clock out. During slow times I focus on the coolness of the air, the sound of the waterfall. When it’s busy, I take pictures for people and give advice on where to eat and which attractions to hit next. There is an influx of people after the parade. They line up to see this girl who gave away her voice.

I came to Disney aimlessly, after graduating from a liberal arts college where I studied music. My plans to pursue a creative career in Los Angeles or New York were foiled by a crippling onset of stage fright, and I moved back into to my childhood bedroom for what became far too long. When a high school friend told me she was working at Disneyworld, I up and moved to Orlando. Maybe I could “make the magic” that I had loved so much as a child. That’s what I told myself, anyway.

When I first started, I truly enjoyed dancing around dressed as a chipmunk; the gratifying, sweet smiles from kids and adults and the positive energy from the daylong hug-fests. But after six months in fur, the honeymoon was over. Maneuvering in the suffocating, heavy costume, breathing out of tiny holes in the big head, the Central Florida temperatures of ninety-six degrees were so hot and humid that the oblong plastic eyes constantly steamed up, sometimes to the point where I could see only blurs of faces. This put a damper on the drollery — and gave me chronic rashes and yeast infections. Dancing in the Spectromagic parade with a battery pack swinging back and forth along my sacrum gave me, like many others, chronic low back pain. I popped Advil like Tic Tacs.

“It’s a repetitive strain injury,” I would explain to non-characters, feeling somewhat like a fraud for using a term I associate with concert violinists and pro-tennis players.

But it wasn’t the physical discomforts of the character job that wrecked me. Day after day, donning the woolly getup and bulbous head killed what little confidence I had left as an actor. I felt worthless and has-been at age twenty-two, working in this pseudo-performer job that anyone with half a personality and four limbs could do. For Christ’s sake, I had done Lady Macbeth’s “Unsex Me Here” speech, Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams. Was this how I was going to use my training…in a fleecy suit, with a hidden face? I knew I was playing small, squandering my youthful potential out of fear. Yet I couldn’t seem to motivate myself out of the undiagnosed clinical depression and the immobilizing self-doubt.

One day, after wriggling myself into the Dale costume, adding an oversized green stocking cap and red scarf for the Magic Kingdom Christmas tree lighting ceremony, I stood waiting for my cue. Mickey would look around for his gift for Pluto, and I would pretend I didn’t know where it was. Minnie would wave her finger at me, and I would dig out a doggie-bone-shaped present, which I had supposedly socked away like an acorn, and would sheepishly hand it over. But when the moment came, the present was a little out of reach — I stretched awkwardly to retrieve it and felt something zing in my lower back.

A manager helped me hobble backstage. There was first aid, ice packs, then months of physical therapy, medical restrictions, and the first of several prescriptions for Vicodin I relied on just a little too much. This was the straw that broke the chipmunk’s back: I needed to flee from fur.

I knew this, yet I couldn’t seem to leave the Disney bubble. Where would I go? How would I pay rent? I would call long-distance from the payphone in the tunnel under the Magic Kingdom, despondent, half in and half out of my shaggy body, and cry into the receiver to an old friend.

When a random job as an “escort” in Toontown opened up, I took it to save my low back. My trainer walked me into a small, cold room, uncharacteristically sparse in its decoration. There was only a large plastic Mickey-shaped pumpkin and a Goofy-shaped cactus in one corner, a blue ribbon painted on the wall where Mickey would stand.

My duties included motioning to small groups of people and ushering them to Mickey, where, in an orderly fashion, each party took a turn getting hugs, photos and autographs from him in their shiny red autograph books.

“The most important part of your job isn’t herding folks in or taking pictures,” the trainer, a folksy but serious man, said. “It’s to make sure this curtain is always pulled back so any stragglers from the other rooms don’t catch a glimpse of another Mickey in the identical rooms. There is only one Mickey Mouse.” Now this guy was really beginning to piss me off. I cleared my throat and clarified that I already know all of this quite well because I was, after all, a former character.

“You left characters for Toontown Escort?” he asked. Now I was worried.

Within an hour of my first day as Toontown Escort, I realized I would be stuck in this isolating, windowless cell for nearly eight hours a day. For a place designed for photographs, the lighting was sallow and dim. If you were there for more than ten minutes, you would notice the dank, musty smell. The meet-n-greet room had all the charm of a construction trailer, and relied only on the live Mickey factor to bring it to life.

In the cooped-up confines of my Mickey room, wearing my red-and-white-checked uniform shirt, I would constantly look down at my Winnie the Pooh watch, the one with a bee as the second-hand. Time slowly ticked by. It was “Waiting for Godot,” Disney-style.

One day, a manager announced there would be a new post created, which we escorts would rotate in and out of. I was thrilled, rejoicing in the thought of escaping from this dreadful room, if only in twenty-minute increments. My enthusiasm deflated once I reached the assigned location: a small spot in a disorienting, winding green-carpeted hallway; royal-blue-striped walls seemed to spiral to nauseating effect. Fluorescent orange traffic cones flanked the doorway.

Guests were dumped through this exit in seven-minute increments and they rushed out quickly, so aside from offering a few head nods and “have a good day” iterations, most of my time was spent wondering what I would die of first: boredom, claustrophobia, seizures brought on by loud colors and glaring optical illusion swirl patterns, or delirium from hearing the endless loop of the old-timey song, “Turkey in the Straw.”

I needed to get the hell out of Toontown.

That is how I ended up here, in Ariel’s Grotto. A few hours into the job, I decide fresh air and the shaded cove area is, indeed, an improvement, but still feels pathetic. I took whatever quickie transfer I could to get out of the stifling Mickey room, but quickly realize I should have pushed myself to something better instead of settling for just different. I leapfrogged my way across Disney that way – have I done that my whole life?

In the break room, the alternating Ariels, svelte girls all, are polite but dismissive of me, and make it clear they are interested only in reading their magazines and talking to each other. We are merely a few years apart in age, yet around these girls I feel youthless, the nurse to their Juliet, the ugly stepsister to their Cinderella. They are all skinnier than me, and I avoid eating my brown bag lunch near them. I try to keep my insecurities and shame silent, stifling my sobs in a break-room-bathroom stall, and berate myself for giving in to this paralysis of depression and anxiety that is keeping me wasting away in Fantasyland.

Then, right there in the break room, I see him.

Merlin.

He is wearing his signature flowing royal-purple robes, and is small in stature, even smaller because he’s crouching forward reading a book. His small glasses rest so low on his nose they might fall from his lined face. I would have thought they were part of his costume, but he appears to genuinely need them to read. He occasionally strokes his smooth artificial beard, and sips a cup of hot tea, all without ever taking his eyes off the page.

“Merlin.” I say, star-struck. A girl of six again.

He looks up from his book.

“Well, hello there.” He looks right into my eyes.

“Sarah, is it?”

How does he know my name? My face must reflect my astonishment because he motions with a skinny finger upward toward my shirt.

“Nametag.”

Oh. Duh.

“Right. Yes,” I say, blushing a bit.

“Cookie?” he extends a delicate one to me from a baker’s style parchment paper bag. I take it. We nibble together.

I ask what he’s reading, but he wants to know about me. What are my favorite books? Plays? What do I like to do? Where have I traveled? Where do I want to go? Why had I come here? What are my dreams?

I tell him about my love affair with Shakespeare and obsession with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” my dream of playing Titania, and my other dream role of Eliza Doolittle from “My Fair Lady. I tell him I long to go back to London where I’d spent a few months interning at The Royal Court Theatre, about how the city captivated me — how the inspiration and lightness of the fantastical stories of “Peter Pan,” “Mary Poppins and A. A. Milne contrasted with the darkness of late medieval history and Dickensian times. The thoughts bubbled out of me fast and fervid, reminding me for the first time in a long time of the plans I used to have, the ones that extended beyond the gates of Disney.

Then he asks, matter-of-factly, when I am planning on getting back to performing again.

I sputter something about “eventually” and “I’ll get back on track” but he persists. I deflect by laughing. “Anyway,” I singsong, “someone’s got to be here to make the magic!”

He ignores that. “Hmm…” he muses, lightly flicking his fingers together to brush away the crumbs. “Let’s think.” He closes his eyes, and tilts his head back slightly. His chin juts out a bit. He looks as if he is concentrating deeply yet is also sound asleep.

“Ah!” his eyes flash open wide. “I have it. The festival. The festival!”

“What festival?”

“The Fringe Festival,” he says. “Have you heard of it?”

I know what it is — a theatre happening held every spring in Downtown Orlando, featuring mostly original material with lots of solo shows and one-acts. I went to a couple of plays last year.

“You could do that.”

“Do what?”

“The festival.”

“Do what at the festival?”

“I don’t know, dear,” he takes a sip of his tea. “You’ll think of something.”

“Yeah, well… I’ll think about it,” I say, moving to get up. “Thanks.”

He reaches out and sets a warm hand on my arm.

“What’s there to think about?”

I blush. Merlin rises slowly, putting on his crooked cap and reaching for his divining rod. On his way toward the door he turns back, the diving rod pointing straight toward me.

“Creating something out of nothing…now that’s making magic.”

Merlin un-ruffles his vestments and floats out the door into the sunlight.