Warning: Book spoilers! Interview begins after Book Review.
Sex, drugs, and questionably legal mischief are not something one would typically associate with the squeaky-clean image of Disney parks, especially if you are a devout Disney enthusiast. In his recent memoir, Chris Mitchell tears off the blanket of Disney’s warm and fuzzy magic to reveal an underbelly of debauchery & deviation so unfettered it would make the inhabitants of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island look like amateurs. He makes no apologies for any of his colorful adventures as a cast member but as a reader following Chris during his year of service to ‘the Mouse’ I came to not expect, or want, one. His seemingly unabridged experience served as a refreshing alternative to other Disney literature out there, which often seems to mimic the squeaky-clean & happy image that Disney itself exudes.
Landing a job as a photographer in Disney’s Animal Kingdom park we see Chris start out as a rebellious ‘anti-establishment’ type who shuns “the Disney Look” and the culture of conformity Disney creates for its cast members. His interactions with management, fellow cast members, and guests start out as a detached effort to be an outsider. Although, as Chris gets sucked into the unavoidable culture and magic, we see his attitude and purpose change in waves of acceptance.
Through a journey of strange and outlandish characters, a misconstrued romantic relationship with the Little Mermaid, two “guerilla philanthropy” adventures taking Chris to Cuba and rural central Florida, illicit photographs of characters in compromising positions, and the friendship between Chris and his roommate — who teams up a homosexual boy band — we come to wonder exactly what his purpose & goal of this journey is.
Parallel to Chris’s wild stories, we also get to know his family: a strained relationship with his brother, a mother who’s battling cancer, and his father, who attempts to keep him in the dark about family affairs. Throughout the memoir one may assume that Chris was attempting to run away from his dysfunction and trying to grab onto the magic that many look to Disney to find. In the end, Chris comes to a realization that captivates and grabs understanding from the reader.
This is not a book for children, the faint-hearted, or someone who’s afraid to unveil the fragility of their belief in Disney magic. Whether you believe the stories in Chris’ memoir are 100% real, totally exaggerated, completely fabricated, or merely believable — or whether they disgust you, make you laugh, or keep your eyes wide like a deer caught in headlights — is irrelevant. If anything, sharing Chris’ adventures will make any Disney fan want to reconfirm their belief in ‘the magic,’ and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
DZ: I recently read a review by someone who bought your book at Compass Books & Cafe on Disneyland property. Could you ever imagine, standing in that Animal Kingdom kiosk shooting guests & characters, that one day your experiences would be sitting on a shelf yards away from the pearly gates of Disneyland? Is it surreal to you, or have you accepted the significance?
CM: I’m a huge fan of globalization! I love the idea that somebody could buy the book in Orlando or Paris or Tokyo or Anaheim. It’s humbling, yes, but exciting to be a part of the global media deluge!
DZ: After reading about Calico (“The Little Mermaid”) and her split personalities, I have to ask: who was more notorious for taking on the personalities of the characters they played on stage? Face characters, or furs?
CM: Oo tough one… The thing is: character performers are defined by their physical characteristics — fur characters solely based on size and face characters based on everything from height and weight to facial features. The only way to draw a correlation between a character and their level of Crazy would be to find the relationship between Crazy and height. If, for instance, bipolarity showed up most frequently in people who were 5’10”-6′ then we could say that the Level 9 nutjobs would be the Tiggers, Aladdins, Princes and everybody else who fell into that range. I can say, however, I met more than my fair share of certifiable Princesses and Mice!
DZ: Assuming you still reside in California, be honest, do you own a Disneyland annual pass or ever visit the parks?
CM: Honestly, I had one for a few years after I moved back to LA. I let it lapse, but I wouldn’t mind having one again. Disneyland is awesome!
DZ: Calico, Orville, Sunny, Johnny the NASCAR fan: the names reminded me of something I’d find on a rural Florida farm with broken down John Deer tractors scattered about. Any specific inspiration for the fictitious names?
CM: The names were just the beginning. In most cases, I had to modify the physical characteristics of my characters so they (Disney) wouldn’t go after them. This was a lot harder than you might think, because I couldn’t just change “Sunny” from a tall black girl to a short Latina. Changing her size meant changing her entire character Lexicon as well. Eventually I had to create a diagram and height chart just to track the accuracy of all my composites! But back to your question: I named “Calico” after a crazy girl I used to work with (it seemed appropriate). “Johnny” was named after an alcoholic pedophile who was my roommate years ago (also appropriate). “Brady” and “Orville” were names I chose because they fit the personalities. It’s fun naming characters – kind of like naming puppies…
DZ: Even though it was never stated in your memoir, I deduced that your stint as a Disney CM was probably in the mid to late 90’s. Do you think anything has changed since that time to influence the behind-the-scenes behavior of Cast Members (CMs) now? Or is sex, drugs, and heavy partying still the general MO?
CM: I worked there in 2000. The few CMs I stay in touch with are no different, and I’m sure the College Program CMs are all doing the exact same shenanigans!
DZ: As a Disney guest, what can we do to make the life of a Disney cast member easier?
CM: Keep doing what you’re doing! CMs live for that common denominator that every day, a guest will ask, “What time is the 3:00 parade?” Don’t deprive them of the stories!
DZ: If you met a college-aged kid packed and ready to start their first experience as a Disney cast member, what advice would you give him/her (assuming they have no real idea what they are in for besides what Disney sends them in those shiny college program booklets)?
CM: I wouldn’t tell them a thing! It’s so much more “Magical” when they learn the good stuff for themselves!
DZ: Is it possible for someone to wholeheartedly believe in and throw themselves into the magic of Disney and still be a well-adjusted, ‘normal’ adult? Or, are we all inherently nuts?
CM: People will always believe in true love and happy ever after and all those great things that Disney stands for. And they should. There’s too much conflict and unrest and terrible stuff in the world; Disney plays a vital and welcome counterpoint and the people who choose to live in the Disney Reality are no more nuts than the people who fight for a cause they believe will make the world a better place.
DZ: Do you think with the inception of digital photography being used in Disney Parks that it’s effected the possibilites of what salacious hijinks Disney park photographers can get away with?
CM: Disney park photographers will never again have the opportunities for hijinks that I had, but I have absolute faith that salacious CM behavior will continue unabated!
DZ: Finally, this wouldn’t be an interview by an avid Disniac without at least one nerdy Disney question; what’s the coolest momento you kept from your days as a CM?
CM: This is going to be a totally lame confession from a professed kleptomaniac, but my coolest keepsake is a pocketful of Mickey-shaped confetti I picked up off the ground after being attacked by a woman dressed as Tinker Bell in Fantasyland. She was drunk and snuck up on me at a late night special event party. I still keep the little pile in a vest pocket and every time I touch them, they make me smile…