What ex-cast members wish you knew about Disneyland

(Viktoria Cichoń / For The Times)


Once upon a time, before cellphones or “Star Trek,” a young girl (me) stood in a hot, sweaty line bored out of her gourd waiting for what was then the best ride at Disneyland — the Matterhorn.

Suddenly, three mountain climbers appeared out of nowhere in their lederhosen and Alpine hats with coiled ropes slung over their shoulders. They ignored the suffering line dwellers as they cheerfully swaggered into the mountain and then reappeared halfway up to climb the faux-snowy peak, yodeling now and again with a kind of joyous abandon that only heightened my slack-jawed envy.

I was young enough not to question how an ice-covered mountain could exist in 90-degree Anaheim but old enough to realize that this had to be the coolest gig in the world.

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And I was right, at least according to one of the Matterhorn’s former climbers, Geoffrey Buckley.

“It’s probably the best job I’ve ever had,” said Buckley, 73, a semi-retired marriage and family therapist in Thousand Oaks who also teaches at Pepperdine University.


“I started climbing in the summer of 1968 while I was going to UCLA. The going rate for employment then was about $2 an hour, so I risked my life five or six times a day for $2 an hour,” he said, laughing. “Actually, I didn’t risk my life. It was very safe — there are handholds built into the mountain — and we climbed very safely, but I took home $68 a week, which was pretty good then, and I still say it was the funnest job I’ve ever had.”


A ‘Mouseters’ degree

OK, so working at Disneyland isn’t always awe-inspiring, and the pay usually is low enough that young employees eventually need to find other jobs as they descend into the financial realities of adulthood (i.e., housing, childcare and copious cups of caffeine).

But no matter how they felt when they left, the former cast members I talked with have mostly fond and funny memories of working at the Happiest Place on Earth.

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First, we should get some lingo straight. Disneyland doesn’t have employees — they are known as cast members, even if their jobs involve cleaning up vomit around the Mad Tea Party ride, a.k.a. the spinning tea cups, said Dyana Hoover, 34, who spent three years working at the park after earning her “Mouseters” certificate from the Disney college program in 2010; it’s one of four “degrees” you can earn from Disney’s training institute.

A drawing of Ian Hoover proposing to his wife, Dyana, a fellow Disney cast member.
(Courtesy of Dyana Hoover)

“Part of our job as custodians is to interact with guests,” Hoover said. “In fact, when Disneyland first opened, the custodians had to wear dark blue or black, but they found that guests were hesitant to talk to them, even though we’re supposed to help people. So they changed our costumes to all white because it made us more approachable.”

As a custodian, Hoover did everything from clean parade floats (“It was my only chance to get on a float and pretend I was a princess”) to bathroom duty (“Never use the first stall you come to; go to the very back because that will be the cleanest”) to power-washing streets and kitchens after hours.

“I consider it Mom Training 101,” said Hoover, a California native who married another Disneyland cast member (a former Darth Vader character who proposed to her in New Orleans Square) and now stays at home in Texas to care for their three young children. “The work could be pretty gross at times, but we learned to have fun with it. Because of my time at Disneyland, I don’t mind cleaning up poop, vomit and picking up trash all the time.”


Final resting place

One of Hoover’s biggest surprises was learning that many visitors try to honor the last wishes of their loved ones by spreading their cremated remains at the park, especially around the Haunted Mansion.

“They have that saying there about ‘999 haunts and room for one more,’ and some people take it seriously,” she said. “But they have some of the best surveillance systems I’ve ever seen in my life around the mansion, so don’t try it. If they see you, they will stop you and escort you right off that ride.”


One rodent only

Keeping the park clean is one way to keep rodents at bay. The other involves the help of feral cats, Hoover said.

“They let the cats stay to keep the rodents away, so it’s mutually beneficial,” she said. “The cats are spayed and neutered if they’re caught, but for the most part, they just hide away during the day.”

The cats are rarely seen by visitors, but if any get too friendly with humans, they’re typically adopted by cast members, Hoover said. “We just want them to scare away the unwanted critters. We only want one mouse at the park.”


Size matters

Skill is important for getting a performance job at Disneyland — auditions are grueling and last all day. For example, Buckley had to scale the Matterhorn with two experienced climbers to demonstrate his expertise even after an interview and letters of recommendation from climbing instructors.

The size of the performer is often just as important, because cast members have to fit into their expensive costumes or they can’t play the roles, especially the “fuzzy” characters clad head-to-toe in premade outfits.


Piper Gillin grew up dancing and performing in central Washington state and set her sights on Disneyland during a family visit when she was in high school. “I was watching the Parade of Dreams when it was brand-new, and I was mesmerized by the dancers,” she said. “I made my mom watch it with me four or five times, and I thought, ‘I can do that.’”

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So in 2007, the summer after her sophomore year at Loyola Marymount University, she showed up for a casting call at Team Disney Anaheim, next to the park. “There was a huge snaking line of people waiting to be seen, and they would bring us in maybe 50 at a time, teach us a quick dancing routine and have us dance across the floor.”

Gillin kept making the cut even as the routines got harder and harder, and her hopes soared that afternoon when they asked her to read for Alice in Wonderland. But at the end of that long day, the directors just handed out colored index cards to the dancers who remained.

“My card said, ‘Wednesday, Thursday and Sleepy,’ and I did not understand what that meant,” Gillin said. “Finally, one of the other dancers took a look and said, ‘Oh, you’re a Dwarf too!’ That’s when I figured out I would be playing one of the Seven Dwarfs, and my days off were Wednesdays and Thursdays.”

Gillin later went on to portray more than a dozen characters in the 12 years she worked at the park, including Tinker Bell and, yes, Alice, but she soon learned that her 5-foot-2-inch height played a big part in how she was initially cast.


Piper Gillin played Alice in Wonderland and other Disney characters at Disneyland.
(Mallory Gillin)

“I was too tall for Mickey Mouse but too short to be Pluto. So I’m ‘Dwarf’ height, which means when I put the suit on, I could look out through the top of his head, and his mouth was right down by my stomach. So I was actually patting my stomach when I was pretending to yawn.”


Princesses cry too

Stephanie Fish always wanted to perform at Disneyland, but as a young Black dancer, she wasn’t sure if she would ever be cast.

“As a little kid, I would always watch the shows and parades very carefully. I remember when ‘The Lion King’ came out, I looked at all the dancers and saw a Black girl who was playing a gazelle, and I thought, ‘OK. I can do that.’”

She even wrote a letter to Walt Disney when she was 6 — not knowing he had died 30 years earlier — saying, “‘Please, please, please can you make a Black princess?’ Like every little girl, I was totally into princesses, so I was thinking, ‘If they do that, by the time I grow up, I can be her.’”


Eight years later, in 2005, Fish did get hired to dance in several Disneyland parades at the main park and California Adventure, becoming one of just a handful of Black “parade kids.” By 2008, she was ready to leave Disneyland to study abroad, but her bosses encouraged her to stay, reminding her that Princess Tiana — Disney’s first Black princess — was coming soon and that she was a serious contender.

The lure worked. Fish hung on, and in 2009, she was cast as one of the first Tianas (they always have multiples of each character so performers can take breaks). The reality didn’t sink in, however, until she was waving to the crowd as Tiana from the Mark Twain Riverboat during the finale of the Fantasmic! show.

Stephanie Fish, center, as Princess Tiana with Mickey and Minnie and another "royal" in 2009.
(Bridget Brown)

“There I was, standing between Belle [from ‘Beauty and the Beast’] and Ariel [from ‘The Little Mermaid’], two of the biggest princesses when I was a kid, and it suddenly hit me — ‘Look where I am. Somebody pinch me.’ Thank goodness we were far from the crowd, because I had tears on my face. It really was a dream come true ... but that didn’t last.”

Fish, now 35, was just 22 when she started as Tiana and discovered that greeting visitors in New Orleans Square was both exhilarating and emotionally exhausting.


“People love Tiana, they really do, and I’d see little white girls come up wearing the Tiana dress and say, ‘You’re my favorite princess.’ There were a lot of Black families too, and the kids were loving it, but the older generation would be in tears. ... They’d say, ‘This is great. We never thought we’d see this,’ and that was a lot for me. A lot of emotion.”

Cast members who work as “face characters,” that is, characters whose faces aren’t covered by a mask or costume, are carefully trained to always stay in character, no matter what the question or situation. That was particularly challenging when Fish met with terminally ill children during special Make-A-Wish meet-and-greets. It wasn’t the children so much, she said, but the families and friends standing nearby.

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“I had one little boy who was visibly sick, but he was so excited to meet Tiana,” she said. “We were doing fine, but behind him, his dad was trying to take photos, and he was crying so hard he couldn’t figure out that his camera was facing the wrong way. You can’t get emotional as a character. You can’t be crying as well, but that was rough. ... Those are really nice memories, working with those kids, but it was also draining. Some nights after work, I’d just have to go home and lie down.”


Authentic underwear

Being backstage — any area closed to the public — can be fun, but wandering outside your designated land can lead to trouble, said William Baerg, 58, a former western “bartender” who served up sandwiches and chips at the park’s Golden Horseshoe for about three years in the late 1980s.

One of his favorite memories is going to the staff cafeteria and seeing the racks outside the door, where cast members had to leave their costumes so they didn’t soil them while eating.


“Winnie the Pooh would take off all his costume except for his shoes, so he’d go in wearing a T-shirt, pair of shorts, a sweatband around his head, and his Pooh shoes. All the masked characters looked like that, and they hung their heads outside the cafeteria so it looked like big game mounted by hunters,” Baerg said.

“The princesses would take off their dresses and hang them up, and underneath they were wearing traditional period underwear, to eat their hamburgers and French fries. It’s not like the public ever saw their pantaloons, but that’s how specific Disney was. I think it affected my upbringing, sitting around with princesses in their underwear.”

Baerg now lives in Japan, where he does translations and teaches English, but he spent three years at Disneyland serving food, and by the final year, he wanted to explore.

“The Golden Horseshoe was the only place that used that western uniform, so people weren’t quite sure who I was and I was able to get behind the scenes of lots of different rides,” Baerg said.

His explorations ended abruptly one night when he toured Space Mountain after the park was closed. All the lights were on for maintenance, so on the spur of the moment he decided to walk inside and look around.


“It’s just a big dome with tracks, and walkways along the entire track,” he said. “At the end of the day, staff have to walk along the tracks to pick up all the hats that blow off people’s heads, so I was satisfying my curiosity when one of the managers saw me and got very angry, because obviously a cowboy inside Space Mountain does not belong.”

The next day, Baerg’s manager met him first thing and told him he was suspended for four days. “I decided it was time to move on,” he said. He used that suspension to find another restaurant job — “where my uniform was a Hawaiian shirt, white shorts and tennis shoes and, because I got tips, my income was about four times higher.”


The death of magic

Ultimately, knowing too many secrets can change your feelings about the park, these former cast members say.

“People ask me all the time, ‘How many times have you been to Disneyland?’ and the answer is about 300 or 400 times, which is enough,” said Baerg.

“It’s just that I know how it works now. I know how things operate behind the scenes, and what employees should be doing, so if they’re not doing it correctly, it just annoys me,” he said. “I guess working there changed my view of Disneyland from being a magical place to the nuts and bolts of what it really is — a huge amount of effort and efficiency.”


Fish, on the other hand, is still an annual pass holder despite working at the park for nearly nine years. Her trick? “Willful suspension of disbelief,” she said.

“I remember when I first started dancing in parades, and one of the directors was telling me I had to be careful not to get in the float driver’s line of vision, and I said, ‘Whaaaaat? There’s a driver driving these things?’

“He looked at me like I was nuts, and said, ‘Of course, there’s a driver in there. What did you think?’” She laughed. “Well, I always thought of it as magic. I didn’t want to know, so it was a little bit shocking when he told me. He lifted the veil, and I learned things I did not want to know.”

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