August 29, 2011

Why Mickey Mouse should keep his mouth shut

For over a year, Walt Disney Imagineering has been testing a new technology in the Disney parks: costumed characters, like Mickey Mouse, with a spoken voice and a moving mouth. Until this new development, these characters have been performed silently, with all of their expression accomplished in gesture. I recommend you watch a couple of guests’ home-movie clips of the new Mickey (short clip, shorter clip) to see what I’m talking about.

Something about this strikes me as deeply wrong, but I haven’t been able to articulate my discomfort.

During my family trip to Walt Disney World in late 2010, I had the great fortune to meet Zach, a Disney College Program Cast Member. He was working behind the counter at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café in Tomorrowland during that semester, but he was granted an extension for Spring 2011 and became a character performer. Zach has formidable experience in stagecraft, and he addresses the issue of these talking characters in a recent post on his blog:

Guests go into a character meet-and-greet knowing what they want to say, and get their answers from the characters by interpreting their gestures and “animation.” But what’s so great about those gestures is that they can be interpreted however the Guests want them to be interpreted. Why take away that power from the Guests and their imaginations?

Zach explains his perspective in detail, also noting that since park visitors come from around the world, the voiced characters may not be able to speak their language.

In the midst of this, Zach tells a story that illustrates the power of quiet attention:

During my four months as a character performer, I had a lot of truly great Guest interactions. One day working at Animal Kingdom, Goofy was at Camp Minnie-Mickey and was met by a teary-eyed mother. The mother explained to Goofy that her father had been taken to the hospital from the Park, but he was going to be okay and just needed to recover in the hospital. He wanted her and her son, his grandson, to enjoy the rest of their day in the Park instead of the hospital. But he had one request: that they go get a picture with Goofy, because Goofy is his favorite. She held back her tears, gave Goofy a big hug, and said “Goofy, you have no idea how much I needed that hug.”

Zach has a bright future. I hope it brings him back to Disney. I hope Disney listens.

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