Book Review: Cast Member Confidential by Chris Mitchell

Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 9.51.36 PMCast Member Confidential: A Disneyfied Memoir by Chris Mitchell

Rating 3/5 stars for the casual reader

1/5 for those Disney fans who don’t want to sully the brand

5/5 for those who enjoy the peek behind the mask

Last week when I reviewed Spinning Disney’s World, I promised that we’d get to the memoir with sex on property, hijinks and a very different view of life under The Mouse from Ridgeway’s rarefied PR office.  This is a memoir that will give you that peek. There are a few others, but this was the most enjoyable.

Just as the reader has to keep in mind that Ridgeway was intent on keeping both the man and the brand Snow White (sorry, I had to), it is worth noting that Mitchell defines himself as anti-establishment.  At times he tries a bit too hard to convince us of that fact.  To his credit, Mitchell seems far more aware of his bias than Ridgeway, and he does make fairly self aware statements throughout the book to that effect.

One of the things that made Spinning Disney’s World such a tough review was the lack of a narrative.  Mitchell does us the favor of both giving us a sequential narrative, and one with a central theme.  After his mother’s cancer diagnosis (and his parent’s attempt to hide it from him–he finds out from his older brother) he effectively decides to run away to Disney and hide in the magic, playing Peter Pan/Lost Boy in the Magic Kingdom.

Nobody has every died at Disney World (again, no page #’s, so I’ll cite percentages throughout the review–2%)

Mitchell uses this piece of Disney lore as a framing device at both the opening and close of the book.  At the start of the book, he’s told that bit of lore by Nick Elliot–Former X Games Champion turned skateboarding monkey on the Tarzan float in a WDW parade.  (I’ll address that bit of lore at the end of the review)

The narrative shifts to Mitchell’s personal life a short time later–within a very short period of time he is fired from his job, his girlfriend dumps him for a friend, and his brother tells him that their mother has cancer but that he can’t tell her that he knows.  Mitchell’s reaction to all of this is to run away to Disney World to put his professional sports photography skills to use….as one of those guys taking pictures of families with Disney Characters.

“Your job will be to work with the characters.  You’ll take pictures of Minnie and Mickey and Winne the Pooh and Tigger and anybody else our beloved guests wish to meet.  And you’ll try to capture a moment on their faces that doesn’t look like desperate misery, and then you’ll sell the photos back to them at a very reasonable price” (said to Mitchell by his Boss Orville 7%)

Mitchell begins his time at Disney trying to find “The Magic.”  He submits to a haircut approved by “The Disney Look” employee handbook.  He removes piercings.  He shaves.  He tucks in his uniform shirt, and leaves the chain wallet and sunglasses at home (or at least in his employee locker).  He learns to identify Cast Members by their uniforms (photographers like himself wear Khaki uniforms in the Animal Kingdom, for example).  He learns the “Seven Guest Service Guidelines,” such as “(4) If you sense that a guest is a having a less-than-Magical moment, provide immediate recovery any way you can.”

The Never Never Land that Mitchell was seeking when he ran away to Disney does seem to exist.  Or, at least, it is possible to exist in a Disney bubble.  Rather than debate the 2000 election, Cast Members were arguing  passionately over whether Maria in “The Sound of Music” or Mary in “Mary Poppins” was Julie Andrew’s greatest role. (22%)

However, he still doesn’t get off to the best start.  He likes to make snarky comments, only to realize too late that (at this point in the book) the people he’s making them to, and the context in which he’s making them get an icy reception.  You shouldn’t really crack jokes about Mickey getting “a call from his Hollywood agent who just cast him in a movie with Jessica Rabbit” to someone who uses phrases like “oh my ears and whiskers” as part of their everyday conversation.(10%)  Don’t tell a woman who took a job as Pocahontas after finding out she can’t have kids as a way to be a special part of kid’s lives  that “Children are idiots.” (11%)  Even when you just saw someone kick Mickey as hard as they can, you don’t ask that person if they’re okay by their “real” name (21%)

Eventually though, he begins to integrate, then gets a bit too comfortable.  Backsliding begins with snacking on property (38%).  Temptation comes knocking when he begins to do “out of character” photography–Goofy blowing a smoke ring (39%), Mickey picking Minnie’s Nose (39%), Chip and Dale in a 69 (42%) until Mickey Flashing Tit gets the girl in question fired–the tit in question has a very individual tattoo.(73%) .  He has sex on property with a girl who plays Chip on a bunch of boxes of Disney t-shirts backstage at Epcot (41%).

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.34.18 AMA sample of “out of character” photography (found via google/reddit)

Mitchell’s world is populated by characters as colorful as any dreamed up by Disney, although they are hardly what Walt had in mind.

  • Brady is a character actor–Mike Wazowski, Pooh and Roger Rabbit.  Offstage, he’s a bit of a sociopath.  Eventually Brady will rope Mitchell into kidnapping a dog (30%) and taking “medication” to Cuba (81%).  But first, Brady will give Mitchell his first peek into the dark side of working for Disney–an after hours party at an apartment complexes (referred to as ‘the Disney ghetto”) owned by Disney where cast members live.  The party as described by Mitchell is one party Alice in Wonderland esque drug fantasy and one part orgy drenched in alcohol.  (15%)  Brady also becomes Mitchell’s tour guide and translator in the backstage rules and workings of the parks.
  • Johnny works in PR.  A NASCAR and beer enthusiast, Mitchell answers an ad on a cast member bulletin board to become his roommate. (22%)  He’s also a chickenhawk–an older gay man who loves a different younger man every week. (38%)  By the end of the book, he’s trying to become the next Lou Pearlman by creating his own gay-themed Boy band called “Boy Banned” (86%).
  • When Mitchell first meets Calico (50%) she is playing Ariel.  Orville (his boss) tries to warn Mitchell off of her, but he doesn’t listen.  At first there’s no discernable reason why.  She seems like a sweet vegetarian who cries over her Wish kids and wants to be a wedding planner.  Then she starts speaking in a British accent, eating meat and missing dates when she’s cast as Cruella DeVille. (80%)  She lies to Mitchell, claiming she’s been diagnosed with cancer.  He overcompensates, doing for her what his mom won’t let him do as he’s not even supposed to know about his mother’s diagnosis. This all culminates in Mitchell catching her cheating on him with another cast member, telling her sexual partner “You’re a miserable, naughty little puppy!” in her fake British acent.  (93%)

Rather than evoke “true patriot” or “great man” Walt Disney narrative used by Ridgeway, Mitchell says that Walt was–

A product of Midwest values and Industrial Revolution savvy, he learned how to make money the old-fashioned way: from children. (24%)

If you are looking for behind the scenes dirt, there’s plenty dished

  • I used to think that characters were immune to the smells of the outisde world, but, in fact, it was exactly the opposite.  Any scent that drifted into the head stayed i the head: cigarette smoke, perfume, garlic breath.  Passing gas inside a costume was to be avoided at all costs.  The stench was trapped inside the body untilt he character bent down to hug a child, then blew out the only opening in the suit–the mouth.  Within a week, I’d lost count of the number of times I heard a child turn to his parents and say, ‘Eew, Pluto has doggie breath!'” (25%)
  • Cast Members sitting around coming up with Disney themed porn titles (34%)
  • Sex on Property (mentioned starting at 40% and then throughout the book from there)  I used to work at the Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum in Boston in the late 90’s and it seemed that everyone hooked up somewhere on property at least once.  I never had sex on property–but I did know every inch of space that the cameras didn’t see.  Do I think a ton of 20 something Disney employees are going to hook up on property?  Abso-fucking-lutely–pun intended.

Just as Mitchell begins his memoir with the rumor that no one has ever died on property, at the 91% mark, he sees an older employee’s heart give out.  He’s reprimanded for ruining people’s “magical experience” on property because kids saw Mitchell administer CPR.  He gets into a massive fight with his manager and quits/is fired.  After attending the funeral of his fellow cast member, Mitchell is having brunch with  two fellow employees and the following conversation happens.

“….I found this amazing, magical place where nobody ever dies, like the Bermuda Triangle, only in a good way, and I actually started to believe that I could settle down here.  I honestly thought I had it in me to be a lifer.” (Mitchell)

Marco looked at me, puzzled.  “What are you talking about?  People die at Disney World all the time.”

I shook my head.  “There’s never been a death at Disney World.  Even Walter.  The paper reported he died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.”

Marco and Orville exchanged a look.  Orville took a deep breath before he spoke.  “Nobody’s ever been pronounced dead on Disney property because that’s Disney’s policy.  If somebody passes away at one of the parks, the body gets loaded into the alpha unit and pronounced dead in transit.”….”Hey, don’t look so sad.  I didn’t mean to upset you.”

In reality, I wasn’t at all that surprised.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think I knew that was the case the whole time. What really threw me was my apparently innate talent to deceive myself into believing the most absurd fantasies: that I could escape reality in an amusement park, that I could continue to live a life unexamined. …. I ran away from my mom when she needed my support the most.  I was a shallow, self-centered bastard. (95%)

Mitchell drives back to California, shedding his Disney self as he goes–changing his ring tone, re-inserting his labret piercing, and so forth.  He finds out his mom is now in remission.  The book fades to black with the family watching, and him falling asleep to Disney’s Peter Pan. (100%)

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.48.48 AM

Makes for a cohesive, tight, and convenient narrative, doesn’t it?  Boy loses girl and job, finds out Mom is sick, and runs away to Disney World.  Boy loses job and girl friend,  runs back to CA, and mom is well.  The “no one dies on property” rumor is ash is just one more piece of Disney misdirection to bookend the narrative.  All very slick.  Too slick for me, as a critical reader, to take at face value.

Let’s start with that whole “no on ever dies on property” rumor.  According to snopes, it is false.  But does that mean that situations like the one described don’t happen?  Probably not–it wouldn’t shock me that in general the policy is to have the person declared DOA at the hospital, but it isn’t true that it never happens.

Like Ridgeway, Mitchell takes his artistic license too far at times in a way that calls everything into question.  Do I buy that the greeter died on property but got a DOA at the hospital–maybe.  Do I buy that Calico was a bit method?  Sure.  The extent to which Mitchell describes, though?  Especially given the perfection of the timing for everything to fall apart at the precisely correct moment?  Smacks of artistic license.  It’s all a bit too perfectly timed in an After School Special  “Very Important Lesson” kind of way.

Exactly how much exaggeration is going on?  How much of an axe does Mitchell have to grind?  Hard to know.

Both of the Disney books are skewed.  Mitchell is the E True Hollywood Story to Ridgeway’s Travel Channel documentary, so to speak.  When put head to head, which you’ll like better is up for grabs depending on what kind of mood you’re in.

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