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This is the story that Disney would never tell you.
What do you do when everything in your life falls apart? If you're Chris Mitchell, you run away from home--all the way to Disney World, a place where no one ever dies--and employees, known as Cast Members, aren't allowed to frown. Mitchell shares the behind-the-scenes story of his year in the Mouse's army. From his own personal Disneyfication, to what really happens in the hidden tunnels beneath the Magic Kingdom and what not to eat at the Mousketeria, it was a year filled with more adventure--and surprises--than he could ever have "imagineered."
Funny and moving, Mitchell tracks his ascent through the backstage social hierarchy in which princesses rule, and his escapades in the "Ghetto" where Cast Members live and anything goes. Along the way, he unmasks the misfits and drop-outs, lifers and nomads who leave their demons at the stage door as they preserve the magic that draws millions to this famed fantasyland--the same magic that Mitchell seeks and ultimately finds in the last place he ever expected.
Chris Mitchell is an action sports photographer and journalist who grew up in Los Angeles. He was a senior at UCLA when he started his first magazine, an inline skating publication, and sold it to Sports & Fitness Publishing. Within a few years, he was working on five magazines within The Surfer Group. He continues to work closely with a number of publications and websites, as well as event and TV production companies like ESPN, ASA Entertainment and Lifelounge. He is a recognized expert in action sports, and as such, has stunt coordinated dozens of productions, including Batman and Robin, Brink! and Airborne. He is also the Chairman of the International Inline Stunt Federation for the advancement of extreme skating as a healthy and safe activity. After spending a year working as a photographer at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, he moved back to Los Angeles, where he currently lives.
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About the Author
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Cast Member Confidential
By Chris Mitchell
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2009 Chris Mitchell
All right reserved.
Nobody has ever died at Disney World. I discovered this curious truism on a trip to Orlando the year Tony Hawk landed the 900. I was there for work at the time, interviewing a professional rollerblader who worked as a stunt monkey in the Tarzan show.
It was a perfect September evening in Frontierland. The sky was North Shore blue and cloud free from Saint Pete's Beach in the west to Cocoa in the east. Butterflies were dancing to the banjo music, chasing beehives of hot pink cotton candy and buckets of popcorn that shone like doubloons in the last rays of the setting sun. It was a waxed planter day, a point break day, a powdery double-diamond day where anything at all was possible.
I was leaning up against a railing, the murky water of Tom Sawyer's Island at my back, when a baritone recording announced the beginning of the Magic Kingdom parade. Music rose up out of the landscaping and parade floats began to appear. My interview subject, Nick, had assured me that I would recognize him when the Tarzan float rolled up, and sure enough, he was hard to miss, dressed in a unitard of brown fur, doing cartwheels and flips in his Roller- blades. The audience was entertained by the stunt monkey, but they were enthralled with the dreadlocked bodybuilder in the loincloth, earnestly flexing his muscles on top of the float. Tarzan was the star of this show.
I could hardly hear myself think over the din of the Tarzan soundtrack, but I had no problem hearing the woman next to me when she belted out a glass-shattering scream. She was pointing at the dark expanse of lagoon that separated the flowerbeds of Frontierland from Tom Sawyer's Island, screeching like she had just found a crocodile in her cereal bowl. As I watched, the surface of the lagoon broke, and two tiny arms clawed the air, only for a second, before disappearing once again beneath the water.
I'm not a heroic person. While I'd like to say I was motivated by altruism that day in Frontierland, I was driven by what, in my case, is a more primal instinct: I sensed the opportunity to break the rules and get away with it. So I took it.
I kicked off my shoes and jumped the railing. The spot where the child had appeared was less than ten feet away, bubbles spritzing the surface where he had gone under. I aimed in that general direction and dove.
Immediately, I regretted my decision. The water tasted like diesel and expired spinach and smelled like El Porto after a sewage spill. I shot to the surface and tried not to retch. When my eyes focused, I discovered that I wasn't alone. A crowd of people was standing at the edge of the lagoon, and there were at least three in the water with me. The woman was at the railing, bawling into her hands.
I was looking for the shortest distance to the shore when I heard a triumphant shout behind me, and the crowd of tourists cheered. A man in the water held up a terrified boy who was, miraculously, still wearing a pair of mouse ears. Several people helped me over the railing onto the grass bank of Frontierland where the frantic woman was already clutching her boy and his savior.
The lifesaver, I realized then, was none other than Tarzan, who moments earlier had been riding his float, grinning as if he'd just been acquitted. He was six feet tall with broad shoulders and a Neanderthal forehead. Up close, I could see that his head of twisted dreadlocks was actually a wig. He was covered from head to toe in bronze makeup, and shadows had been artfully applied to exaggerate his musculature. He hugged the woman and put his hand on the boy's head.
"Keep boy safe," Tarzan said in broken English. "Children most important thing in world." He turned around and, for a moment, we stood face to face. "Tarzan very brave. But everybody can be hero." Then he winked at me and bounded through the crowd. The people parted, cheering as he vaulted back up onto his float, where he was joined by a woman in a yellow pinafore who batted her eyelashes at him and kissed him on the cheek.
The parade resumed and the crowd around me went back to eating waffle cones and buying souvenirs as if a cartoon character saving a drowning child were just another amusement park spectacle like a barbershop quartet or a sunburned German.
Afterward, I met Nick in the Disney parking lot and asked him about the experience. He responded to my amazement with an uninspired shrug. Just another day at the office. We drove to the skate park, where we spent the next couple of hours shooting sequences of switch-up grind tricks, then tagged the alleys off Orange Blossom Trail. When we ran out of Krylon, we picked up a couple of Red Bulls from a convenience store and sat down on a curb to do the interview.
As a general rule, I don't pass judgment on anyone. In my interviews, I ask challenging, often uncomfortable questions, but I don't moralize, demonize, or indemnify. People are complicated; that's why crayons come in boxes of sixty-four. When researching a subject, I start with her or his digital persona. People usually lie in their "About Me" section, but their choice of avatar is, if not immediately revealing, at least an honest foreshadowing of their true character. Nick's avatar was a slick version of himself-shirtless, with spiked hair and a studded belt. His ringtone was Snoop Dogg's "Mind On My Money." His screen name was SaintNicksRevenge. It wasn't a lot to go on, but considering we both grew up in a skate park, we were family. We spoke the same language.
"People say Nick Elliot sold out," I said into the Dictaphone.
"Three years ago, he was the X Games Champion. Now, he's run off and joined the circus. What do you say to them?"
Nick kept his cool. "I get paid to skate," he said. "And that's all I really care about. Fuck them."
"But you're skating for the Corporation," I goaded. "You're a wage slave to Disney Inc. How is that satisfying?"
He finished his Red Bull and crumpled the can. "I know what you're thinking. You look around Disney World, and you see crowds of sweaty-ass tourists, singing animals, sweatshop-manufactured merchandise, and you think this must be the lamest place in the world. But you're just seeing the surface, bro. You wouldn't believe the shit that goes on here behind the scenes."
"Disney has a dark side?"
"Dark as dysentery. What do you want? Opium? Koala bears? How about an Uzbeki mail-order bride? I'm telling you, this is the real Neverland Ranch. Michael ain't got nothing on the Mouse."
"You know," I said. "Radical accusations against Disney have been made before, but nothing has ever been proven. A lot of people consider it conspiracy theory propaganda."
Nick checked his watch. "In less than twenty minutes, I can introduce you to a guy who sells acid out of his Pooh costume. He's at Epcot right now."
"So, is that the real reason then? You've found a place where you can lead a double life?"
For the first time, Nick's cool exterior cracked. "This is going to sound totally fucking lame-in fact, turn off the tape recorder. I don't want this to go in the interview." I pretend to do it. "This place has real Magic-I'm serious. There's almost no crime. Nobody ever dies here. Have you noticed you don't see those bright green exit signs anywhere? Or telephone lines? It's not because they forgot; it's because they make their own rules here. This is what utopia would look like if it were run by eight-year-old architects."
"I still don't see what's in it for you."
"Being a pro skater ain't easy, dude. My sponsors are constantly on my ass. The kids expect me to rip all the effing time. I eat ibuprofen like Skittles. But here ... here, not even the Grim Reaper can touch me. All I ever wanted to do was skate, and now I've found something better. I've found a place where I can be a kid forever. Besides, the bud that comes through this place is the kindest you've ever had."
My whole flight home, I thought about what Nick had said and what I had witnessed. Nick Eliot was the guy every kid in Roller-blades wanted to be. He had a pro skate and a video game character, and yet here he was, working for Disney, proselytizing about magic like an apostle. As an action sports journalist, I was well aware of my responsibility to temper all claims of purity with a dose of ironic realism. I skated through Hollywood during the 1992 riots, videotaping skate tricks while looters robbed stores in the background. I did tequila shots before DARE half pipe shows. I protested my own values as a counterpoint to Absolutism.
And yet, I couldn't find a cynical twist for my encounter with Tarzan. I had watched a storybook hero save a child from drowning in a place that claimed nobody had died there since it first opened its doors in October 1971-no crime; no natural disasters; no unhappy endings. Was it possible that Disney was the next step in our evolution as a civilization? Nick believed. Either I was involved in one of the most convincing scams of the century or Disney was truly blessed with a legacy of immortality.
There are times when even the most jaded journalist needs to believe in Magic. For me, this was one of those times.
Excerpted from Cast Member Confidential by Chris Mitchell Copyright © 2009 by Chris Mitchell. Excerpted by permission.
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