Several months ago I received an email from the Recreation Center at the Mid-South Navy Base asking for volunteers for their annual Disney character breakfast. Seeing as I don’t particularly like to act or play dress-up, and we don’t have any kids, I was about to delete it but then stopped and thought, this actually might be kind of fun. The last several years Jeff and I had participated in Mill Creek’s Trunk or Treat event organized by our church for Halloween, and I thought, hey, this might not be so different. The Rec Center had all the costumes and basically just needed people to populate them. Or that’s how I interpreted the request (I may have underestimated the organization and scope of the event, as I’ll get to later…).
I’ve always enjoyed participating in Trunk or Treat because it’s a fun, low responsibility way to interact with loads of adorable kids. You get the opportunity to see some overjoyed lil’ kiddos while not having to worry much about the ones in meltdown mode because their parents are there to whisk them away. Ok, so maybe my motives for participating are a bit selfish if I frame them that way… I mean, of course I’d like to think my volunteering at these events helps put a smile on some children’s faces. But it’s not just a one-way service.
So I cleared it with Jeff, who of course said yes (because he actually enjoys getting into character and playing different roles), and replied to the email. The organizer then responded and asked if I could send her a picture of the two of us for the purposes of figuring out which characters we should be. Well, technically, she first asked if we had any specific characters in mind, to which I diplomatically replied that we didn’t. But of course, what child growing up here in the U.S. in my generation has not at some point contemplated what Disney prince or princess he or she resembles? Jasmine… Pocahontas… Moana… Esmeralda (okay not the best Disney film… Jeff might not be thrilled if he had to be Quasimodo)?
Several weeks passed and I hadn’t heard anything back, so I ventured another email to the organizer who responded and asked if we wanted to be Buzz Lightyear and Jessie. I reviewed the photo I had emailed her, my complexion did look a little washed out in it. I replied sure. I figured they were probably just going for nontraditional, or color-blind, casting. I should celebrate playing a pasty-white redheaded cowgirl. Or, more realistically, they just didn’t have lookalike fits for everyone and just tried to make do (I’d like to think they were deliberately trying to be progressive though…). I knew Jeff would make a fantastic Buzz and, again, I was mainly participating to see the happy, cute kids.
In preparation for the event we rewatched Toy Story 2. Jeff carefully reviewed Buzz’s mannerisms, phraseology, attitude, and memorable lines. I half-heartedly observed Jessie and noted that her obnoxious perkiness and wide range of emotions far exceeded my acting capabilities or any amount of effort I was willing to invest in the character. Maybe I could swing my arms or pose in a way that kind of made me look cowgirlish… maybe. I knew the moment I opened my mouth the facade would be over. All I was expected to do was put on the costume, parade around, smile and try not to scare any little kids, right?
The evening before the Character Breakfast it was recommended that we attend a rehearsal and try on our costumes if we hadn’t already. I had falsely assumed that the event would take place in the Rec Center, a modest building perhaps the size of a hotel lobby with a couple adjacent rooms. Fortunately I checked the address before making my way to the rehearsal, and was instead lead to a huge gymnasium, a former hanger, across from the base near the airfield. Oh. I entered the building and was met with a giant archway of black balloons in the outline of Mickey ears and walked underneath them. Then set across half the room were about thirty large round tables for guests situated in front of an elevated stage and the other half was open floor with designated cubicles around the edges with groups of character names. So it was definitely a bit larger scale than I was expecting.
I would guess about 2/3rds of the characters made it to the rehearsal and we discovered that there was a Woody in our Toy Story group. He would be played by a young man who had acted as Dopey the previous couple years. He boasted that he could no longer play a dwarf because he hit a growth spurt so they assigned him to play Woody. I asked him how old he was, he was 14. I’m glad we had rewatched Toy Story 2 recently because I had thought Jessie and Woody were a thing but at the end of the film it was clear that Jessie and Buzz had chemistry… All-in-all, there were definitely a mix of ages of volunteers. I think Woody was one of the youngest, I’d say a lot of the princes and princesses were in their 20-30’s but there were several older adults as well playing the likes of characters such as Cruella de Vil, the Fairy Godmother, Captain Hook, and Alice and Wonderland’s White Rabbit.
At one point during the rehearsal the young man playing Woody expressed his concern to me that, “Kids these days probably won’t know who half of these characters are.” I had difficulty not blurting out to his sweet little baby-face, “What?! You’re not even in High School! You are not allowed to say ‘kids these days’!” But I managed to hold in my sentiments, while simultaneously suddenly feeling much older. And responded with, “Well, you know who all these characters are right?” To which he nodded yes. Exactly. Well, I’m not sure he got my point that I clearly still considered him a kid… but no matter.
Several years ago I found myself in Guatemala with a bus full of passengers from Colombia (long story). Somehow they found on the radio, or perhaps popped in a CD of, a bunch of Colombian songs and I sat in awe as they all knew literally all the words to every single song and enthusiastically sang along for miles and miles. It made me think, what do we have in America, besides the anthem, that everyone knows? And I was thinking that the U.S. was too eclectic and had too many sub-genres for something to be so ubiquitous. But I think I finally found my answer: Disney. From kids these days, to my generation, to my parents and even grandparents, we all know Mickey and his friends.
We arrived about an hour before the start of the event to get into costume on Saturday morning. I was a bit concerned that the red yarn Jessie wig wouldn’t fit on my noggin’ (I didn’t fully commit to trying it on the previous day because I didn’t want to mess up my hair, but it seemed pretty small). I was assured that if it didn’t I could wear Ariel’s wig instead, seeing as the gal playing Ariel brought her own. As you do. Anyway, I was able to stretch the somewhat elastic Jessie wig out over my head and cover it with her red cowgirl hat in a way that I was fairly confident would stay put for the duration of the event. Had I not affixed it under the hat I had visions of it rebounding off the top of my head much like those semi-circle little rubber popper toys that I used to play with as a kid.
They held us backstage forever (we definitely didn’t need to go to rehearsal the previous evening) as they wanted to allow ample time for all the families to get through the buffet and seated again before beginning the presentation. Apparently they found in past years that breakfast service tended to fall apart if they started the show before all the kids were back at their tables with their food. Anyhow, eventually they lined us up to make our grand entrance. Each group of characters was introduced separately and walked on stage to their own theme music. They then had a little skit and paused for a moment of recognition before moving onto the next group. I know. I was not thrilled when I learned this at rehearsal but fortunately our grand entrance wasn’t too involved.
We were about midway through the queue, between the Incredibles and Beauty and the Beast. As the Incredibles began to clear the stage “You got a friend in me” began to play and Woody and I walked onto the stage smiling and waving madly, stopping mid center to appease our loyal fans. Buzz (Jeff) waited a few seconds out of view, then ran out to receive his own adoration and obliviously poses right in front of Woody and I. The crowd of well over two hundred people laughed and applauded, then we walked down the stairs in the front of the stage and exited to the left to add to the line of characters forming offstage.
The highlight of the event for me, had to be standing there while the rest of the characters were being introduced and watching this little girl at the table in front of me standing on her chair and reacting in utter jubilation each time a new group of characters were introduced. She was, of course, dressed in a little princess outfit, and probably only 3 or 4 years old, and her expressions were priceless. She did the little arm bent I’m-so-excited-I’m-just-going-to-vibrate-in-glee thing. And as one of the princesses was introduced she actually clutched her hands over her little heart, God bless her. Not all the kids were so actively involved as I noted a little one-year-old, presumably her younger brother, crawling aimlessly beneath the same table and chairs, oblivious to all the characters around him.
Mickey and Minnie were the last to be introduced then headed to the front of the line and led us in a musical procession around all the tables. I tried to do my best rag doll, overly energetic march but it was hit-and-miss at best. The room was quite large and I couldn’t possibly be expected to maintain that type of irrational enthusiasm for more than a few seconds at a time. I at least managed to walk, smile, and wave. Oh, and my wig didn’t pop off. So we’ll count that as a win.
As our march ended past the tables at the far side of the gym, we peeled off to be seated at our individualized character cubicles and waited for the kids to line up to meet us. Some of the stations had props, ours included a large toy chest including toy soldiers, Mr. Potato head, the green space aliens, Woody’s horse Bullseye, and the evil bear Lotso from the movies. I was convinced that we would see a steady decline of toys as the morning wore on but was surprised that none seemed to disappear with any of the children (not to say that there weren’t any that were forcibly removed from little hands). I was most impressed with the prop at Cinderella’s station, they actually had a freakin’ life-sized carriage, in their corner.
Minnie and Mickey probably had the longest consistent line, for obvious reasons, while the rest of the character slots seemed to have a steady stream of admirers. The only character that was a bit befuddling was the Prince of Persia. I’m pretty sure he just got sympathy photos because, really, who even knew that he was a Disney character? Poor guy. At least his costume was pretty cool, even if you had to look at the writing on the curtain behind him to figure out who he was. The costumes for Beast and Donald Duck were, in a much different way, pretty cool as well. Unfortunately, the poor volunteers could hardly see out of their head pieces and basically had to be escorted around the room once they donned the full costume. The guy who played Beast was quite an athletic fellow but once he put Beast’s head on was walking around like Mr. Magoo.
As far as practicality went, I was actually quite pleased with my costume. When I initially envisioned dressing as a princess I had not considered the extra work involved. Not only were the dresses more cumbersome than Jessie’s pants and vest, but the princesses actually had to put effort into their hair and make-up. It probably worked out for the best to leave those roles to the gals who actually enjoyed or excelled in that area. Also, for the princesses to ‘sparkle’ they seemed to have to wear copious amounts of body glitter and that stuff gets on everything. I didn’t need to sparkle for days to come. The costumes with masks or head coverings seemed a bit enticing as well since they can be low effort to don and limit the amount of acting/speaking you have to do, but then you run into issues of difficulty seeing (as evidenced by Sir Donald and Beast).
The organizers gave us signature cards to pass out to the kids so they could collect them from all the characters if they wanted to. I guess in years past they had each volunteer practice their character’s actual signature (because of course, that’s a thing) and then hand-write them for each kid but evidently they had some copyright issues or something with that. Anyway, there were a handful of little girls that perhaps recalled those days, or were encouraged by their mothers, and instead of taking our signature cards handed us little notepads with a sparkling pen so that we could give them a genuine autograph. The first time I tried to fancily sign Jessie I realized my cursive was way out of practice so by the second notepad I switched to a standard print dotting the ‘i’ in her name with a little heart. This looked way better, I was just hoping the first little girl didn’t compared her signatures with the others. I feel like she probably did. These little girls looked like the types that could sniff out a Disney fraud.
So the kids and families flocked to us for at least another hour. Some kids were genuinely thrilled to meet and take pictures with us, some seemed to be there more to appease their parents, and some were just overwhelmed by the whole situation and ready to go home. We’d introduce ourselves as kids came up, then pose for a picture with them and hand them a signature card. About 10% of the time I would inexplicably change Jessie’s name to Annie and introduce myself as such, in which case Jeff would promptly mumble to me, “It’s Jessie” and I’d think to myself, “What did I just say?”
Jeff was definitely more into his character than I was. He excited some kids with his spot-on Buzz impersonations but confused others by mimicking his self-absorbed personality and threatening to laser potential threats with his wrist band. One Mom actually came back and requested that he say Buzz’s famous line, to which he boldly pronounced, “To infinity and beyond” as she squealed with delight. I, on the other hand, was just happy when I managed to introduce myself by my character’s correct name. We all have different strengths…
Eventually the kids began to thin out and they called all the character volunteers up on stage for a joint photo op and to wave goodbye to the tune of Mickey Mouse Club’s “Now it’s time to say goodbye” (of course). By that point I had long been sympathizing with Tour Guide Barbie at the end of Toy Story 2. My cheeks were killing me! There is a thing as too much smiling. It’s not natural.
Anyways, it was a fun event. It probably didn’t warrant this long of a summary (or any really), but I couldn’t help myself. So there you have it. You’re welcome world.