ORLANDO — Plush characters are furry people magnets. The swollen, swinging bellies. The oversized feet. The unblinking synthetic eyeballs.
We trust our children to pose with Piglet, to thumbs- up with Thumper. But every so often, a story emerges detailing the sordid, grabby exploits of beloved characters.
Last week, the Smoking Gun website uncovered a lawsuit by a Pennsylvania woman who claims an employee dressed as Donald Duck groped her breast at Walt Disney World’s Epcot in 2008.
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January brought Disney photographer Chris Mitchell’s memoir Cast Member Confidential, detailing sexual exploits of costumed actors, tales of Winnie the Pooh peddling drugs from his rumbly tumbly.
In this age, people swarm with video phones to post awkward moments online. In a YouTube video with almost 1.5 million views, vlogger Justine Ezarik dances against an animatronic Chuck E. Cheese until he brushes her butt.
But “charactering,” as it’s known in the business, is not always simple. Especially when you’re covered in foam and can’t see out of your mask.
“You’re just this big, fluffy target,” said Kelly Frank, who spent three years as Raymond for the Tampa Bay Rays before being fired in 2008.
Pre-Raymond, Frank worked in the character departments at Epcot and Universal Studios, where she repaired Dudley Do Right and Grinch suits.
“The Popeye character, you’re seeing through his beard stubble,” said Frank, 29. “You’re looking through reticulated foam. It’s not the greatest.”
Theme park costumes are cumbersome, she said, because they’re designed for standing in photos and looking good. Sports mascots have smaller feet and lighter bodies to bound around bleachers and dance. But it’s still not perfect.
Flubs are natural, blush-worthy moments inevitable. Once, a baseball fan complained that Frank ditched his son to take pictures with pretty girls. She didn’t even see the kid, she said.
“You can’t see everything,” she said. “I’ve accidentally whacked people in the chest and touched the wrong area. I have four fingers and I’m looking out of a mouth. Stuff happens.”
Character lawsuits tend to fizzle. In 2004, Tigger (or, the guy inside) was acquitted on charges he fondled a 13-year-old girl at Walt Disney World, sparing him 15 years in prison.
During the trial, a lawyer donned the Tigger costume for closing statements to argue his client couldn’t see much.
David Russell understands. He spent two years as a koala, giraffe and tiger at Busch Gardens, where he recalls being blindly punched in the gut by a teen.
“She just drilled me in the solar plexus,” said Russell, a 32-year-old graphic artist from Clearwater. “You have no peripheral vision. You try to compensate for it as much as possible. You tend to make broad movements.”
Most characters receive training. Mind your hands. Don’t lean against people.
“You have to be very careful about what you do,” said Todd Cassini, formerly Scooby Doo and Yogi Bear at Ohio’s King’s Island. “It goes back as far as charactering. You don’t hold babies. You don’t hold cameras.”
Chuck E. Cheese staff training videos from the 1980s, archived for posterity on YouTube, explain how to wear the mouse suit (socks matter), how to care for Chuck (Lysol, Formula 409), how to playfully rub cake in a child’s face.
This Chuck E. is making things happen, and he knows when to stop. He is effectively reading his guests to know what he can get away with. If you try to force things to happen, they can backfire on you. You have to know your limitations.
Responsibility matters, characters said. There’s strange power in a giant furry head.
“When you’re in the costume, a boyfriend will throw their girlfriend at you for a hug,” said Cassini, 46. “Parents will corral their children around you for pictures. If you’re not wearing a costume, those things don’t happen in real life.”