On the outside, Winnie the Pooh is a kindhearted, lovable persona, signing autographs for starry-eyed children and posing for adorable snapshots. On the inside, he’s an actor who gets through the unbearable grind of the average Disney workday by masturbating into his bear suit.
That’s one of the tamer revelations in Chris Mitchell’s new memoir-reportage hybrid, Cast Member Confidential. Mitchell, an action-sports photographer and journalist from California, landed a job at Disney World to escape a life that was falling apart — his girlfriend left him for his best friend, his successful brother shunned him, his mother was dying of cancer and his career was in the gutter. The microcosmic fantasyland of Disney World provided an escape, an ostensible retreat to the kind of magical, antiseptic innocence where dreams come true and the skies never darken.
What he found was a hedonist’s playground, a veritable Sodom buried beneath the plastic smiles and ubiquitous Mouse ears.
“All of my expectations were wrong,” Mitchell recalls in a recent interview. “I thought I was a pretty good judge of character, but apparently not. In hindsight, it’s like college. You come in out of high school, or maybe you’re on break from high school, and you’re working for Disney … Of course, you’re going to be exposed to some experimentation.”
As Mitchell reveals, in the Disney culture, deviant behavior is more than a routine occurrence; it’s a rite of passage to prove you belong. You haven’t really arrived until you’ve joined the SOP club (that would mean Sex on Property), orgiastic parties overflow the rooms of Disney’s low-income housing complexes and Cast Members (a euphemism for anyone on the theme park payroll) have easy, unlimited access to drugs if they know which Minnie or Tigger is dealing behind the curtain.
And the people, at least the ones Mitchell finds interesting enough to write about, are an eccentric bunch, many of them certifiably sociopathic. Mitchell’s best friend at the park is the kind of guy who drives out to the middle of a swamp to “liberate” a trailer-park pit bull from its neglectful owners and later tries to use Mitchell as a mule to smuggle meningitis vaccines from Cuba. His roommate, a Disney PR rep and Southern gay man who loves NASCAR and whiskey, preaches at the altar of Orlando kingmaker Lou Pearlman and tries to form his own gay boy band. One memorable scene finds Mitchell walking in on his roomie’s photo shoot, full of barely legal nude boys piled in a possibly pederastic orgy.
But some of the most enlightening sections of the book are the less scandalous ones. Mitchell provides an in-depth look at the backstage mechanics of Disney World and the rigid protocols that breed dissent and depravity. He writes adeptly about the Cast Member hierarchy, from janitors to vendors to greeters to the characters — large-egoed show-biz types with their own caste system within the cast system.
“It’s almost like a little Hollywood,” Mitchell says. “They picture themselves as these elite performers, which they are in the Disney system. You get people who love that performance element. They may not have what it takes to move out to Hollywood, but they could be someone in Orlando.”
Still, it was the potentially inflammatory subject matter that caused the book to linger in legal limbo for a decade. Mitchell wrote the book in 2000, but, as he says, “It took nine years to find a publisher brave enough to distribute it and to get through the legal elements. Kensington went through a bunch of rounds with lawyers. I had to use legal terms like allegedly — a few things changed in some places. I worried about Disney going after [the people I wrote about]. If they find out so-and-so did some ecstasy, it would be grounds for an investigation, if not full dismissal.”
To avoid the possibility of libel suits, Mitchell changed the names (and the characters they portrayed) of the people he exposed. He has yet to be threatened with a lawsuit.
Although Mitchell left Disney’s employ on bitter terms — as detailed in the book’s shocking final act — part of him misses his stint there, and if he had kids, he’d love to bring them to the park. Perhaps that’s why Cast Member Confidential is less of the anti-Disney hit piece than you might expect.
“At the end of the day, I love Disney as a corporation,” Mitchell says. “They do an amazing job of entertainment. There are mornings when I wake up in L.A. and it’s more humid than usual and the sun’s coming up, and I totally miss being able to drive to the Animal Kingdom and watch the animals wake up.”
Chris Mitchell will appear 8 p.m. Tuesday at Books and Books, 265 Aragon Ave., in Coral Gables. Call 305-442-4408 or visit Booksandbooks.com.
This story was originally published Feb. 17, 2010.