California Disney characters are unionizing decades after Florida peers. Hollywood plays a role

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California Disney characters are unionizing decades after Florida peers. Hollywood plays a role

ORLANDO, Fla. — During three years of working as a parade performer at the Disneyland Resort in Southern California, Zach Elefante always has had a second or third job to help him earn a living.

Unlike the experiences of his peers at Disney’s parks in Orlando, Florida, where there is a much smaller talent pool, the performers who play Mickey Mouse, Goofy and other beloved Disney characters at the California parks aren’t always provided a consistent work schedule by the company.

It’s among the reasons the California performers are organizing to be represented by a union now, more than four decades after their Florida counterparts did so.

While Disney asks character performers to be available to work at any time, that demand isn’t always rewarded with scheduled work hours, the California performers said.

“A lot of performers get the sense that if they don’t give their full availability, we won’t be in shows … and that will impact other jobs we need to sustain a living in this area,” said Elefante, who lives in Santa Ana, California.

Earlier this month, the California character performers and the union organizing them, Actors’ Equity Association, said they had filed a petition for union recognition.

It’s a different era and a different union doing the organizing this time around, so the California character and parade performers likely will avoid some of the bad blood that the Disney performers in Florida have experienced with their union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

It has been a rocky four-decade marriage in Florida between the performers who put the “magic” in the Magic Kingdom and the Teamsters, a union historically formed for transportation and warehouse workers which had deep ties to organized crime until the late 1980s.

Why now for the California character performers, so many decades after their Florida counterparts organized? Unlike in Florida where performing as a character often is a full-time job, many of the character performers in Southern California have multiple other gigs, often in Hollywood movies and TV.

Elefante performs at rival Universal Studios Hollywood and works as a tour guide for the movie studios. In addition to performing in the “Fantasmic!” show at Disneyland, Chase Thomas works as the director of operations for a theater festival and previously has had jobs as a visual effects coordinator and entertainment licensing agent.

Angela Nichols moved to California to be a TV writer and often works as a writer in addition to her job as an entertainment host at Disneyland, where she assists the character performers when they’re interacting with guests.

“Disney really is a cornerstone of the stories we grow up with in our culture. Being able to watch people immersed in these stories and live it out is magical,” Nichols said. “And when we’re being supported as cast members and performers, we’re able to make that happen. We’re just not being set up for success in the way we need to be at this time.”

When many of their Hollywood gigs dried up because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the recent actors’ and writers’ strikes, the character performers wanted more consistent scheduling at Disneyland once it reopened after a yearlong, pandemic-related closure. The pandemic also made them more alert to health and safety concerns concerning things like hugging guests or having sanitary costumes.

Most of the more than 35,000 workers at the Disneyland Resort in Southern California already were unionized, and the parades and character department members were among the holdovers.

“A lot of cast members want to do this fulltime and make it work,” Thomas said.

Unlike their Florida counterparts, the character performers in California are being organized by a union devoted to performers. As such, Actors’ Equity Association officials understand the unique needs of the theme park performers in ways that would be difficult for other unions to grasp.

When there is a new stage show, the shoes of the costumes need to be tested to make sure the performers won’t trip or slip on stage. Union representatives make sure “face performers,” whose faces are visible, such as Cinderella, have the right makeup and double check that parade dancers have ice packs available to nurse sore knees.

Unclean costumes are a perennial problem, and it was a top reason for the Florida performers wanting to organize with the Teamsters in the early 1980s. The other reasons included kids kicking Disney villains like Captain Hook in the shins and adults grabbing at the chests of performers playing Mickey Mouse to see if there was a man or woman underneath.

Clean costumes were so important to the Florida character performers that more than two decades ago the Teamsters succesfully inserted a contract clause to assign individual undergarments that the performers could take home to wash after pubic lice and scabies were shared via the garments.

There always existed a culture clash in Florida between the costumed character performers and the traditional Teamsters union leaders of truck drivers and warehouse workers. The drivers often viewed the performers as living charmed lives, paid to dress up every day as if it were Halloween.

Those tensions came to a head in the late 2010s as a new leader of the local Teamsters affiliate in Orlando began targeting the costumed character performers for harassment. The character performers pushed back and the fight went up to James Hoffa, then-head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who intervened.

In California, Elefante is hopeful union representation will give performers a voice in decisions about issues including the larger-than-life costumes, which can cause long-term injuries when ill-fitted, and the safety of performing in parades during rain.

“It’s about having a seat at the table and being a part of the conversation from the performers’ perspective,” Elefante said.

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Associated Press reporter Amy Taxin in Orange County, California, contributed to this report.

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Mike Schneider’s book, “Mickey and the Teamsters: A Fight for Fair Unions at Disney,” was published in October by the University Press of Florida. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter.

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