Keeping the Magic Alive
I will never ever forget the first time my child met a character. She was barely 18 months old, and a big fan of the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. We headed to the Town Square Theater and got in line to see the Boss Mouse himself. I was nervous. How would my child react? Would she be scared? As we were ushered into the room with a few other families, I found myself getting emotional just watching Mickey interact with the other kids; he could engage the shyest kid or soothe the most nervous toddler. Then it was our turn...
I didn't expect to be moved the way I was. Let's be honest: we grow older, we grow jaded. I did not understand the appeal of meeting characters up to this point (we'd been passholders for months before this). Seeing the joy on my kid's face? And, more so, seeing how the characters would work to bring about a great interaction for these kids who were still developing social skills? I was in awe. It's not just about these characters, it's the incredible cast members who create magic for each and every kid in a world where we forget magic can exist.
Looking back now I can identify this was the moment that led our family to drink the "Disney Kool-aid." We started coming to the parks almost every week. In an environment that nurtured kindness and an open heart, I watched my child blossom into a social butterfly. We started doing character dining, visiting Storybook Circus, and ventured into Fairytale Hall as well. Did I mention we did most of these interactions with FastPasses? Or babysitting the MDE app watching wait times? Cause we're pro's.
I'll never forget the first character interaction we had "off-app." There are a small selection of characters who meet in the parks in locations that don't have wait times posted or Fast-Passes available. On Mother's Day, 2014, we introduced Daphne to Princess Tiana at her spot in the glen.
The interaction started like the others we'd had in the hall: my kid charged forward and grabbed a hug and a cuddle, posed for a picture. Tiana chatted with her a little, but my not-super-chatty-yet kid mostly smiled and nodded. This was the point in time in the hall where we would say our thank you's and move on. That's not what happened, though. Tiana noticed my kid eyeballing the water and ducks behind the glen, so she grabbed my kid's hand and walked her over to watch the ducks and talk about them. Wait... can she do that? There were people in line behind us! I started feeling... MAGIC GUILT. I wasn't sure if I should try to herd my kid off, but Tiana, her photopass, and her attendants were all smiling and watching as if this was nothing unusual. Tiana's sweet New Orleans laugh rang out through the glen in time with my daughter's giggle, and I looked apologetically back at the people in line. But none of them were looking at me: they were all watching Tiana and Daphne. Smiling. Laughing. Looking forward to getting their own special time with the princess. After yet another hug and cuddle session, Daphne finally let me lead her away.
I walked away from that meet (pardon the slang) SHOOK. It felt like ages, but in the end Tiana probably only took an extra 2 minutes with my kid. 2 minutes that made an incredible impact on our family. We couldn't come back to Magic Kingdom after that without making another trip to the glen. As AP's we have the added privilege of forging friendships with Cast Members. In the months that followed, to anyone that asked, D would refer to Tiana as her "Big Sister."
Tiana and Daphne got to forge this incredible bond with months, but I got to watch CM's accomplish incredible magic with just a few extra moments. My kid, like most, started out terrified of villains. When Daphne accidentally found herself in front of the Evil Queen right after hugging the daylights out of Princess Jasmine, her first reaction was understandable: she burst into tears. The attendants "aww'd" and I reached down to usher my child away for comfort. But at that moment, the queen caught my eye for a split second, and I paused. "I'm not going to harm you, child." D stopped wailing and turned to stare at the queen. The queen crouched down, still regal, elegant, and imposing, but no longer quite so intimidating. She contemplated my daughter's dress and commiserated over a love of the color purple. That was it: maybe 30 seconds of chatting to my kid on her level while I held her hand in silent encouragement, and my kid charged her.
I could go on and on. In these past 3.5 years, I am blessed to say I have so many memories like this: moments when my child was brave, moments when my child forged a new friendship. What do all these best moments have in common? Time. Cast members who felt free to put in an extra minute or two to work with a shy child, to create a memory beyond a hug and photo. I've gotten to witness incredible magic for other families, too. I've given up my place in line to watch a Make a Wish family spend five minutes laughing with the Tremaines.I've smiled at the joy on a parent's face when they watch their shy child have a whispered conversation with Tinker Bell followed by enthusiastic hugs that never seemed to end.
But... it's getting a lot harder for CM's to make moments like this happen. Most of them are encouraged to keep meeting times down to a VERY small time frame for places like Fairytale Hall. The reasoning behind this should be obvious: there are posted wait times that some visitors might freak out over if they aren't completely accurate, or if you attended with a FastPass but waited ten minutes instead of five... Managers pass down intense pressure on these CM's to keep those people moving through. That was why I was so astonished by that first meeting with Tiana; Tiana had no posted wait times or FastPasses, no minimum number of people to get through in a set. She had the opportunity to conduct herself in the glen with her guests in whichever way suited herself and her visitors. (Note, she has since been moved to the Hall).
I won't pretend to be privy to all the information that drives this time limit which must be demoralizing and discouraging for Entertainment CM's to uphold, but it seems to be driven by this desire to keep the FastPass system functional for these characters (or with dining, I get it, you've got to see everybody during the window you're eating). It's also not in my nature to draw attention to a problem without trying to also propose a solution, so I can't help but wonder...
What if Disney did away with FastPasses for Character meetings?
Sure, I've had a couple of times when the girls were monopolizing a character (*cough* Alice *cough*) for a bit longer than normal, and I might see some shady looks from people behind us in line, but most of the time when the people waiting could SEE that the character was playing and engaging with a CHILD, I'd look back and see smiles and anticipation. Most recently at photopass day, I waited HOURS so my kid could see Maleficent again. The line felt like it was inching along. I never complained once, because it meant that the Villain was getting to take her time with her meetings (something I knew full well my kid would take advantage of). I honestly believe that, if people are given a reasonable estimate of wait time before they make the decision to get in line or not, if there's some variance in that so that the cast feels free to take extra time with a kid who might need it? Could any decent* person complain? (*I recognize people exist that will complain about literally anything so I had to make that qualifier there.)
I've watched really good people get very discouraged over these past few years over this mandate in the parks. I feel sort of silly being a person to voice concerns over it, since we've been superfluously blessed by extended magic in our years at the parks. If we never experience another magic moment with a character, I would be ok with that (like I said, my priceless memory bank is overflowing), but what about the shy kid whose parents have saved up for years to give their kid ONE trip to Disney? And Cinderella is her favorite princess, but by the time she gets her turn to meet her, she's so nervous she clams up? Shouldn't Cinderella and her attendants have the opportunity to give that kid a few extra moments to have the opportunity to get comfortable and have the proper meeting and memory she's probably been anticipating for ages?
So to all the CM's who do it for the magic: thank you. You're recognized, you're appreciated, and you're cherished. I don't know that anything will come of my writing this as far as company policy goes, but keep doing what you do and hopefully the company will remember why it's so important.