Once upon a time (don’t get any ideas, this isn’t a fairy tale), there was a little girl who dreamed of white weddings, pixie dust, prattling forest animals and kisses strong enough to shake you alive. She made Tinkerbell-shaped angels in the snow and had such giddy tea parties with her dolls, the Queen herself would have begged, borrowed and stolen just for an invite.
Unfortunately, like most little girls, she grew up, but not before moving to Orlando, Florida at the age of 11. I’d like to report that I put up an epic fight and battled all the way up the runway kicking and screaming out of my hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania (the suitably unglamorous setting for The Office). “These are my friends,” I cried. “This may be no theme park, but it is my home. You’re ruining my LIFE!”
But of course that didn’t happen. Promise an eleven-year-old her new house will be 10 minutes from Walt Disney World and it’s like giving her a Xanax…er…spoonful of sugar. Scranton where? We were going to live happily ever after.
Until high school, of course, where someone else has the boy you want, someone else has the hair you want, you’re not “gifted” (whatever that means) and the grass is always greener on the side of the hill where you grow boobs before junior year.
Our homecoming queen, on the other hand, seemed to have it all. By day, she was a straight-A student, super athlete and boy magnet. By nights and weekends she turned into a beautiful princess. Literally. Most of us might have settled for wheeling around the Panther’s football field on a shoddy float built by the drama club as our little realm’s sovereign, but she also got to do it in front of Cinderella’s Castle every night, as Cinderella. Did I mention she got to wear a rhinestone tiara and ballgown that lit up? It LIT UP!
I wanted so badly to walk in her glass slippers I was ready to do anything it took to fit them.
Easier said than done. I had a mother who wore patchouli oil and thought shaving your legs was some sort of ritual punishment only performed by Aborigines. She was my favorite person in the universe (not up for debate), but I clearly needed to outsource the fairy-godmother role. I turned to my best blonde beauty pageant friend and with a swift flick of her magic wand (and some tweezers, bleach and very detrimental dieting advice) I was a sight for sore eyes. Well, let’s be honest, nothing some fancy wigs, costumers and a ton of makeup couldn’t fix.
Next thing I knew, I was waiting in a four-hour cue, behind the scenes of Walt Disney World, with hundreds of other Disney character look-alike hopefuls. There wasn’t enough patchouli oil in the world to fend off these competitors.
First you sign in. Height, weight, lies… etc. Then you wait. Today, there are blogs and Facebook pages dedicated to Disney character wannabes. Back in the dark ages of my youth, you were lucky if someone told you the specs ahead of time. Other than your eyes being just far enough apart and your skin as white as snow, it was helpful to know that you wouldn’t make it into the next room if you weren’t between 5’3″ and 5’7″. If you didn’t get the memo that Disney Princesses only fell in this height bracket you would not be whistling to work anytime soon. Standing not-so-proudly a touch north of 5’8″, I cleverly wore a flowing skirt to hunch down without being found out during my measuring. I’m sure Kate Middleton has had to bind a toe or three to fit into a pair of those fabulous Louboutin heels. What was a little awkward lock of the knees?
When your name was finally called, you were ushered into a room full of mirrors and a panel of all-female judges. With about five rows deep of ten girls each, everyone took her fateful turn being silently stared at, nodded at and whispered about.
This was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. It made me realize that, as a woman, there are times when there is no hiding behind cleverness or character – times when you’re judged according to the length of your eyelashes or the meal you’ve skipped. At least if you want the princess role.
Of course, at that moment, nothing mattered if I could just leave with a shiny little slip of paper. The Mouse came through. My name was called and my shiny little slip, which might as well have been framed in perfumed gold, invited me to a call-back for Princess Cinderella, Belle, Snow White and Mary Poppins. I jumped for joy. I ate a cheeseburger. It was all happening.
The call-back was less stressful. I was hired to portray Cinderella, Belle and Mary Poppins. No Snow White for me–something about my face being too long and thin. Could be worse: I actually saw them comparing my picture to that of a cartoon. Dreams really do come true.
On my first day, I was to attend Princess School. Training consisted of watching Disney Princess movies…ALL DAY. Over a few weeks, I mastered my autographs, makeup and curtsies. It was a flurry of responsibility.
I learned what to say so that curiosity didn’t kill the children when they would ask things like, “Where do you sleep? Are you married? Why is there black coming out from under your blonde hair?” Each had its own precise answer. Except in the case Princess Belle, who was living in a castle…in sin…with a beast. “Just make up something that sounds good,” said our coordinator.
Seasoned princesses were quick to advise novices that glamour is for the birds. Breakfast shifts in King Stefan’s castle that guests booked some three months in advance were dreaded. Being banished to sets in Toontown for a day was every cast member’s nightmare and equivalent to an office job (shiver). Even being the lucky girl picked for a specialty parade had its downfalls, such as all-night rehearsals, heavier gowns and deep-seated fears of freezing to death in your life- size snow-globe. Smile. Wave. Repeat.
For “the happiest place on earth”, it was shocking how much complaining went on.
I, on the other hand, was having the time of my life. For every early morning, wardrobe malfunction, wrist cramp or princess on her period, there was a surprisingly wonderful moment to make up for it.
One particularly crabby morning I dragged myself into King Stefan’s breakfast in rare form. This Cinderella had had some royal fun the night before and no amount of caffeine or pixie dust could perk her up. Towards the end of the third round of breakfast, I rushed into the kitchen to shoot an espresso and try to avoid the usual mild panic attack associated with an over-abundance of flash photography.
Immediately, I was accosted by a middle-aged server in pseudo-Renaissance garb. She held a fully-loaded coffee carafe in her right hand, decaf in the left and said frantically, “Look. Cinderella. The last table on your round is a little girl with her mother. She’s refusing to eat until she gives you some gift she has for you. Can you please get there quickly and spend a little extra time with her?”
I am sure I muttered all the way up to a beautiful and earnest child, who gasped, “Cindewella, you look bloot-iful.” The babe said she was so sad my evil step sisters had messed up my dress and shoes that she’d gotten me a present, and she pulled from behind her tiny back the most adorable pair of Cinderella pajama slippers that wouldn’t have fit anyone over 24 months old. They still had the price tag on them: $13.95. (Disney, you’re shameless). Her mother lost it. I lost it. The frantic server lost it. I thanked her in a tornado of tears and hugs and felt grateful to have played the role of a lifetime.
Disney owns a lot of firsts for me. My first rollercoaster, my first job and even the first time someone told me they loved me–all happened within the maze of those park gates. I won’t always be able to clock in and head straight to pick up my ball accouterment – certainly not now that I work at a financial information firm. I do get a little forlorn that I may not dance with a prince and pick up a paycheck in the same afternoon ever again.
To this day, I will still run up to your children expecting them to recognize me, bevel my foot when taking a photograph, wear blue eye shadow thinking I look beautiful and be ultimately shocked when a guy as handsome as Prince Charming likes girls. But most importantly, I will insist that my little girl never stops dreaming of white weddings, pixie dust, prattling forest animals and kisses strong enough to shake you alive. I can’t wait to meet her and take her on her first trip to Disney World.
Catherine Mangan is a recent graduate of UCLA’s Anthropology department and a freelance writer living in Downtown Los Angeles.
*Photo courtesy of Catherine Mangan.