I’m back from a two week vacation and a week of laundry and am now catching up on all the Disney news that happened while I was away – primarily related to the D23 Expo in Anaheim in late August. One item that caught my eye was a demonstration of a talking live Mickey Mouse character. While the development/testing of characters that chat with guests is not new information (the official Disney parks blog ran an article about this more than a year ago), there is still no word on when (or if) these garrulous rodents will ever make it into the parks. Until that happens, we’re faced with fuzzy mutes. I personally enjoy having silent mice, but I frequently hear questions from guests asking they should handle their children’s questions about why Mickey doesn’t talk.
Let me back up a bit and explain that there are two types of characters that interact with guests in the Disney parks: “face” characters and “fur” characters. Face characters are those such as the princesses, Alice, Mad Hatter, Mary Poppins, Aladdin, Peter Pan, Wendy, Cinderella’s family, most of the princes, Jack Sparrow, and a few others who look like regular human beings. They may have wigs or some minimal facial prosthetics, but they don’t have anything covering their eyes or mouth. The face characters are able to speak as any normal person would. They’re happy to engage you in conversation during character meals or other meet-and-greet experiences. Fur characters are those which have a large immobile mask serving as their entire head. Typically any animated animal (Mickey, Donald, Baloo, Rafiki, Jiminy Cricket) is a fur character; however there are also some human-esque characters that have these immobile heads as well (Lilo, Buzz Lightyear, Woody, the Incredibles). Fur characters currently do not speak during one-on-one guest interaction.
How Do Fur Characters Communicate?
Although Mickey won’t speak, he certainly can say a lot. The characters are trained to use gestures, mine, body language, and occasionally writing, to communicate a wide range of greetings and emotions. And they will respond to yourspoken language. For example, if you say to Mickey, “Hi, How was your day?” He’ll respond with a hearty nod that lets you that he’s doing just fine.
Characters communicate without speaking.
The fur characters are even capable of using non-spoken language to tell complicated stories. Late last year, I dined with my daughters at the Garden Grill character meal at Epcot. We were among the last guests in the restaurant and subsequently the characters on hand had little to do but interact with us. Earlier in the evening, the girls and I had seen the film “Tron: Legacy,” which none of us fully understood. We were discussing our confusion about the plot when Dale (of Chip & Dale fame) stopped by. He had heard our conversation and wanted to help. The friendly chipmunk proceeded to take the next five minutes to pantomime the entire movie – from entering the game world to riding Light Cycles to tossing identity discs. His performance was truly awesome and actually did help us understand the film better. And we didn’t even notice that Dale never said a word the entire time.
A few years before this, we were having breakfast at Disneyland’s Grand Californian Storyteller’s Cafe. My daughter Louisa bypassed the egg and fruit options, deciding instead to fill her plate with nothing but a heaping mound of pastries and doughnuts. Dale came up to our table, took one look at Louisa’s meal and shook his head bemusedly at the pile of early morning sweets she had chosen. He picked up the autograph pen sitting on the table. He wrote a note to her on her napkin, “Don’t try this at home. :-)” We still chuckle over this when one of us comes back from a Disney buffet line having made less than optimal choices.
Characters will sometimes write you a message.
Neither of these experiences is typical. You can’t expect to get a character acting out a film plot when you’re waiting in a greeting line 30 people deep on Main Street. And most characters will just be writing their names and possibly “Happy Birthday” in your autograph book. However, they do demonstrate that given the time, even with no speech, the characters can still convey a big message.
With so much communicating going on, most children won’t even notice that the fur characters are not talking.
Advantages to Having Non-Speaking Characters
Besides the sheer fun of seeing how Mickey will respond non-verbally to your spoken conversation, there are other advantages to having Mickey remain mute. Chief among these are that non-spoken communication is more universally understood than vocal responses. A huge percentage of guests at the Disney parks are from non-English-speaking countries all over the world. Let’s face it, Mickey is a multi-talented mammal, but there’s no way he could comfortably segue between English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Japanese in a single meet and greet session. Imagine the disappointment if a German-speaking child watched Mickey chatting with other children in the parks, but saw that Mickey wasn’t able to converse with her.
Similarly, a deaf neighbor of mine told me how much she appreciated that she could fully enjoy her children’s interactions with the characters without worrying about translation.
On another front, there is a small but significant subset of children who are afraid of the fur characters, finding them overwhelming. I’m not a child psychologist, but my untrained gut reaction is that the number of nightmares would skyrocket if the characters were not only larger-than-life fuzzballs, but also fuzzballs speaking in a variety of squeaky animated accents. Big Goofy can be intimidating to a toddler, big guffawing Goofy even more so.
What to Say if a Child Asks
Despite the fact that Mickey and the gang can do quite a lot of communicating without speaking, there will still be some children who wonder why they don’t speak in words. Primarily these will be children between the ages of three and eight who are old enough to articulate their curiosity but young enough to still be in the “Magic Years.” You may also be more likely to hear questions from a child who frequently watches media in which Mickey does speak (Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on Disney Junior, for example), from a child who has previously chatted with a “face” character, or who has recently seen Mickey voiced in a Disney parade or stage show. “Mommy, Mickey was just singing up on the float, why won’t he talk to me now?”
Characters will say a lot about their personality without using words.
If you do encounter this line of questioning from your child, there are number of options depending on the age and maturity of your child. Only you can decide which is most appropriate, but here are some possible talking points about non-talking characters:
- Mickey lost his voice while singing on stage. His doctor asked him to be quiet for a while.
- Mickey is saving his voice for a future performance.
- Mickey doesn’t have time to talk with everyone and he doesn’t want people to feel bad by only speaking with some.
- Mickey doesn’t speak every language and he doesn’t want people to feel bad by only speaking to some.
- Mickey and Minnie are having a contest to see who can go the longest without speaking.
- Mickey thinks he can communicate better without speaking.
With an older child who asks, you can turn his question into a “teachable moment.” Simply state that Mickey doesn’t speak in the parks, but that he does communicate non-verbally. Then throw out some possible messages and ask the child to communicate those to you without words. Start simple: hello, goodbye, I love you, etc. Then move on to more complicated messages such as: I like your hat, do you have a pen?, would you like a photo?, I’m having fun. See if you child can work out a way to “say” those things without words. This is a also a nice way to pass the time while waiting in a character queue.
Have your children ever asked you about speaking vs. non-speaking characters? What did you tell them? Let us know in the comments below.