My mother cried when she discovered my tattoo. This was 1996, and I was a sophomore in college, home for Thanksgiving. I’d gotten lazy about trying to hide it, or maybe on some level I wanted her to see. We were discussing OJ Simpson’s civil trial and how ridiculous it was to imagine anyone believing him when he said “absolutely not true.” I had on an unseasonably thin white shirt. When I reached across the table for another helping of mashed potatoes, there it was, in all its dark cursive flourish: a treble clef seared onto my right shoulder blade.
Rather than placate her parental grief, I pointed out that those were Mickey Mouse ears embedded in the treble clef, not a bloated fish plunging headfirst into my back. I also confessed to getting this tattoo in Kissimmee, a mere day before my parents arrived to pick me up from my summer spent working food service at Disney. I described, in painstaking detail, how I had rubbed ointment on my shoulder in secret while we sat as a family in the Hall of Presidents bearing witness to the animatronic glorification of American independence.
“You’re going to regret that,” she said.
“Absolutely not true,” I replied.
I showed up for my seasonal job at Epcot just a week shy of my nineteenth birthday. As a self-effacing rising sophomore who had only ever made out with one person and felt intimidated by social uncertainties, living and working at Disney World offered a kind of scripted freedom. While I struggled to reconcile my many selves, Disney offered just one: an upbeat, chipper aggregate. Around even my best friends, even while doing what felt most “me”—playing Magic the Gathering or listening to Sondheim—I could never quite shake the feeling that I was pretending to be someone I was not. Disney sanctioned that pretending. At work you were “on stage.” You referred to yourself as “a cast member.” Even without lines, you had the safety net of licensed persona.
Recruited by the Disney College Program, I arrived at my Lake Buena Vista compound with little more than a summer’s worth of skorts and an anticipatory stuffed Tigger. On my application, I had indicated that my first choice was food service. I had dotted the i in service with a heart to really stand out. My acceptance letter was just what I’d hoped for: I could participate in enchantment but avoid giving spiels to crowds. I’d been assigned to Pasta Piazza, a now defunct quick-service Italian eatery across from the Epcot fountain.
That summer at Disney, I shared an apartment with two other College Program cast members. The first girl, a blond-haired blue-eyed sturdy twin from the farm belt, liked to fuse in her spare time. She explained to me that this meant taking one half of one car and soldering it onto one half of another car. She showed me a photo of her favorite, a pink truck with two fronts. “It doesn’t drive,” she added. My other roommate had a severe allergy to mold and took to complaining about the Florida humidity in a list-like fashion: “The air is sticky, my hair is curling, my back is sweaty.” It made sense, then, that she worked at the Haunted House, where in eight-hour shifts, she repeated the same instructions over and over to a distracted public: “Watch your step, please secure the strap across your waist, keep your hands and feet inside the moving vehicle at all times.”
Five days a week, I was bused to Epcot with the other compound residents. In wardrobe, I changed into my regulation uniform of purple polyester pants, matching button-down, and maroon-and-yellow-trimmed visor. In 100-degree heat, I traversed the park, exuding a pungent greasy odor, a mixture of Parmesan and Alconox. A handful of other students worked alongside me at Pasta Piazza, but mostly it was a permanent older male crew. There was Stevens, a desiccated Korean War vet who wore a gold chain with a gold anchor, who folded and unfolded a monogrammed handkerchief on his breaks; Luis, a Mexican-American whose nephew had drowned in a pool (not a Disney pool); and Mark, an attractive 30-something married maintenance man who liked to compliment my perfume (I wasn’t wearing any).
At Pasta Piazza, I rotated between two positions: filling orders and manning the register. To fill orders, cast members would line up against the wall—no leaning allowed—and listen for the phlegmic rattle of the ticket printer. The person closest to the printer would then pull a ticket, pick up a tray, and fill the order at a heated counter where Mickey-roni magically slid through a kitchen portal. Manning the register entailed sitting on a stool with guests crowding you on both sides. In July, when the Brazilians came with their big bills and their red flags, gaggles of teenage boys from Rio or San Paulo would lean over the railing to touch my red cabelo (Ariel! Por Favor!), waving bread sticks in my face to get my attention.
I was the happiest I’d been in years.
When I wasn’t on stage at Pasta Piazza or taking mandatory seminars in customer service, penciling mouse-eared Venn diagrams and practicing a two-finger point, I was luxuriating in unrestricted park access. At night, I downed Zimas with my friends before heading to the Magic Kingdom, where we tipsily shuffled between the various mountains: Space, Thunder, Splash. I didn’t think twice about grabbing a turkey leg en route to a character buffet, and as a result, went up two pants sizes (doubly embarrassing, since the waistband was elastic). One night, at the end of my shift, I approached John Stamos, shook his hand, and stole his plastic fork. I held it to my lips. On a day off in July, my roommates and I drove to Coco in advance of Hurricane Bertha, where we walked out onto the beach and stuck our feet in the water and felt the small, delicate swells portending storm surge. All of my rebellions were circumspect, but they were rebellions nonetheless.
That summer, families in the park never seemed quite as loving as I’d expected, but I ignored it. I’d see a fallen toddler yanked along on a leash, or a mother and father shoving each other in Tomorrowland, and I’d replace what was happening with a more romanticized, sanitary version. When Mark at Pasta Piazza cornered me and asked that I meet him later by the Caribbean Beach resort hammocks, or pressed against me at the window when getting an extra side of marinara, I interpreted his behavior as good-natured team building. I didn’t yet have the self-esteem to recognize any male attention as wrong. This same low self-esteem kept me from attending character auditions. My roommate who was allergic to mold wanted to be Belle. At the princess casting call, she performed the taught-on-the-spot chorography and advanced to the next round: facial evaluation. Judges studied her cheekbones and chin in the light, appraised her smile. She was rejected: barely too tall and a rounded nose. Back in our apartment, she borrowed my portable dictionary to look up the exact definition of rounded: “reduced to simple curves.” For weeks, she avoided speaking to us in profile.
My best friend at Disney wasn’t anyone my own age, but rather a Puerto Rican woman named Carmen who was in her early forties. She carried photos of her family in a wallet that fanned open like an accordion. When we were introduced, I told her that Carmen was my favorite opera, that I’d recently done an internship with a local theater company where my job was to click through the subtitles during performances, except this one time, I’d gotten to fill in during rehearsal and been so close to Don Jose during his “Air de la Fleur” aria that I had to wipe spittle from my face. Carmen looked me up and down and told me to get her another chicken parm. This was my first lesson in socio-economic difference. She forgave me for being a privileged white college kid just passing through; I forgave her for not loving Disney enough. Some shifts, we traded name tags.
Carmen told me that she had worked for the rat for years. “For the benefits,” she’d said. “But listen, mamacita, this is not the dream.” Over weekly coffee and pancakes at IHOP, she advised me on everything from losing my virginity (not in a car is best) to how to shed park pounds (count to ten between bites). She was privy to conspiracy theory and dark rumors. “I knew this guy who knew this other guy who was the brother of this girl who stood up on Space Mountain, and her head rolled the fuck off” or “You can’t die at Disney. They’re literally like, you take your shitty ass body outside of our park and you do that shit elsewhere.” Alone, I worried Carmen’s dictums like a rosary. What if you couldn’t legally be declared dead on Disney property? How could I love something so sterile?
Near the end of my Disney tenure, I filched a Magic Music Days sign from the Epcot entrance and hands shaking, brought it to a tattoo artist. I asked him to trace the design and brand me. He obliged, using a very clean needle, but not before espousing a shopworn koan meant to assuage my fears: “What we want now isn’t a mistake later.” It wasn’t a question, but I answered, “Yes.”
Years later, in an ominous redux, I’d learn that my travel agency predecessor—the Disney specialist before me—had died from an aneurism on vacation, a vacation she booked herself, at the Contemporary Resort, in the room next to her children. I wondered what they were told. I wondered if I was next.
My husband Dan and I left Iowa four years ago so that he could attend a university down south. Almost half a lifetime had passed since I worked at Disney. In that interim, I’d lived in New York City, lost my virginity (not in a car), and earned two graduate degrees. In this new southern town, I was fortunate enough to be hired by a family run travel agency, where, in my full-time job as a consultant, I handled the bulk of their Disney business. No one else wanted it. Perhaps in much the same way a realtor can’t sell a low escrow celebrity home if word gets out that a murder was committed there, my office-mates seemed nervous to accept a cursed sales opportunity. “I’ll do it,” I said.
I brought my tasseled graduation mouse ears out of storage and dusted off the card stock. I cheated my way through the online Disney College of Knowledge course so that I could hang my certificate of completion above my desk, smack between my Masters and MFA degrees. In consultations, clients almost always commented on the former, ignoring the latter: “Oh my gosh, you went to the Disney College of Knowledge? What was that like?”
Most days, I felt like I was neck-deep in trope and fabrication. I wanted to exit the water but couldn’t quite stomach the chill. I was wise enough to be pained by my tattoo, thankfully placed out of my line of vision, but sentimental enough to indulge the utopian fantasy of a world where there is no litter and people are immortal. I couldn’t shake the me at 18, living on my own outside of North Carolina for the first time, sitting cross-legged at dusk underneath Spaceship Earth while the carefully calibrated cog-wheel of the park carried on, uninterrupted. Oh the lure of nostalgia! It must be how addicts feel. It reminded me of the time a boyfriend had to carry me out of a casino in Canada, away from the slot machines, before I blew the rest of our savings.
So I did my job conflicted. I hated Disney; I loved Disney. My husband railed against its commercialism, quoted from Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, pointed out that there is only a one-letter difference between immortal and immoral, swore he would never stomach taking our hypothetical child to an Aladdin and Jasmine meet-and-greet; I pouted and defended Disney, cited progressive do-good events like Gay Days, all the while secretly questioning my choices. I wondered if my childhood was like a three layer cake I was consuming over and over again in one sitting, a kind of Groundhog Day of surfeit. Why had I ordered a homemade Wendy costume off of Etsy? Why had I run the Princess Half-Marathon, sporting engagement mouse ears and a neon pink Minnie shirt that read “Miss Fabulous”? Around the mile-8 marker, I started seeing abandoned tiaras and tulle skirts and other angrily sloughed off race-wear from Princesses who had neglected to consider chaffing. Let this be a wake up call for all little girls: Beware, less you are so blinded by the magic that you think you can run in a sequined mermaid tail.
As a writer, I was mesmerized daily by the language I had to say to sell: bring your own brush to the Bibbidy Bobbidy Boutique; Royal Table is the most important meal of all; make sure if you dress as a character that you don’t sign autographs because only real characters are authorized to do that. The distinction between “real” and “constructed” had broken down. When I would call the preferred booking line for Disney agents, I knew I would be speaking with someone using a pseudonym. This is one of the ways the company encourages the performance of purchase and monitors the friendliness of its reservation center employees. What I loved about Disney as a freshman in college—the ease of stepping into a predetermined role, the comfort in not suffering rejection because of too much self-expression—had become wholly off-putting. I didn’t want a price quote from Esmeralda. I didn’t want the robotic mirth of Hercules. In an attempt to remove the barrier, to speak mortal to mortal, I begged a reservation agent who went by the name of Binky to tell me who he really was.
“Binky, tell me. Please.”
“I can’t,” he said. “I’m being recorded.”
One afternoon, a father showed up in our office to plan a Disney trip for his family. He brought his wife and five-year-old daughter with him. We discussed everything from ride height requirements to the way Disney creates mouse-eared-shaped pumpkins through specially designed vises. My co-worker asked his little girl to name her favorite princess.
“Cinderella,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because she gets to go to the ball.”
Her father paid by check; a week later, it bounced. They were already at the parks. We left him messages for weeks, but he never returned our calls. A basic Google search revealed an outstanding warrant for his arrest for deposit account fraud. We contacted the authorities to initiate a small claims court suit. I was troubled by this for months. It wasn’t about the money. It was the necessity of the dream. I was complicit in a much larger deception.
A month before I gave notice, our office delivery man lifted up his left pant leg to reveal a tattoo of Cruella DeVille. “I’ve got about five villains already,” he said, and then proceeded to untuck his shirt to show me Snow White’s Evil Queen gazing at herself longingly in a mirror running the circumference of his navel. “Thank you for sharing,” I said, my own shoulder hidden.
Was my mother right? When my son Miles was born last summer, I couldn’t take my eyes off of the clean slate of his skin. In one of my favorite early pictures of us, my body is facing away from the camera, my head turned, his tiny hand both covering and tracing my tattoo. My child, discovering a decision I made while still a child. What we want, what we regret, when we do both—nothing is indelible but the moment.
Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.