Recently, the Medium publication C(G) S N A P S H O T S issued a challenge in which participants were invited to submit images for their Snapshot Selfie Challenge. I submitted a snapshot of a few mementos that represented different periods of my life. Oddly enough, one object in my snapshot garnered more comments than other—my vintage Donald Duck bobblehead from the late 1960s/early 1970s, described in the accompanying text as “the symbol of my former alter-ego, vehicle of torture and self-discovery.”
In the original text I promised to—at some point in the future—reveal a little of the backstory of my adventures performing as Donald Duck at Walt Disney World in Florida. Well, the time has come for me to tell you about my life in fur.
This is the last in the seven-part series. Enjoy!
FROM THE DAY I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in communications, I focused my sights on a career within Walt Disney World that did not involve me wearing fur. I still had my eye on the company’s marketing department and talked to everyone who’d listen about how to make the transition to a more corporate position. The consensus was that the first thing I needed to do would was put together a portfolio. Great! But there was one small problem: I had no work, so no samples of work to cobble together.
Despite my limited experience, I got acquainted with Cindy — one of the senior art directors for entertainment — and she gave the opportunity to work for her in the show development area on occasion.
Between trips around the country as Donald Duck, I designed logos, brochures, tickets, T-shirts, and show jackets; enlisted the aid of a few of my co-workers as models, and set up photo shoots with one of Orlando’s top photographers. Two years after my graduation and a lot of hard work, I had a well thought out portfolio and a meeting with Jim, the design director for Walt Disney World Marketing.
The meeting went well, and while there wasn’t a job offer, Jim encouraged me to keep designing, stay abreast of current design trends as well as dissect the art to discover why the designs worked. He pointed me in the direction of another design director in a relatively new area who needed some help — Dale, at Resort Design. Dale saw potential in my portfolio and gave me the opportunity to develop my talents further. After pulling some teeth, the Character department management allowed me to work with Dale on a part-time basis.
A few months later, I heard that Magic Kingdom characters could transfer to the Disney-MGM Studios for its official grand opening. I jumped at the chance and auditioned for the Hollywood! Hollywood! show and made the cut, as did a handful of the co-workers I performed in shows with for a number of years.Sadly, I bid my Magic Kingdom friends farewell.
The company delivered a show-stopping, Hollywood-inspired gala with celebrities from about the globe. A enormous temporary stage was set up in front of the park’s replica of the iconic Mann’s Chinese Theater for a pageant of Disney-fied versions of memorable Hollywood production numbers. I, as Donald Duck, was featured as Gene Kelly in an elaborate “Singin’ in the Rain” number, complete with Daisy Duck as Debbie Reynolds, and Goofy as Donald O’Connor, along with dozens of dancers lining Hollywood Boulevard in yellow rain slickers and matching umbrellas.
Hollywood! Hollywood!, the park’s only live stage show that featured characters and the Disney Girls (the company’s answer to the Radio City Rockettes), wasn’t nearly as physically demanding as the shows in the Magic Kingdom. Yet knee injuries popped up more frequently than I would have liked or expected. The writing was on the wall that I couldn’t be a character forever, but I had serious concerns about what was in store for me. I saw others moving up the corporate ladder while I was dancing around in duck feet. If I wanted to climb corporate rungs it would have to be in another department. In my supervisors’ minds, I was still viewed as a precious commodity: a duck.
After a serious knee injury during Hollywood! Hollywood!, my orthopedist ordered me to take an extended period of time off from character work to give my knee time to heal. The injury also gave me an opportunity to spend a lot more time working with Dale in Resort Design. Since our initial meeting a few years earlier, he single-handedly turned Resort Design into the driving force for print collateral for the Walt Disney World resorts. He also hired the brightest and best talent in Orlando to design everything — menus, turn-down cards, signage, note pads, maps, resort guides, fact books — the diversely-themed Disney resorts might use to enhance their guests’ stay.
Out of the blue, I was handed a plum assignment: develop the packaging for the resort amenities (toiletries including soaps, shampoos, toothpaste, et cetera, found in guest bathrooms). I was floored. This project had the potential to be a major boon to my portfolio and my career as a graphic designer. Who knew my torn meniscus would give me the opportunity to leave a lasting mark on The Walt Disney Company?
I knew full well that there were two approaches to arriving at a solution for this project: 1) design an identity for the amenities that was neutral enough to work in all the resorts; or 2) design packaging that intentionally didn’t fit in with any of the resorts’ theming, but worked as a stand alone.
Since I had such a close connection with the Character department, all of my solutions were centered around the characters. Dale was most wild about my concept of taking the classic pie-eyed Mickey with arms akimbo, and spreading the single image over the various items. For instance, the shower cap packaging would show a tightly cropped image Mickey’s head; the shampoo would show Mickey’s ears; and so on. The kicker was that when all the items were placed together they would form one giant Mickey. The original concept placed the black & white Mickey wearing his red shorts and yellow shoes on a white background. He insisted that I push the design a little further.
Push the design?
I had put my heart and soul into the concepts I presented him. I thought they were pretty solid as they were, but I went back to the drawing board and incorporated some type. As a joke, I put the corporate icon on a black background. The idea of black packaging for family- and kid-friendly toiletries was radically fresh. And Dale loved it.
Dale presented the concept to the various resort managers and it was a smash hit. The only thing that kept this whole process from being a complete joy was the introduction of a new staff design assistant hired to help manage the growing number of design projects.
My knee surgery took place a couple days before the amenities were to go into final production. I was wracked with worry over how the final layouts would turn out based on my sketches, not to mention what my life would be like after the surgery. I had no idea how long I’d remain in Characters or where I’d work afterward.
When I returned to work, the amenities had been introduced to the public and the response was overwhelming. Those little red, black, white, and yellow packages were wildly popular across at all the resorts across the property.While housekeepers at all the Disney resorts were placing the amenities in rooms, hotel guests were swiping extras off their carts faster than the housekeepers could replace them.
After my recuperation and the amenities rollout, I returned to the Studios knowing that my days as a Disney Character were numbered and began a feverish hunt for another job. Dale didn’t have a full-time position available in Resort Design. Marketing was booked solid and had no interest in someone with my limited experience. And then, out of thin air, a full-time graphic designer position opened up in the Disney University’s corporate communications department. I interviewed, showed my blossoming portfolio, and with the aid of a glowing reference from Dale, I was hired. God’s timing was perfect.
From day one, I never wanted to be a Disney Character and at times I loathed the job. Over the previous ten years, my work day began with changing into a T-shirt, duck tights, and shorts; then strapping on my Donald Duck costume, dancing my heart out in either a parade or show, sweating like a pig, changing into dry clothes, and doing it all over again anywhere from five to eight times a day. I faced and overcame the physical challenges of doing the job and had risen to the top of the heap.
I was confronted with the emotional challenges of opening myself up to people in ways I had never done before, and while it took some time and considerably more effort, I made some of the best friends of my life. I shook hands with, gave autographs to, hugged, and posed for innumerable pictures with people from all over the world. I traveled to South America, Europe, and logged thousands of miles crisscrossing the eastern half of the United States spreading the Disney magic. I met the likes of Bob Hope, George Steinbrenner, Michael Jackson, Betty White, and I almost got to meet President Reagan.
Eventually, I grew to love being Donald Duck at Walt Disney World. Once my least favorite Disney character, he became my alter ego. Of the VIPs — Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto, and Goofy — Donald had the widest range of emotions. Thanks to his irascible nature, I got in touch with the full range of my own emotions. My “animation” skills got to the point that I could have full conversations with adults and children alike without saying a word; and accurately express almost any emotion. And I developed a commitment to giving the best performance possible despite any personal distractions.
The first premise of theater is to get the audience to suspend their disbelief. I applied the same principle while I worked in Characters. If I was able to get guests to believe that they were in the company of the real Donald Duck and not some man in a costume, I knew I had done my job. Being Donald Duck was one of the best experiences of my life. It broke me open and help heal deep wounds. But the time had come for me to hang up my duck feet.
Excerpt from Walking Tall: A Memoir About the Upside of Small and Other Stuff by Clay Rivers.
If you enjoyed this essay, check out the others in this series:
“My Life in Fur (Part 1): The Accidental Audition”
“My Life in Fur (Part 2): ‘Merry Christmas to You, Too!”
“My Life in Fur (Part 3): ‘Show Biz Is’”
“My Life in Fur (Part 4): Becoming Donald”
“My Life in Fur (Part 5): The Show Mustn’t Go On
“My Life in Fur (Part 6): It’s Baseball in the USA”
“My Life in Fur (Part 7): Now It’s Time to Say Good-bye”