As a Disney theme parks fan first and foremost, I love that Walt Disney World has created so many characters specifically for its attractions, restaurants, and entertainment. This post is a salute to those characters who have no connection to Disney’s animated or live action films, instead existing in the realm of the parks. (In other words, this post has absolutely nothing to do with movies or in-park meet & greets.)
Don’t get me wrong–I enjoy Disney and Pixar animated films. I just have a much greater affinity for the theme parks, and the worlds Imagineers build within them. A lot of this probably stems from the attractions I enjoyed as a kid, and how several of them featured glimpses of characters and kernels of personality, allowing me fill in the rest with my imagination.
As an adult, I still really appreciate the characters that exist solely (or at least primarily, as there is now some crossover) for the parks. At Walt Disney World, in particular, there are a number of characters like this. I find that these characters often do the best job of conveying the theme, mood, or what-have-you of a particular attraction or land, probably because their whole existence is predicated upon furthering the experience–as compared to characters from the animated films, often injected into parks for the sake of synergy…
When I first sat down to make this list, I had about 25 ideas bouncing around in my head, so I made a few arbitrary “rules” to narrow things down. First, one character per experience. (Sorry, Liver Lips.) Second, only characters presently in use in the parks. (Sorry, Dreamfinder.) Finally, the character must be seen–no omniscient narrators. (Sorry, Ghost Host.) I think that about covers it, so let’s get started!
10. Mom – With a list like this, it’d be easy to say “the Cast Members” as a cop out. While they undoubtedly (along with guests, I suppose) play an integral role in the experience, they are not a single, defined role. Except when they are. Mom at 50’s Prime Time Cafe is the best example of a clearly-defined Cast Member ‘character.’
While the various Moms have the ability to ad lib to enhance the experience, you know that Mom is a stickler for rules and a strict disciplinarian, but with a bit of a wry humor plus a smidgen of cynicism (probably from dealing with all of us whippersnappers). Without Mom, 50’s Prime Time Cafe would just be an overpriced, fairly “meh” restaurant that consistently wouldn’t be fully booked. Mom does the heavily lifting, which earns her a spot on this list.
9. Old Bill – Pirates of the Caribbean is one attraction that has two characters who stand out…but both will have dramatically different roles a year from now. Absent choosing one of them, it’d be an easy out to call the attraction an ensemble experience, and punt on choosing one in particular.
Instead, I’ll go for a deeper cut here: Old Bill. For those unfamiliar with the character, Old Bill is the pirate trying to persuade a kitten to have rum with him, and then subsequently admonishing said cat for being too feisty. It’s such a brief and fleeting vignette, and yet it encompasses everything that’s great about Pirates of the Caribbean. The funny gags, lightheartedness, and the way it (mostly) spoofs the shenanigans of pirates in an innocuous way. Even though he’s “only” a supporting player, I’d argue there are several bit parts in Pirates of the Caribbean that give attraction its heart and levity.
8. Lagoona Gator – Here is a character who was born out of a desire to sell plushes…but one that failed spectacularly. This is probably why I love him so much. When Blizzard Beach opened, it had a fun mascot in Ice Gator. Accordingly, Walt Disney World made enhancements to Typhoon Lagoon to give it related a mascot: Lagoona Gator. He had a whole line of merchandise and a meet & greet character…all of which is now gone. Apparently, water park guests are not in the mood to drag alligator plushes into the sand or wave pool? Who could’ve known?!
While the profit motive for Lagoona Gator might’ve been a bust, a ton of details were added to the park to justify his existence. (Some might call this Disney pulling a “Reverse Duffy.”) Lagoona Gator is the resident surf ace of Typhoon Lagoon…and he’s also a movie star, rock star, artist, and more. You can still visit his beach shack in the Board Room under the clock tower, where his bedroom and kitchen remain fully-furnished.
7. Skippy – Here is a character so good that he compels me to occasionally see Stitch’s Great Escape (when it’s open). That right there could be enough to earn him the #1 slot on this list. My love for Skippy dates back to the days when the ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter was brand new. I was at an age where I could grasp some of the dark humor in the pre-show, but not so old that the attraction didn’t scare me a little.
For that attraction, Skippy was something of a lifeline–perhaps even its moral compass. Cute, quirky, and filled with personality. His personality was well conveyed, and he was instantly lovable. Even if Alien Encounter otherwise scared kids, guests knew they had a “friend” in Skippy. It’s difficult to explain to those who have only seen the current Skippy, but he used to bring so much more to the experience. After exiting the attraction for the first time, I flew into its gift-shop and snatched up the largest Skippy plush I could find.
6. Citizens of Hollywood – It’s tough to pick just one because this truly is an ensemble act. These roaming “Streetmosphere” performers who inhabit Disney’s Hollywood Studios, really give the park a sense of life. They further the notion of this being an idealized version of Hollywood, playing caricatured-yet-endearing versions of showbiz tropes.
If I had to choose just one character for this list, it’d be Dorma Nesmond because of the way she plays homage to Sunset Boulevard which itself satirized Hollywood, giving a bit of extra depth to this character. Then again, the end-of-day Funniest Citizen “comedy-off” is always a hoot, and those entertainers do a great job making comedy happen on the fly.
5. Madame Leota – Once the Ghost Host is ruled out, it’s a bit more difficult to choose a ghost that defines Haunted Mansion. They’re really all over the place in tone and design, and many have no dialogue. Cases could be made for the singing busts or any of the hitchhiking ghosts, but I think those appear so late in the attraction and are less fleshed out that they are not as impactful.
On the other hand, Madame Leota is a character encountered near the beginning of Haunted Mansion, and she resets expectations for what’s to come. She’s also just flat out cool, offering some personality that is showcased in a captivating practical effect–so captivating that you focus on her longer than any other ghost in Haunted Mansion.
4. Sonny Eclipse – For the longest time, I feverishly defended Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe, and it was our most-visited restaurant in all of Walt Disney World for years. That was for one reason: Sonny Eclipse. (Really, two reasons: Sonny Eclipse and the toppings bar.) While the menu leaves something (okay, a lot of things) to be desired, entertainment-wise, no other restaurant in Walt Disney World can compete with Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe, and that’s all thanks to Sonny Eclipse.
Mr. Eclipse is from the planet Zork (Yew Nork, specifically) and he plays the Astro Organ, with back-up vocals from his amazing Space Angels. He performs a twenty-some minute loop of music that is infused with corny jokes that is really entertaining, during which time there’s a ton of character development. Even if sometimes they’re sometimes courtesy laughs, it’s a fun and funny set. For me, Sonny Eclipse like a cross between Uncle Joey and someone from the Max Rebo Band. What’s not to love about that?!
3. Progress Dad – Another attraction with a cast deserving of recognition for its ensemble work, Carousel of Progress resonates with so many long-time Walt Disney World fans because the Carousel of Progress family feels like actual family. The characters are not just boring MacGuffins for showcasing technology–if anything, the technology highlighted is almost immaterial to the attraction. Carousel of Progress is beloved because its characters have so much character.
Of these characters, Progress Dad (John) is the one with whom audiences are most familiar. His sometimes cringe-worthy jokes give new meaning to “dad jokes,” but audiences love him just the same. Other characters, including Rover and Uncle Orville, steal some scenes, but John guides the audience towards what Carousel of Progress is actually about: growing old with a family over the course of a condensed amount of time. Yep, Walt Disney did the whole Boyhood concept decades before Linklater, and didn’t earn a single Academy Award nomination for his efforts.
2. Big Al – A lot of the thing said about Carousel of Progress could be said about Country Bear Jamboree. Both are obviously ensemble attractions, and if I didn’t limited myself, at least 4-5 characters from Country Bear Jamboree would have made this list. Not only do each have personalities evident through the music, but they all present entertaining gags and have brilliant character design.
Ultimately, it’s easy to choose Big Al as the best Country Bear. When viewing Country Bear Jamboree through the prism of social satire or parody, Big Al’s appearance is what seals the deal. His performance is such a hoot that you cannot help but laugh out loud. Even if earlier musical numbers hit a little too close to home (and as a reformed hillbilly, I can relate), Big Al is the point at which the show enters a certain realm of absurdity–if you have even a morsel of a sense of humor, he gets to you.
1. Figment – Figment is my favorite Walt Disney World character. Always has been, and always will be. If you only know the present-day version of Figment, you might find it perplexing that so many EPCOT Center fans still adore Figment. Why is that grating character from such a dull attraction so beloved?!
Quite simply, Figment is not the same character today that he was during the 1980s through the mid-1990s. Then, Figment was Dreamfinder’s sidekick on their Flight of Imagination, with the latter being the literal embodiment of a childlike sense of wonder, curiosity, and (yes) imagination. If you were a child of the 1980s who visited EPCOT Center, you identified with this character. It really was as simple as that. Not only did he bring out the best in you, but he was just really cool. He got to be an artist, performer, astronaut, and more–all while being a friendly purple dragon.
The Figment of 1983 would be #1 on this list by such a large margin that the gap between #1 and #2 could be measured in Grand Canyons (sorry, Big Al). The Figment of today manages to maintain the top slot, even if he largely coasts on nostalgia. Still, those of us who knew him before see those flashes of childlike wonder in him today, and desperately cling to the notion that someday, just maybe, the real Figment–and Dreamfinder–will return.
Which park-specific Disney characters are your favorites? Any that we missed? Do you agree or disagree with our rankings? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!