by Beth Keating
September 1, 2020
I’m not a thrill ride aficionado. While the rest of the family is coursing through the darkened galaxy on Space Mountain, or soaking themselves splashing down Chickapin Hill, I’m probably running around the park collecting character photos. Photopass photographers are my absolute favorite cast members in the whole park. Admittedly, I once booked a really crummy character meal, knowing it was going to be lackluster at best, just so I could get photos with certain characters in their special holiday outfits. (Yep, looking at you, Hollywood Studios…)
So, when Disney World reopened following its COVID-19 closure, I held my breath, waiting to see how the characters would re-materialize in their old haunts. I knew that in a socially-distanced world, character meet-and-greets would be a big no-no.
My family had a late summer trip planned, and with specialty events like Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party cancelled, and the Food and Wine Festival scaled back, we weren’t so sure about spending the money on the trip. Plus, is it really closing time at the Magic Kingdom if you haven’t seen the Happily Ever After fireworks?
We cancelled our trip, rationalizing that if we weren’t going to get the most bang for our buck, we’d wait out the virus and try again at a later date. Plus, you know, virus.
Well, late summer came, and I found myself unexpectedly in Florida on a research trip. I swear, I didn’t plan to head to the parks. I even told my son I wasn’t going. But the plane wheels had barely touched down at MCO before my car pulled into Disney Springs, all on its own volition. I took care of some business the next day, but the siren’s call of the Kingdom was too much for me. I was soooo close! I could very nearly see the castle from the highway… I made a last minute reservation, and off I went.
The princesses were there to greet me as soon as I crossed under the train station. Heading from the shadowed tunnel into that brilliant sunlight as you enter the “world of Yesterday, Tomorrow and Fantasy” (you know exactly where I’m talking about!), there was a socially-distanced crowd staring right back at me. I knew they couldn’t be there to greet me, since no one except the cast member at the reservation line knew I was coming, but why were all those people looking in my direction?
Turned out they weren’t looking at me at all. They were waving happily back at the princesses holding court at the top of the train station. Cinderella, Aurora, Jasmine, and Ariel, along with the Fairy Godmother, were welcoming guests to their Magic Kingdom day.
I had barely made it to the hub when – cue the music – along came Tinkerbell spreading her pixie dust along Main Street. It was the first of several times I would see Tink’s float sparkling past the guests that day in an unscheduled “character cavalcade.”
Next it was off to Tomorrowland, to battle the evil Emperor Zurg. It’s always one of my first rides of the day when I’m in the Magic Kingdom. It was only fitting then that the first character I’d come across outside the ride would be Buzz Lightyear on the Tomorrowland stage. While I wasn’t able to get my picture with him, per se, Buzz was doing a great job entertaining the Space Rangers gathered at the foot of the stage without being huggably close. The Magic Kingdom was pretty quiet that day anyway, but each of the cadets assembled in front of the stage were able to get some individual attention from Buzz, with a pretty good angle for the Moms and Dads to get “selfie-esque” pictures with Buzz presiding in the background. Later in the day, Stitch would also show up, creating his own brand of mischief on the stage.
So far, so good. I’d managed to see a few of my favorite characters, and I’d only been in the park a short time. I cut across the hub again on my way to Pirates, but I found myself pausing in front of the castle for another unscheduled cavalcade. This time, Goofy and company came parading through, with dancers and stilt walkers leading the way. Goofy would pass my way at least two more times that day.
The big moment came when Mickey and Minnie paraded their way through the park, complete with their 90th Anniversary celebration outfits on. Later, Mickey and gang would replace the princesses on the train station balcony to interact with guests. I guess it was because it was time for the princesses to retire to their princess float so that they could go on a royal tour through the Magic Kingdom as they waved to miniature versions of themselves along their travel route.
Hidden throughout the park were a few other special treats to see characters. Coming around the back side of the castle, I was surprised to hear a few raised voices. It wasn’t really shouting, but it was louder than your average park conversation. Looking up at where the commotion was coming from, I spied Anastasia and Drizella, Cinderella’s stepsisters, bickering with each other, and entertaining guests from the second floor balcony of the castle. It was a slightly different take on the character interactions, because this time the characters were “face characters” who had the ability to “chat” with guests.
Toward the end of my day, I also had the opportunity to hear the brass sounds of the Main Street Philharmonic as they paraded through Frontierland.
While I didn’t see them during my time at the Magic Kingdom, there are also cavalcades by the Hundred Acre Wood gang, Aladdin and his friends, and even a spot for Jack Sparrow to give his own brand of advice to guests. You won’t see these activities listed in your times guide, however, because they are meant to be “spontaneous” in order to keep crowds from forming and getting too close to each other. The cavalcades were fairly frequent, though, and perhaps even more magical than if I’d lined up an hour before to see a parade, simply because they did occur so unexpectedly.
While I was only visiting the Magic Kingdom that day, each of the parks has their own style of character appearances to enchant guests, including floating parades on the river at Animal Kingdom.
It may not have been a personalized autographed session with Mickey, or a buffet with “the Fab 5,” but Disney certainly did a better job than I was expecting of incorporating character appearances into the parks. Character sightings were more abundant than I had anticipated, and while things may be different during the recovery from COVID-19, I was happy to see that our favorite characters hadn’t gone far.
Beth Keating is a regular contributor to DisneyBizJournal.