May 19, 2013 – Chances are, you have a picture with at least one of them. Many of them work long hours, especially in peak seasons, and have to deal with extreme heat under costume and makeup without complaint. Over the course of their careers in the park, they will be in photos with hundreds – if not thousands – of strangers. They will cross paths with people from all over the world one time, and never meet them again – but they will remain a part of their lives forever through a photo and a memory.
These relationships will be built and broken in a matter of moments. But for those moments, smiles and hugs will be exchanged, children will meet their heroes, and adults will get to relive childhood dreams.
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of taking photos of and with many of the characters in the Hollywood theme park, and spent a good deal of time watching them interact with others. This is part two of my musings on a few of the many talented performers that stand out in my mind.
When I was a little girl, An American Tail was one of my favorite movies, despite how depressing it was. So after having visited Fivel’s Play Land at Universal Studios as a child, it was a sort of homecoming to meet the mouse again.
Full costumed characters have a harder job than face characters for many reasons – the bulky and stifling costuming in unkind weather, the limited range of motion, and the ease with which not-so-nice guests can take advantage of and even injure the performer inside. So typically, your interactions with them will be limited at best as they move from you to the next person in line.
Not so with Fievel.
After a lengthy absence of about 4 years from the park, I saw him on the upper lot in December of 2009. When I mentioned rather sheepishly that I had enjoyed running through the play land as a child, he patted my hand. I asked if he missed it too, and he nodded in that big exaggerated way that costumed actors must. In a fit of childish exclamation, I told Fievel that I had enjoyed playing with him at the play land when I was small, and was happy to see him again. And at that, he hugged me.
It was a particularly touching moment for me, although my 20 year old self knew that the actor – or more likely, the actress, as most of the strict height requirements for those costumes necessitate that tiny women wear them – was almost positively not the same Fievel. But that didn’t matter. In that moment, without saying a word, this person playing a cartoon mouse that most park-goers under the age of 24 generally don’t recognize gave me something back from my youth.
Playing a character that is no longer relevant or enjoying mainstream popularity is hard. But for those who do still remember and love those characters, little things like this make all the difference in the world.
This one is a little sad for me to write about, as he’s no longer featured in the park for some reason, likely due to the current state of his licensing agreements. As I mentioned above, costumed characters have it rough. But this doesn’t stop some of the actors under the fur and felt from giving it their all.
I grew up on my PlayStation games, the first of which was the original Crash Bandicoot. After playing the original three games, I was surprised and delighted to find him in the park during the Vivendi-Universal days.
No matter what day I was there, Crash always had high energy and loved to interact. At one point, I even saw him do his infamous Crash dance, as seen in the third game of the franchise, Crash Bandicoot: Warped. That extra little touch really made me smile, and it was appreciated by the kids nearby as well.
The thing that really made the difference for Crash was that the actors typically seemed very aware of the franchise their character belonged to. They were bouncy, they were cool, they danced and spun and occasionally, they made the same “WHOA!” that Crash would make if you died in the game.
Of all the characters I have interacted with, I remember Crash as being the most willing and ready to give and receive hugs from kids – even more so than Dora and Diego.
I miss Crash. If anyone has more information on his removal / absence from the park, please do let us know.
I’m not going to lie; when I was a kid, this character made me run and hide behind my dad’s legs. I lost it whenever he or Frankenstein’s Monster came anywhere remotely near me. But now that I’m older, I’ve overcome my fear of him. The way I overcame my fear of him is why he’s in this reflection article now.
In about 2005 I was in the park with my family (this would be my last ride on Back to the Future, but that’s another story for the next article that’s currently half-finished beside this one), and as we walked towards New York Street, out he came. Normally the actors playing the Universal monsters like giving you a bit of a fright, but as I was 14 at the time, and looked more like a chubby 10 year old, I suppose this one took pity on me. He waved at me as I cowered behind my dad and offered his hand. Something possessed me to take it, and the next thing I knew, he was offering me a hug. I accepted, and as he patted me on the back I thought that maybe he wasn’t so bad after all.
From then on, I’ve loved this character. I really enjoy watching them amble along towards people and scare unsuspecting guests, usually women on their cell phones. But beyond the initial scare, the people playing the Mummy are typically very nice.
A favorite encounter of mine was in the winter of 2011, on the lower lot. The Mummy had been walking around down there with Beetlejuice and ambled over to me. He noticed that I had a bandage on my finger from a cut, and grabbed my hand. He looked at the bandaged finger for a minute, pointed to it, and then pointed to his own bandages, and gave a thumbs up – or as much of one as he could in his costume.
Another fun meeting occurred just a few weeks ago, on the upper lot. As I was standing near a Despicable Me board advertising the minions coming to the park, the Mummy came up behind me and stood there looking at it too. I told him I wasn’t all that excited and asked him what he thought about it. He shrugged, and kind of shook his head in a so-so way. It was a funny moment, and really brightened up my day.
With so many forgettable films these days, it’s good to have the classic Universal monsters still making an impression.
Recent decades have not been kind to the legacy and public awareness of this icon of Hollywood cartoon history. For a character with his own star on the Walk of Fame, this screwball bird has been woefully underused as of late.
How many people do you know who are actually aware of Woody being the official mascot of Universal Studios? Nowadays if you mention a cartoon Woody, people picture a toy cowboy – not a red and blue bird. But I’ve never forgotten that grin – and who could forget that laugh?
Woody remains the official mascot of the theme park to this day, though the majority of the park guests are oblivious to this fact. It saddens and sometimes angers me that so many guests have no idea who Woody Woodpecker is. Being a costumed character who is easily recognized is tough, but being a barely recognized old character is ten times harder. You have to work harder to get recognition and to get asked to pose for photos. People are dismissive of you. And over time, you may have to try to justify the presence of your character in the park.
But no matter how obscure the actors beneath the suit may feel, I have never once had a bad encounter with Woody. In fact, I have always been impressed by his energy. There is a definite expression of joy in the performer’s movements when someone calls out “Woody!” and rushes to his side for a photo. I find that so inspiring. The actors playing Woody always channel that same joyful and zany vibe the character is known for.
Woody Woodpecker is one of the few pieces remaining from the Universal Studios of my childhood – something I’ll be touching more on at a later time. I am grateful that despite the various changes over the years, he at least remains.
As an avid Back to the Future fan, this is both the hardest and most fitting character to mention as the conclusion to this part of my character retrospective.
We all know by now the dreadful fate of the classic Back to the Future ride, which was closed for the abysmal and quite frankly sub-par and pitiful replacement, The Simpsons Ride. And many of us have at least one memory of the ride or the movies themselves, in some way.
I have no shame in admitting that the Back to the Future trilogy helped make me who I am. Through the classic characters and the lessons it teaches us, such as standing up for what’s right, finding true love, the strength of the bonds of family and friendship, and making the most of your life in the time you have, I have become a better person. I take Doc’s words from the end of the third film very seriously – seriously enough to have them on my bedroom wall and in my signature.
So it should come as a shock to no one that I consider Doc Brown to be one of the all time best theme park characters. I cannot express in words the joy that filled me when I saw him on a Segway scooter zooming around the upper lot one chance afternoon last fall. I didn’t know that he was still a character in the park after the removal of the ride. I had not seen him or heard about him in the years following the closure. But there he was, greeting guests with multiple watches on his arm, smiling and shaking hands with people. And then I managed to let my nervousness blow my chance at talking to him that day.
But thankfully, I got another chance a year later in Spring, in the early evening. I waited till he was done with a group of kids, and got my chance to talk to him. We chatted a bit about our mutual disappointments about the ride closure, and my excitement for the DeLorean being displayed on the lower lot. He was so animated and so into his role.
Similar to the Lucy actresses, this Doc Brown felt real. The adult in me forgot that Emmett Brown was not a real person, and the child in me confided in him a few of the college troubles that I’d had that week, which had brought me to the park that day to begin with.
That Doc Brown left an unforgettable mark on me that day. He put a hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye, and smiled. He said to me “I’ll tell you what I told Marty a long time ago – your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one. You’ll be just fine.”
I managed to hold it together just long enough to say goodbye and walk away – and then I lost it. I don’t remember that last time in my life I cried that hard, especially in public.
People underestimate the emotional power that characters like Doc Brown have, especially on adults. Just as grown men feel giddy and anxious before meeting Optimus Prime on the lower lot, others feel a similar rush when meeting Marilyn Monroe or Spongebob in the park. What matters is not that the character is real, but that the performer makes you believe. For however long you are with that character, they are real to you, they exist, and they can make you smile, or laugh, or bring you to tears. They are every bit as important to the theme park world as the themed buildings and thrill rides, and work twice as hard as people think they do.
So thank them when you get the chance. Give them a high five, or a hug, or just say hi. Be kind to them, and for those that can talk back to you, give them an ear. Sometimes, like Doc Brown, they may just have a word of wisdom for you right when you need it most.
Adriana Morgan – also known by her internet handle Miss Betty Juice – is an editor and one of the field reporters for Inside Universal.
Adriana made her first trip to Universal in 1995 during Nickelodeon’s Big Help-A-Thon, and was hooked from day one. Since that first trip, her passion for films and for Universal Studios has grown, and she continues to enjoy the park and its history today as an annual passholder and a reporter for Inside Universal. Her areas of Universal expertise include Jurassic Park, the Beetlejuice Graveyard Revue, and the Studio Tour.
Adriana currently resides in Los Angeles. You can reach her at her blog on Tumblr at MyUniversalExperience.tumblr.com, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.