Photograph by Mark Hanauer
Like everyone, I grew up going to Disneyland. Even as an adult I loved it there and went at least once a month. I was an annual pass holder, though not like the freaky ones you may have heard of. I’d see the park’s characters and think, “It’d be so cool to work here.” But there was never a character I really wanted to play. I had a role on the television show Veronica Mars and was working at Coco’s when a friend told me Disneyland was casting a Jack Sparrow character. I had already played Jack as a hobby at San Diego’s Comic-Con and the Renaissance Faire.
Thirty-seven actors showed up that day, four of us in costume. Only eight were chosen for the next round. We were told we would be auditioning the next day at Disneyland. When I showed up, there were now 23 guys—15 that had been pulled from in-house auditions. There was this assistant who would come in and pull people one by one—“Steve, can you come with me?” Then you’d never see Steve again. Finally I was sitting all alone in the room. After 15 minutes they pulled me into another room where two other guys were sitting. They told us we were going to be Disneyland’s first Jack Sparrows.
Disney warned us we were going to have a lot of horny women coming on to us. They were also worried about girls. I heard Disneyland had an Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. She was very flirtatious, and they finally pulled her because men found her too sexually arousing and were acting out.
The male character they had pulled was Tarzan. He moved around the tree house dressed in just a butt flap. Disney had hired these good-looking, muscular guys—even airbrushing abs on—and apparently there was excessive pinching of Tarzan’s ass by the park’s female visitors. Knowing all this, and also knowing what women were like around Jack at the Renaissance Faire, I told the other guys, “Don’t complain if girls flirt with you too much. If you do, they’ll pull the character from the park.”
Disney wanted us to tone Jack down, so they put us through an acting class to discover reasons why Jack walks and talks the way he does. Obviously he is based on Keith Richards, who’s always messed up, which is why they came up with the class. “Don’t be flirtatious,” they told us. “See women as trouble.” And they said as far as alcohol goes, don’t even mention drinking. But the Pirates of the Caribbean song is all about drinking, and they’re drinking all along the ride. So I eventually broke that rule, because it would have taken me out of character. When parents took pictures, I’d say, “Everyone say ‘rum,’ ” and the parents loved it. The kids would just ask, “What’s rum?”
When training started, I found out the park allowed mustaches but had a no-facial-hair policy for all employees. I had the Jack goatee, and I threw a small fit. No facial hair for this character? Why would you want to glue on a mustache in summer? You can see the glue! I took a day to consider whether I wanted the job. I walked the park, and suddenly I saw the most amazing Belle I’d ever seen. Beautiful. She was coming out of the characters’ entrance near Star Tours and bantering with Push the Talking Trash Can. An entire crowd was being entertained, and that just sold me. I thought, “I want to work here.”
I had a MySpace page as Jack Sparrow, and I asked if I could keep that. They said no. Two days later an assistant found a blog I’d written about auditioning. They said, “You need to take that blog down in two hours or you’ve lost your job.” They said, “You cannot give out information about auditioning for Jack Sparrow.” I also had to sign documents that stated if I was in the park and out of costume, I could not tell people that I played Jack Sparrow. I was told that the thing for employees to say was, “I am friends with Jack Sparrow.” I was worried I couldn’t do the character at Renaissance Faires anymore. But as long as I didn’t make money, I was told, I could put on my own costume outside the park.
It took over an hour to get Disney’s suit on. In the dressing room there is one long makeup table and a wall with a long mirror. I think over 100 character actors were there. You had face characters like Jack, Aladdin, the Mad Hatter, and you had fuzzies, the characters in costumes. The face characters and the fuzzies dressed apart. There was a ranking system in the dressing room: If you were a princess, you pretty much got that long mirror wall. For some reason the Jacks always ended up in the back corner.
As Jack, I had four hour-long sets a day. We worked in New Orleans Square. I would find a place I liked, and the hosts would set up my line. A host is someone who helps run the line of people that forms to meet you. They’re basically your security. When we started, Disney thought they wouldn’t give us a host. They thought we’d mingle. I laughed at that. I said, “I don’t mean to be the guy that knows it all, but from Renaissance Faires I can guarantee you this character will have the park’s longest line.” Disney had invented a Jack Sparrow autograph the three of us learned, and immediately the line for autographs was gigantic. The Jacks ultimately got two hosts.
We were the Johnny Depps and the Jack Sparrows of Disneyland. People called you either “Johnny” or “Jack.” They wanted to talk with you or ask for your autograph. It took me a while to get my rhythm down. I could figure out five or six different things to say to kids, so that by the time the sixth kid was gone, the next group in line hadn’t heard what I’d said to the first kid.
You never knew when the casting department was going to come into the park and watch you—they came out of nowhere—or something might end up on YouTube. If a character does something a parent believes is wrong, that’s the video that ends up on YouTube. I was on YouTube after I sat in a lady’s stroller. It’s something I often did, and parents would laugh and take pictures. But management came to me and said, “It looks like you’re sitting down on the job, and we can’t have that.”
There is a big thing in the park about not being visually linked to another character. You’re told to stay in your area. But Pluto was a friend of mine, and one day he came over to see me. We posed for photos, and the next day he told me it was on YouTube. Eventually he got fired.
I'll be honest: I didn’t follow all the Disney rules. I played Jack like he was real, and if a woman flirted, I would flirt back. Women loved it. But there were also women who would have too many beers at California Adventure or smuggle in alcohol you could smell on their breath, women who were clearly sloshed.
Here’s a napkin someone wrote on for me: “I will give you a blow job on your break, so sexy! Kim—714-XXX-XXXX.” I would also get offers from women in my ear: “Anything you want, just find me.” I had a girl who had turned 18 the day before. She was with a high school group, and she wrote down her room number at the Downtown Disney hotel. I had a lady hump my leg one day in the park.
Annual pass holders—eventually you would become the favorite of certain ones. Most characters were weirded out by the pass holders. Weird was a mother having her kids ditch school so she could come see me. Or coming to every set I did and walking the line over and over again just to talk to me. But I didn’t mind them. I built up about eight solid regulars that came for me. My biggest fans were a mother-daughter team that would talk a little, walk to the end of the line, and then come around again. I could see them twice a week, every week, every set.
We were told Disney prefers that the characters don’t date, and the characters even have a slogan: “Don’t Date Disney,” or DDD. Dating at Disneyland is difficult. But I already had a thing for the Ariels when I arrived. They have red hair, and I love red hair. After I met my girlfriend, an Ariel, and we started dating, we would need to talk to each other backstage under our coats because employees would try to snap photos with their phones—Ariel and Jack together.
One problem about playing a character at Disneyland is that you are the Hollywood of the park. For the most part, ride operators and the people making the food love the characters, and they treat them like royalty. But the leads—the park’s assistant managers—every character had problems with them. The smallest rule broken, they call upper management and complain.
For the most part, if you’re not in trouble, you don’t see management. It wasn’t until the end that I started seeing them a lot. I had a lady who wrote on a comment card that her son had seen me and said, “Look, it’s Jack Sparrow!,” and Jack Sparrow had turned around and said, “No shit.” My manager said, “I don’t think you would say this, but where’d they get the idea?” I said if they’re in a stroller I say, “Nice ship.” She told me to say “Nice boat” from now on.
What people typically get suspended or fired for is a hugely flawed point system. If you’re part-time and you build up 24 points, you can be fired. Points come from things like clocking in late—even only a minute late. That’s one-and-a-half points on your record. You call in sick the day of work? Three points.
I was driving from L.A. and traffic in the morning was awful, so I started coming in at six because I was so worried about being late. I’d arrive early, get breakfast, and then forget to clock in on time. I never heard anything about it until seven months later, on a day when I actually was late and they told me I had 23 points. At that time I was working five days a week. Now every day I had to worry about hitting that clock because I was up for being fired if I missed it.
We were also not allowed to post pictures of ourselves in costume on MySpace. But I had a picture of Ariel and me kissing backstage, a photo I kept on my private page. I was warned by friends to take it down, and I did, but not before someone made a copy of it and turned it in to Disney. Management pulled me in and talked to me about it.
Then I got a good amount of money back on my tax return, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation was holding a fund-raiser where, for $1,500, you could see the premiere of the third Pirates film at the park. My girlfriend and I bought tickets. People who had worked earlier premieres said attendees came in costume. I had my own pirate costume, and I thought, “Let’s go in costume.” I was playing with danger, but my contract said I could dress up if I wasn’t being paid. They closed the park early that night and showed the movie over the river by the ride on a huge screen. It was amazing.
A week goes by. I think nothing of it. Then I see another Sparrow is scheduled the same day I’m on. I didn’t know what was happening until a manager came and said, “We got to take you down and talk to you.” At the premiere some foreign press outfit had done an interview with me. They asked my name. I didn’t give my real name, Pinto; I gave my stage name, Hillock. But someone behind the camera also filmed the interview, and they put it on YouTube. Management said, “We saw the video. You went to the premiere, you gave your real name, and we’re letting you go on that.” I said I wasn’t working that night, but they told me that I still represented the company.
They had a manager walk me off the property. She told me she felt bad. She took me past security and then asked for my Disney ID. I asked when I could come back. She said in five years I could reapply.
You’d hear that it sucks to work for Disney. They’re Nazis in Mickey hats. But I’d thought, “How bad could it be?” By the time I got fired, half of me was relieved. I was getting sick of constantly being barked at about what to do. It was a month before I went back to the park. I missed it. At first I thought it would be a Walk of Shame, but everyone was very nice.
Not long after that I went back to stand in my girlfriend’s Ariel line on Valentine’s Day and give her flowers. I was wearing a beanie and a sweatshirt, but the parents in line were asking me, “Are you Jack Sparrow? You’re him, aren’t you?” I looked to the line’s host, who was a friend of mine. He said, “You don’t work here anymore—do what you want.” But I did what I was trained to do. I said, “Jack Sparrow and I are just friends.”