Scattered across the United States and Canada is a series of privately owned and operated family campgrounds, all called Jellystone Park. There are 83 in total, part of a franchise network stretching from Nova Scotia to California and committed, according to the website, to providing "the best camping amenities and park activities possible." No two parks are the same. Each has its own peculiarities of climate, service, and quality control; each comes with its own set of regional attractions. But each Jellystone has something in common, too. Every one of the 83 parks pays employees to put on a costume each day of the camping season and make the rounds as an overweight, 57-year-old anthropomorphic cartoon kleptomaniac named Yogi Bear. In one of those parks, in one of those costumes, I am that employee.
I've been Yogi for most of my adult life. In the summer of 2012, when I was 19 years old, I was hired on as a member of the Jellystone Park Recreation Team. Every in-season morning since, I've pedaled my bicycle a half-hour out of town and started a shift as the bear. While my peers were grinding coffee and gassing up lawnmowers, I was memorizing cartoon biographies and picking lollipop gunk out of polyester fur.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not complaining. Yogi has put me through two degrees. It promises one more if I keep at it, and so I take the position seriously. I'm engaged and on time. I've studied the recreation handbook, memorizing everything from entry-level aspects of the Yogi cannon (Boo-Boo is not Yogi's little brother, but his little buddy) to Trivial Pursuit–tier particulars (How tall is Yogi? Twelve pic-a-nic baskets tall). But sometimes I wonder: What am I doing? Why is any of this possible? How do I and so many other men and women across this continent pay the bills by portraying a cartoon bear to kids and campers whose parents were barely born the last time that bear was culturally relevant?
Yogi went off the air 20 years ago, but the parks are still going strong
When Jellystone Parks first got started, it probably made a lot more sense. Hanna-Barbera was killing the Saturday morning cartoon game. Yogi Bear, whom the animating duo first created in 1958 as a supporting character for Huckleberry Hound, had his own hit show by 1961. In 1964, he starred in his first feature film. By the time Jellystone was founded in 1968, Yogi Bear was one of the world's most recognizable cartoon characters, a bankable face sure to help lure customers to a new campground franchise.
But 1968 was a long time ago. While Yogi would go on to star in eight more television shows, the last — the regrettable Yo, Yogi! — went off the air in 1991 after a single season. The young campers for whom I click on classic (and often racially insensitive) episodes each morning were almost all born in the 21st century. Despite the 2010 3D animation and live-action mashup Yogi Bear movie starring Dan Aykroyd that you've just remembered exists, almost none of my campers recognize me. They've never heard of Yogi Bear, and yet here they are: vacationing at a campground built on the marketing appeal of this ancient icon.
To be fair, it seems to be working. We've got 83 locations, after all. By all accounts, we might continue to exist after what little Yogi brand recognition remains dissolves completely. We've already stood witness to the rise and fall of Hanna-Barbera, followed by our own star bear, only to continue doing business in what should be a hollow shell of a premise. Why stop now? I even called the head office to find out. "Once kids meet Yogi, they love him, regardless of whether they see him on TV," the head of marketing told me.
And so the company just operates as if nothing has changed. Each year, a representative from each of the 83 parks heads to the American South for a conference where they discuss the most effective ways to operate their individual shrine to Yogi Bear. When they return, they return past the 10-foot-tall statue standing guard at the entrance to each park, lit from below and casting Citizen Kane shadows, arms frozen in a perpetual wave, mouth an ever-steady smile.
If only they knew what this strange shrine they've created, standing seemingly outside of time, was doing to those of us on the ground.
It ain't easy being Yogi
Let's start with the obvious: Dressing up in a big, heavy bear costume has its challenges. His boots are loose. He's not very well ventilated. His paunch gets caught on my knees whenever I try to step over anything taller than a few inches. He can hardly see who's wrapped around his leg, let alone make out the child he's supposed to be chasing down in an improvised game of tag. They say that with all his equipment and physical maneuvering, a goaltender loses close to 10 pounds in water weight over the span of a typical hockey game. One can only imagine what I sweat out in the same length of time.
In the four summers I've spent as Yogi, I've had a few close calls. My cellphone, buried somewhere beneath Yogi's left cheek, has gone off more than once, requiring many an impromptu "Who wants to dance with Yogi?" party. In an effort to "prove that it's only a costume," I've had unbelieving campers reach right under my neck and pull at my hair, nose, or whatever else they can latch their sticky fingers onto. I've even caused a few cases of whiplash, marching out into a road I could've sworn was empty only moments before as the scrape of gravel on rubber and the muffled exclamations of Angry Dad come from somewhere in my lack of peripheral vision. But these incidents are tame in comparison to some of the stories I've seen and heard, Jellystone tales of worst-case-scenario Yogi moments:
One girl had to be rushed in halfway through a July appearance when she spotted what she thought was a recluse spider crawling around the inside of her helmet.
Another Yogi — my predecessor — cut corners while clicking into and zipping up her costume. When she stepped off the golf cart that had been escorting her around the park, and into a growing crowd of children, she hesitated, shifted, stumbled, and fell. The park shared a collective gasp and fell silent. Thankfully, she rose from the gravel without help. But she also rose sans Yogi's head.
Once, in a scramble to cover for a missing Recreation Team member, a new hire from the maintenance department was asked to take up the Yogi helm for a single appearance — except nobody remembered to tell the poor guy that, for obvious reasons, Yogi doesn't speak. He spent the next hour or so performing a lackluster — but very spirited! — Yogi Bear impression to an enamored group of surprised children. It was the only day in Jellystone Park history that Yogi has spoken a word.
But the strangest part isn't any of the physical challenges or even the horror stories — it's how the mind learns to become one with the bear.
When you wear the suit, you are the suit
Let me be clear: We aren't just talking about an ordinary campground with an outdated theme and one mascot running around to amuse customers. A new hire at any Jellystone Park will be taken aback by what is quite literally a cult of Yogi. The cartoon bear's face adorns every napkin ring, clock face, and poster board on the park grounds. Every line of scripted dialogue — whether it's a phone greeting or a "Hey, Hey, Hey-Ride" announcement — pertains to Yogi's weight, appetite, and/or basket-nabbing antics.
And when you put on that suit, you method act: He who wears the bear becomes the bear. Remember, our staff handbook tells us, Yogi is mischievous. If a nearby basket is nowhere to be nabbed, he pokes fun at campers by stealing their hats. He grab at lollipops. He plays tag. Unavoidably, Yogi makes toddlers cry.
Even suiting up — called "waking up Yogi" — has a strict regimen. The bear begins his morning in five pieces — boots, gloves, fat suit, fur, and head — and it requires two people to assemble him into one cartoon picnic basket thief. Waking up Yogi is a solemn ritual, performed several times daily in complete silence. With only four people in our department, and 14 hours to pepper with appearances every day of the summer, his height sometimes changes noticeably as staff members punch in and out. It's a strange experience at first, but soon it becomes habitual, like a soldier shining his boots.
At first, it's possible to be ironic about all of it. But when these sorts of absurdities are the mandated code of one's employment, especially in an environment as hectic as a children's playground, irony quickly breaks down. One grows tired of the constant dissonance, of referring to Yogi's existence with knowing winks and layered meanings. And so most of us simply resign ourselves to the idea that Yogi Bear really exists. Away from the park, Jellystone workers remain regular folks, living in the same world as anyone else.
But on the clock, they occupy a bizarre collective fantasy, where Yogi Bear and all his unblinking pals (Cindy, Boo-Boo, or Ranger Smith costumes are shipped between locations, each making one special appearance per park per season) are perfectly reasonable characters to meet on the street corner, by the pool, or in the lunch room. Perhaps that's why it was so shocking for all of us when Yogi arose from the gravel that one time, years ago, with a 20-something blonde's head sticking out of his shoulders.
What does it all mean?
Maybe none of this seems strange to some of you. After all, we live in a world where most people have visited Disneyland or Disney World at some point. It's entirely possible that the same strange social conditions apply to the staff in Anaheim or Orlando, or to one of the people inside the body of Chuck E. Cheese. Perhaps they too are required to maintain Mickey's status as a "real mouse" to the point that they begin believing it themselves.
But characters like Mickey Mouse are still ubiquitous elements of a Western upbringing. And so the people who play them never need to justify themselves. Everyone, especially the children, is party to the convenient fantasy: If they are young enough, they, too, believe Mickey Mouse is real; if they are older, they might at least have fun pretending. The man in the Mickey costume never has to interact with a customer who has never heard of the mouse he embodies, and so the world he lives in can never be as strange as the one at Jellystone Park.
What does it mean to be Yogi Bear? Despite waking up the bear so many times, I still don't know. But as the character fades further into obscurity, neither, really, does anyone else. Perhaps when I'm more like the bear, when I'm an old man with kids of my own, looking back fondly on a youth spent scraping by as a beloved, irreverent cartoon mascot — then I'll know what it was to be Yogi. Until then, I'll keep waking up.
Joel W. Vaughan's work has previously appeared in Geist, Broken Pencil, and Maclean's Student Guide. He currently reviews manuscripts for Catapult Publishing Co. in New York.