Kristen Sotakoun had to learn Pocahontas’s signature. It starts with a strong crisscrossing “P” and ends with a scythe-like “S” that swoops below the base of the script. Compared to Cinderella’s frilly cursive, Tarzan’s closed-fist scrawl, and the paw print serving as an “O” in Pluto, Pocahontas’s autograph looks as though she painted it with all the colors of the wind.
Sotakoun worked at Disney World for four years, starting in 2008 when she was just 18. Today, at 30 and with a job in the video game industry, she says she looks back at her princess era with only good memories.
Sotakoun, who is half Laotian and half white, went through an intensive crash course for each of the characters she played in Disney’s “entertainment” division, which refers to the iconic costume characters that cheerfully reside in the amusement parks. At the beginning of her shift, she’d enter the bowels of the Magic Kingdom and be costumed as either Pocahontas, Mulan, or Silvermist (a Peter Pan fairy of East Asian appearance who first appeared in the Disney Fairies direct-to-DVD films). Afterward, she was let loose on the campus so she could briefly lose herself in the “happiest place on earth.” In that time, Sotakoun became familiar with every curveball the Disney World Resort was capable of throwing at her. From crying children to leering grandpas, she’s seen it all. Nothing fazes a Disney princess.
Sotakoun hasn’t worked at Disney World in nearly a decade, but she’s one of the few former princesses who’s willing to share her experiences candidly with anyone curious. The company discourages its entertainment staff to talk openly about their time working at the parks, and asks all of its Ariels, Belles, and Snow Whites never to acknowledge that they play their namesake characters. Instead, if she’s recognized by a park-goer at Target, Sotakoun and her former coworkers are urged to say something like, “Yes, I’m friends with Pocahontas.”
Sotakoun and I talked about the sliding pay scale at Disney parks, the after-hours scene with the cast members, and what it was like for her, a woman with no Native American heritage, to be asked to play Pocahontas.
So how did you get your foot in the door at Disney World?
I wish I could tell you that I glamorously walked in and they said, “We love you.” But I was in high school in 2008 [in Illinois], and Disney came to our school and talked about the Disney CareerStart program. Basically, you graduate school, go straight to Disney. I think it was to try and get kids into the workforce. I immediately told my mom that I wanted to do this, and she said, “Okay, maybe for a couple months.”
I didn’t start as a princess; you’re not allowed to audition for entertainment in that program. So I worked at the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground first. It was glorified babysitting — you watch kids climb over this giant ant — and that was a lot of fun. At the end of the program, after three months, they held auditions for entertainment. They pulled me after the audition and told me I would be Pocahontas. Being half Asian and half white, that was a surprise. I put on the costume; they had me read a prewritten line. I’m from outside of Chicago, and they said, “Could you read that again, and this time don’t say ‘Poca-HAHN-tus.” They took pictures of me, and they said, “You’re in!”
When you’re working at the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground, is getting into entertainment the holy grail?
Oh, it feels like a hierarchy. Walking backstage in my yellow polo with khaki shorts, if Peter Pan would pass me, I would go quiet. It’s not like they say, “Listen, these people are so much better than you.” You just feel it. You feel like this is an iconic Disney character walking past you.
When you got to entertainment, how long was the training regimen?
It may be different now, but for me, the training was five days. When you’re accepted in entertainment, nobody is just a princess or just a prince. You have to be trained and approved in fur characters first. The first three days of training is sitting and watching videos of what you can or can’t do. Learning autographs. There’s a really creepy portion where you wear just the head and hands of the character. So you’re in business-casual but the hands and head of Chip and Dale. The last two days of training you go out into the park with character attendants, and meet people. It was wild to me, I thought the training would last about a month. And once you’re approved for fur, it’s two days of training for each “face character” [characters like Belle or Princess Jasmine that don’t wear a mask].
I was so stoked when I got through training, and then I did three weeks in a row of just Winnie the Pooh.
I had no idea that there might be a woman underneath the mask of Winnie the Pooh at Disneyland. So the gender of the performer doesn’t matter much?
Yeah, so Mickey and Minnie, their heights are 4-foot-11 to 5-foot-1, so Mickey and Minnie are usually women. I have a friend who is a heterosexual cis male. He was Queen of Hearts for the first time; he did his set. I asked him how it was, and he was like, “Oh, my god, it was so fun. I was having dads kneel and kiss my hand. And I just walked back in here and took off my head and thought, ‘What the hell did I just do?’”
So did you get a crash course in specifically Pocahontas? Or is the training more general than that?
Oh, yeah, there’s a much higher chance of you accidentally doing something “non-Disney” as a face character. You can speak; they can see your face. The first day of training for Pocahontas, we’d sit and watch the movie and work on the different ways that she poses. And the trainers are usually people who’ve been the characters before. That’s really fun.
So Pocahontas has a couple of go-to poses for pictures?
Yeah, for some reason they didn’t want me to put hands on my hips. They wanted me to put my hands on my side and make a fist. It’s kinda like that Arthur meme.
What do you remember about your first day as a face character, out in the park, where the training wheels are off?
It was wild. My first time walking into the park as Pocahontas, I was at Epcot. You come out of the door, and you’re just like, “Oh, my god.” It’s weird, I got so nervous. So I didn’t pass training my first go-around. I had to do it again, because I was so caught up in the moment.
So when did the job start to feel normal to you? Where you weren’t intimidated by being out there?
It’s so weird to look back on that job and think it was a normal part of my life for four years. Once I was trained as Pocahontas, I was her five days a week for three months straight. At a certain point, just like any job, you [would] wake up in the morning and be like, “Ugh, I don’t want to go to work today.” I had to remind myself that I was saying, “I don’t want to put on makeup and hug kids all day.”
One of my distinct memories of being at Disneyland as a kid is crying in front of a giant Mickey. That’s a quintessential experience at Disneyland: Kids cry in front of the mascots. Did you deal with any crying kids? Was there a protocol to deal with them?
Definitely a lot of crying children. A lot, all the time. Less with face characters, but more with, “Oh, there’s Winnie the Pooh, that character is a sticker on my wall!” And now he’s a 5-foot-8 bear staring at me. Whatever character you are, you can kinda mold your reaction to what that character would do. As Winnie the Pooh, I would cover my eyes and turn away like I was scared. You can engage the situation and be within your voice. I’ve seen some performers who are just incredible with making kids calm down. You just gotta roll with the punches.
I would imagine that there must be a backstage community at Disney. You’re all kids, you’re all working this weird job in this surreal environment. Did you guys go out together? Did you guys tease each other in the dressing room? What’s the after-hours scene like?
I think people think that there are a bunch of people going wild, like, “What’s Cinderella do in her off-hours?” Backstage is pretty normal, but I can tell you some of the raunchier things that have happened. I was Silvermist the fairy at Magic Kingdom and Toon Town. The fairies share their break room with the princesses as well, so it’s one big break room. One of the Cinderellas was like, “Guys, I just got a boob job!” And then Belle, was like, “Okay, not to be weird but can I feel it?” Cinderella says, “Go ahead!” It becomes this train of all the princesses and fairies feeling Cinderella’s boobs and saying, “Oh, my god, they’re so real!”
Some women have said that being a face character at Disney can lead to guys getting kinda handsy at the park. Did you have any experience with that?
So I played Mulan, who is fully covered. She’s dressed head to toe. I would get comments from the dads that were like, “Oh, you’re so beautiful!” Or phone numbers written on Disney World napkins. Pocahontas, though, was wearing the least amount of clothes, so it was always the older grandpas. … I’ve never been, like, groped, but it definitely does happen. I think the people who do say things to the princesses have real balls. You’re at Disney World. There are so many children around respecting this character.
We mentioned this earlier, that Disney was clearly playing it pretty fast and loose with race. What was your reaction when you were asked to play a Native American? Does it feel more weird now, years later, in a more sensitive cultural environment?
When I got the role as Pocahontas, I thought it was so funny. But then I met the other Pocahontases who are also not Native American. A lot of the Pocahantases were also Princess Jasmines. I was Mulan as well, and I was like, “Well, I’m not Chinese, but this is closer.” But one of the Mulans was Puerto Rican. It’s wild. Out of the eight Mulans, none of us were Chinese.
What’s the pay range for Disney characters?
I worked there eight years ago, but what I can tell you is that there’s a base pay. Fur characters are making a certain amount of money. It’s minimum wage, maybe a little bit above. But when you’re a face character, you get a premium because it’s a skill. Same with the parade — if you’re in the parade, you get a premium. When I was on the CareerStart program, I was the only one of my friends who was a princess, so I knew I was making three or four dollars more than my friends. But it fluctuates depending on your schedule. If you’re scheduled as Winnie the Pooh, that is going to be a different paycheck than the next week if I get all Pocahontas.
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