Confessions of an ex-Disney princess: What it's really like and what guests don't know

Lots of little girls dream of being Disney princesses.

Sarah Daniels got to be two.

She performed as Ariel for Disney Cruise Line and Walt Disney World, where she sang in "Voyage of the Little Mermaid," and young Elsa in Disneyland's "Frozen – Live at the Hyperion" musical, which she opened. But that wasn't Daniels' goal.

"Being a princess was almost not on my radar because I knew I was too short," said  the actress, singer, professional gamer and ex-Disney princess.

Ever since seeing Fantasmic! at Disney World as a kid, Daniels dreamed of being Mickey Mouse.

"I was a professional dancer when I was like 8 – I started really, really young – so when I saw Mickey dancing his little tush off in Fantasmic!, I was like, 'That is what I want to do. That is all I want to do,'" she said. "I learned the choreography, and I frickin' knew all of it. I was so honed in and pumped to be Mickey in Fantasmic!"

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Daniels got her wish years later. Not only did she perform as Mickey in Fantasmic!, but from 2006 until 2017, she also played Tinkerbell, Alice and Wendy, as well as Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck.

Daniels spoke with USA TODAY about what it's really like to portray a Disney character and what guests don't know.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. They reflect her experiences and may not represent those of other cast members.

Sarah Daniels opened "Frozen - Live at the Hyperion" at Disneyland as young Elsa.
Sarah Daniels opened "Frozen - Live at the Hyperion" at Disneyland as young Elsa.

What were some of your favorite things about being a character?

Daniels: The best part about all of it is just seeing the kids' faces light up. It doesn't matter how bad your day is going, as soon as a kid sees you and just rushes up to give you a hug or tell you about their favorite part of your (character's) movie – just anything that relates to you, that relates to them, that makes them feel like they know you – it's just so magical. Those are the most amazing experiences at Disney for sure.

Do all of the kids believe you're the character right away or are some not so sure since they've seen cartoon versions and you're a real person?

Daniels: Sometimes they're not so sure, and it takes just a hint of magic to change their mind. I mean, I've seen kids who are like, "You're not really Ariel," and then I would say one thing and their whole brain would shift. Add that little extra layer of pixie dust and then, boom, you have them.

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How do you prepare for the gamut of questions you might be asked while in character?

Sarah Daniels sang in The Voyage of The Little Mermaid at Walt Disney World. She also performed on Disney Cruise Line.
Sarah Daniels sang in The Voyage of The Little Mermaid at Walt Disney World. She also performed on Disney Cruise Line.

Daniels: Luckily with face characters, they go through a training process with you. You have two full days of training, where the first day, they're really going through the story. They go through the gestures, the way that you carry yourself, the way you speak, you know, just different things to really get you in character.

And then they mention things, some kinds of questions that could be asked that could be more challenging or just the basic things, like "How's Flounder? Where's Flounder? What are your sisters' names?"

There's a lot of ways that you can kind of get around challenging questions. You know, "Where's Prince Eric? Why isn't Prince Eric with you? He's your prince." "Oh, well, he's back at the castle. Someone has to take care of the kingdom while I'm not around." You just have to really be good at working quickly on your toes, so that you don't get yourself stuck in a corner.

There are people – especially adults – who may try to get performers to mess up or break character. What are your thoughts on that?

Daniels: It's not great. The performers, particularly the face characters, who are interacting face-to-face with you, those are human beings, you know? Those are human beings at their job.

And sometimes people make TikTok videos and film these characters and ask them questions – whether it be out of their universe or something that's political or something that isn't relevant to them – and they try to stump them. These videos get made and then those performers (can) get fired. So people are taking people's jobs away because they wanted to get internet clout. That's not a great thing to do to any human being.

These are people trying to make magic for kids, and adults go to the parks and do things like yell "Andy's coming!" at Woody and Buzz, and they expect them to fall on the floor. Don't do things like that. That's my biggest suggestion: If you saw it on the internet and it got a lot of clout, it's probably not a good thing to do.

Have you ever experienced any inappropriate behavior while you were in character, and how did you navigate that?

Daniels: It's tough. It's really hard because you're not supposed to say "no" to people. You're supposed to reframe. So if someone comes up to you and they say something like when I was Tinkerbell, people would comment on my body, they would say like, "Oh, Tinkerbell has such big hips, she can't fit through keyholes." (Internally) you're like, "OK, I'm a person and that's a weird thing to say," but as Tinkerbell, you say something positive about your body, like "Well, I have to tinker all my dresses myself because nothing else fits me, because I'm shaped perfectly."

Stuff like that you just have to reframe, but I had some gentlemen be very inappropriate with me when I was Tinkerbell, and I had people offer me their hotel room keys and let me know where they were staying. These are people who often are like the weird uncle or like the older brother, but again, it's just remembering that there's humanity.

When you walk through the gates of Disney, you have to remember everyone you encounter is a human being and should all be treated as such. Yes, you paid a lot of money, but it doesn't mean you can say weird stuff to Ariel about her seashells.

(Disney parks reserve the right to deny entry and require guests to leave for offensive behavior.)

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Outside work, were you able to say 'I'm Tinkerbell'? Do you have to say 'I work at Disney World' and be secretive when you're actually working there?

You'll never catch Sarah Daniels saying she was "friends with" Tinkerbell.
You'll never catch Sarah Daniels saying she was "friends with" Tinkerbell.

Daniels: Yes and no. During my training, it was pretty much just like don't talk about it. Nowadays I think Disney adults are obsessed with the term "friends with." During my time, no one told me to say, "friends with." They didn't teach it in my time 'cause you would not catch me anywhere going, "I'm friends with Tinkerbell." I would just say I worked for Disney, and I worked in the entertainment department.

When I was singing as Ariel, the lines were a little blurry because you're an Equity actor (a member of the Actors' Equity Association trade union). You're nationally recognized as a professional actor, so you have to be able to take credit for your work, you know what I mean? I did have a couple (of) run-ins where they were like, "Hey, maybe take that video off your website. It says you were Ariel." I'm like, "Yes, but I was."

But when you're currently working there, if you have photos on social media, you have to post things like, please direct all comments to Ariel. If I post a photo of myself as Ariel and I'm currently Ariel, and someone says, "Wow, you look amazing as Ariel," you have to delete it. If you leave it up, like, you can get in trouble.

Do you get pigeonholed by your appearance to only play certain characters?

Sarah Daniels always wanted to be Mickey Mouse. Casting directors also thought she was a great fit for Alice.
Sarah Daniels always wanted to be Mickey Mouse. Casting directors also thought she was a great fit for Alice.

Daniels: There is definitely a weird thing where people think you just walk into a room and are like "I want to be Cinderella," and they're like "OK." You don't get to pick.

You go to auditions, where it's basically like a "type out." They look at you, and they decide what characters you look like, and they also fall between height ranges. So you can be like 4'11 to like 5'2 for Tinkerbell, maybe 5'3, 5'4 for Alice and Wendy and then princesses start at 5'3.

5'3 to 5'7 is like princess height, so I, technically at Disney World couldn't play princesses. It doesn't matter who I looked like. People are always like, "You must've been Cinderella 'cause you're a blonde," and I'm like, "That's not how it works." I'm too short to be Cinderella because they're all generic costumes. You pick them off a rack. It doesn't matter if you are the perfect Cinderella. If you're not the right height, too bad.

When I did Disney Cruise Line, they like grandfathered me in to be Ariel because I had my own costume, and they took up the costume so that it will fit me.

Do you have to clean and press all your costumes yourself?

Daniels: No, thankfully they do that for you. They have a system where they scan out costumes, so it's like going shopping. You go pick your size, you pick your costume out, you pick your shoes, and you go up to the front and then they'll scan them out. 

There's little barcodes on the inside of your costume, and they scan them all out to you and then you throw them in a bin at the end of the day, but if they don't scan them back in, then you're responsible to pay for those things.

There's (also) these amazing clothes you wear under character costumes. It's like a gray shirt and black shorts. It's called basics, and they have barcodes just straight across them, so you look like you're in jail or something.

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How much time are you spending preparing to be on for the day? Do you get paid for that? 

Daniels: You don't get paid when you're parking and getting on the bus and such, which is not great. So when you get there, if you go to Magic Kingdom, you have to park in a parking lot, and then you get on a bus to go to the tunnel (below Magic Kingdom), and then you have to get to your location and then clock in at your location.

One thing that is nice is that as a character, you get paid to do a warm up, and you have to do warm ups, which is great. And then you have a walk time to get to your location. And usually, it's about an hour like once you get there, to get your costume, to change into basics, to do the warm-up, to get to your location. 

You do end up getting paid to put on your make-up and stuff, as face (characters). A lot of girls come ready, but if I was going at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast as Alice, you would see me at 6:30 a.m., rolling in and putting on my makeup there because I was not doing any of that at home.

Do you have to learn the same signature? Does every performer sign the same way?

Daniels: Yes, in training you have to learn the autographs. I have horrendous handwriting, so it took me a long time to learn the autographs.

All the autographs have to look the same across the park, so that like if (guests) meet Ariel twice, it's the same autograph.

And you'll know it's me 'cause it's kind of shady looking.

Are the performers in parades the same as the meet-and-greet characters?

Daniels: At Disneyland, they have the parades and shows people and then they have the meet-and-greet people. So if you're in parades and shows, you're in one department. If you're in meet and greets, you're in another.

Walt Disney World is a free for all. If you're face, you can be fur. If you're fur, you can be face. You can do sets. You can do national commercials. I would do a national commercial as Tinkerbell one day and then the next day, I'd be Donald Duck at character breakfast.

With parades and shows, you get a premium if you're doing what they consider movement. They can't call it dancing 'cause (then) they have to pay you more, so it's movement. I did a parade called Block Party Bash at Disney Hollywood Studios, where I was dancing, sweating for like no money, but I got a little premium. I got like a 50 or 75 cent bump for movement premium, but we're dancing.

When I was a singer, I was a member of the Equity department, so it's a different thing.

Sarah Daniels portrayed a variety of face and fur characters at Disney World, including Wendy.
Sarah Daniels portrayed a variety of face and fur characters at Disney World, including Wendy.

Do you have any choice in it or do you just get a schedule and have to do whatever they tell you?

Daniels: You just do whatever they tell you. There are things called bidding, and there's casting. So you can bid, like "I want to work in Town Square as Mickey five days a week," and depending on your seniority is what you get to pick. So the best shifts get picked by the people with higher seniority. 

Now when it comes to parade and shows, they do a thing called casting, so they would  cast you in something. Not everybody gets cast, but if you get cast, that's your thing, five days a week, but it often changes. 

Is there anything you would want people to know about fur characters?

Daniels: I think people don't realize that the people inside the costumes want to be there. They're really happy to be there. A lot of people come up and will be like, "Oh, it must be hot in there," and (make) just silly comments. You don't need to say that. Just have the interaction, have a good time.

They're having an amazing time. The people in those costumes love kids. They love the families. They love the interactions.

They also love Disney. Every single person you meet at Disney loves Disney. None of those people don't want to be there. They all want to be there, and that's why they're all so happy all the time. So when you meet Alice, you know she wants to be there. When you meet Mickey, he wants to be there and he's having a great time, and usually it's a girl (in the costume), so she wants to be there.

I was Mickey a lot, and it's because I'm tiny.

There were over 60 characters I could perform in my height range, but the most famous were Mickey, Minnie and Donald.

Are there any tips you would give someone who wants to pursue this?

Daniels: I'd say don't count yourself out if you audition for face and they don't cast you. If you want be a Disney character, go be a Disney character. Go do the fur thing, it's amazing.

If you aren't cast as a face character, it doesn't mean you're not beautiful. It really is about who looks like a cartoon, who looks natural in a wig and who can convincingly be a Disney princess.

I think that in young women's heads, (a) Disney princess is like the pinnacle of beauty, so I think that girls that don't get the job are really hurt by it, and sometimes it's not even about how you look. It's about your height. It's about (what characters) they need to cast right now. Sometimes it's just not the right time.

It does not determine your worth or how pretty you are or how amazing you are as a human.

Is there anything else you would want them to know?

Daniels: I think the reality of the job is lost on people. People just see photos of beautiful women in parades and are like, "Wow, that looks amazing," but the reality is ... you're competing with a bunch of other women. Your whole job depends on how you look and how young you are.

You know, kids get their boogers on you. You get thrown up on. People aren't very nice to you sometimes. People sure don't treat you like a princess. All sorts of weird things happen because you're meeting thousands of people a week. It's not as glamorous as it looks.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ex-Disney princess reveals what park jobs are really like