Videos of the talking Mickey Mouse have been popping up on the Internet for some time now. Testing began at Disneyland a while back, and recently Mickey Mouse was talking at the D23 Expo this summer.
It's clear that Imagineering is doing some great work with this technology. Mickey is doing a much better job answering Guests' questions and creating fun interactions with younger Guests, but there are still awkward moments. Mickey doesn't seem to like to answer strict 'yes' or 'no' questions. Guests often ask Mickey a question and he doesn't know how to respond. He thinks about it, and offers "Gee, I don't know" as his response.
Having spent over four months working as a character performer, I understand how difficult it can be to answer certain Guest questions without being able to simply say 'yes' or 'no.' Guests ask some pretty outlandish questions to their favorite Disney characters! "Belle, where is the bathroom?" "Goofy, what is Cinderella doing?" "What did you have for breakfast today?" "Is it hot in there?".... (the answer to that question is always "In where???") I understand WDI is always trying to top themselves. To be the biggest and best, and offer the highest-quality entertainment "on this world or any other." But as a fan of character meet-and-greets, I don't think talking characters is a step in the right direction.
Just thinking about the logistics of this technology gives me a headache. I can see from the many videos that the technology is improving, and these meet-and-greets with a talking Mickey can be accomplished. But when the technology becomes advanced enough and is able to be brought into the parks, will it be for Mickey only? The Fab Five only? What will younger Guests think if they can talk with Mickey but they can't talk with The Incredibles or Buzz and Woody? Guests aren't always the smartest, but they get it. They get that the Princesses and other face characters are the only characters who can interact verbally. But to offer this new technology to the Guests, I feel that WDI would need to integrate it into every character meet-and-greet for the sake of character integrity.
Character meet-and-greets work so well the way they are! A non-talking character leaves everything up to the Guest and their imagination! There's a great quote from John Hench from the book Designing Disney: "We give power to the guests' imagination, to transcend their everyday routine." Just as John Hench said, Disney Parks give power to the Guests' imaginations. Guests hear what they want to hear, in their head. They ask a character a question, and know what they want to hear back. And character performers are smart, and know how to answer those questions through their "animation." You can say a lot without speaking at all.
During my four months as a character performer, I had a lot of truly great Guest interactions. One day working at Animal Kingdom, Goofy was a Camp Minnie-Mickey and was met by a teary-eyed mother. The mother explained to Goofy that her father had been taken to the hospital from the Park, but he was going to be okay and just needed to recover in the hospital. He wanted her and her son, his grandson, to enjoy the rest of their day in the Park instead of the hospital. But he had one request: that they go get a picture with Goofy, because Goofy is his favorite. She held back her tears, and gave Goofy a big hug, and said "Goofy, you have no idea how much I needed that hug."
That woman opened up to Goofy because of the simple yet powerful trust that people have in Disney characters. Disney characters represent the highest, most uplifting values of the Disney Company, on their own accord. I know it sometimes sounds silly, but people really do hold Disney characters in high respect, and have very sentimental feelings connected with their favorite characters.
That entire interaction happened without Goofy talking. Goofy was there to listen and react accordingly, but did not need to offer any words. All Goofy needed to do was be there for her and give her a hug. It was a great moment I will never forget.
So why does Goofy, or any other character, need to talk? Guests go into a character meet-and-greet knowing what they want to say, and get their answers from the characters by interpreting their gestures and "animation." But what's so great about those gestures is that they can be interpreted however the Guests want them to be interpreted. Why take away that power from the Guests and their imaginations?
Thinking about this technology also brings up the question of international Guests, who don't speak English. They very often speak with the characters, and have seemingly understandable conversations. This happened to me on a number of occasions. While I may not have understood what the Guest was saying, Goofy understood exactly what they were saying. And the Guest understood what Goofy was saying to them through his gestures. Goofy, Sulley, Frozone and all of my other Disney "friends" had a number of conversations in Portuguese, Spanish and other languages that I myself do not speak. But my "friends" are able to converse with these Guests through their animation. And those Guests use their imaginations to hear what they want to hear. Why should they be forced to hear what the character wants to say verbally?
Getting back to the logistics of this technology, I can only imagine that it is very expensive. And how can it be integrated into all of the character experiences offered in the Parks? Will characters only speak in certain meet-and-greet areas? So Mickey can't talk to you during breakfast or dinner, but he can speak to you in Town Square Exposition Hall? What about the rest of the characters beyond the Fab Five?
I commend WDI for wanting to add more magic to the Guest experience. But I really think this technology is ruining the magic. The magic of character meet-and-greets is exactly that... meeting your favorite character! There's no need to "plus it." Why can't WDI leave some things alone?
And that is why I think Mickey Mouse should keep his mouth shut.