In third grade, my parents took the three of us kids to Disneyland. My mom and dad still look back on it fondly and call it the best family vacation we ever took. The five of us gobbled up all Disneyland had to offer as we went on all the rides, watched the parade, and ate Mickey Mouse ice creams. We also did all the other non-Disney stuff that you got to such as SeaWorld, Hollywood Studios, and Medieval Times. My parents definitely spoiled us and I can’t thank them enough because over fifteen years later, I still have vivid memories of that trip. But as it always happens on vacation, it seems like one memory or theme always seems to stand out the most.
When it comes to our Disneyland trip in 1996, what always sticks out to me were the Disney characters roaming throughout the park. My parents bought us those little autograph books that you bring up to each one and have them sign so I got a lot of exposure with the costumed cast. My mom and dad also went the extra mile and bought tickets for us to have breakfast with the whole Disney crew. Talk about a cool experience! Eating Mickey Mouse shaped waffles while sitting next to Goofy and Donald Duck was pretty neat. I held onto that autograph book for a long time and the magical experience of meeting the characters who I had only previously encountered in movies, books, and television stuck with me.
I feel that my Disneyland experience combined with the little known fact that I actually manage a collegiate mascot predisposed me to a bit of a love for people in costumes (not in a sick way). So I guess it is no surprise that I get a kick out of the wide variety of costumed folks who line the tourist streets of Las Vegas.
Over the past few years, the presence of characters on the Strip of Las Vegas and in the downtown Freemont area has skyrocketed. You can’t walk ten yards without encountering some dude in a cheesy batman costume posing for the masses who are walking by. Incredibly enough, these “entertainers” almost outnumber the small army of men passing out adult entertainment cards. It has become quite the industry.
In Vegas, the number and mixture of characters is immense. You got superheroes, horror villains, Elvis, Santa Claus, cartoon characters, Playboy bunnies, show girls, Santa Claus, Michael Jackson, pirates, and, oh yes, my personal favorite… Disney characters. To put it mildly, with the eclectic combination of mythical figures, dead singers, and animated icons, it is one big freak show. But a good freak show, right? Well, according to a lot of people who frequent Las Vegas, the answer is NO.
There is a difference between the characters you run into in Disneyland and the characters you run into in Las Vegas. In Disneyland, the characters are working for Disney to provide an awesome experience for the millions of families that visit each year. They follow protocol and rules. They also go through a background check. In Vegas, the characters are much less innocent. They are in costume for solely one purpose: To make tips! They don’t answer to the Vegas tourist bureau, they answer to themselves. These “performers” (I use the term very loosely) will do anything to draw your attention, make you take a picture with them, and then make sure that you give them a tip. They take up space on already congested sidewalks. They don’t care that their costumes are dirty or that they look like they were bought at Goodwill. They take breaks by simply taking off their mask/head/hat/whatever, plopping down on the sidewalk, and smoking a cigarette. They do what they want.
But as I made sure to preface, that is the opinion of the majority of Vegas tourists and I am proud to report that I am not part of the majority. My Disneyland experience made me eternally appreciate these costumed disciples, no matter how disgusting or pathetic their costume might be.
I would say that I almost spend as much money taking pictures with these character rejects as I do on gambling. I can’t resist! As someone who loves pictures and who loves someone in costume, I have a tough time simply walking by any Spiderman or Winnie the Pooh on the Strip. I irritate the hell out of my brother when he travels to Sin City with me. This past December I took pictures with no less than twenty Vegas street superstars and Tebowed with just about each one. Even by my standards, it was pretty ridiculous. I try to make it a point to take a picture with the people in the most disgraceful, ratty costumes. I think it is just funny that they are confident enough to stand out in front of thousands of people and expect to be handed tips for the lousy condition they are in…so I humor them.
I must give credit where credit is due however. There are the few characters out there who play the part well and put genuine effort into their craft. You will see Michael Jacksons covered in gold paint who stay completely still until someone walks too close. You will see an Elvis here or there who can actually sing. You might encounter a convincing Jack Sparrow. But honestly, these people are few and far between. Most of them get by with the bare minimum while expecting riches. When I go take a picture with one of these sideshows, I make sure to give them their tip as I am walking up to them just to avoid the awkward and rude “We except tips” that they will inevitably whisper into my ear as the picture is being taken. Just the way Vegas works.
Despite how bush league many of these people are, I can’t turn my back on them. My long ago Disneyland experience won’t let me. I also find them in a weird way just part of the Vegas charm. For the many people out there who detest these hustlers, I give you this advice: Go ahead and keep your distance and refrain from eye contact…BUT…please let your guard down just once during your trip and go shoulder to shoulder with one of these costumed characters and get your freaking picture taken! It can be a new Facebook profile picture. Don’t Blink.