(My friend Sean is now the Disney reporter for the Orlando Sentinel. As you know, I LOVE Disney. Yet weirdness pervades the world. Read more for the story of a possible Tigger with roamin' paws.)
April 9, 2004 Friday, FINAL
SECTION: A SECTION; Pg. A1
HEADLINE: DISNEY VISITORS LINE UP TO SAY TIGGER FONDLED;
MORE THAN TWO DOZEN COMPLAINTS WERE MADE AGAINST A PARK CHARACTER.
BYLINE: Anthony Colarossi and Sean Mussenden, Sentinel Staff Writers
Erin Rivera was looking forward to breakfast with Disney characters while at the vacation resort with her husband in June 2000.
But when she posed for a picture with a worker dressed as Tigger, the 21-year-old Zephyrhills woman recalled how the character touched her breast with his left paw, while holding her shoulder with his right.
"I don't think it was a mistake," said Rivera, who has a picture of her embrace with the character. "Everybody who goes through my photo album says, 'Tigger is groping you.' "
The Orange County Sheriff's Office said Thursday that it has received 24 complaints similar to Rivera's since the April 2 arrest of Michael C. Chartrand on charges of lewd and lascivious molestation of a child and of battery against a mother and daughter while he was in costume as the friendly tiger character from the Winnie the Pooh stories.
So far 13 of those cases are considered credible enough to be investigated actively, while the rest are being reviewed. Rivera has not reported her case to the Sheriff's Office but said Thursday that she plans to file a complaint.
"It appears we have 24 folks that feel there may have been something inappropriate and that something happened to them," said Jim Solomons, sheriff's spokesman. "We need to prove that it either happened or it didn't happen." He added, "It appears all of our complaints are focusing on Tigger."
Disney would not discuss the spate of allegations since the initial arrest. The company has been cooperating with the sex-crimesinvestigation and referring guests with complaints to the Sheriff's Office, Solomons and Disney officials said. Investigators are mindful Disney could be a magnet for false claims, and former characters said in interviews their actions while in the bulky costumes could be misconstrued by guests.
The Orlando Sentinel obtained several of the Sheriff's Office incident reports in which Disney visitors described inappropriate touching by Tigger from June 2003 to March 2004.
In one case last July, a mother said she was videotaping her 3-year-old daughter at the Magic Kingdom's Toon Town when the Tigger character approached from behind, put his hands around the woman's shoulders and held her for one to two minutes.
"Although she felt uncomfortable, she didn't think that someone dressed as Tigger would act in an inappropriate manner," the report said. "Her daughter asked her what Tigger was doing and the victim jokingly said, 'I don't know; I guess Tigger likes Mommy.' "
Another report detailed an incident last June at the Magic Kingdom's Crystal Palace. After being approached from behind, the woman told investigators, Tigger's "hands were over her breasts in a cupped type position" for about one minute.
In a February incident, a victim said Tigger was "feeling my butt the entire time the pictures were being taken."
Many victims said they initially were embarrassed by the incidents but decided to come forward after learning of Chartrand's arrest. Solomons acknowledged that the timing and authenticity of the claims will be checked out as part of the probe.
"Are these people trying to get into Disney's pockets?" Solomons asked. "That's why we have an investigation.'
A Disney spokeswoman, citing the ongoing investigation of Chartrand, would not say whether the company handled any similar incidents before his arrest.
Solomons said his office could not immediately determine how many similar incidents involving Disney characters were reported before Chartrand's arrest.
Officials at Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando, which both have costumed characters, said they were not aware of similar complaints. Since 1998, Walt Disney World has run criminal-background checks on all new hires, including Chartrand.
Chartrand, 36, of St. Cloud, has been released on $2,500 bail, but he would not comment Thursday on his case.
"I'm not going to say anything," said Chartrand, who was suspended before his arrest.
Several incidents detailed in the sheriff's reports occurred during February and March when Chartrand was working as a costumed character. But it's not clear yet whether he was working as Tigger on the dates of the complaints. Some of the complaints predate his employment, which started in August 2003, according to Disney.
Disney's costumed characters receive training before interacting with guests. Supervisors also videotape new characters' first few work days to make them aware of inappropriate behavior. The training encouraged the touching of guests' shoulders, but specifically made torsos off limits, said Robert Rexach, one of several employees who played Tigger from September 2000 to July 2003.
"In training they flat out said, 'Don't place your hand over a girl's breast, even if it is [hovering] a foot or two over it. A photograph is two dimensional, so that would look bad," Rexach, 21, said.
Tigger's paws are slightly oversized and contain "one or two millimeters" of padding underneath bright orange fur, he said, adding they are slightly less cumbersome than an oven mitt.
"I could turn pages in a book pretty well, but I still couldn't feel them," Rexach said.
Rexach said that he was dismissed by Disney after a teenage guest complained that he was attacked by Rexach, who was dressed as a Country Bear at the time. Rexach denied the allegation, arguing that he was attacked by the teenager and "nudged" him off in self-defense.
The Tigger of A.A. Milne's storybooks and Disney films possesses a hyperactive bent, and the theme-park character is trained to emulate that upbeat style with frequent arm and leg movements, said Megan Long, who played Winnie the Pooh from 2000 to 2002.
"He's supposed to be really hyper and outgoing. He can't stand in one place. He's not supposed to be grabbing children," said Long, who regularly worked alongside the Tigger character. The gloves that Pooh wore were similar to Tigger's, she said.
"It's not too thick where you can't feel [what you're touching]. It's thick enough so that kids cannot feel hands underneath, so they get the illusion that it's a real teddy bear," she said.
Long said she was always careful to keep her hand on or above the shoulder. If a visitor shifted positions during a hug, Long said she tried to move away immediately.
Once, dressed as Pooh, Long said she knelt down to play with a baby lounging in her mother's lap. To stabilize herself, Long rested her yellow-gloved hand on the woman's knee. "She was like, 'Hey, Pooh, get your hand off my knee,' " Long said. "Inside the costume, we're human and we do make mistakes."
Erin Rivera, who was 18 when she said Tigger touched her, said she was embarrassed but did not report it, thinking no one would take her seriously. After Chartrand's arrest, she too decided to come forward. She said she contacted Disney about the incident, and theme-park officials referred her to the Sheriff's Office.
Rivera said she has been back to Disney twice since the incident, and she has even posed with characters for pictures.
"I just don't get my picture taken with Tigger anymore," she said.
LOAD-DATE: April 9, 2004