It’s always nice to see young children excited to meet their idols at one of the Disney parks. Though characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse can’t speak to the children, they can still gesture – and kids love it.
But every so often, a particularly special kid visits Disneyland. And that’s when the Disney characters really pull out all the stops to leave their guest with an experience they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. In one especially memorable example, in fact, they even surprised those looking on.
Ever since it first opened in 1955, Disneyland in California has advertised itself as the happiest place on Earth. And it’s a pretty good contender for the title, especially since its variety of rides, restaurants and live shows make it a hit with children of all ages. That being said, though, it can still sometimes be a little overwhelming for people – particularly kids with disabilities.
That was the case with Phoenix Fox, who was born with a craniofacial disorder. This kind of disorder, which affects around 5 percent of Americans, is the result of the bones in the head and face becoming fused together while a baby is still in the womb. Hearing loss is a common result of this – and, indeed, this is one of the challenges young Phoenix faces. As a consequence, the three-year-old can only communicate via sign language.
Phoenix was adopted by the Fox family in January 2015. His parents, Chantel and Sean Fox, had already taken in two older children before the little boy’s arrival. And his disability didn’t faze them at all; in fact, they all started the process of learning sign language so that they could communicate with him. They also made sure he could do the same sort of things other kids did – things like going to Disneyland. Unfortunately, though, Phoenix didn’t enjoy his first trip to the theme park at all.
In particular, when he went to the park with a family friend, he became frightened at the Star Wars attraction. He couldn’t communicate to anyone, though, that he wanted to leave. And by the time he got back, he was simply signing over and over again that he was scared. He’d had such a bad time, in fact, that Chantel resolved to take him back there to make sure he was able to enjoy it properly.
So she got in touch with Olive Crest, an organization dedicated to helping and providing homes for vulnerable children. Olive Crest had placed Phoenix with the Foxes and arranged his adoption in the first place. And, fortunately, the group was more than happy to help. A big Disneyland trip for Olive Crest families was taking place on May 13, 2017, to celebrate Foster Care Month, and staff at the organization very much wanted Phoenix to come.
One of the purposes of the Disneyland trip was to allow foster and adoptive families in Southern California to interact with one another, the Olive Crest staff and case workers. But it was also about having fun. And Chantel Fox was determined that her new son really would have fun this time around, so she got in touch with a specialist sign-language translator who would accompany them to Disneyland.
Disneyland is dedicated to offering its hard-of-hearing guests the same Disney experience that anyone else would expect. Indeed, in 2010 Disney announced on its website that it had begun to offer “regularly scheduled sign-language interpretation at many shows and attractions” at its parks. “Guests have access to a schedule of offerings that are interpreted without having to make prior arrangements,” it explained.
Disney seems to be very good, too, at providing for children who have more serious disabilities. For instance, its parks offer passes for disabled people, allowing them to get into rides more easily and conveniently. Like many other attractions, of course, they also provide things such as wheelchair hire, accessible restrooms and dietary-restriction menus. But sometimes Disney also goes above and beyond the call of duty.
And a particularly adorable example of that happened after Phoenix and his family arrived at the park. During their time there, they went to meet some of the most iconic Disney characters – Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Pluto. As Chantel filmed the encounter, though, the characters knelt down to meet Phoenix on his own level. And then, to the delight of all those around him, they began a signing conversation with Phoenix.
Prompted by the Disneyland translator, the Disney characters signed the sentences, “It’s nice to meet you” and “I love you” to Phoenix. The little boy was completely blown away and went on to do something that even surprised his mother: he ran forward and hugged Minnie Mouse.
“We were so surprised,” Chantel Fox told Today in June 2017. “Normally he’s so unimpressed with others.” The family’s case worker from Olive Crest, Katie Takeshita, spoke to Today as well. “He has never been affectionate with strangers,” she explained. “He is very attached to his parents and prefers to be with them at almost all times. But it is clear that he felt connected and accepted by the characters when they communicate with him in the way that he communicates.”
What’s more, Olive Crest posted the video of Phoenix and his new friends on its social media accounts. And alongside it, it wrote in a comment, “From the caseworker: ‘Guys, this kid is the most incredible child I’ve ever met. He is mostly deaf, so the ASL translator is behind him, signing to the characters so they can copy her and communicate with the little guy. He is not a big hugger, so that hug for Minnie is something special.’”
Pretty much everyone who saw the video was instantly touched. And, understandably, parents of special needs children were the most delighted of all. That may have been because they saw a scenario in which their kids were able to enjoy the Disney parks the same way others could. “I have a special-needs son, I know the hugs are huge! He need not say a word… the hug says it all!” one parent commented.
“He lights up,” Olive Crest spokesperson Heidi Riehl told Inside Edition that same month. “It’s like they [the Disney characters] speak his language. It certainly was a significant moment for him. You can just tell by his reaction. He felt very known.” Before long, moreover, the video of the adorable scene had garnered more than 400,000 views on YouTube.
And although the actors inside the suits weren’t actually trained in sign language, many viewers were still impressed by them. “Mickey, Minnie and Pluto need a raise because they are gifted employees!” one person wrote.
Still, while it looks like fun, it is actually very difficult indeed to be inside a Disney “fur character.” It’s hot and sweaty inside the suits, for one, while actors also constantly run the risks of being hurt by over-enthusiastic children or even angry adults. The training process, meanwhile, is rigorous. Plus, of course, they can’t communicate in any way other than with gestures, so sign language might actually be a very useful skill for fur character actors to have!
But pretty much anyone who’s ever portrayed a Disney character at the parks will agree: kids like Phoenix are the reason they do their jobs, no matter how uncomfortable the costumes and how difficult the working day. Indeed, Disneyland is a popular vacation destination for kids with disabilities, as it tends to cater to their needs more than other similar attractions do.
And Phoenix will probably be forever a part of those actors’ memories, just like they’re a part of his now. His mother even told Today that now Phoenix isn’t afraid of the Star Wars characters as “now he knows they’re his friends.” She also hopes the experience Phoenix had will make life easier for other special-needs kids who want to feel included.
Heidi Riehl also told Today how big a success Phoenix’s visit to the theme park had been. “We’ve had many special moments like this happen before on those trips to Disneyland, but this one might take the cake,” she said. “We hope to send the message that with a little love and ‘magic,’ you can truly make a child’s dream come true and provide them a bright memory that can last a lifetime.”