Did Tigger and Donald Duck grope women at Disney World?
Is Donald Duck a pervert?
Gawker seems to think so. Yesterday evening, it posted an item asking: "Who are the strange people in the furry costumes at Disney World, and are they pervs? After Donald Duck grabbed her boob, a 27-year-old is suing Disney." The woman's complaint, according to Gawker, "includes a helpful list of other Disney character transgressions, like the time Tigger molested a 13-year-old girl. … Moral of the story: Men who wear masks are not to be trusted."
Readers of the item soon began posting their own allegations. One recalled: "When I was in High School the Shamu at the Sea World in Ohio freaked me out. He kept giving me these big bear hugs that were really hard and rough. He also kept my face covered with his fins while he was doing this. Very creepy. I can understand why this lady was totally offended." Another agreed: "Similar experience in high school with a crash test dummy at Disney (near the test track). Creepy." A third added: "When my family visited Magic Mountain in the 70s, a horny person dressed up as a grape pinched my dad's ass and then scampered away." A fourth wrote: "UGH! I remember going to Disney with my brother and sister. I was like 16 and they were like 12 and 10—so I was confused that all the characters seemed to want to kiss ME on the cheek and hug ME more than my siblings."
We've seen this pattern before: an allegation of groping, followed by a bunch of other people recalling similar abuse. The initial charge makes the rest of the claims credible. But sometimes the allegations, and even the triggered memories, are false. That's what happened to Tigger. Don't let it happen to Donald.
9. This incident is one of a long line of continuing, long standing, similar prior incidents that have occurred on Defendant's various resort premises. …
10. Authorities in Florida received 24 more complaints in the week since a Walt Disney World employee was charged with molesting a 13-year-old girl and her mother while dressed as the character 'Tigger' in 2004.
11. Numerous of those cases were deemed credible enough to be investigated by the Orange County Sherriff's office.
12. One of Defendant's employees, Michael Chartrand, was arrested and charged with one count of lewd and lascivious molestation of a child and one count of simple battery.
13. In that case the sheriff's office received a complaint that the costumed character had touched the girl and her mother inappropriately while their pictures were being taken.
14. According to an incident report, Chartrand fondled the breasts of the girl and her mother while posing for pictures at the Magic Kingdom's Toon Town.
15. Despite knowledge of these continuing, long standing, similar prior incidents, the Defendant failed to act to ensure the incidents would cease. …
Hmmm. Incident reports, charges, investigations—so how did the case turn out? Since the complaint against Donald curiously omits this part, and since Gawker didn't bother to look it up, let's check it out ourselves. Answer: Chartrand was acquitted. The case seems to have been a total scam. The girl's mother planned to sue Disney for money and lied to prosecutors about her plans. The cops conned Chartrand into writing an apology to the girl even though he had no memory of her, much less groping her. The girl's stepfather testified that nothing untoward had happened. At trial, the defense attorney put on the Tigger outfit to show jurors how severely it limited its occupant's vision and range of motion, making the alleged groping impossible.
As for the 20-something copycat complaints prompted by the original charge, there's no record of any of them going anywhere. In fact, Disney reinstated Chartrand with back pay. A month later, he was suspended for allegedly shoving two other Disney workers. (Disney routinely suspends employees while investigating such cases.) His attorney said that he was just "goofing around because he was Goofy" and that the other workers shoved back. After that, there's no record of Chartrand in Nexis.
The reason I know about the Tigger episode is that I learned about it from Elizabeth Loftus, a scientist who plants and studies false memories. I was writing a series about her (you can read it here) and came across a discussion of the Tigger story in a paper she and her colleagues published two years ago. In their first experiment, they persuaded 16 percent of their subjects that these subjects had met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland. This was certainly a false memory, since Bugs wasn't a Disney character. In their second experiment, Loftus and her collaborators convinced 30 percent of another group of subjects that Pluto had licked their ears at Disneyland. The researchers planted this memory by showing subjects a fake newspaper article about a Pluto character who had "developed a habit of inappropriately licking the ears of many young visitors with his large fabric tongue."
Based on the Pluto experiment, Loftus and her colleagues speculated that the initial coverage of Tigger's arrest might have led people "to become more confident that they too had an inappropriate experience with the Tigger character. … Thus unsurprisingly, after the allegation surfaced, 24 additional Disney visitors came forward to say that they too were abused by Tigger."
So: Bugs, innocent. Pluto, innocent. Tigger, acquitted. What about Donald? And Shamu? And the horny grape?
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photographs of: Donald Duck by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images; Tigger by Fernando Leon/Getty Images.