If you’ve been to a major theme park, such as Disneyland, then you are likely aware of what the industry calls “costume characters.” Those life-size, huggable, familiar faces such as Mickey, Minnie, and Winnie the Pooh are some of the main attractions. But sometimes giving your favorite fictional friend a hug can be dangerous — it’s hard for the performer to see what’s going on, and flailing arms or the like can cause injuries.
And sometimes that leads to a bear dancing a in court room.
In 1978, a ten-year-old girl named Debbie Lopez was visiting Disneyland with her family and wanted to hug Winnie the Pooh. What happened next, though, is unclear. If you believe the family of the little girl, Winnie wasn’t very friendly. The costumed character assaulted the young girl, at least according to their side of the story. She ended up bruised and suffer from recurring headaches, per Wikipedia. So of course, the family sued, seeking $15,000.
The lawsuit went to trial, and Winnie the Pooh’s performer, a man named Robert Hill, was called to the stand. First, he testified that she came up behind him and gave him a little tug, and he spun around and accidentally made contact with her. Whether the jury was believing this man who claimed to be Winnie the Pooh, though, was anyone’s guess — until Hill’s attorney, Mike McCray, asked for a brief recess. He wanted Hill to get into costume.
McCray requested his now Pooh-ified witness to demonstrate what when he would do while working, and Hill obliged, waving and dancing. (According to the book Cast Member Confidential: A Disneyfied Memoir, the judge instructed the court reporter to “let the record show that he’s doing a two-step.”) Then, according to the book Mouse Tales: A Behind-The-Ears Look at Disneyland (excerpted here), Hill showed of the jury why he could not have injured the little girl. Not only was he too lovable to do such a thing, but he also wasn’t designed in a way to make it physically possible:
By calling Pooh to the stand the attorney was able to present a lovable, sympathetic witness who wouldn’t — and couldn’t — hurt anyone. The bear demonstrated that he couldn’t have slapped the girl in the face as she claimed. The costume’s arms were too low to the ground.
After less than a half hour of deliberations, the jury found for Disney, ruling that Pooh wasn’t liable for the girl’s injuries.
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Related: “Mouse Tales: A Behind-The-Ears Look at Disneyland” by David Koenig. 4.4 stars on 125 reviews.