A City Councilman's effort to license people who dress as costumed characters in Times Square is getting frowns from Elmo, Minnie Mouse, Buzz Lightyear and more. The men and woman who portray children's favorites Dora the Explorer, Hello Kitty and Super Mario appeared at a press conference to criticize the crackdown, especially the NYPD for telling visitors they don't have to tip the characters.
After repeated instances of characters becoming embarrassing tabloid fodder and masked menaces (in the words of J. Jonah Jameson), Times Square businesses, police and local officials have decided they need to address the situation. City Councilman Andy King's legislation would require the individuals to register and get licensed.
The characters have started a "union-like group" called NYC United for a Smile. According to the Post, Jovanna Melendez, one of the many women who portray Minnie Mouse, said, "We actually want respect, from the NYPD and others. We come here in all kinds of weather. We come here to work and we earn our living by accepting tips and donations. We’re one of the attractions within this country." However, the NY Times points out:
These costumed characters earn their living through the money that they sometimes receive after posing for pictures. City laws forbid street performers to demand tips or panhandle aggressively, but at the same time they are permitted to accept donations. (The laws creating the differences between the two types of solicitation are fuzzy at best.) Many of the performers do not speak English, and may not be fully aware of the rules.
Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, said of the characters' concerns, "Times Square is and always has been a center of free speech and expression and maintaining that is an important priority for us. However, it is equally important for the people that live, work and visit Times Square to feel safe from harassment and abuse. The legislation that we are advocating for will preserve the rights of costumed characters who play by the rules and offer protection against those who don't."
Tompkins pointed out that 300,000 people walk through Times Square each day, arguing, "Self-regulation is simply not enough... As we have said in the past, we don’t have an issue with honest folk creating a code of conduct to regulate commercial activity. However, we have heard from the community and have many testimonials and evidence that people have had negative experiences with those who are not playing by the rules. We don’t think that a proposed licensing scheme, slated to be introduced by the City Council, would be contradictory to what the groups are proposing today."
But Sean Basinski of the Street Vendor Project counters, "The city created a new Times Square for tourists, and when the tourists come, people come to do business here... Now that they’re here, the city doesn’t like them anymore. The city created a Disneyland here, and now they’re upset that it’s Disneyland."