A Sense of Community Links Times Square Characters

Minnie Mouse, Captain America and Batman band together to get the most out of their costumed work 

By Kevin Truong | Dec. 12, 2019
Priscila Ostolaza dresses as Minnie Mouse in Times Square and poses in pictures with tourists for tips. (Kevin Truong/NYCity News Service)

Juan Alvarez goes to work every morning unsure of how long he’ll be on the street and exactly how much money he’ll make. On a good day, he can earn around $60. On a bad day, it can be less than $40.

Alvarez works between eight and 10 hours in Times Square, dressed as one of several characters from cartoons and movies, earning tips from tourists who ask to take a picture with him.

It’s a job he has been doing for the past five years, one that he enjoys.

“Today, I’m Elmo,” Alvarez said. “Maybe tomorrow, Pikachu. Maybe Sunday, Mickey Mouse.”

Costumed characters have woven themselves into the fabric of Times Square.They have come to depend upon the community they have built with one another.

Most of them work in pairs or groups, increasing the likelihood of being tipped by visitors who ask for a picture.

“Today is the best day of the week,” Alvarez said. “Saturday or Sunday, 10 hours, maybe $60, maybe $50.”

A website for the Times Square Alliance makes clear that the costumed characters are not licensed nor regulated ,and that payment for a photo is not mandatory. Priscila Ostolaza, who has been dressing up as Minnie Mouse for the past three years, said many people who ask for a photo do offer a tip on their own.

“I feel very happy when the people [say] ‘Oh, it’s a nice picture, thank you. I love Minnie Mouse. I love your dress, you are pretty,’” Ostolaza said. “It’s very appreciated.”

Ostolaza said she works about 10 hours a day with a one-hour break, and the amount of money she make varies from day to day.

“Maybe $30, $50. Maybe $10″ she said, “It’s up to the people.”

Times Square characters often work together in groups, increasing their likelihood of tips. There can be competition but groups tend to stay in their own areas. (Kevin Truong/NYCity News Service)

Ostolaza said she has found a community in the small group of people she surrounds herself with, gesturing to the characters dressed as Captain America, Batman and the Joker working nearby. She said there can be competition for tips among characters from other groups working in the area but she said each group tends to stay in its own section of Times Square.

One of Time Square’s most recognizable performers can be found nearby wearing very little costume at all.

Robert Burck has been performing as the Naked Cowboy by his account for the past 20 years. Dressed in a pair of tighty-whities and a cowboy hat and holding a strategically placed acoustic guitar, Burck said he has expanded his brand beyond simply performing in Times Square. He said he has music, books and even his own brand of oysters.

When asked to introduce himself, he began strumming his guitar and broke out in song.

“I’m the Naked Cowboy, keeping it real for you,” he said. “I’m the Naked Cowboy, you got to do what you got to do.”

For Juan Alvarez, dressing up in costume and working in Times Square is about having the freedom to do what he wants – something he said he wouldn’t have if he was working in a factory.

“Here, you work, OK. You no working, OK. No problem,” Alvarez said. “No boss.” He then gestured to himself and the red fur of his Elmo costume. “My boss,” he said, referring to himself.