It had never been a lifelong dream of mine to work at Disney World. Honestly, from the time I fist remember visiting the park in 1982, it simply never occurred to me that just anyone could work there. So I went about my life, visiting often, content but never really wishing that could be me. Even when I was able to do a special behind-the-scenes tour of the Magic Kingdom at age 10 (they don’t run that tour anymore for those under 16 for fear of traumatizing children with a view of a headless Mickey), the people that worked there seemed to be on some separate plane of existence. They weren’t just employees at a job, they were Cast Members - part of the magic. I never thought that would one day be me.
That all changed in the 1990’s. I was floundering in college; not finding my place after a successful high school career of all honors classes. I just didn’t know what to do with myself. Finally, like a flash from a fairy’s wand, it came to me: I want to work at Disney World! More than that, I wanted to help people create their dream vacations to the place that held so many wonderful memories for me. So I switched schools and majors and got a degree in Travel and Tourism Management, with the goal of working for the Disney Travel Company in Orlando. My plan was perfect, I even convinced my mother and boyfriend to move 1300 miles with me to Orlando, and we all decided to work for Disney.
“CASTING”. You are not just going for a job interview; you are going to be part of the show.
When you drive by the ‘employment office’ of Walt Disney World, you know right then it is special. It is a huge pink building, and the part that faces the highway proclaims in shining gold lettering in front of it – “CASTING”. You are not just going for a job interview; you are going to be part of the show.
Once you arrive out front, you instantly feel special – you are going somewhere mere guests cannot! I’m not sure if it’s been remodeled since I first visited, but at the time in 1995, you walked in and saw a huge, wide ramp leading up to the second floor and the information desk. It was crowded with Cast Member wannabes milling about waiting to be called. There was Disney décor and hidden Mickeys all around the room, and televisions playing clips from Company productions as well as Cast Members discussing how wonderful it was to work there. Not everyone was as excited or impressed with their surroundings as was I, but you could find the people that really wanted to be there, to do something magical.
To be honest, I can’t really remember the actual interview process too well, I think I was just too excited and it’s all a blur these 14 years later, but obviously, I was offered a position. The only disappointment was there were no openings in the Travel Co. when I applied. I was told I could work elsewhere and transfer in six months if something opened up. What was available was being a Merchandise Hostess on Main Street, USA in the Magic Kingdom. It was bittersweet because I wanted to be in my field so badly, but who wouldn’t jump at the chance to work in the Magic Kingdom? And as we all know, there are much worse positions available at the World! I accepted the position.
Then, the fun began. The first step when “Earning Your Ears” is to go to Disney University to attend a program called Traditions. This is (was - I’ve heard it’s only 1 day now?) a 2-day program to get everyone up to speed and informed about both the history of the company as well as exactly how every Cast Member is expected to create magic every day. For a life-long Disney fanatic such as myself, it was heaven. To pass the time between watching videos and going over paperwork, the trainers would hold little group trivia contests. It didn’t surprise me that I knew every answer first, it surprised me that everyone around me didn’t! I still have the little PVC figures we received as prizes for getting the right answer. The very best part was the beginning of the second day, when you walked into the conference room to see a table full of Disney nametags. It was the first time I officially felt like I belonged to the special group that is Disney Cast Members.
The second part of Traditions was the tour of the park we would be working in. You may have seen on a visit to a Disney park or resort, a group of bright-eyed, smiling faces, all dressed in business attire despite the 90-degree heat and humidity…that would be a Traditions tour. There we were shown the ins and outs of the Utilidor (underground tunnel connecting all of the ‘lands’ in Magic Kingdom, where costuming and the cafeteria were, and the best route to get to your location.
After Traditions there was, I believe, a two-week training course within the tunnel which included cash handling and how to use the registers, where stock was kept in the huge warehouse rooms below the stores, and finally, in-store training.
I had the added excitement of being a part of the grand opening of a Disney store. I had originally been hired to work in Disney Clothiers, the smaller, higher-end clothing store next-door to the Emporium. The biggest difference at the time was The Emporium sold everything plus screen-printed t-shirts; Clothiers sold embroidered shirts among other items. It was much smaller and I was so grateful because the Emporium seemed so overwhelming to me! However when I got my first schedule, it was revealed that I would actually be working in the brand-new Main Street Athletic Club. This store was in the former Penny Arcade and Magic Store location – and as such we received many mixed reviews about our being there - so many guests missed those former attractions.
It was exciting being a part of something new (and less daunting because no one really knew more than me about that particular store). It was nice having a newly built store and stockroom and we even got totally new costumes. Rather then the high-necked cream-colored blouses and hot pink bowties that went with the long plaid skirts on the rest of Main Street, we got to wear a dark turquoise blue v-neck shirt with a sailor collar, and knickers (pants that buttoned at the knee, not sure what they are called in the UK but I know knickers are not the same there haha!) made out of the same plaid fabric. The men got to wear brown pants of a similar style and a lighter brown laced-up shirt, with suspenders. The only part that really made me nervous was my first day was on July 4th, 1995 - one of the busiest days at the Magic Kingdom.
I survived though, as I would survive many other days and nights...not getting out till 2am…working weekends and holidays and through rain or shine and Brazilian tour groups. I ended up working at Disney Clothiers too, as well as occasionally covering Baby Care, and later moving over to Uptown Jewelers, which I loved because by that time I was deep into collecting limited edition watches.
It wasn’t all magic all the time, but what got you through those rough days was the fact that you were not alone. Some of the most magical memories I have are of walking out on to Main Street when all the guests were gone and the streets were being hosed down. The lights and music were still on…and it was hard to look over to that big Castle at the end of the street and not get a tear in my eye. After our shifts, we all rode the bus back to the parking lot together and usually went out for a late night breakfast. We were family.
Being inside and selling t-shirts for the most part, there weren’t too many chances for ‘creating magic’ with individual guests. I don’t have an amazing story of making a guest’s dreams come true by ringing up their ponchos…However there were a few times when going above and beyond was appreciated. Finding a particular item downstairs in the warehouse section…offering a recommendation to a first time visitor…or simply offering a sympathetic ear to someone that had a less-than-magical experience.
Soon, though, after foiling my chances for a transfer by being out sick a few too many times (oops!) I left Disney to pursue my career in Travel. I would later go back to the company briefly with the Disney Store when we lived in Massachusetts, but I found retail in a mall is quite different than retail in a theme park. I also finally got my ‘dream job’ of working at the Disney Travel Company a few years back. I went through the 6 weeks of training, loved every single second of it, but once I got behind the phones my husband's job was transferred to another part of the state so I had to leave that behind as well. I did worry how I would measure up with sales quotas and such, I think I made a better guest than Cast Member at that point.
Still, if given the chance today, if we still lived in Orlando and I could work around my children and husband’s schedule, I would probably still go back in a heartbeat. It’s a wonderful company to work for, and now, in my 30’s, I think I appreciate that a bit more than I did in my early 20’s.
In some ways though - once a Cast Member always a Cast Member. I will still pick up a piece of trash if I see it on the street in a park (we were always told to help keep the parks clean, even if it wasn’t ‘our area’), I will still rush over to a crying child who’s lost its parents and try to help out. I will still always look at the parks and resorts with a Cast Member’s eye, knowing just enough to be both dangerous and sympathetic to those having a rough day. I appreciate Cast Members more now, in every position. It truly takes a village to run the amazing world that is a Disney park. I am proud to have been a part of that village at one time. If I’m lucky, maybe I will again some day.
This was written and submitted by Suzannah DiMarzio, is a self-confessed Disney-obsessed, Mom of 3 who married her high school sweetheart - J.F. DiMarzio. She writes for us and in her own right in her own blog zannaland.com