My parents had moved to Orlando the previous fall, while I was attending Northwestern University, north of Chicago. Not having anywhere else to go for the summer, I followed them down to Orlando, hoping I would find a gig when I arrived.
Northwestern runs on a quarter system, meaning its students break for the summer in mid-June, putting us at a significant disadvantage in landing summer jobs (most of the good ones being snapped up a month earlier by students whose schools run on semesters). My sister, who was still in high school, had gotten a job in the foods department in the Magic Kingdom, so I figured I'd give Disney a shot, too.
The fact that I knew only one other employer in town probably influenced that decision, too. (So if I hadn't gotten the Disney job, my plan was to drive over to SeaWorld and try my luck there. Shamu, I could have worked for you!)
Back then, Disney didn't have the huge casting center on I-4 in Downtown Disney. In fact, Downtown Disney didn't exist - it was simply the much smaller "Walt Disney World Shopping Village" back then. Casting occupied some trailers north of property, off Reams Road.
I'd called for an appointment, but they told me to just come on it. So I did, filled out an application and waited my turn for an interview. Three of us were called into a back room, two girls about my age and me.
Since this was Disney, and I'd been going to Disney theme parks (Walt Disney World and Disneyland) since I was, oh, fetal, I figured I should put on my chipper happy face. I walked in with a big smile and tried to be as enthusiastic as I possibly could about any job with Walt Disney World, all the while hoping that I wouldn't get stuck in foods like my little sister. Or worse, custodial.
One of the two girls matched me, smile for smile. We shot each other looks whenever the interviewer looked down or turned to the other girl, and suppressed giggles as if to say "I cannot believe we're acting this silly." But we just ratcheted our enthusiasm up another notch each time.
The second girl answered her questions politely, with pleasant expression. Now and then she'd look at the other two of us with just the faintest glimpse of disapproval, as if our exuberance were not professional enough.
The first girl? I saw her again on our first day working as merchandise hosts at the old Mickey's Mart. (She turned out to be a relative of a famous Republican politician at the time, so she knew how to turn on the charm.)
The second girl? I never saw her again.
Years later, a person who's been around the theme park business for years told me about the interview form that the Herschend theme parks were said to use when people were applying for job at one of those parks. The applicant wouldn't be shown the form, which contained just six empty checkboxes. The interviewer would make up whatever questions he or she wanted to - the applicant's answers didn't matter. The interviewer would only check a box when the applicant smiled.
If the applicant smiled six times before the interview was over, he or she got a job. Folks who didn't smile enough, didn't get hired - no matter how well qualified or experienced they might be.
Walt Disney World, of course, hires thousands of new employees each year. As do the other Orlando theme parks. If you've ever thought about working for The Mouse, or any other park in the business, I have just one piece of advice for you....
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