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Theme park cast member stories: Finding what you didn't know you were looking for

By Robert Niles
Published: February 8, 2010 at 8:16 AM
As I was wrapping up my senior year at Northwestern, some of the folks I knew there were planning to head off to Europe for a while before settling down to their post-graduation jobs. I would have loved to go to Europe and see the world, too. But I went to school on a Pell Grant and more than once had to hunt coins on the floor to pay for a fast-food Sunday dinner (when the cafeterias were closed). No way could a lower-middle-class kid like me afford a European tour.

Well, if I couldn't afford to go out and see the world, I knew where to get a job where the world would come see me. So as soon as my classes were over, I crammed my belongings into two pieces of luggage and couple cardboard boxes (those were the days before airlines charged you for luggage, thank goodness) and I hopped a flight for Orlando.

I'd been working as a CT (seasonal) employee at Walt Disney World for the past two summers. And I'd worked the previous Christmas holidays, too. But now I'd be joining the Disney World cast full-time. My long-term plan was to go to graduate school in journalism, but I'd take a year away from school first to see the world.

As the world came to see Disney, that is.

So while my classmates were sitting in Northwestern's basketball arena a week later, collecting their diplomas, I was sitting in the theater at the Country Bear Vacation Hoedown, trying to elicit a rowdy "Howdy" from several platoons of Brazilian teen-agers. I'd, uh, enjoy several awkward moments with young Brazilians ladies over the next few months, as well as with some elderly British ones.

Disney World introduced me to the first head of state I'd meet. When Michael Jackson died last year, and his funeral snarled traffic throughout LA, my kids were talking about whether they knew anyone who'd met Jackson. To their shock, I told them that I had. Jackson and his crew had boarded my boat at Pirates of the Caribbean.

But the "regular" guests stand out as much as the celebrities. One day, while walking Tom Sawyer Island, I heard a whoop from two middle-aged British ladies. When I walked over to see what was the matter, they begged me to take their picture next to the "Cardiff Hill" sign on the island.

They told me that they'd been trying to find a shortcut from Thunder Mountain to the Haunted Mansion. But they'd gotten themselves royally lost on what they still hadn't realized was an island. Yet their growing frustration had melted away and now they were thrilled. Why? They were from the city of Cardiff, in Wales, and were delighted to find a sign referencing their hometown in the Magic Kingdom.

So I took their picture with the sign, shared a laugh and walked them back to the dock for a return trip to the mainland. (I told them how to get over to the Mansion, too.)

Funny how things work out. They'd been looking for one thing, gotten themselves good and lost, and only then could they find that thing they hadn't known about, but that ended up making their trip. They traveled across an ocean to find a delightful reminder of home.

And so it was to be with me, in a way. I thought that my year working at Disney World was a year off, a diversion from my future career in journalism. Little did I know at the time that within a generation, the newspaper industry would self-destruct. And that as hundreds of former colleagues have lost their jobs (and the paper I worked at in Denver closed), I would remain employed in journalism as... the editor of a website covering theme parks.

So I didn't take a year off, after all. I was starting a career that I didn't yet know I'd have.

Funny how things work out.

Read more stories about working in Walt Disney World, at www.themeparkinsider.com/stories.

Readers' Opinions

From 168.166.80.202 on February 8, 2010 at 8:25 AM
Wow! I love this! What a wonderful display of finding things when you least expect it, or rather in this case, when you don't expect it at all! Great article!
From Mitchell Botwin on February 8, 2010 at 9:00 AM
Welcome to the law of unintended consequences. With what I started my career and all the changes I made left me working in the field I didn't know I was looking for.
From kerri k on February 8, 2010 at 9:02 AM
Great Story!!! I love how little things can make a vacation memorable :)
From Joshua Counsil on February 8, 2010 at 9:59 AM
Good stuff.
From Erin B on February 8, 2010 at 11:50 AM
That's a really nice story, Robert. Very heart-warming :)

I'm currently in the middle of a year off after graduating college & through engaging in a hobby of mine & helping out some friends, a potential future as a baker is opening up before me. Funny how things work out sometimes.

From Steve Alcorn on February 8, 2010 at 2:14 PM
Words to live by, Robert. Nicely put.
From rick stevens on February 8, 2010 at 9:19 PM
I wholeheartedly agree. I never dreamed of doing what I am doing now. I can see the arc in hindsight, but did not envision it at the time. Always remember...you never know how your life will unfold. Keep an open heart and mind so you can take advantage of what comes your way.
From 76.172.237.107 on February 8, 2010 at 10:43 PM
Apologies, I accidentally submitted this comment to the previous entry. It was long and I don't feel like retyping the whole thing, so I'll give the short version here:

I really appreciated this entry. You can't always control your career path. In college I cared a lot about getting the right internship to start the career path I wanted. Well the economy made those jobs I wanted hard to come by, but I've had the opportunity to try new things. Some haven't worked out, but I did learn some good skills. Doing a job you find interesting or that teaches new skills could be the best thing you can do to get the job you really want, even if it isn't part of the "traditional career path".

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