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More 'Stories from a Theme Park Insider': Driving to work at Disney

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Published: July 24, 2011 at 12:06 PM

Being back in Orlando this week reminds me of the hassle of driving as a Disney cast member. (Surely Universal team members and SeaWorld employees know the frustration, too.) Driving Interstate 4 south of Orlando is like standing in the middle of the scrum after a kid busts open the piƱata at a birthday party. Some tourists in rental cars careen back and forth like children on a sugar high, while others crawl along as if they're inspecting the pavement for overlooked candy.

Forget about trying to drive aggressively through that mess. There's no way to predict what the tourists on I-4 are going to do. Driving that stretch of road demands a more passive, almost Zen-like approach. Just watch what's happening in front and to the side of you. And when someone does something stupid - and someone will do something stupid - just calmly steer out of the way.

All this is why experienced theme park employees avoid Interstate 4. They find a variety of back roads to take on their way to work, and then back home. Unfortunately for commuters, Central Florida is riddled with former sinkholes-turned-lakes, frustrating any attempt to impose a street grid on the region. The Butler chain of lakes stand like a guard on the Walt Disney World Resort's east flank, forcing those of us who lived on the other side to drive around them to get to our jobs.

Working at the Magic Kingdom, I had a couple of choices. The shorter, northern route took me through the town of Windermere on my way to State Road 535, then south to Reams Road and the Magic Kingdom cast member parking lot. But Windermere was notorious for its, um, aggressive police force. I swear the town - home to rich pro golfers such as Tiger Woods - made most of its money on speeding tickets issued to Walt Disney World cast members.

I only got pulled over in Windermere once. It was my first day driving a new car, which still had a temporary paper license tag taped to the rear window, directly behind the driver's seat. The officer said he pulled me over because he saw my car from behind, and thought it was being driven by a girl in a white cowboy hat who didn't have a license plate.

Great vision tests they gave those Windermere officers back in the day, huh? I didn't know whether to be offended that he thought I looked like a girl or amused that he thought the temporary paper tag looked like a cowboy hat.

Regardless, after too many days tip-toeing through Windermere, I'd switch to the speedier southern route: down Apopka Vineland Road, then north up the 535 to Reams Road.

Of course, that meant suffering the excruciating traffic at the Apopka Vineland/Winter Garden Vineland interchange (the one just north of the Hotel Plaza entrance off I-4). Which would send me back through Windermere in frustration after a few days.

My future wife was among the lucky ones. As "talent" working in the Disney All-American College Orchestra at Epcot, she got a Disney van to whisk her away to work, then back home again, for every shift.

But for the rest of us, we had to hit the road. As frustrating as my two routes into work might have been, they were far better than the mayhem of trying to drive on I-4. At least on the back roads, we enjoyed predictability: one lane of people driving as fast they can toward the Magic Kingdom parking lot, trying to avoid being late. And the opposite lane of people driving away from Disney as fast as they could, too, after their shifts were done.

Current and former Orlando-area theme park workers, please share your favorite commuting stories in the comments.

For more: You can read 40 of Robert's stories about working at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom - including many far, far funnier than this one - in Stories from a Theme Park Insider, available for just $3.99 from Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com.

Update: "Stories from a Theme Park Insider" is now available via Apple's iBooks, too!

Readers' Opinions

From Hermione Potter on July 24, 2011 at 10:48 PM
Don't even get me started about driving around Universal. I once picked up a shift working in Citywalk until 2:30 in the morning on a holiday. I parked in the garage with guests because Citywalk TMs are supposed to park there. When I left the garage and turned out onto the street to drive on the street that goes under the people movers there...I almost got hit by a tourist in a rental car driving the wrong way on the road. Was the guy drunk you ask? Nope. He was "British and very very tired" <---his excuse to the security van that stopped him. I found out the next day when everyone was talking about it.

Whenever I worked closing shift I used to leave 25 minutes early just to make up for Dr. Phillips High School getting out right as I was supposed to be coming in only one turn down on Turkey Lake Road.

I currently live very close to Sea World and though I don't work there now I still keep an eye on their park hours so I know when not to drive ;)

From Anon Mouse on July 25, 2011 at 9:49 AM
While in college 20 years ago, I used to work in Parades at Disneyland during the summer. Parking was very good in those days. Although I had to endure the terrible 5 freeway, parking is a snap. You're allowed to park in a private parking lot in the backstage area. During the long 3 hours breaks between performances, you're allowed to park with the tourists in front of Disneyland. Now, all that is gone with the addition of DCA.

Working for Disneyland has to be a labor of love. It requires a lot of headaches to get through the hassles.

From Jay Posteraro on July 26, 2011 at 9:37 AM
Robert! I was a member of the AACO in 1988...when was your wife in? I loved getting rides in those vans, so as to not deal with the traffic!!!!

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