Theme park cast member stories: Smile if you want to work for a theme park

February 1, 2010, 11:57 AM · For nearly a year now, I've been sharing stories about my years working as a cast member in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. But I've not yet shared the story of how I got my job with Disney.

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....

Smile. :-)

For more stories about working at the Walt Disney World Resort, read my book Stories from a Theme Park Insider.

Replies (9)

February 1, 2010 at 4:40 PM

After reading this, I figured Disney would NEVER hire me...even if I wanted to get a job that would take place behind the scenes and doesn't require interaction with guests.

Anyway, great story. Keep them coming.

February 1, 2010 at 7:46 PM

Its one of the Key Magical Behaviors at the Disney Store!

February 1, 2010 at 8:18 PM

I love it! In a world where surly goth wannabes run amok, the simple act of smiling can get you a job! Six Sigma and synergy be damned! Herschend here I come!

February 1, 2010 at 11:14 PM

I smiled like crazy (and laughed a lot, too) but I didn't get the job. I think my problem was my honesty.

When they asked me what my favorite movie had been that year, I answered No Country for Old Men. I should have said Ratatouille, which is now (after several re-watches) my favorite movie from that year, and would have reassured them of my innocence and brand faithfulness.

When they asked me who my favorite Disney villain was, I answered The Coachman from Pinocchio, because he was a truly terrifying villain who brought with him a strong moral lesson for children. In fact, I stumped the interviewer, who hadn't even heard of, nor could recall, The Coachman. I should have said someone like Yzma or Captain Hook, who, although evil, have charm and quirky humor and a certain lovableness. Your favorite characters, after all, can say a lot about your personality, and that I chose possibly the wickedest of them all may have misled them.

February 1, 2010 at 11:31 PM

I think that's what sets Disney apart-- it's employees actually LOOK like they want to go to work each day. I noticed that every cast member had big smiles.

I just hate going to a theme park and the person running the ride looks bored out of their skulls. It ruins it a bit for me.

February 2, 2010 at 12:43 AM

I worked at Disneyland twice during college. When I went back for my re-hire interview, I recognized the interviewer as a past Disneyland Ambassador. That little bit of celebrity moment made a bit of difference, I think.
(I requested something other than going back into Food Service, but if I had to, that I could at least be back in the same location, which is where I ended up. I moved up more that time.)
It is good to hear about Herschend being like that. We watched a documentary (California's Gold with Huell Howser) about In N Out last night. The emphasis on customer service mostly came down to smiling a lot - even making the burgers in a way that made it look like they are smiling! Another great company with a great reputation for customer service, and happy employees that want to be there because of it.

February 2, 2010 at 9:45 AM

I remember interviewing for Disney in early 1990 and being told by my interviewer that as I was a size 12 that I couldn't work out front, that I had to stay in the back in food services. It didn't seem to matter that I had a college degree and 10 years of work experience. My appearance was all that seemed to matter to that interviewer, who by the way, was a size 20 at least.

Needless to say, I was insulted as all get out and refused the job.

It really upset me as I had dreamed of working for Disney and couldn't believe her attitude. It is really ironic to walk around the parks these days and look at the employees, I have seen some that would never have been hired in the old days in terms of appearance and attitude.

February 2, 2010 at 12:04 PM

Agreed on The Coachman. One of the great underrated Disney villains.

February 2, 2010 at 6:51 PM

No, no, no... There's no risk. They never come back... BOYS!

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