Stories from a Theme Park Insider. Here is how my Disney career started.One week from Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Walt Disney World Resort. I will be in Orlando for Disney's media event leading up to the kick-off of "The World's Most Magical Celebration." To get ready for the big birthday, all this week I will be featuring stories from my book about working at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom,
* * *
Less than two miles from the world's most popular theme park, and I'm in the middle of nowhere.
Orange groves, in every direction, as far as I can see. A deep blue sky overhead, with no clouds to shade Central Florida's brutal summer sun. The temperature's already well past 90, and so's the humidity, even at 9 a.m. I slow my car as the intersection approaches. There's no light, no big sign. Just a narrow pole with a street name perched on top. Reams Road. As I turn the wheel to the left, a dusty old sedan blasts from the road, peeling around the corner to the right, speeding off in the direction I'd just come.
A little over a mile down the road, I pull up to a set of mobile home-style trailers. “Casting,” the sign says, with a small, hyper-enthusiastic Mickey Mouse painted beside.
Welcome to the back side of Walt Disney World.
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 could find a gig when I arrived.
Northwestern breaks for the summer in mid-June, which can make it tough to find a decent summer job. Most of the good ones get snapped up a month earlier by the students who get out in May. But my sister, who still was in high school, had landed 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. (If I didn't get the Disney job, my plan was to drive over to SeaWorld and try my luck there. Shamu, I could have worked for you!)
I'd called Disney for an appointment, but they told me to just come on in. So I did, walking up to a lady in a sundress who was sitting behind the desk in the cramped trailer. I asked for an application.
Yes, here you go. Fill it out, please. Take a seat, please. We'll call you back for an interview in a few moments, thank you.
Twenty minutes later, three of us were called into another trailer, two young ladies around my age and me.
Since all the workers seems to have had wide grins plastered onto their faces, I figured I should put on my chipper happy face, too. I walked in with a big smile and tried to be as enthusiastic as I possibly could about any job with the Walt Disney World Resort, 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 my fake enthusiasm, smile for smile. We shot each other sarcastic looks whenever the interviewer looked away from us, 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 interviewer looked back at us.
The second girl answered her questions politely, with a pleasant, yet professional, expression on her face. No corny smiles. When the interviewer looked away from her, she'd shoot the two of us a disapproving schoolmarm glare, to silently reproach us for not being professional enough in a job interview. She reminded me of my classmates at Northwestern - the serious ones, headed to Europe before starting their lives on Wall Street.
Later I learned that the first girl was a relative of a then-nationally-famous Republican politician, so she'd been around political campaigns her entire life. She certainly knew how to turn on the charm. I talked with her again on our first day as “cast members,” as Disney calls its employees. We were working the cash registers at the old Mickey's Mart souvenir shop in Tomorrowland.
The second girl? I never saw her again. She didn't get the gig.
Years later, a person who's been around the theme park business for years told me about the interview form used by another theme park chain. It contained nothing but six empty checkboxes.
The interviewer would make up whatever questions he or she wanted to ask the applicants. The applicant's answers didn't matter. The interviewer would simply check one of the boxes whenever the applicant smiled.
If the applicant smiled six times before the interview was over, he or she got a job. Those who didn't smile enough didn't get hired - no matter what they said, where they went to school or where they'd worked before.
So if you've ever thought about working for The Mouse, or any other theme park, I have just one piece of advice for you.
Smile. A lot.
* * *
You can support Theme Park Insider by ordering a copy of "Stories from a Theme Park Insider," available in paperback for $6.99.
Finally, we wanted you to read this article before we make our newsletter pitch, unlike so many other websites. If you appreciate that - and our approach to covering theme park, travel, and entertainment news - please sign up for our free, three-times-a-week email newsletter. Thank you.Tweet
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.