50 Years of Walt Disney World: Smile to Get Started

September 19, 2021, 7:04 PM · 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, Stories from a Theme Park Insider. Here is how my Disney career started.

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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.

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You can support Theme Park Insider by ordering a copy of "Stories from a Theme Park Insider," available in paperback for $6.99.

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Replies (4)

September 19, 2021 at 7:41 PM

1984 was my first time at just nine years old. EPCOT Center was fresh and new and like nothing I'd seen before. The rides were glorious and magical and it feels so stunning.

From 1991-1995, my family lived in Jacksonville so took advantage of resident deals to enjoy the run with new stuff opening constantly. I will always count myself lucky to have been alive for a golden period for WDW and so much there sadly gone except in wonderful memories.

September 20, 2021 at 8:46 AM

I find it hard to smile at the moment when I think about going to a Disney park considering the way the company communicates how it sees us as walking wallets that need to be emptied even more. Happy anniversary celebrating it without a lot of disgruntled fans …

September 20, 2021 at 9:13 AM

Grew up on the west coast so our family regularly visited Disneyland…

For the World side of things my wife (Girlfriend at the time), took our first trip in December 2004…We stayed at Coronado Springs and literally threw our bags in the room when we got there then headed off to Animal Kingdom…Seeing the shell of what would later become Expedition Everest was amazing to me because, up until that point, I’d never been to a Disney park where active construction was taking place…

The whole trip was special on many levels, the holiday decorations, walking the world showcase and being able to see the holiday traditions represented through the various countries, but the most special was that it was the first big trip that my wife and I took together…

We’ve been back three times since then, once with my mother before she passed away, once for our honeymoon, and most recently in 2018 for the first time with our children…We were initially planning another trip for summer 2020 but we all know how that went…Scheduling change after scheduling change and it looks like we’ll be able to get back down there October 2022…Just want to be able to visit the parks for the 50th so hopefully this trip can actually happen…Really with the way prices and charges are starting to go up in the world of Disney Theme parks this really might be our last trip…

September 21, 2021 at 12:51 AM

I grew up with Disneyland 20 minutes away. Disneyworld was always a fantasy far across the nation. When I finally got to go for the first time in 2000 we stayed at the Dolphin hotel and had 10 full days in the park. We didn't miss anything - even down to Fantasia golf. I was in awe with a grin on my face no matter if it was Living with the Land or Dinosaur! I loved it all. And I still do.

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