Why Working at Disney World Turned My Life Around

January 24, 2023, 8:54 AM · This week, The Walt Disney Company kicks off its 100 Years of Wonder anniversary celebration at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim. I will be there to cover the press event starting tomorrow, but I wanted to start with some thoughts about what Disney has meant to me during my lifetime.

Arthur Levine of About Theme Parks suggested the topic, and he has posted his own take on Disney's first 100 years, focusing on the company's social and cultural impact. [Please give it a read: Reflecting on Disney at 100.] But my take on Disney's 100 years is a bit more personal, though I hope that the lessons I have learned will feel universal.

Being a Los Angeles native, Disney has been part of my life ever since I can remember. I make my living today in media, and my very first media appearance was... as Disney’s icon, Mickey Mouse. I wore that costume for a Halloween episode of Romper Room here in Los Angeles as soon as I was old enough to appear on that classic children’s television show. (Thanks for having me on, Miss Mary Ann! I still remember that foot-long taffy in the goodie bag.)

Like millions of other GenX American children, I grew up with Disney’s movies and TV shows, but I also grew up with Universal and Warner Bros. shows, too. My favorite cartoons were from Jay Ward, not Walt Disney. While I loved going to Disneyland, and later Walt Disney World, most kids in my class wanted to go to Six Flags, because they had the cool, exciting roller coasters that Disney did not have.

I grew up as The Walt Disney Company was falling back.

Then, in 1984, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells took charge at Disney, ending the company's slow downturn after Walt's death. Three years later, my relationship with Disney changed from fan to cast member when I got a job working at the Walt Disney World Resort.

I did not come to Disney from a happy place. My parents had moved from Indianapolis to Orlando while I was away at college, where I was not exactly thriving. I had just finished the second year of a brutal academic program at Northwestern, where cold winds blowing off Lake Michigan made the dark winter days even more depressing. A year serving as student government vice president had sucked from my life what little remaining joy I had left after studying. To complete the clichéd story, my long-distance girlfriend had just dumped me, and my roommate had moved out, too. Cue the sad trombone.

A distressed person who had lost his ability to connect with people emotionally might not seem the ideal candidate to work at the Most Magical Place on Earth - the emotional refuge to which millions of people escape each year, looking for a fresh dose of joy in their lives. But as I sat in the old casting trailers on Reams Road, north of the Magic Kingdom, I summoned what might be the most important lesson in show business.

Fake it until you make it. (For the details of that moment, see Smile if you want to work for a theme park.)

At Disney, my despair melted away - not because of my surroundings, but because of what my job required me to do. Disney told me to go out, smile, and help people. A year of sulking around, waiting for other people to come make me happy, did not bring the joy that going out and making others happy did.

Robert at Disney World
My only photo of me working at Disney, rolling out the afternoon parade route in Liberty Square

I worked five summers at the Magic Kingdom, including a full year between graduating Northwestern and starting graduate school in journalism. But my newspaper career eventually led me back to Disney, as I started what is now Theme Park Insider seven years later as an experiment in online, community-driven reporting. Throughout the time I have been publishing Theme Park Insider, I have tried to remember the lesson that I learned as a new cast member in the Magic Kingdom - the best way to help yourself is to help others.

Beyond that, Disney has taught me how to find joy in the act of creating. Unlike other Hollywood studios, which at times have become enmeshed in unrelated businesses - from telephone companies to water utilities - Disney always has stayed grounded in the creative business. To be a cast member is to be a creator - a creator of entertainment, of customer service, of comfort, of storytelling, of ground-breaking engineering. When you create something truly wonderful, you feel that joy and satisfaction even before the first guest experiences your work.

Of course, when you see the joy and satisfaction on their faces, that doubles your emotional reward. But learning that I can find joy in what I create - whether it ultimately connects with people or not - was the final step I needed in my recovery from my mid-college funk.

My story is hardly unique among former Disney cast members. The opportunity to play upon perhaps the world's most popular performance stage has equipped hundreds of thousands of us with the skills and experience needed to create real value for clients, customers, and co-workers in whatever we are doing now - and will be doing in the future. That's why many top companies seek former Disney cast members to lead their customer service, operations, creative, and communication teams.

I understand that not everyone has enjoyed the positive experience that I have had with Disney over my life and career. Even if 99% of the people who come to or work for Disney had positive experiences, the immense number of people that Disney touches would ensure that the 1% of failures would include many thousands of dissatisfied customers and employees. As living in America becomes tougher and more expensive for each generation, Disney will need to step up with more aggressive compensation and support to ensure that its cast members can continue to sustain the level of excellence that people expect from the company.

So getting to 200 years may prove a far more challenging accomplishment than Disney's first 100 years. But what Disney has done for its countless fans and cast members - including me - over this past century certainly deserves celebration. Happy birthday, Disney. And thank you for all that you've taught me - and so many others.

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Replies (7)

January 24, 2023 at 9:23 AM

Great story Robert. It's a hard truth that millions of happy guests exist doesn't mean there aren't thousands of unhappy issues. It can be hard to know when to focus on the positives vs the negatives.

I have a lot of memories working at BTM and helping with PAC. They are almost all great memories. I look back at my brief time there fondly as it taught me a lot, and gave me an impactful perspective.

I know we've come a long way. It's not been easy but I believe we have a lot of progress on the horizon. Let's keep moving forward.

January 24, 2023 at 9:24 AM

Hey! Northwestern and Evanston isn't that bad! LOL

While I didn't work in the parks, I did work at the Disney Store which had many of the same expectations on customer service side. It was an awesome experience and helped me in every single job that I had afterwards. It could be hard and frustrating at times, but the role set me up for career success!

January 24, 2023 at 9:44 AM

Thanks for collaborating with me on this tribute to Disney on the occasion of its 100th anniversary Robert. What a lovely and heartfelt story. It's wonderful that while working for WDW, you were able to bring so much joy to others. And in doing so, you were able to find joy yourself. It's also wonderful that you continue to bring joy to others through your great work at Theme Park Insider–and that your connection to Disney continues. BTW, I was also on "Romper Room" here in the Boston area. Alas, I was not dressed as Mickey Mouse.

January 24, 2023 at 10:19 AM

Went to school at Northwestern, as well. I did so well because there was nothing else to do most of the time, it was too cold to go outside!

January 24, 2023 at 10:37 AM

Man, I remember that wheel on my chest from the summer of 1985. used to pinch your arm if you weren't careful. Worked Davy Crocket Explorer Canoes...but loved the parades and being part of the magic....even with the contraption strapped to my chest. Great memories and great pix

January 24, 2023 at 4:59 PM

That was a really nice story ! Thank you

January 25, 2023 at 3:09 PM

My first Disney park experience was at Disneyland in 1969. Our family was entertained enough to make WDW trips in 1973 and 1974 -- we stayed at the Poly during the second visit for (gasp!) $29 a night.

I returned to Disneyland during a summer college semester at the University of Redlands in 1980. I fell in love with the parks during the fall semester of 1982 where I was enrolled in the Magic Kingdom College Program -- living at Snow White Trailer Park off 192 in Kissimmee. Our class was on hand to witness the opening of EPCOT Center. At the September 1982 CM preview nights we invented "drinking around the world."
I returned to WDW as a permanent cast member in the summer of 1983 (Jungle Cruise skipper). Through the mid 1980s I worked in convention set-up at the Contemporary Resort (still my favorite building on the planet) and eventually moved into guest relations at EPCOT Center. I left Disney and jumped around hotel jobs. For a short, seasonal tenure I piloted a tram at Kongfrontation at USF.

Eventually I evolved away from hospitality into construction management. That has resulted in my presence on project management teams associated with contracts built by WDI and Universal Creative. A couple of SeaWorld projects are tucked away in the resume as well.

Over the last 40 years I worked crowd control when the candlelight processional was still on Main Street USA. I saw the Rockettes at the American Gardens theater. I saw Frank Wells speak at a Disney stockholders meeting. I went on a site walk with a group that included Michael Eisner. I walked the scaffold above Spaceship Earth. I was given a "honorary Imagineer" hard hat. I shot thousands of hippos during my estimated 6,000 trips through the jungle. I've eaten at Captain Jack's Oyster Bar. I have been dragged on stage at the Adventures' Club. I saw Denny Zavett & The Riverboat Rascals at the Baton Rouge Lounge. I saw Jon Charles at the Polynesian Resort's Captain Cook's Hideaway. I smoked cigarettes sitting on the curb along Main Street USA.

And, above all else, I have been blessed to know hundreds of current and former CMs (one of whom I married and another who is one of my kids) and I relish each of those connections -- including the one I've maintained with the proprietor of this site.

Happy anniversary to this remarkable company and the people who have made it a reality. If there is a t-shirt commemorating year 101, I will be the first in line to offer up my hard-earned dough.

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