50 years of Walt Disney World: a smile to begin with
One week from Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of Walt Disney World Resort. I’ll be in Orlando for the Disney media event leading up to the kickoff of “The World’s Most Magical Celebration”. To get ready for the big birthday, throughout this week I’ll be featuring stories from my book about working at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, Stories from a Theme Park Insider. This 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 all directions, as far as the eye can see. A deep blue sky above, cloudless to shade the brutal central Florida summer sun. The temperature is already well over 90, and the humidity too, even at 9 am I slow down my car as I approach the intersection. There is no light, no big sign. Just a narrow post with a street name perched at the top. The oar route. As I turn the steering wheel to the left, a dusty old sedan shoots out of the road, towering over the corner to the right, accelerating in the direction I had just arrived.
A little over a mile down the road, I stop in front of a set of mobile home style trailers. “Casting,” the panel says, with a hyper-enthusiastic little Mickey Mouse painted next to it.
Welcome to the back of Walt Disney World.
My parents had moved to Orlando the previous fall while I was studying at Northwestern University, north of Chicago. Having nowhere to go for the summer, I followed them to Orlando, hoping I could find a job when I arrived.
The Northwest vacation for the summer in mid-June, which can make it difficult to find a decent summer job. Most of the vouchers are collected a month earlier by students who graduate in May. But my sister, who was still in high school, had landed a job in the food department at Magic Kingdom, so I thought I’d give Disney a chance too.
The fact that I only know one other employer in town probably also influenced this decision. (If I didn’t get the job at Disney, my plan was to go to SeaWorld and try my luck there. Shamu, I could have worked for you!)
I had called Disney for a date, but they told me to come in. So I did, walking over to a lady in a sundress who was sitting behind the desk in the cramped trailer. I requested an application.
Yes, here. Fill it in, please. Sit down, please. We will 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 girls my age and me.
Since all of the workers seem to have broad smiles stuck on their faces, I thought I should put on my shredder happy face as well. I walked in with a big smile and tried to be as enthusiastic as I could about any job with Walt Disney World Resort, hoping I wouldn’t get stuck in foods like my little sister. Or worse, the guard.
One of the two girls matched my false enthusiasm, smile for smile. We would give each other sarcastic looks every time the interviewer looked away from us, and suppressed the laughter as if to say, “I can’t believe we’re acting this stupid.” But we just cranked our enthusiasm up a notch every time the interviewer looked at us.
The second girl answered her questions politely, with a pleasant but professional expression on her face. No cheesy smiles. When the interviewer looked away from her, she gave us both a disapproving schoolgirl look, silently berating us for not being professional enough in a job interview. She reminded me of my classmates at Northwestern – the most serious ones, who went to Europe before they started life on Wall Street.
I later learned that the first daughter was related to a then nationally famous Republican politician, so she had been involved in political campaigns her entire life. She certainly knew how to activate the spell. I spoke with her again on our first day as “cast members,” as Disney calls their employees. We were working on the cash registers at the old Mickey’s Mart souvenir shop in Tomorrowland.
The second daughter? I never saw him again. She didn’t get the job.
Years later, someone who has worked in the theme park business for years told me about the maintenance form used by another theme park chain. It only contained six empty checkboxes.
The interviewer made up all the questions he wanted to ask the candidates. The applicant’s answers did not matter. The interviewer simply checked one of the boxes each time the candidate smiled.
If the candidate smiled six times before the interview ended, he got a job. Those who didn’t smile enough weren’t hired – no matter what they said, where they went to school or where they had worked before.
So if you’ve ever thought about working for The Mouse, or any other theme park, I just have one advice for you.
Smile. A lot.
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