What comes to mind when you think of Disney? Do you think of princesses, theme parks, or a certain cartoon mouse? My guess is that whatever you’re thinking of is whimsical rather than professional.
Likewise, after years of holding office jobs would you choose to make the proverbial career jump into Fantasyland? I did just that. When I did, people thought I was snorting pixie dust.
In 2014 I decided to move from Washington, D.C. to Orlando to do the Disney College Program. Of course, my friends and family were quick to question my judgment. They couldn’t understand how I wanted to work for Mickey Mouse after interning at the White House.
At the time, I couldn’t professionally justify it either. After spending years working in politics could working as a cashier or a ride attendant at Disney World really benefit my career? As it turns out, my Disney College Program didn’t just benefit my career, it shaped it.
1. “You’ve got a friend in me.”
Connect as much as possible with each person you meet because you never know what you’ll learn.
My first job at Disney was in Merchandise, which is a fancy way of saying that I operated cash registers. In this position, I could have easily just rang up the guests who came to my shop, chatted my friends up, and called it a day. Instead, I took the time to get to know the guests who stopped by.
One guest in particular still stands out in my mind. His name was Tony and he was shopping with his daughters – not exactly an unusual sight at Disney World. When we proceeded to chatting, Tony let me know that his entire family wanted to go to Disney World, but they couldn’t afford it.
To make the trip happen, Tony’s family worked together saving pennies, nickels, and whatever other coins they could scrounge up to afford the trip. After a few years, they saved over $2000 in coins and were finally able to make it out to Disney World. By the end of Tony’s story, I couldn’t contain the grin on my face and Tony was glowing with pride. Simply listening to his story made both of our days.
If I never bothered talking to Tony, I never would have connected with him on the level that I did. I took this lesson to heart, and still apply it at work both with coworkers and clients alike. What I’ve found is that taking the time to make that personal connection brings any business relationship to infinity and beyond.
2. “I just can’t wait to be king.”
Work your way up from the bottom, and you can make it to the top.
I was an intern on the Disney College Program. Meaning, I had lower seniority than my fellow Cast Members. This meant that I would work more erratic hours and work in the less desirable work locations within my area.
My work location was Sunset Boulevard at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which had a variety of shops ranging from outdoor carts to an air-conditioned art gallery. Out of all the shops my favorite was Sweet Spells, a candy kitchen where Cast Members create Mickey Mouse caramel apples among other treats. Usually only tenured Cast Members (and not interns) were trained at Sweet Spells, but I knew I had to work there.
From day one, I let my leadership team know I loved baking and wanted to be placed in the candy kitchen. Then I proved my worth by working as hard as I could in all of the positions. I racked up plenty of Four Keys Cards (Disney’s compliment cards for exceptional guest service) doing this, and my leadership team noticed.
Towards the end of my time working in Merchandise, I was trained in Sweet Spells and made my first Disney dream come true. This experience reminded me that hard work and strategic networking can lead to job success even at the lowest of seniority levels. So no matter what your job title is, work hard, get noticed, and everywhere you look you’ll be standing in the spotlight.
3. “Poor unfortunate souls.”
Wherever you work may not be your favorite place. Instead of whining make the most of it.
After working in Merchandise, I extended my Disney College Program and put in a transfer for Attractions. I ended up at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (Thunder for short) at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Since the ride was outside in the Floridian heat, Thunder had significantly angrier guests than those I encountered in my Merchandise position. On top that trains have always caused me anxiety.
Needless to say, I wasn’t happy with my placement. Some of my least favorite Thunder moments include cleaning stacks of half-filled soda cups from the queue and bringing the train cars into storage during the day – which included standing next to an active train track to signal the steam engine train to stop. Regardless of these experiences, I didn’t complain and still did my job with a smile no matter how unpleasant the task.
[That all being said, if something you have to do at work causes you anxiety please bring it to the attention of your leadership team. I didn’t truly realize how much working at Thunder triggered me and affected my mental state until after I left, but if I had at the time I would have requested a transfer to another attraction. Your work location should not trigger you.]
As it turns out, my positive energy was noticed by one of my leaders who put in a good word when I extended my College Program. Since that leader was well connected at Disney I transferred to one of the most coveted attractions on property, the Jungle Cruise.
If you make the best out of a bad situation at work (instead of complaining about it) people will notice you doing great work and a better job can soon be part of your world.
4. “Bare necessities.”
You may not have all of the resources at hand, but if you step up your game you can succeed with what you’ve got.
After working in a supporting role at Thunder transferring to The Jungle Cruise (Jungle) where I would be a Skipper and the center of attention was a whole new experience. When I first transferred to Jungle, my trainer made the point that the Skippers are the star of the attraction rather than the ride itself. Meaning a bunch of aspects of the ride (waterfalls, sound effects, etc.) could be out of order, but the show had to go on regardless.
Sometimes I would find out in advance about the show aspects that weren’t working. Other times I found out about broken pieces of the ride spur of the moment. This required me to step up my performance and be prepared to adlib if something wasn’t working.
Most of the time my guests wouldn’t notice the broken parts of the ride if I threw myself into my performance. In fact, sometimes they liked my adlibbed lines better than the official ones. Jungle taught me how to think of the fly, improvise, and work with whatever resources were at my disposal – the biggest resource of which was myself.
So if you’re in a situation with limited resources, remember that as long as you’re using your biggest resource (which is the talent you bring to the table) the bare necessities of life will come to you.
5. “Go the distance.”
Follow your heart and you will achieve your goals.
Participating in the Disney College Program was one of the best experiences of my life – professionally and personally. That experience almost didn’t happen, because many people argued with me about my choice to go to Orlando. Maybe it was the Disney kid in me who grew up wishing on stars, but I didn’t listen to any of them and went to Florida to pursue my dream.
Afterwards, I was terrified of the professional fallout that I would face for working in a frontline position the year after I graduated college. However, I was able to sell my Disney experience as a positive in job interviews because of all of the incredible lessons that I learned on my program. The thing that matters most is how you are able to sell your skills, not your job titles. By reflecting on your experiences you can turn a drab job title into a fab story and go from zero to hero just like that.