From Traditions To Earning My Ears: My Journey In Becoming A Disney Cast Member

From Traditions To Earning My Ears: My Journey In Becoming A Disney Cast Member

I turned my lifelong dream into a reality and I couldn't be happier.

Joy Wood

The name "Disney" is known across the globe, whether for movies, theme parks, characters, or many other aspects of entertainment and storytelling. But what separates the Walt Disney Company from other groups is the type of name the company has earned for itself. Ask anyone you meet what comes to mind when you hear "Disney", and you'll get answers ranging from "The Happiest Place on Earth", to "movies with happy endings". The recurring themes stick out simply in the descriptions; it's a name associated with positivity. And so it's been the case for me personally as well.

Like many people my age, I've only ever known a world filled with Disney influences. I was raised on Disney from the start. My father can remember his grandfather taking him down to the Walt Disney World tourism office in the years before the park opened and holding him up to see the site plans for what would become the Magic Kingdom. My first visit to Disney World came when I was only two years old, and though I only remember the occasional furry hug from a mouse or a duck, I was given my first taste of the place "where dreams come true" at a very young age.

After my initial trip, my family and I began to return to Walt Disney World more frequently. The visits grew from annual to quarterly, and would incorporate Disney cruises, the occasionally Disneyland trip, Adventures by Disney, and any type of opportunity to travel under the Disney name. Disney and all it was became a part of my personality, something I became known for being passionate about. It was more than a hobby or an interest, it was something that occupied a space in my heart and provided me with inspiration from a young age. My friends would jokingly tease me for my trademark Mickey Mouse hoodie or my family's decision to take my sister and me out of school for a week for the inaugural sailing of a Disney cruise ship, but they also admitted that they were impressed that I had such love for Disney. I can't pinpoint when it was that my admiration for Disney's creations evolved into a love for the company as well, but it was early on in my life, earlier than most people even contemplate what they might pursue for a career. I didn't really consider working for Disney to be a career goal, in my mind, it was about wanting to be a part of something where the goal was to make people happy, to make "magic".

My character autograph book from my first trip to Walt Disney World

When high school rolled around and the idea of careers was slowly introduced to us, my desire to work for Disney was, in the best scenarios, kindly discouraged by my teachers, and in the harsher ones, laughed off as a fantasy. Combine my Disney aspirations with my plans to major in theatre, and the college counselors weren't sure what to do with me. However, during my junior year, I was given an amazing opportunity to argue my case for my future in the form of a research paper, of all things. My literature class spent our third quarter working on what our teacher called the "I-search", a research paper based on our own findings, experiences, and collected data. I toyed with the idea of writing it on my love for Disney, but that topic offered several challenges, one being that I had written a shorter paper on Walt Disney World earlier in the school year, and two being that there was no challenge to that, no question to ask and research.

With the help of my teacher, an amazing woman I will forever be thankful to for her encouragement regarding my academic and personal success, I did decide to make the paper about Disney, but with a twist: This time around, I would be questioning all I believed to be true about the company and getting to the heart of its ideals. I figured that if I was to associate my name with and stake so much in Disney, I was going to know its past, present, and future inside and out, from the magic to the controversies. And so, three months and thirty pages later, my final product was a document of proof: proof that I really did wish to pursue employment with company, proof that I did believe them to be morally sound, and proof that I knew what I was talking about and had done my research when anyone questioned my career aspirations from that day forward.

However, even with the confidence to set Disney as my goal, I was rational enough to understand that heading for Orlando right out of high school might not be the smartest move. I wanted to get my bachelor's degree for sure, as soon as I could, because I knew that it would be next to impossible to convince myself to return to school if I took a break. I also was hesitant to apply for Disney work right away, knowing that once I was in with the company, I would stay for a while, and still had areas I was interested in living in before fulling committing myself to one place. While I was planning on working my way up over time to a position with Disney that would let me travel, I decided to go to college elsewhere and use that time to see another part of the country. My plan was to go to my first choice school, and do the Disney College Program (a semester long internship of types) at some point during my time there.

Young me had so much excitement for Disney that she couldn't even focus on the camera

But a few months into my first semester, I began to realize that I wasn't where I was supposed to be. I had friends and enjoyed living somewhere so different from what I knew, but I still felt like I was killing time until I could truly pursue what I loved, and the last thing I wanted college to feel like was high school all over again. So after weeks of stress and tough consideration, I made the decision to transfer down to a college in Florida within driving distance of Walt Disney World, in hopes of working in the park during the summers while I earned my degree. I was nervous to be the new kid, worried I'd regret my choice, and not sure if I could even get hired. But when I turned on the tv in my new dorm room and discovered that the network picked up the Disney World resort channels, an aspect of Disney that my sister and I looked forwarded to immensely when growing up and that still makes me smile to this day, everything seemed to fall into place. For the first time, I finally felt like I was taking steps in the right direction towards becoming a part of the thing that made me the happiest in the world.

A month or so into classes, with nearly all my weekends spent over at the parks, often by myself, I started to get antsy again. I was happier than I was the semester before at my previous college, but still wasn't enjoying many of my hobbies or pastimes besides my days spent over in Disney World. I would scroll through the job openings on the Disney Careers website out of curiosity, and one day, when I saw a posting for the type of position I was interested in, I decided on a whim to apply. I figured they wouldn't get around to processing my application for a while and it'd quite possibly be summer anyway before I was even considered for an interview.

About a week later, I had dinner with a friend and long-time cast member and received some excellent advice regarding the application, interview, and being an all around quality cast member. He suggested ways to craft my resume to accent my previous experience and useful skills, and when I went home that evening, I edited my application with his recommendations in mind and resubmitted it to the online portal. When it was his technique or just luck I will never know, but I woke up the next morning to an email letting me know that I had made it to the second round of the job application process.

Day one of working for the company, barely able to contain my excitement

The message sent me a link to an online interview, where I expected to have to answer questions with paragraphs and well-thought out answers, but was surprised to find something more like a personality quiz. There were not necessarily correct answers; it was more of a test to see if you were a good match for the company and what it expects of its cast members. Terrified that I could be no longer in consideration based on the results of a multiple-choice exam, I spent a few hours working myself up to actually taking it. When I finally did, it was over and done within a short while, and I was relieved to see right away a message granting me permission to move on.

Round three and the final installment in the hiring saga was the formal, in-person interview. I was able to schedule it online but it wasn’t to take place for almost a month after the online segment, so for the next few weeks I practiced nonstop. I looked up sample interview questions online that past cast members had been asked, recorded myself giving answers to prompts and then replaying the videos to critique myself, and even read over my high school research paper for inspiration. The last thing I was going to do was stumble in the home stretch.

When the anticipated day final rolled around, I skipped all of my college classes and arrived at the building three hours early, completely overcompensating for traffic but not wanting to take any chances. I sat in my car and tried to calm my nerves by going over my answers in my head again and listening to Disney soundtracks, hoping that I could find inspiration and conquer my nerves. I finally went inside and took my seat in the waiting area, sweating so much that the resume folder clutched tightly in my hands began to disintegrate around the edges.

In awe of my new and official name tag

After sitting in agony for what felt like hours but was probably only thirty minutes or so, my name was finally announced by an interviewer. I stood up, gave her a firm and hopefully not too jittery handshake, and followed her into her office.

“So, Joy, are you currently in school?”

“Yes ma’am, I go to Rollins College.”

“Do you have classes every day?”

“I’m in class Monday through Friday currently, and have off Saturday and Sunday, although all my nights throughout the week are free.”

“I’ll tell you what, Joy, if you can give me a third day of availability, the required amount to be employed as a part-time cast member, you’re hired.”

I was in shock. We had barely been sitting in her office two minutes and I had already been given permission to take the next step in reaching my dream career. I thanked her profusely and shook her hand again, in disbelief of what was happening. She asked me a few technicality questions about my age and citizenship, and when we got to part of her form where she was to put what area I was to work in, she filled in my number one choice from my application, attractions.I couldn't believe what was happening.

“I see that you’ve never worked in a theme park before,” she said, glancing at my resume that was pulled up on the computer screen. “But judging by your resume, you are extremely qualified, so you have nothing to worry about.” I had been wondering why she had been so quick to hire me and that explained it, my previous work experience, from waiting tables at a retirement home to supervising a movie theatre, had offered me ample practice in high speed environments and copious amounts of customer service interactions. I had been employed in at least one job, sometimes more, since two weeks after I turned sixteen, so I was no stranger to work.

As I left the office with the promise to call my recruiter within a few days with my declared third day of availability, my joyfulness faded as I realized that I had no idea how I was going to be able to work three days when I already went to school for five. I was definitely not going to turn down an opportunity to work for Disney, something I had been striving all my life to reach, but I also knew that it was important for me to power through college and get my degree before committing myself entirely to my career. It was mid-February at the time, and I knew that next semester I could craft my schedule to leave a day open, but I was already well into my current classes and dropping a day wasn’t an option. I got back to my car and called my parents to give them the exciting yet problematic news, which unfortunately escalated quickly to an argument about prioritizing school. Defeated that my family only saw the negatives and not possible solutions, and upset that there was no congratulatory phase, only a disciplinary one, I went home more stressed out than I was when I left for the interview.

All decked out in my Disney gear

I sat up all night trying to craft possible solutions that would please my parents, my grades, and myself. Having never been a school person and only taking college courses to obtain my degree and never return to a classroom again, I was distraught at the idea of turning down my passion for something necessary but miserable. Not only was accepting the Disney position important for me on my career path, but I also needed it as motivation to push through my studies. Work had always been a stress reliever for me, as surprising as it sounds, and I knew that I wouldn’t have the drive to make it through college without something I enjoyed on the side.

After several days of stressing, minimal sleep, and multiple argumentative phone calls, my parents and I finally came to an agreement. I would give Disney a third day of availability on the day of the week where I had the least amount of classes. I would reach out to the schedulers and the management in my area of work and explain my situation, requesting help accommodating my circumstance just until school got out in May, and if I had to miss the occasional class, I could, as long as I stayed under the allotted absences stated by my professors.

And to my surprise, it worked. I managed to make it through the school year without failing out of my classes or calling out of work. It was a combination of luck and schedule accommodations, something frowned upon due to its difficulty but made up by my willingness to work extra days once summer came around. Looking back, I’m still not sure how I did it, and could probably never manage it again, but all that matters is that I stayed in school and stayed employed.

It takes a special kind of job to make you want to spend your birthday at your workplace

About a month after my interview, I had my first technical day of employment, March 12th, 2016, I date I will never forget. All cast members spend their first day in a Disney famous class called Traditions, where you spend the day with other new hires learning about what it means to work for Disney. The teachers were amazing, the people I learned alongside with just as thrilled as I was to be there, and we even got our first tour of the cast member only tunnels that run under the Magic Kingdom. At the end of the day, a certain friend (Hint: Who’s the leader of the band that’s made for you and me?) dropped by to present us with our long awaited nametags, and I have never been so proud to receive a possession in my entire life. The next day was more classwork, a little slower this time as we covered things like safety procedures, but nonetheless still exciting; I was becoming something I’d always wanted to be and no amount of lecturing or time at a desk could put a damper on my spirits.

The final day of group training happened a few days later and was specifically for those of us who would be working in the Magic Kingdom. I had been informed earlier in the week that my area was to be Adventureland and Liberty Square, or as it’s called among cast members, Ad/Lib for short. Magic Kingdom cast members work, for the most part, in a specific land of the park, but ours was a combination because the two lands separately didn’t have as many attractions as the others. This day consisted of more safety information but also some fun practice in guest service and navigating the tunnels to our locations.

After lunch, we were divided up by area, and it was just me and one other girl who were headed to Ad/Lib attractions, so we had our own guide, one who would tell us which specific attraction we would be training at. Excited at all the possibilities that my new area had to offer, I was eager to learn what it’d be: The Jungle Cruise, my ideal choice? Pirates of the Caribbean, one of my personal favorite stories? Or maybe even The Hall of Presidents, with fun costumes and an air-conditioned theater? The guide informed my partner that she would be going to The Haunted Mansion, to which she was ecstatic about, and that I would be going to ATT. After seeing my confusion, she explained that ATT was a joint rotation of The Magic Carpets of Aladdin, The Enchanted Tiki Room, and The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. I was slightly disappointed that I was assigned to what seemed like the least interesting of the attractions, but was determined to have an open mind, because after all, I was still working for Disney, and in the Magic Kingdom of all places. She also told me that cast members are able to cross train at the other rides in their areas so I wouldn’t be at ATT forever, that I just had to put my name on a training waitlist for a specific attraction and would be trained there as well in about six months. It was better than being permanently in one place, so I cheered up a bit. Plus, when I saw my comfortable and equally goofy costume, I was feeling even better about my placement.

The stylish Adventureland costume

But of course, it wouldn’t be me if everything was smooth sailing. Even before training started, I was assigned an assistance shift to help with crowd control, and a fellow new girl and me got lost in the tunnels and ended up late to our first ever meeting. When I was scheduled for my first day of attraction training the next week, I showed up in business casual clothes, as my guide from the week before told me to do. Turns out a second Magic Kingdom training day had been left off my schedule in the chaos of trying to craft my schedule around school, and that the business casual was supposed to be for the skipped day and that the day one of training I was there for required a costume. Luckily, my trainer was very understanding and waited patiently for me to hop on the bus to the costuming headquarters and find a replacement, although I still had to wear my original ugly brown Sperry's around all day and look very obviously like the new kid.

The training process was a blast. Of course, I learned how to operate the rides and shows, but I also learned the history of the attractions and all sorts of fascinating stories about them. Another training group worked alongside ours with two trainees my age, and we all got along great. Lunches were spent hearing one of their trainers, a fellow Alabamian, tell the most absurd stories about her life back home. When the last day of training rolled around and I passed my assessment, I was allowed to remove my “earning my ears” ribbon from my nametag, and became an official Walt Disney World attractions cast member.

Every single day since then has been magical, and yes, I chose that word on purpose. I’ve been a cast member for over six months now and it’s still surreal when I arrive for a shift and think about the fact that I am working in the world famous Magic Kingdom. Putting on my name tag every morning is both an honor and an excitement, as I set forth to continue in the carrying out of Walt Disney’s vision.

My most prized possession!

Working at Disney is anything but easy; it’s by far the most challenging job that I’ve ever worked. But it isn’t the heat, or the crowds, or anything like that bringing the difficulty, it’s the nonstop drive that every cast member has in them to truly embody the Disney spirit. People come from all over the globe to Disney for the atmosphere and company values, and we owe it to each and every one of our guests to exceed their expectations. We aren’t satisfied with neutral or average interactions; we seek true connections with our guests and want to do whatever it takes to achieve that. I’ve made some incredible friends through being a cast member, friends with the same passion for Disney as me and some of the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen.

And because I work alongside people with such passion, because our guests deserve so much and we strive to give it to them, I have never had a bad day at work. There are days where I've felt frustrated, but it’s only because I believed I didn’t make someone feel as special as they should have been made to feel, or because I missed an opportunity to go the extra mile. But those days inspire me to push onward to more success and more magic than ever before.

My amazing work family

I work for a company that not only gives me permission to make the world a better and kinder place, but that encourages me to do so. As a Disney cast member, I have been given the chance to make happiness my number one priority. I am in awe every day of the unbelievable opportunity I have to work at the place where dreams come true.

It’s the quote I’ve always lived by, written under my portrait in my senior yearbook, hanging on the wall of my home, and inspiring me to chase my dreams every day; as Walt Disney himself once said,

“All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”

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