Friday, May 14, 2021

Lessons from Disney Many Years Later

Some of my momentos.
When I was in college, I did what was considered crazy by many of my friends. In a world before online classes were widely offered, I decided to take a semester away from college to get some real world experience. That "real" world was of course Walt Disney World. For six months, I lived in Buena Vista, Florida and worked in attractions at The Magic Kingdom. I took some courses at Disney University, officially referred to as Disney Institute, where I learned skills not taught in traditional college courses and earned my Ducktorate Degree.

Over a decade later, I still have mementos from that semester including the little magnet that was used to represent my position for the day at Jungle Cruise. They got rid of the magnet board and now use a digital assignment system, but those magnets still hold a sentimental value for all of us that worked before a computer told you where to stand for your shift. I also saved a Cast Atlas which was the behind the scenes map so I didn't get lost, and both my name tags. The dirtier/aged name tag is the one I wore every day in the parks, while the cleaner one was provided to me when I became a campus representative and helped future interns with the process at school before leaving for the program.

The first day of my Disney College Program, I arrived at The Magic Kingdom in the early morning, before most of the employees and obviously before the park opened for the day. That day it felt magical to see Main Street USA without the crowds. While I saw this as a magical experience only a few were able to witness, now it's sadly a common view as the park was closed for months.

The following week was spent earning my ears as I learned the ins and outs of the park, the history of Disney, and specifically The Jungle Cruise where I was assigned for the semester. When I was handed the 50 page packet and told to start memorizing the script, I was in shock. However, like every other part of the internship it turned into an experience I will always remember that helped me grow as an individual.
Main Street USA, Early Morning 2004

In the end, I may have been driving boats and telling jokes all day but I also learned those soft skills that we always talk about with our students. Here are just some of the lessons I learned during the semester that I still use everyday as a professional.

Accept Disappointment and Learn from It
My very first day during check-in, I was asked "Which is your favorite park?" Which I immediately replied Epcot. After a pause, the HR representative said "What's your second choice?" Disney's recruiters said that they tried to match positions based on majors. So as an education major, I thought I would be placed at Epcot or Animal Kingdom. Imagine my surprise when I was assigned Magic Kingdom. I was upset, but I knew that I wasn't promised a specific position and that it was the reality of my assignment. I let myself be upset for a bit and then moved on. Of all the college students assigned to Jungle Cruise that year, four of us were education majors. Maybe Disney realized something at the time that I just didn't understand.

Working with Others
Disney was the first time I was forced into a situation where I couldn't talk my way into a situation I preferred. In school, even when groups were created by the teacher, I tended to work with the same people that I had grown up with and knew. In college, I got to know everyone in my core classes and when it was group projects, we tended to gravitate to the same groups each time. At Disney, I was thrown out of my comfort zone and actually had to work with people that weren't always the easiest to get along with. This allowed me to learn soft skills such as conflict resolution and compromising because I couldn't just walk away when someone made me upset.
Another day on the river, Jungle Cruise

Public Speaking
As a Jungle Cruise Skipper, I was responsible for telling scripted jokes along the ten minute boat ride. While scripted, it still had to feel natural and not off. This got easier as the semester went along, but some other things I learned in terms of public speaking were just the general skills. Intonation, eye contact, and volume control. As a naturally loud person, I had to learn to hold the microphone away from my mouth and also be conscience of how loud I was being in general.

Non-Verbal Communication
Each day I would interact with over 500 people many that didn't speak English. This made non-verbal communication even more important as I directed them to seats, gave safety information, and tried to make the ten minute ride enjoyable when they couldn't understand the jokes. The classroom is the same thing. Teachers always talk about "the look" and it's true. Students can take a lot of social clues from a teacher's non-verbal communication. 

Time Management
While working at Disney, I didn't bring a car to Florida. Therefore I relied completely on the transportation provided by the student housing. They had a variety of bus routes that went to all the parks, along with major shopping areas. For The Magic Kingdom, the bus stop was in the cast member parking lot which was about a half mile behind Splash Mountain. AKA, really far and not walk-able due to safety. I would then have to get on a different shuttle to the cast member locker room where I would change into my costume and clock-in. This process meant that if my shift began at 1pm, I really had to get the bus that arrived by noon so I had time to get the shuttle, then my costume, and actually get ready. 

Expect the Unexpected
Part of the training at Disney included emergency preparedness. As a ride that took place on water, we had to prepare for weather related incidents along with other acts of craziness. While crazy things happen at Disney all the time, there are two specific incidences that I was somehow in the wrong place at the right time for and ended up needing to assist.

On February 8, 2004* I was working crowd control at the 3pm parade. After we put the ropes up, we would play silly games with kids until we had to clear the street. I was mid-Simon Says when a manager came over the walkie-talkie saying the parade was stopping after three floats and to wrap up the ropes. While we were putting the ropes and poles away in the storage closet, we learned why the parade was canceled; an accident backstage. This accident also led to a complete revamping of safety procedures for all the parades. Luckily no children witnessed the accident but every cast member there that day knew what happened and had to pretend everything was normal to preserve the magic for guests.

On March 10, 2004* I was coming through the hippo pool when I noticed people standing up on the boat ahead of me. As I slowed the boat I was driving down so we didn't crash, I realized they were standing because the boat was under water. That's right, only twice in the history of all Jungle Cruise attractions have boats sunk, and I was there the first time. While other cast members started wading the water to assist people across to dry land, I had to keep the forty passengers in my boat seated and calm. The remainder of the day was filled with paperwork and standing at the entrance of the ride to inform guests that we were closed.

It's Called Work, Not a Vacation
Throughout the semester, there were a few people forced to move out of student housing after their internship was terminated. Sometimes gossip would spread, and other times they would just disappear silently into the night. The most common story though was a sad trend. Many of the college students took the semester thinking it was a fun break from school. They would call in sick (and get caught) from work to go play in the parks, hang out at the beach, and a few other common excuses. The average Disney work week was five days, my "weekend" was Monday and Tuesday because weekends were busy in the parks, but I still got two days off a week where I could enjoy Orlando's many opportunities. Claiming to be sick and taking a day off never crossed my mind because I knew that calling out would leave everyone else in a bad situation. Each time someone took off a scheduled shift, the rest of the cast members would have reduced breaks and other changes to compensate for being short one person.

The same is true for teaching. Many teachers will overwork themselves and come in when they are feeling under the weather because they know the strain it puts on everyone else to be short-staffed.

Graduation Day, May 14, 2004

The semester at Disney was amazing and at the end I was sad to leave. I even considered staying an extra semester but my mother wisely convinced me to finish my degree. A decade later, I still remember the lessons I learned there and hope that I bring some of that Disney magic to all my students.

* Clarification of dates listed. I had to use Google to find the dates of these two incidents but there was conflicting information between message boards and Wikipedia. I did not record the exact date in a journal or anything at the time so I am using the dates that appeared the most likely to be correct.

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