When I was a little girl, my parents took me to Disney World, and I fell in love with the place. I went back many times over the years to enjoy the special fireworks, give Mickey Mouse a hug, and make memories with my family.
Disney World held so many good times for me that I decided I wanted to take one semester and help other families just like mine make their own memories. I applied to the Disney College Program for the spring 2013 semester and was accepted. This is where my adventure begins.
After going through several rounds of interviews, I received word that I had been accepted into the program and my role would be “Character Attendant.” I was ecstatic! Who wouldn’t be? Spending an entire semester in the happiest place on Earth was a dream come true! Or so I thought. I packed up all of my warm-weather clothes and headed down to sunny Florida.
Before I launch into what it was like working there, I’m going to define some of the lingo commonly used in Disney World by employees. Employees are called “cast members” because Disney views park operations as putting on a big show for customers, or “guests” as they’re referred to. When you are “on stage” that means you’re in a guest area, “backstage” means guests can’t see you. Like I said, it’s as if you’re putting on a show, because you are.
My role as a character attendant seemed simple when I signed up for the program; frankly, I thought it was an honor to be selected for it. Upon arrival and program check in, I realized that pretty much anyone who was enrolled in a university and could speak English was accepted into the program, and quite a few of them had the same role I did. Thousands of college program participants were there, and I quickly realized that I was just a number.
I went through a week and a half of training to prepare for my role as a character attendant. To put it simply, my job required me to help characters like Mickey Mouse or Cinderella get on and off stage during their meet and greet times.
It seems simple right? I thought so too. Honestly, the role would be simple if it weren’t for the guests, which I’ll get to later.
Upon completing my training and passing a few tests, I was assigned a home park that I would report to for my shifts. I was thrilled when I found out I would be in Hollywood Studios. It was one of the easiest parks for character attendants to work in because most character meet and greets were in a controlled environment. "Controlled environment" means that the lines are set up so guests can easily stand in a neat formation and I wouldn't have to worry about exits being blocked or people cutting in line and then claiming “they didn’t know where it started.” A controlled environment was a good thing!
The first few days of work I had were enjoyable; I actually liked the job apart from one awful task -- closing the line. When we closed a line, it would mean that no more guests could get in line to see the character that was signing autographs or taking pictures. We had a very strict procedure for how this worked in order to keep guests happy, but sometimes you just can’t make everyone happy.
Part of my job was keeping track of “set times” that characters would be on and off stage. If Mickey Mouse was on stage from 5:00 to 5:30, it was my job to make sure that he was off stage at 5:30 exactly so he could have his 5-minute break to enjoy “a plate of cheese,” as we would tell guests. This may seem like a simple task, but when you have a mom at the front of the line who is exhausted and just wants to get a picture of her kids with Mickey, you may as well have handed her a death sentence.
This brings me to the guests; they either make your day or break it. I never considered myself a timid person until I had my first guest blow up at me. I turned white as a ghost and stammered my apologies for having to close the line that the guest wanted to get in. I was forced to grow a tough skin very quickly and accept that people were going to get angry. It was all part of the job.
For the most part, people were nice. I’ll never forget watching a terminally ill child and his family take pictures with Buzz and Woody from Toy Story. The beaming smiles on their faces aren’t something you see everyday. I’ll also never forget making special accommodations for an older lady who wanted to get pictures with her family but couldn’t stand in line for the 40 minute wait. She was so thankful and had tears in her eyes.
These wonderful moments can be rare. Most of the day is the same hum of activity and a lot of guests who just want to make the memory and then move onto something else. I preferred that, honestly, because it made things run smoothly. However, a few guests didn’t necessarily like to move on from things.
One day in April, we had a pop up rain shower (typical for Florida). I was standing outside of the building that Buzz and Woody greeted their guests in. A stroller had blocked the exit that I was standing by, and it was my job to enforce safety regulations and this was a potential hazard to guests inside. I knew it was about to rain so I tried to park the stroller in a place where it wouldn’t get wet.
A few minutes later, a family came out with a very small baby and went to the stroller I had just moved only to find that the baby’s seat had gotten wet from the rain. Immediately they dug their teeth into me, furious that this had happened. The mom said to me “We parked it by the exit so it would be easy to get to and wouldn’t get wet! The baby is only two weeks old, he can’t be in the stroller now!” I apologized profusely and explained that by law, that exit (which was a fire exit) couldn’t be blocked. I called over custodial with some dry rags to clean up the stroller so the baby wouldn’t be wet. They thanked him and glared at me before moving on to their next activity.
Part of the Disney way of doing things is keeping a smile on your face and maintaining a courteous tone of voice. It didn’t always happen, but we tried our hardest. There were times when all I wanted to do was cry.
As a college program participant, the typical stress reliever was a night of partying in the dorms or at the numerous nightclubs in Orlando. The Disney College Program is the ultimate college experience — except not many people are taking classes so it leaves a lot more time for partying. At the time, I was only 20 and not crazy enough to get a fake ID. However, I did get to go on a bus trip to Key West with other college program participants.
The day went well enough for everyone until we were loading up the bus to head back to Orlando. We were missing two girls, and waited around for about 15 minutes when a pickup truck appeared and two guys jumped out and led us to the bed of the truck. One girl was passed out and the other was barely sober enough to explain that she had thrown up multiple times from excessive drinking. We loaded them on the bus and no sooner had we gotten to Key Largo than someone on the bus checks on the girl who was passed out, and realizes that her skin is cold and her eyes had gotten really dark.
We called 911 and an ambulance came. The paramedics said she had alcohol poisoning and rushed her to the hospital.
That was one college program experience I’ll never forget, and I doubt the girl will either. Like I said, the program is just like college, but without the studying.
Disney tries really hard to make the program enjoyable, and for the most part it is. A warning to future college program participants though, it isn’t always a magical place and working here is a far different experience than vacationing here. You work hard and are at the bottom of the totem pole.
Some people really loved their program and some didn’t. I’m still not sure if I enjoyed it or not, but it’s something that I’ll never forget. I learned more about myself in those few months than I do in a few years. I was forced to get comfortable in my own skin quickly and learn to do a job that I was half afraid of doing at times. I got out of my comfort zone, and that really can be a magical thing.