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True Life: I Worked at Disney

LifeHannah DrakeComment

It's been nearly 8 years since I started my 8 month internship at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. If you're here looking for all the juicy details, I have to apologise that in my old age, I can't remember everything perfectly. But regardless, here's the story about my tenure working for the mouse.

A friend who was living in Florida told me she had applied for the Disney College Program and suggested that I do as well. At the time, I was taking a break from school and welcomed the idea of a new adventure. In theory, you should get college credit for doing the internship, but I had been studying English at the University of Colorado and there wasn't much overlap. I applied sometime in the spring of 2010 and basically said I would do just about any job except for janitor. I had a phone interview that I remember doing while driving home from work (oops) and it mostly centred around if I could cover up my tattoo with make up because it might be visible in various costumes. (Spoiler Alert: I don't think it would have been visible--on my back--for any costume other than an actual costume for a character, and probably only Jasmine at that.) Later, I was offered a job as a life guard for the Fall 2010 program. I had NO life guarding experience.

I spent the next few months learning how to swim (mostly from the help of my friend Julie who had been on the swim team that year). I knew how to not drown, but I had no idea how to swim laps and I had to pass a test to get the job: 200m free style swim, 2 minutes treading water, and something like an 8 foot dive.

Chicago

Duke University

Hollywood Studios

At the end of July, Julie and I set off on a 10 day road trip across the country to move me to Orlando. It was one of the best trips of my life. Julie and I stayed in Des Moines, Chicago, DC, Chapel Hill, Charleston, and finally Orlando before she flew home after spending a few days with me in Orlando before I moved in.

Disney provided housing for the CP's, as we called everyone who was doing the College Program. We lived in one of three apartment complexes and they took rent straight out of our paycheck. They had a fantastic bus system that took us everywhere on the property so we could easily get to work, but I also had my car.

Before I could start work, I had to pass my life guard test and then training. It was terrifying because I had never really learned to tread water, despite a random stranger who had played water polo attempting to help me one day at the rec centre back home. I did alright and I was surprised to see there were others who were equally or more unprepared because I figured everyone would be a seasoned life guard and an all-star swimmer! I passed the deep water test by the skin of my teeth, which meant I could technically guard at the water parks, but thankfully I was placed at two different resorts: Disney's Pop Century and Disney's Caribbean Beach.

My region of resorts scheduled life guards from 10:00 to 8:00, which means we worked four 10-hour days. It was not my favourite, especially because every month we had to have in service training to brush up on our skills, which was another 2 hours before work started. Later, I got "deployed" to the All-Star resorts who were short staffed and often pulled guards from other resorts for a week or two. I ended up liking it a lot better because they worked five 8-hour shifts, there was more happening in the pools, and I made easier friends with the team of guards there.

I never minded the work much. Sure, it was boring when you were guarding an empty pool but still had to be vigilant, lest you get audited by the senior staff. Yes, I got a killer tan, but we had to wear long shorts and a quick-dry polo over our swim suits, so it was an awful farmer's tan. My feet looked cool though, thanks to my Chacos. In the end, I never had to jump in. I thought about it a few times and there was one instance when I really should have, but I hesitated a second too long and the kid ended up just swimming to shallower water. I was my own first victim when I got stung by a bee on stand and had to get into the first aid kit for the first time. I met a lot of interesting people and I liked being able to tell people that I couldn't take their photo since we weren't allowed to look away from the pool.

But let's get to the good stuff! We got free park admission, which meant we could basically go to any of the parks during regular operating hours. We could go ride one ride after work and go home if we wanted! At the beginning, I did spend a lot of my free time in the parks trying to do it all.

I really enjoyed meeting new people and talked to basically everyone I could in the apartment complexes, on the bus, and at work. I met people from all over the world thanks to the International College Program and became good friends with a lot of people from Mexico, England, and Australia who seemed to make up much of the life guard staff at the resorts where I worked. One evening, I spoke to a guest while I was guarding a pool at All-Star Movies who told me about his experiences as a POW and how he helped teach other soldiers survival tactics for POW.

My favourite park is by far Epcot. The second time I went to Disney--I was maybe 10--my mom and I spent a day at Epcot while my sister golfed, the reason we were there. I got an Epcot Passport to get stamps from all eleven pavilions. (Fun fact: you have to be from that country to work in the pavilion.) We went around the whole World Showcase and I collected stamps and notes from every country, except Morocco. We got there just after everything had closed, but a janitor was happy to still write me a note even though he didn't have a stamp. I have no idea how we missed it because if I remember correctly, Mexico and Canada are on the ends! Somehow, over the next decade or so, every time I cleaned out my room and threw away a bunch of junk, I never threw away the passport. A few weeks after I got there for my internship, I called my mom and asked her to mail me my passport. Somehow I knew exactly where it was. When I got it, I went to the Moroccan pavilion and stood in line with all the kids to get it stamped. When I got to the front of the line, I quickly told the woman the story and she couldn't believe it. My passport looked completely different than all the others, as did the stamps and stickers. She spent a moment thumbing through it and told me what the man had written many years ago. It was a really cool moment and probably my favourite Disney moment ever.

Two of my sisters came to visit me during my tenure at Walt Disney World. My dad and stepmom surprised my younger sister and her best friend with a trip to visit me one weekend for her 13th birthday. We stayed at All-Star Movies, if I remember correctly, and we spent the weekend doing as much of the parks as possible. One thing they impress on you as a Disney cast member (which is what all employees were called, not just those who worked as characters) is creating magical moments for guests. I didn't get a lot of opportunities to do that for guests while I was working because I couldn't look or step away from the pool if I were on duty, but I had a lot of fun creating magical moments for Sam and Ellie. The two that I still vividly remember, over 7 years later include Ariel and a kitchen sink. We went to Epcot the first night in the parks with my friend Jenna. They didn't love Epcot--and I can understand that as 13 year old girls--but they especially didn't love that I was going to make them come with me to take Jenna to work because she forgot something. At the time, Jenna was "deployed" to Yacht & Beach Club, which has a restaurant called Beaches 'n Cream, famous for their kitchen sink dessert. The girls grumbled along as I insisted they would like checking out one of the fancier resorts, but instead we beelined for the restaurant and got seated at the bar right away. They brought over four menus and I immediately handed them back before the girls even got to look at them saying we'd have one kitchen sink. They had no idea what they were in for. The waitress brought out an actual kitchen sink overflowing with 10 scoops of ice cream and all the toppings including a whole can of whipped cream. I'm pretty sure there were sirens and the whole restaurant was alerted to the fact that we had just ordered it. Ellie was so tiny at the time and that girl ate probably half of it herself. I was impressed! The next day, we planned to do Hollywood Studios and then Animal Kingdom last, but Ellie was disappointed she didn't get to meet Ariel. I knew Ariel would be out in Magic Kingdom around the time we were leaving Hollywood Studios to go to Animal Kingdom. Since I had park hopper passes to give to friends and family and I effectively had one as a cast member, I decided we would go back to Magic Kingdom to meet Ariel for Ellie and sacrifice some of our time in Animal Kingdom. Ellie was SO excited. 

My older sister was in Florida for golf and spent a few days hanging out with me during the Epcot Food & Wine Festival, one of my favourite events at the parks during my time there. We spent the evening eating around the world and drinking around the world, for her. I was only 20 while I worked there. My favourite part of her trip was when we went to Hollywood Studios and rode Tower of Terror because she had hated it when we went the first time when we were younger and refused to go again when we went back a few years later. It was fun when she finally conquered the ride and just realised you should have a funnel cake before getting dropped from the whatever story of a haunted tower.

There are so many incredible memories I have--and probably a lot that I had and have since forgotten--from my time working at Disney. I couldn't recommend the program more highly. I really enjoyed it and I really liked the experience of working for such a prestigious company and meeting people from all over the world. If you have the opportunity to do it, do it, even if you're not a Disney fanatic.

Do not, however, start dating a guy because he "wore you down" and you finally agreed to date him, stop hanging out with your friends, extend your internship for the next term, and then quit early just to not be around him all the time, giving up really cool opportunities and experiences instead of breaking up with him.

Yes, unfortunately, my time at Disney has an unhappy ending. I was in an incredibly toxic relationship with someone who was not emotionally mature enough or emotionally stable enough. I don't know why I allowed myself to get caught up in it, especially at the expense of my relationships with my new friends and the experiences I could have had. After a massively bad fight (over World of Warcraft), I made a split decision to quit Disney and move back to Colorado. I should have made the split decision to break up with him. (If you read my Away from Home for the Holidays, he's that ex-boyfriend.) I went into work and met with my supervisors who were extremely disappointed that I was leaving. They urged me to think on it, but apparently I had already made up my mind, despite them having just offered me new--and really cool--opportunities at work that would take me off the stand and get me working more with the guests directly to lead kids' activities and the like. I want to say it's the biggest regret of my life, but it also started a chain of jobs that lead me to working at Pure Barre Boulder, a job I truly loved. So instead, I'll say that it was the biggest lesson I've ever learned in life. 

Now, when I think back on my tenure at Disney, I tend to disregard the parts that included him and only focus on and remember the happy times when I was doing cool things with cool people from all over the country and the world!

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