On every Walt Disney property you’ll find “Cast Members Only” signs discouraging guests from entering employee (called Cast Members) service areas. Behind the themed barriers Cast Members and costumed characters scurry around backstage through the guts and mechanicals of whatever magical land they happen to be working in that day.
Here’s where you’ll see food service workers, parade participants, and transportation specialists breaking character, chewing gum, and resting their faces from the near-constant smiling on stage. Disney’s expectations are high: “No matter where you work or what your role is, anytime you are in a public area, you are on stage. Your attitude and performance are direct reflections on the quality of our Disney show.”
“Good stage presence” specifically means frowning is frowned upon.
If you imagine those show and service expectations being difficult to maintain in the face of exhausted parents, over-stimulated kiddos, and testy travelers, you’d be thinking just like me; however, here’s what I found: Disney’s Cast Members love the company they work for and they love their jobs.
Many Cast Members join Disney’s college intern programs and never leave. Others retire from long careers and begin anew here in Orlando. And, then there is Greg who worked for Disney for a while, left for greener grass on the other side of the country, came back, left again, and returned one last time when he realized there is no better opportunity with an amazing year-round climate. Yes, he learned that visiting Winter beats living through cold temperatures and snow-packed roads.
Daniel and I talk with Cast Members while standing in lines or riding complimentary transport. We’ve gotten to know many of their stories. “How’d you end up here” always starts an interesting conversation. One young man works primarily at Magic Kingdom as an entertainer. When I asked Michael if it was ever hard to go to work and turn on the “happy” he shook his head and said, “Every time I walk in those gates I smile. I’ve never had to fake it.”
Michael has dreams–yes, Disney dreams–of moving into other parts of the show, but for now he loves his role.
Of course, guests find themselves interacting with Cast Members at unexpected times, too, and regardless of whether they’re on the clock or not, Disney’s finest continue to create Magical Moments. That’s what Diana did for me just the other night.
Even though we arrived 30 minutes early for the Yehaa Bob show, every table in the lobby and restaurant was taken. Daniel and I hung out near the bar prepared to stand for the next 90 minutes. Two things you need to know: I wasn’t feeling well and my introverted self was trying to recover from too many days surrounded by lots of people.
Daniel knew both of these things, but still asked me the following, “Hey, should I go over there and see if that couple will let us sit with them for the show?” I almost hurt my neck turning to look at him. Um…what?
My mouth said a gentle “No,” while my face said “Do you even know me?” Then God laughed. Really, He did because a few minutes later a smiling server tapped on my shoulder, “That couple at the table over there would like to invite you to sit with them for the show.” See. God was laughing.
Daniel laughed, too. I did not. But, we both looked toward our soon-to-be-tablemates, waved, smiled, grabbed our drinks and introduced ourselves to two fellow Yehaa Bob enthusiasts.
To my surprise, Diana was a Cast Member who’d worked at Disney World for 28 years. She smiled as she told us about her two roles, housekeeping and food service. “Housekeeping was hard work, but even if my back was hurting, I was so happy to have a good job,” she offered. After a particularly strenuous day early in her career, Diana’s husband John urged her to quit if the work was too hard. “I told him other women older than me have done it much longer and I wasn’t going to give up. I knew I could get used to the work.” She still smiled when sharing the story. Diana was a strong woman with an incredible work ethic and positive attitude. I liked her.
John was a retired construction worker. In his younger years he had helped build restaurants at The Boardwalk and Contemporary hotels. We listened intently as he and Diana talked about happenings from long ago and we leaned in more closely as they spoke about possible things to come.
Story after story revealed a great appreciation not only for Disney as a destination, but more importantly, as an employer. Together they had received many benefits, large and small, from the company over the years. Currently, their favorite is visiting Animal Kingdom for free when Diana isn’t working. There’s a new baby elephant, Stella, and I hear she’s quite the charmer.
As Yehaa Bob took his place, I thanked Diana for letting us join them and she said, “It’s just my way of giving you a Magical Moment.”
The show started and our conversation ended, but I walked away that night grinning about Diana’s magic. As a Cast Member off the clock, she didn’t need to do it. Without a costume or name tag, no one would have known that in the middle of the lounge was a near 30-year employee of Disney. She and John could have spread out a little more and enjoyed the evening’s entertainment without the addition of two strangers.
If I’m honest, it’s what I would have done. But then, I’m not steeped in Disney’s culture of customer experience.
The other day Daniel and I walked past a little girl watching fireworks with her parents and overheard her say, “This was the best day ever.” Imagine with me all the hands–thousands and thousands of imagineers, construction workers, artists, service specialists, entertainers, pyrotechnicians, housekeepers, chefs, electricians, and plumbers–required to make a day at Walt Disney World “the best day ever.”
A battalion of people invested decades of their lives to create The Most Magical Place on Earth and beyond. However, with all of that doing, Disney knows that it takes more than attractions, scenery, and entertainment to make visitors feel warmly welcomed. Cast Members are encouraged to go further, to randomly create Magical Moments, so that girls and boys, young and old, with a grin on their face, sigh and say, “This was the best day ever.”
Thank you, Diana, for doing exactly that for me.