What is your Disney Journey? In other words, how did you get interested in the company, what was your first role, and how did you make it to the role you are in now?
I grew up in Virginia, close to Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, and since I was sixteen, I was a theme park employee dreaming of Disney. Our local newspaper, The Daily Press, had a column in which people could write in questions to the “Answer Lady” and she would provide her answers on a weekly basis. Since we didn’t live in a Google world then, one day I decided to ask, “How do I become a host on the Great Movie Ride at Disney-MGM Studios?” Weeks went by, with me checking every Wednesday…no answer! But she did end up answering my question by basically listing the steps of how to apply at the Walt Disney World Casting Center.
After a lot of networking, I was told about an amazing program called the Walt Disney World College Program, where I would wait until college to interview to become a Disney CP. During the interview, I answered every question with the objective that I wanted to be a Tour Guide, and more specifically, a host on the Great Movie Ride. I was accepted into the program, but instead of assigning me to the job of my dreams, I was given the role of a Jungle Cruise Skipper. Although this wasn’t initially what I had envisioned my time as a CP looking like, being a Jungle Cruise Skipper would become an extremely rewarding experience. Through my journey in that role I learned courage, found my strengths, was able to articulate need and emotion, and learned to find my voice.
My real “Disney moment” happened when I was hosting a cruise and George Lucas stepped onto my boat with a VIP Tour Guide. In this moment, I realized I was more interested in her role than the fact that George Lucas was on my boat, and knew that one day I wanted her job. She was a Disney vision for me! There she was with a nametag, riding a ride instead of hosting one. That’s when I knew, I HAD to do that role! I had to become a WDW VIP Tour Guide!
My next role was an internship with Guest Relations. I immediately sought out opportunities to do an advanced internship with Guest Relations, where I would ultimately transition to a full-time role, become a true WDW VIP Tour Guide and even go on to be part of the opening Guest Relations team for Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park!
I then became a Travel/Hospitality Coordinator with Disney Corporate Alliances and began to pursue a leadership journey. My first leadership roles included Resorts Front Desk Operations and Park Operations like Disney’s Hollywood Studios. In 2000, I knew that while I loved Resort and Park Operations, I needed to go back to my degree, Entertainment. So I applied for the Costuming Leadership Bench and was assigned to the “Festival of the Lion King” show, where I would begin my Entertainment career.
Before I knew it, I was moved from Costuming to Entertainment Operations, spanning Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, Magic Kingdom Park, and most recently, Disney’s Hollywood Studios. I opened the American Idol Experience and it was one of the first projects where I was with it for its full life cycle – from hard-hat to demolition. It was also where I would be promoted to leader of leaders and truly embrace my leader legacy. After the American Idol Experience closed its doors, I was given the amazing opportunity to open and project manage “Frozen Summer Fun.”
Now 20 years later, I’ve had my first “full circle” Disney moment. One year ago, I accepted the role of Area Manager, Disney Special Activities & VIP Tour Services, and currently manage the leaders of VIP Tour Guides.
Just think, going back to the beginning, that moment of seeing my first WDW VIP Tour Guide that day truly shows that when you do a great job every day at Disney, you can “meet your new tomorrow”. Think about it…she probably didn’t approach the day thinking that she was going to make a difference in someone’s life, but in just doing her job, she made a huge difference in mine. At the end of the day, you should always know that what you do on a daily basis, like coming into work and being the best cast member you can be, can influence the future, either changing other’s lives or your own.
What are some of your key learnings from your time on the College Program?
I learned that your connection to your coworkers will serve you for life. As you navigate personal relationships, the lessons you learn from these experiences on the College Program will take you far. Every handshake you make is critical to your future. Never discount one single connection, instead, view your interactions as building your network.
With this is mind, always be the best cast member you can be. Although you are assigned a specific role, you can shape that role by your attitude and the way you go about your day. It’s always important to engage with your leader and have discussions about what you can do to develop and grow both inside and outside of your role. Never approach your networking conversations with a question like “What can I do to be like you?” or “How did you get your role?” Instead dialogue about your plan and let the contact help you shape it.
Can you speak to the importance of networking and making connections during the College Program and/or Professional Internships?
I think addressing the topic of meet-and-greets is very important. While meet-and-greets are a great way to get connected to higher levels of leadership throughout the company, the responsibility of following up after a meet-and-greet is up to the networker. As a networker you should stay current, memorable and connected to the people you are trying to make connections with, and this can be done in the simplest of ways. My peers and I host countless meet-and-greets and sometimes never hear from the networker again. That is disappointing. After the meet-and-greet, get back in touch and send an email – reaching back out after the initial meeting is extremely important in order to build positive relationships.
Also, a quick tip: know the power of getting in and out of a conversation. When you are networking, it’s really an art to be able to make a quick impact and engage in a dialogue that is short and sweet…but impactful. Think about creating your elevator speech beforehand and be prepared to confidently get your points across.
Do you still keep in touch with your roommates or friends that you made on the program? Have these connections made an impact on your Disney journey/experience?
Yes, I do. These connections have made an impact on my experience at Disney because we have stayed in touch ever since we lived together. However, out of my six roommates, I am the only one who continues to work at Disney, but they all long for the excitement that is associated with a job here. Maintaining these friendships reminds me where I came from and the connections that helped me along the way. It’s important to never be flippant about your role because there are so many people who dream about the positions we’re in. Stay entrenched in your own desire to be here and that will impact the way you view your role and influence your perspective. I love being an ambassador of the quality and integrity of this company to my family, friends and…former roommates.
Do you think the College Program prepared you to deal with difficult situations and overcome obstacles in your personal life or work environments? Can you provide examples?
I guess, rejection! Think about it…I’ve never been able to get my role at The Great Movie Ride. The Great Movie Ride was all I had ever wanted in terms of getting a job at Disney, the fact that I didn’t get my dream role always made me want to work harder to keep pushing myself. This initial rejection kept me invested in stretching myself in order to find a perfect fit. You can find strength in rejection and translate your disappointment into a motivation to “do better” and continue pursuing your goals. At the end of the day, I fell in love with the job I was given. Don’t fear rejection, it can be a positive challenge. Trust your assignment and go into your new adventure with an optimistic mindset.
Can you go into detail about the importance of teamwork?
There is no one “conductor” running the show at Disney Parks. It would not serve you to think in a silo, or to assume you are the sole contributor to our successes. Instead, a successful production of any role you’re involved in is due to the creation of strong working relationships. From hourly cast members engaging our guests, to the College Program, to an executive level, building partnerships and utilizing teamwork are part of doing your job well… and what we are known for at Disney.
How would you describe Disney as a company to work for?
Disney’s core success, independent of the profit center, has always been based on the power and ability of storytelling. As a cast member, you are embarking on your own story, within a larger narrative. Using that concept, your career is your story. It’s important to remember that there will be many types of characters in your story. There will be heroes and detractors, scary and brave moments, but most of all you need to be strong enough to embrace your own Disney story. Becoming your own “hero” is about how you handle the obstacles that will cross your path and learn how to move forward. It’s up to you to determine your personal narrative.
We often hear talk about “Magical Moments” that occur on property. Can you describe your favorite “magical moment” you experienced during your time working for the company?
For many years I had the fortune of making amazing scenarios happen for our guests through the power of immersion. From watching my cast member, The Honorable George Weaver, Mayor of Main Street USA, renew countless marriage vows, to experiencing Fireman Chief Smokey Miller celebrate true firefighting heroes. However, there is nothing like seeing a talented singer, whose life didn’t allow them a stage to perform on, take the center stage during my six years at the American Idol Experience. So many dreams started on that stage, with many making it to the top ranks of the TV show after several successful seasons. To know that famous artists started at Idol with Disney Parks is very rewarding to me.
When we conduct interviews at different segments, we ask cast members to describe the team they work on in three words. Can you provide us with your personal three?
- Partner of Choice
Do you have any advice for cast members who are currently Professional Interns or on the College Program and are hoping to be in a role similar to yours one day?
Believe in your own value, constantly check that value, and use it. We all bring something to the table, and you can make a career out of your value.
Attend the programs that are created to give you more information about your desired role and career path; there is a spotlight on the job you want.
Go to classes that the College Program provides. This is critical and also so simple. The company basically hands you a list of networking leaders, so at that point, you just need to use the resources that are given to you.
Do your research about the company and about the role you want. Never underestimate the power and importance of knowledge and preparedness.
For those interested in learning and advancing their careers, what development tools/resources/books/etc. can you recommend?
Pursue volunteer opportunities to gain experience in areas that you are interested in for future roles and to give back to the community. VoluntEARism is a true core value for our company. There is a rich array of volunteer opportunities out there, you just need to grasp them.