For some reason, that I’m still trying to work out, the original version of this post was deleted from my blog. I stressed about it for an evening and tried to find it saved somewhere else before accepting it was gone and deciding to just write it again.
I wrote the original post in my favourite coffee shop during the ‘Beast from the East’ storm at the beginning of March. It was a post I’d panned for ages, but had so much to write about that I needed those days of unexpected time and quiet to be able to type it all up. I remember writing about it all did emotionally drain me. All those memories with so much feeling attached; spending days reliving them and typing them up in a way you guys could enjoy reading was hard but I was so pleased with it and it received really positive response.
So here we go again, hopefully it can be just as good this time…
This time I’m writing it at the beginning of January, in my pyjamas, hiding in the flat and savouring the last few days of the Christmas break. It seems strange that at a time other bloggers are publishing posts about their ambitions for the year and their new challenges, I’m writing about something that happened 4 and a half years ago (?!?!). But I think writing this and reliving the memories and achievements of my time at Disney will give me the motivation to succeed in this new year…
This is all about my 2 summers as a cast member at Walt Disney World Florida in 2013 and 2014. All about what I learnt, how it’s changed me and the memories that still make my tummy flutter.
Let’s go back right to the very beginning on my Disney journey.
Summer 2012, )the summer after my first year at uni), crept up on me quite quickly and I had officially no plans, except to spend a lot of time at the gym to try and lose my freshers weight. I did have a good summer that year, some good stuff happened while I was back living at home but I did pine for something a little bit more.
Walt Disney World was a holiday I did with my family a lot growing up and a place that means a lot to us. So when I found the Disney summer job application on the Yummy Jobs website it was a no brainer. Also, Camp America wanted a video application the idea of which made me cringe so that was a definite no…
I sent off my application for summer 2013 in 2012, so it is something you do need to think about well in advance if you’re considering giving it go.
To do the ICP (International College Programme), you need to be attending a UK university at your time of application. On this programme you can be placed anywhere in Disney World and have the option of lots of different roles, from housekeeping, costuming, food service, merchandise and attraction operations. (There is another option- the CRP (Cultural Representative Programme) which you can apply for at any time. This is a year long programme where you are placed in the UK pavilion in World Showcase.)
In Autumn 2012, I was invited to the first stage of interviews in Manchester. For the first stage we were all put into groups of 10 (I think) for a group interview. If I remember correctly, this was the first interview I’ve ever done and doing it in a group is even harder. I remember everyone fighting so hard to be noticed and say the right things and you had to really speak up to be heard and stand out from the rest. I was so sure I’d flunked it. Everyone else was linking their degrees to Disney, like events, management, business, performance. But, I was a nutrition student, and nutrition is not something really that relevant to Disney World, where even the apples are covered in chocolate, icing and sugar. So to say I was blagging is an understatement and I somehow was invited to the next round. By this point we had submitted our top 3 role choices and had been measured if we had selected character performance roles (height is really important for characters). I definitely considered it and was asked if I’d like to; I’m quite small so would have been in the main character bracket, but was 100% sure I’d be the character to faint in the heat or fall on a child so didn’t go for it. I chose to select housekeeping, operations and costuming. I’d heard on the grapevine that they think highly of anyone brave enough to select housekeeping and when I thought about it, it definitely had perks, early starts and sensible time finishes, air con, tips…
The second stage was a face to face interview, in Manchester again, with a member of the Disney World management team. I was interviewed by one of the hotel managers who was lovely and made it seem quite easy…
There’s a line my cousin taught me to use at the end of interviews. When they ask if you have any questions, you ask if there is anything else you can say to make them see you are right for this role. It’s cringey and hard to get the words out but it has a really high success rate. And it worked! That’s still the only time I’ve ever managed to get that line out. It felt right for Disney and the cheesy American lady took it well.
The night the interview results emails were sent out, around mid-November I think, either rejection or acceptance, I was sitting in my student kitchen eating dinner with my flatmates. I checked twitter and saw a girl I had met at the interviews had tweeted about her heartbreak at being rejected. I knew my email would be in my inbox too so sneaked off to check my laptop. I had been accepted and offered a role in housekeeping. I can’t put into words how I felt in the moment. I rang my Mum and Dad (who blubbed like a baby) and it took me ages to stop the tears and face my housemates to tell them the news.
After the initial delight, it all seemed to calm down and in all honestly what was going to happen that next summer was far from my mind day-to-day. There was the chaos of uni and the sudden increase of work in second year and a long-distance relationship which broke down quite badly in the spring. I was also setting myself a lot of unhealthy weight loss goals, which were unattainable because of cheap alcohol and the 24 hour McDonald’s next to out flat. The fact I was about to move to Disney World for 3 months was far from my mind until a couple of weeks before we set off.
In around the April, when I was starting to get things in order such as my Visa and buying the things I needed, I realised I didn’t know anybody else who was going. I’d spoke to a few people at interviews and kept in touch but none of them had been successful. I emailed Yummy Jobs and asked them to send out my email so I could chat to some others about their preparations, they did and I received a few responses, one of whom added me on Facebook and invited me to join the ICP Summer 2013 Facebook group…
A whole new world was opened that afternoon. I remember opening the group on my laptop to see posts about me. People asking who the random girl was who had failed to make friends at the interviews, how was I only trying to make friends now and why hadn’t I been in the group all along? I had made a friend, she just didn’t get in and I just figured I’d make friends nearer the time rather than months and months before. I was busy enjoying my uni friends rather than trying to make new ones and I just didn’t know there was a Facebook group, hadn’t occurred to me for a second. Anyway, I remember writing a sassy reply explaining this and managed to connect with some lovely people I’d be going with. However, you realise quite fast when you get there, friendships will happen with flatmates, workmates and people you meet on this bus and often you never see the people you connected with online beforehand; not out of being rude, but just because you get placed in different apartments, different shifts, days off and you prioritise doing different things in your free time. I wasn’t so naive the second year and didn’t attempt to make any friends through the group before setting off. It all happens so naturally once you get there that you’ll feel silly for putting so much pressure on yourself to force online friendships in advance. I made some amazing, lifelong friends those summers and I don’t think I had spoken to any of them before I arrived at Manchester airport.
Top Tips if you’re thinking of applying for a Disney work programme:
- Loving and being passionate about Disney will help in a way, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. I know people who lived for Disney before who really struggled working there and people who had never been before or who didn’t really understand it who gained so much from it. It is a job, not a holiday, and really hard work. It has magic moments, of course it does, and is an amazing experience that I’d recommend to everyone, but it’s not all smiles and magic; there’s blood, sweat and tears (literally).
- Be really open-minded about the roles you select. Think about the positives and negative of each. Consider the hours you’ll work, what best suits your personality, where you could be placed. And don’t be naive thinking it will all be magic and glamorous. You could be in a fast food kitchen smelling of chip fat. But that fast food kitchen could be in Magic Kingdom and you can watch the fireworks with a funnel cake post-shift. It’s worth it. But I saw so many people leave the programme due to having very different expectations to what it actually is. You won’t be a Disney Princess, Visa limitations won’t allow it, so be prepared to be less than glam.
- Swat up before interviews, read about new Disney World attractions online, read blogs from cast-members, learn all about Disney life and the guest experiences to really stand out in an interview.
At the end of May, in the space of a week, I went from avoiding revision and binge watching TV shows in my uni room to standing in front of Cinderella’s Castle in the Magic Kingdom as a cast member in the space of a couple of days. I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the feeling. I was in a haze of jetlag, sunstroke, excitement and disbelief. But there I was, in my clammy Traditions dress, standing in Disney World and about to become part of the magic.
Traditions is kind of every cast member’s initiation, hours of talks on Disney history, expectations, the importance of the roles and a tour of the Magic Kingdom and the cast tunnel network below. It’s cheesy, very full-on and very Disney, but really does succeed in making you feel driven and valued. I completed Traditions twice, once each summer, and I still blub thinking about watching the videos of children finding out they’re going to Disney World and seeing my name badge for the first time.
For the summer of 2013, I worked in Housekeeping in Old Key West Resort. I was the only English person in Housekeeping at Old Key West and was treated like a bit of celeb, however, I wasn’t great at housekeeping. Well I was OK, I do quite like cleaning and it was nice to be working in air-con, in my own space and making rooms magical for guests, but I did work at about 1/5 of the pace of the Haitian and Latino women. I took on the role flyer, which is where you go and help the people falling behind the time schedule, making sure suites are ready for guests and adding the finishing touches such as Mickey shaped towels and cupcakes and delivering requested items to guests. I was given a golf cart to drive around the resort to help with my efficiency and to save my tired feet which permanently felt broken. Word even got around that I wasn’t getting time to eat at work and hadn’t been to the supermarket for snacks so the other housekeepers began bringing me food in. I was quite spoiled but I really did give it my all, I’m just not a strapping Haitian lady who can do things at 50 miles an hour. The main thing I gained from housekeeping was the cultural experience as the housekeeping team were phenomenal and were from all over the world. The job was so hard and came with so much pressure, but there was always quite a happy atmosphere. I made really good friends who made that summer for me and allowed me to experience something completely different to what others on the ICP were experiencing.
That summer I lived in Vista Way in a flat of 6, 2 per bedroom. I shared my room with a Japanese girl who worked in Pizza Planet in Hollywood studios and who loved One Direction. There were 2 other girls from the UK in my apartment, another girl from Japan and one from Puerto Rico, its definitely enlightening living with people from different cultures…
My Most Surreal and Happiest Memories of Being a Cast Member:
- In 2014, a month into working at Hollywood Studios, I was bitten by a poisonous spider while at work. I nearly died, but was so pumped up on adrenaline that it did take a while to realise what was happening and how serious it was. I finished my shift and went off to MK to watch the fireworks. It wasn’t until I was starting work the next morning that I really realised what was happening and was quickly whisked off in an ambulance to Celebration hospital. It was all very very surreal, particularly because Celebration hospital is nicer than a lot of hotels I’ve stayed in and I was fighting to keep conscious all the time. I was fine though, and I had a lovely few days of bed rest.
- I touch on this again later, but Jelly Rolls on Disney’s Boardwalk, because of that place I still go fuzzy when I hear Wagon Wheel, Chicken Fried or Piano Man.
- In 2013, I saw an armadillo that had been struck by lightening outside my apartment building and in 2014 a raccoon tried to steal my bag of crisps while I was having a late night dip in the pool. The nature in Florida really is beautiful.
- In 2014, while working at HS, I was given some firework shifts for the Frozen fireworks that were happening in the park that summer. On my first shift, we were told we were there to stand in the cleared areas making sure that no fires start from firework fall-out. A fire is referred to as a signal 25 in Disney lingo. We were assured they were very rare….but guess who got a signal 25 in their area that night? Me! What a drama!
- Engaging with characters off stage, when they’re half in costume or talking normally through the head. I never got used to that, so bizarre.
- Extra Magic Hours Dance Parties happened once a week and luckily I was often scheduled to work them. For a few hours on an evening the Disney Junior theatre became a character party for Disney resort guests. It was definitely at these parties that I really felt ‘is this actually my job?!’ They were just so happy! I was basically paid to stand there and dance.
I was lucky in Housekeeping in that, although I did start at the crack of dawn, I always had evenings free. I used to spend evening in the parks, chilling out at the hotels or in Downtown Disney (which I know isn’t called that anymore but it will always be Downtown Disney to me). It became a bad habit to stay out so late that when I got back I would shower, put on my work costume and have a couple of hours sleep before waking up ready 5 minutes before I had to be on my bus. Burning the candle at both ends is an understatement, I’m not sure I could physically do that now. By the time my parents and brother came to visit at the end of that July, I was so ready for a break and to feel like I was properly ‘holidaying’. I still had to do some shifts while they were there but just staying in their hotel with them and being able to get a Starbucks and a taxi to work on a morning just made me feel so much better and that little lift really got me through the last weeks. We also discovered Ohana and Jelly Rolls that holiday which I’ll go on to explain later- they were a real game-changer in my Disney life.
By the time I got to the end of the programme in August, I did feel very settled and couldn’t get my head round the fact, as hard and surreal as it was at times, this wasn’t actually my life and it was all going to stop and I was going to have to go home. That felt weird and I still felt I had some energy left in me so I changed my flights to stay a little bit longer. In those few weeks, I went to Miami with a group of friends I’d made on the programme, I went to Universal and spent a few days chilling by the pools at the Disney Resorts. By the time it was time to go home, I felt ready and like the experience and what was to come next was a lot clearer in my head.
My Top Tips for those who are successful in getting onto to Disney Programme:
- In the majority of roles, you’ll be asked to buy your own black, logo free, trainers to wear with your costume. Invest in the comfiest you can find, no matter the cost, your feet will thank you so much. I also found it good to buy a size bigger as feet do swell in the heat.
- Carbo-load, take vitamin supplements, drink plenty of water and eat fresh whenever you can. Working such long hours in the heat, partying hard on an evening and trying to keep yourself alive and employed takes a massive toll on your body. Look after it and give it what it needs to survive. I lost a lot of weight both summers and probably had the same nutrient content as a sock. Maybe I’d have been able to give it even more if I went to Walmart to buy some fruit and veg rather than having Mickey Cookies for dinner while playing in the parks.
- Just before you arrive, you’re asked to select your accommodation preferences, and there’s a cheaper option of a room of 3. Take it. It saves you so much money per week and as you are very very rarely there it really doesn’t matter and trust me, you’ll be so tired you’d sleep on the floor in a room of 20 people.
- The cast buses are (well were, they might have improved), a nightmare. They break down, get lost (?!) arrive late and get crammed way too full of sweaty, tired bodies all needing a cold shower and a sleep. You just gotta grin and bare it. You can use them for days out in the parks on yours days off too which is a plus! But once you get to one park use the guest buses, boats or monorail to get to anywhere else on Disney property (as long as you’re not in costume of course).
- Use your cast-member perks. If you feel you need a reboot, a bath and a good breakfast use your big discount to book yourself into a Disney hotel for a night. Same for restaurants, it is hard to find time to get to the supermarket and prepare food in your apartment so use your discounts to eat out when you really need a proper meal. Ohana is my favourite place to eat in Disney, treat yourself to a night out there and watch the fireworks from the beach with a cocktail afterwards.
- Spend as many evenings as you possibly can in Jelly Rolls on the Boardwalk. Jelly Rolls is my favourite place in the world. Some of my very very happiest memories happened there. From going with my Mum and Dad when they came to visit in 2013 and many times with friends in 2014. It’s a duelling Piano Bar where pianists perform your requests and everyone in the bar joins in the sing along, they will play and sing everything from Eminem to Billy Joel to Showtunes. It is the happiest place in the world right in the middle of the happiest place in the world.
I wouldn’t say I was 100% sure I was going to try and return the next summer. Although part of me wanted more, the other part was very much, ‘no Kate, you’ve ticked that off the list now do something else’. But once Autumn came, I found myself sending off an application, I just made a promise to myself I’d only go if I was offered a role very different to what I did in 2013. I had to go through the same application and interview process the second time round, only this time the second stage of interviews was held at the Disney Headquarters in London. I stayed quite true to what I learnt the year before and was very single-minded going into it. If I got in again I’d make friends once I got there or reconnect with others who were successful once again. I was in my final year of uni trying to keep my head down and didn’t really talk to anyone about the fact I was trying again. Part of me did think I’d had enough luck and I wouldn’t be selected again, but I also knew I had an advantage as I knew the ropes and how to talk the talk at interviews. The night before my interview at the Disney Headquarters, I travelled to London and stayed in quite a dingy hostel in a 20 bed dormitory with a large group of Italian ladies all job searching in the capital. On the day of the interview, I didn’t really talk to anyone; that sounds quite sad doesn’t it, and not usually what I’m like at all but for some reason I did just have a real ‘head down and get on with it approach’. The only person I remember speaking to was the security guard in the lift while he was taking me to the interview room because I somehow got lost. It was an awkward conversation because I remember ‘Under the Sea’ was playing really loudly at the same time, which is strange because I ended up working on the Little Mermaid show that summer-maybe it was an omen. The approach I took for the interview was that I had worked my arse off (literally) in the resorts the summer before and now wanted to experience work in the parks. I made clear operations was the role I was really going for and it all paid off and that was what I got. When I found out I’d been successful, I didn’t quite celebrate like I had the year before, it felt more relief than surprise and excitement. Although I pretended to be chill about it, I would have been gutted to be unsuccessful. But once again, I brushed the my summer plans to the side for 6 months and concentrated on my life at Uni in Sheffield.
When April came around, it was Visa time again. This is a long story, one I don’t think I can type as just typing it makes me anxious all over again. Needless to say, this time it wasn’t so smooth. It was actually very stressful; I touch on it a bit I think in my Disney blog I’ll share a link to at the end. But the ordeal came off well and I was granted a Visa and returned to Florida once again for the Summer of 2014.
It instantly felt easier. I didn’t have the nerves or the anticipation or the fear of the unknown as I had the year before. I was instantly settled. This time I had vitamin supplements with me to keep me going and I told my Mam I had learnt my lesson and was going to try and sleep more than 4 hours a night (I didn’t).
Ways Disney changed how I work:
- Being grateful. That sounds cheesy I know, and grateful is definitely not how I feel on the 7am 91 bus to work on a Monday morning. But at Disney, we all felt so grateful to be there and to have been given the opportunity after fighting so hard for it. That is something I try to bring to the work I do now- just feeling grateful and lucky. Whatever job you do, there’s probably someone else who really wanted it, so appreciate it and give it your best shot.
- Stamina. I did 16-18 hour shifts on a 6inch Subway and a bottle of coke with a couple of hours sleep. I stood and smiled, did magic moments, spieled, said the same thing over and over in crazy heat with ridiculously sore feet. Now, I struggle to get through a day at work if I accidentally stayed up past 10. 26- year-old-Katie needs to start being more 21-year-old-Katie, I was hardcore back then.
In summer 2014, I lived at Chatham Square in a 6 person, 2 bedroom flat. Three per bedroom sounds a squeeze, but was honestly fine and saves you some pennies you can spend on other things like cocktails or plush toys. I worked at Hollywood Studios dotting between the Voyage of the Little Mermaid Show and the Disney Junior show. I also worked some shifts in their Temporary Frozen attraction and fireworks shifts too. Working in the parks was very different to working in the resorts; both have good points and bad points. I loved the guest interaction within the parks and seeing the children’s faces when you do a magic moment or they see a character, but you do have to say the same thing over and over and there’s a lot of standing in the heat and dealing with tricky guests. I had to spiel as a part of my role at Voyage of the Little Mermaid which really pushed me out of my comfort zone and took me a fair few attempts to get right. Other duties included seating guests for the show, counting them into the theatre and quickly getting them out ready for the next show, dancing along with the songs at Disney Junior show and repeatedly asking children to remain seated and explaining where the nearest restrooms are.
Things that’ll never be the same after working at Disney:
- The word ‘bump’. At Disney, when you get your ‘bump’ it means that someone has come to take over your position and you’re free to spend the last 15 minutes of your shift wandering, smiling and telling guests where the restrooms are. Bumps were a great thing you used to spend all day looking forward to. Now when someone says they’ve had a bump it’s my instinct to be like ‘oo yay’, but out of Disney bumps aren’t that great.
- The smell of popcorn. If you know, you know.
- Strollers! A big part of a lot of Disney roles is parking strollers for guests. I became a stroller expert. Even now I look at strollers and think how easy it would be to park, where the brakes are and how well it will turn on its wheels.
- The song ‘A Star is Born’ from Hercules. It’s played around Hollywood Studios when the last guest has left on a night and it still fills me with a bit of elation, a bit of panic about completing the closing paperwork and a bit of impending doom about having to catch the last cast bus home.
That summer, I had more amazing experiences such as travelling to Miami to see Beyonce and Jay-Z and in my last few days of work my friends from home flew out to meet me in Disney before travelling around America together.
One of the most emotional moments of my life so far was when I walked out of the Magic Kingdom for the last time at the end of Summer 2014, and anyone who knows me knows I’m not that much of an emotional person. The fireworks had just finished and the Mainstreet USA music was playing and I walked away from the castle and out of the gates for the last time. I decided to do it on my own because I knew how hard it would be. Weirdly, I stopped half-way and asked a stranger to take this picture of me. Typical Katie- in the midst of the most emotional time of my life and I could still pose for a photo.
Being a cast member and my life in Orlando is so far from where I am now that it feels strange to think about. I’m very different to how I was back then (and about 2 stone heavier). I don’t know if that’s a bad thing, a good thing or something that was just inevitable. The feeling of ‘Oh my gosh, that actually happened to me!’ and the flippy tummy feeling I get when I look back, comes over me often; when I’m cleaning the flat, on the bus to work, or when I’m tipsy in a bar. It’s always hard to put into words what Disney World means to me now. I know some other ex cast members still holiday there at every opportunity and keep up to date with new attractions, resorts and pine for that life. And I’m just not sure I do. It’s the most magical place on earth where my family and I have had some of our happiest memories. It’s where I’ve learnt so much about myself and made some of my best friends in the world. It gave me amazing experiences and stories I’ll love forever. But mentally, that door is half shut for me now. I still peak through it every now and then for old times sake but there are so many other places to see and to experience and a life outside the Disney bubble to lead.
Maybe when I have kids, we’ll go back. I can’t imagine how it would feel to walk back into the Magic Kingdom again with my own family. I could give the attractions hosts a knowing smile and would really appreciate the cleanliness and towel arrangement in my hotel room. But do you know what? If that doesn’t happen and we decide to take the kids camping in Scotland every summer instead then that would be pretty magic too. I’ve had enough Disney Magic in my life time for 40 people.
We’re good me and Mickey.
There we have it.
I think that almost sums it all up, but I’m sure I’ll keep remembering things and adding bits to this post for the next couple of weeks.
You can read the blog I kept over my 2 summers as a cast member here:
I still have a flick through it often to remind myself of things I’ve forgotten and to give me a little bit of a pick me up! This blog took off so much while I was out there and still remains my most successful work, but I guess I had a lot of good content to include! There’s not quite so much to say these days!
Thank you for reading,