Two and a half years ago, Mickey Mouse was my boss. Today is his 90th birthday.
I talk about my experience as if it were a dream, mostly because those five months were such an integral part of my life; but I didn’t realize how important they were until I came home. It may seem silly to run off to Disney World a semester before you’re supposed to graduate college, but, looking back, I have so much to be thankful for, because of how much it had changed me.
Growing up, I had friends, just not good friends. They were fine, in their own right, but none of them would ever be the invited-to-my-wedding type of friend. Now, I can confidently say that I have made friends from all over the country and the world, all of whom I’d happily invite to my wedding. We entered this program as strangers, some living away from home for the first time, and soon became family. We experienced highs, lows, birthdays and holidays together. There are some shared experiences that change you for the better, and this was one of them.
From August 2016 until January 2017, I worked at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida as part of the Disney College Program. It’s not hyperbole when I say it changed my life. I’ve met friends I will have until the day I die. I can’t say that about many of my life experiences. They may live across the country or around the world, but no matter what we do or where we go, nothing will erase the five and a half months we shared making magic at the happiest place on earth.
It takes a certain type of personality to be a cast member.
At traditions (job orientation), we are told to uphold Walt Disney’s legacy in every aspect of our role. Cast members are encouraged to always go above and beyond when helping guests and fellow cast members, and respect the four keys: safety, courtesy, efficiency and show. Upholding Walt Disney’s legacy is easy when you love the characters, stories and magic he created that have carried you through your childhood.
However, the guests are the ones who make it hard. People tend to forget how much abuse and anger gets thrown at cast members for situations far beyond our control. If it rains, it’s our fault. If a guest wants to buy exclusive event-only merchandise they don’t have a ticket to attend, we’re ruining their vacation. When you are surrounded by happiness, the sadness feels heavier.
Seeing families enjoying the parks and celebrating their own milestones makes you realize how much you miss your own family. Those moments make you grateful for the friends who become family. When you get to watch your friends make magic for a Make a Wish family, it puts it all in perspective. There was a mutual understanding that everyone was away from home. The physical distance didn’t matter, but we all uprooted our lives to work for a mouse. We all put our education and potential careers on hold.
We were the lowest on the ladder, and the most disposable. Every few months, a new batch of college program kids would pick up where we left off, continuing the cycle. We worked long hours, nights, weekends and holidays. We were yelled at for the same things. Friends and family back home could sympathize, but my DCP friends understood. We were forced to rely on one another because of our shared experiences. We were each other’s family, because our biological family was so far away. It helped us cope with the heart-wrenching distance. I witnessed human kindness in rare form. The ability to open up your heart to people who entered your life as strangers, only to find a permanent home in your heart as friends, is a beautiful thing to be a part of.
I didn’t believe people when they said that the program could change your life. Any time people say that, it always sounds like a grand statement to lure people in. I never had a solid group of friends; I always floated around from group to group without ever finding my footing somewhere solid. I don’t talk to anyone from high school, and I’m perfectly fine with that. Honestly, when I ended my college program, I didn’t think I’d ever see these people again. Not for lack of caring, but assuming we’d all go our separate ways, live our life in our own corners of the world and occasionally revel in our semester long glory of working at Disney on Facebook. Yet, 2 years later, I still consider these people family.
As someone who has always been overly comforted by the confines of her comfort zone, the program forced me to interact and engage with people regularly.
It was a whole new world for me (pun intended.) It’s one thing to be social while at work, but to do so in a costume with themed greetings and responses is an entirely different experience. When you do it alongside people you consider family, it’s much less intimidating. These people changed my life because they showed me how kindness can exist in a world that sometimes felt far more evil than it did good. Somehow, we found ourselves being surrounded by like-minded individuals who felt like a version of home that we missed. I’m thankful for these people because I can call them lifelong friends.
Most of all, I’m thankful to a mouse and a man with a dream. Without them, I never would have met the wonderful new people that I now have in my life.
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I live in New York, representing the East coast portion of Words Between Coasts.