Disney, The Employer: Is the Magic Genius or Cruelty?
Many people dream of working for the Mouse. For High School and College Students, the value of working in a theme park, building your resume, and meeting great people from around the world is priceless. There’s also the “once in a lifetime” opportunity for retirees from around the country who have always dreamed of working for Disney. Every winter you can hear someone in their 50’s saying, “I can’t wait to retire, move to Orlando and get a job with Disney”. But what are the consequences, when two thirds of the Disney work force is willing to work for FREE?
For Decades, Disney has been the master of creating the magic for its guests. But part of Disney’s genius is that everyone is part of the show. In fact, all of Disney’s employees are called cast members. All Cast Members are trained from orientation or “Traditions” the difference between “good show” and “bad show”. They are also trained about what behaviors are permitted on stage versus off stage. You are also taught as a Disney Cast Member that you are always “on stage”. One perfect example is the “Disney point”. You can always tell when you’re dealing with a current or former Disney Cast Member by simply asking for directions. Disney Cast Members are taught to give directions by pointing with two fingers or the whole hand because they don’t want to offend any guests by making them feel like we’re talking about them.
Disney is a master recruiter. The Disney College Program recruits top college students from around the world and brings them to Disney to teach them all about the Magic. Most of these students have the “Disney Look” and meet the Disney guidelines for appearance. They are clean cut kids and when thousands of them are brought together in one community even more magic occurs. The Disney College Program consists of three components; Live, Work, and Learn. As a Disney College Program Graduate, (I graduated with a Mouseters Degree), I can tell you it was the best experience of my life. I left the cold winters of Plattsburgh, NY for the warmth of the Florida sun. I met some of the best people and friends from around the Country. Many of whom I still stay in touch with today. I stayed in a beautiful condo just minutes from Disney with 5 roommates and we had a blast. I didn’t have to worry about transportation because Disney had a Bus that would take us to and from the parks and I would work 6 to 8 hours a day at the most magical place on earth. My rent was conveniently deducted from my paycheck, and whatever I had left over was a bonus. I could party; go to the theme parks, buy souvenirs for my family or girlfriend...Heck, life was great. I was in love. And like many who have gone through the College Program experience, I said, “as soon as I graduate, I’m moving down to work for Disney”. I’m going to work my way up the corporate ladder just like the Manager who instructed us at the “Learn” seminars. In fact, I met several managers and supervisors who worked for Disney 10 to 15 years and were now Area Managers.
Like many college graduates who interned for the Mouse, I moved down as soon as I graduated. Many College Program Alumni fell in love so deeply with the Mouse that they decided not to return to college. Hey there was a reason Penthouse Forum rated Vista Way (the Apartment complex for College Program students) “the #2 place to get laid in the United States”. Disney does such a great job of creating a magical environment that it’s real easy to fall in love. But this is where the Disney Dream becomes a Nightmare.
When you’re a college student and you have no real responsibilities and you’re making minimum wage with all of your expenses conveniently deducted from your paycheck, life is easy. You have 4 to 6 roommates to split the rent and as I mentioned before, whatever you have left over is a bonus. But what happens when the girlfriend becomes a wife, and your roommates become children? What happens when it becomes time to start making payments on your college loans and you’re still only making $10 per hour? Now all of a sudden instead of convenient Disney Transportation, you have car and insurance payments. Even worse, because you work for Disney you now have friends and family who visit on a regular basis and request that you get them into the parks. Your identity is now “my son who works for Disney”. You get calls from your Mom on a monthly basis, “Aunt Beth is coming to Orlando and wants to go to Disney, what should I tell her”. For the first year, it’s great to see so many friends and family who are excited to visit, but soon you realize that Disney isn’t just expensive for the tourists, it’s also expensive for the Cast Members (even with your discount).
The mixture of Disney Magic with naïve college students is a dangerous combination. Many of them get so caught up in the magic and pixie dust that they forget about the economic reality. Cast Members work real hard to give the guests the best experience. From the Janitorial Hosts to Guest Relations, each Cast Member makes the guests their #1 priority. Unfortunately, Disney knows that the commitment to the guest experience is so ingrained in its employees that when it comes time to reward for performance, the rewards are rarely financial. Disney has become a master of showing its gratitude with pins, certificates, and movie passes. Pay raises are often just $.25 to $1.00 an hour. In many cases, promotions are lateral not vertical. This means that the Cast Member can now move from Attractions to Guest Relations without a promise of an increase in pay…just more responsibility. In fact, it has been known in the Resort and Restaurant positions that Cast Members will even turn down the vertical promotions because they make more in tips than they will as a manager. So when you’re trying to pay your mortgage and support a family, what do you do when the bank won’t accept free park passes?
Is Disney, the Employer, cruel? The answer is NO! Disney is a business, and like many other businesses, it is not responsible to manage its employees finances or expectations. Disney offers its College Interns the best training and opportunity to meet people from all over the World. It is the responsibility of the College graduate to leverage his or her education and experience for the most financial gain for his or her family. This means keeping your resume up to date and exploring opportunities both inside and outside of Disney. There is nothing wrong with going on job interviews and finding out what you’re worth on the open market. I know people who have refused good jobs just because they didn’t want to give up their “free” Disney Park Passes. They said, “What will I tell my family when they come down to visit?” I told them to tell their family and friends to buy tickets like everyone else. In addition, the good news for Disney Lifers who want to get ahead, there are plenty of examples where Disney Cast Members left Disney for experiences elsewhere, only to come back and get a better position back at Disney a few years later.
The genius behind Disney’s employment strategies is that they learned that Disney Magic is not just for the guests but also for its Cast Members. Disney has placed considerable value on the intangible asset that is Disney Magic. They have proven for Decades that Cast Members are willing to trade real dollars for the privilege of being a Cast Member. They don’t need to buy their employees loyalty with raises and promotions; they use park passes, smiles, and collector pins. Other employers can learn from Disney, save your money and improve your work environment.