Possibly the biggest tourist destination in the country, or even the world, Walt Disney World prides itself on being “The Most Magical Place on Earth.” They do this through an emphasis on “show,” one of the Four Keys that Disney built its theme park excellence on. Everything, from the ticket booths to the parades to the restrooms, is part of the show, which leaves guests entranced from the moment the arrive to the moment they leave. But looking just a little closer, one can see it is a massive, complex operation with over 70,000 Cast Members, or employees. Every piece of Disney Magic is made by a person who works very hard to make it all seem very easy. And if it goes unnoticed and unappreciated, then they have done their job correctly.
In August of 2019, I became one of these Cast Members through the Disney College Program. Before COVID-19, the Disney College Program employed roughly 7,000 employees who rotated out every semester. Though currently suspended due to safety concerns, it is an opportunity for young adults and college students to get a foot in the door at a major corporation, and essentially live at Disney World. I was a character attendant from August 2019 to March 2020, when the parks closed due to COVID-19. As a character attendant, I assisted all of the beloved characters with their meet and greets, facilitating guest interactions and ensuring everyone’s safety and enjoyable experience. This allowed me to see the inner workings of the operation, and here are a few things I learned.
1. The night shift is primarily college students.
College Program participants work in every area of park operations – attractions, merchandise, entertainment, etc. It is not uncommon for the Cast Members on the front lines at night (other than leadership) to be primarily college students. That might not sound like it matters at a quick service restaurant or gift shop, but that also includes attractions operations like Tower of Terror.
2. Disney Costuming sizing is weird.
Every Cast Member wears a uniform while at work, or “costume.” These costumes are provided to Cast Members at a building aptly named “Costuming” where you can get everything from shirts to pants to socks and hats. However, for some unknown reason, the sizing numbers are very different from traditional sizes. Shirts tend to run fairly normal, but pants can often run 4-5 times “larger” than regular pants. (For example, a size 14 would be a Disney 22.) And it is not uniform across the board – every different costume can be a different kind of, well, different, which makes finding a well-fitting costume an extensive task.
3. The Trash Tunnels
Every wonder how Walt Disney World is just so clean? When setting out to build Disneyland in the 1950s, Walt himself said, “When I started on Disneyland, my wife used to say, ‘But why do you want to build an amusement park? They’re so dirty.’ I told her that was just the point—mine wouldn’t be.” The parks have a major custodial department who keep every corner of the park sparkling, and they use an AVACS system – or Automated Vacuum Assisted Collection System – to collect all of the trash and transport it offsite. Sometimes when walking through the Utilidors, or the tunnels under Magic Kingdom, cast members can even hear the trash traveling along the tubes. And about once a week, a trash compactor moves from near Adventureland to the entrance to the Utilidors, so to announce that Cast Members should avoid it, they play either the Wall-e theme or “Trashin’ the Camp” from Tarzan over the loudspeaker.
4. Mickey Mouse is really… just kidding.
You probably opened this article hoping to find some kind of juicy information about what entertainment is like backstage. Sorry, but Character Integrity is one of the first and most important things we learn to uphold as Cast Members. In its simplest definition, Character Integrity means to uphold the magic and integrity of the Disney characters we all know and love. There is only one Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, you name it, and that is who you are meeting, or seeing in a parade, or watching in a show. Sure, there are many performers who help bring these friends to life, but that does not mean that any person can “be” Mickey Mouse. Though some Cast Members only care about Character Integrity while on the clock, I and many others understand why it is important not to break it because we have seen the magic before our eyes.
5. Park Close does not actually mean Park Close.
During normal operations (i.e. no special events or holidays,) each of the four parks at Walt Disney World close usually between 9:00 and 11:00 p.m., with Animal Kingdom often closing first and Magic Kingdom often closing last. But just because the park is officially “closed” does not by any means mean it is empty or all the Cast Members can go home. Every attraction line is open until the exact minute of Park Close. Meaning guests can get in line, even if the attraction is still at a 60 minute wait, and even once the park is closed, they will finish out that line. Sometimes that is just a few guests, but in the case of rides like Animal Kingdom’s Flight of Passage or Hollywood Studios’ Rise of the Resistance, that can take hours. Additionally, and probably unsurprisingly, as long as there are still guests in the park, the shops are still open. All of this means even when the park closes at 9:00 p.m., regular operations employees can often be working hours later.
6. There are, like, a lot of perks.
Free self admission, ticket discounts, merchandise discounts, special event discounts, Cast Member exclusive merchandise, the list goes on. Disney gives Cast Members many, many perks that especially for college students are incredibly enticing. It is very easy to get a paycheck on Thursday (EPCOT – Every Paycheck Comes on Thursday) and spend it in the parks on Friday.
7. It really is still The Most Magical Place on Earth.
I often get asked, “So, now that you have seen how it all really works, has Disney lost its magic?” Absolutely not. If anything, now that I understand how much hard work goes into making Walt Disney World what it is, it is even more magical. I have met so many Cast Members who have been Cast Members for decades, and they still make incredible memories for guests every day.