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Twenty-five years ago today, I began a brief but enjoyable stint as a Cast Member (CM) at Walt Disney World (WDW),  from which I derived some valuable lessons for life and work, many great and happy memories, and some wonderful friendships.

For those of you who want more details, I started working (after 3 days of Disney Traditions instruction) at The Land Theaters (Kitchen Kabaret & the film “Symbiosis” in the Harvest Theater), then, after a few months cross-trained at Journey into Imagination (where my trainer chewed gum and platonically smooched fellow CMs onstage—No, no no!). After a few more months, I cross-trained for the oh-so-glamorous Spaceship Earth. In the meantime, I also was a facilitator for the Seas Immersion Program, a half-day field trip experience in marine science for elementary school groups; and Synergy and Science, a full-day field-trip experience in science and technology for middle-school groups. They were the real highlights of my year of full-time employment, but there were fun times on the front lines, too. Cleaning 3D glasses backstage on Christmas Day was not my most inspirational time, but processing thousands of guests a day in the queues of “Imag” (How many cars can I pack full when these people aren’t related?) and “Spaceship” during Christmas and summer rushes was exhilarating in a way.

The two greatest joys, however, were the wonderful friends I made, many of whom are still important in my life, and the almost endless freedom to explore the theme parks and resort areas of WDW—onstage AND backstage—at virtually no cost. This was the ten-year dream come true! EVERY Saturday evening, a dear friend, and fellow Land Theaters CM, and I would scramble as quickly as we could from EPCOT Center up to park the car at the Polynesian or Grand Floridian Resort to catch the boat launch to the Magic Kingdom for Mountain Madness Saturdays, when MK was open until midnight, even in low season, celebrating the recent opening of Splash Mountain (the grand opening of which I participated in). Every Saturday, there were two performances of the night parade SpectroMagic (9 & 11), and a 10 PM fireworks show. I could watch exactly the same fireworks over and over again for years, which basically I did, every Saturday at the MK, and often at EPCOT Center (Illuminations) whilst working. We dashed from ride to ride, usually ending the evening with a just-before-midnight ride on one of the Frontierland mountains, or on Peter Pan’s Flight, simple yet lyrical and magical. Then, we would shop our way back up Main Street, USA, as the crowds thinned, and sometimes sit in the rocking chairs on the front porch of the Town Square Theater to watch the last of the tired but contented guests leave the park before we would catch one of the last launches back to our car. I’d get home around 1:30 AM, and get to bed around 2.

Then, every Sunday morning at about 7, I would get a call from Bill the Lead saying that that same unnamed Cast Member had called in again, and could I work a double shift, starting at 9. For the overtime pay, I was always willing, even if I dragged!

As a Cast Member, we had access! If we were in the Magic Kingdom on a busy day, and wanted to get quickly from Adventureland to Tomorrowland, we could slip in a Cast Members Only gate, go downstairs into the mysterious and exciting Utilidors tunnel system, and shortcut all the way across the park without encountering a single stroller. If we were out playing anywhere on property, and got hungry, we could drop into any one of the Cast Member cafeterias (there’s at least one for every park and resort hotel), and eat well and cheaply. The cafeteria at the Yacht & Beach Clubs was my favorite. It often had yummy leftovers from the nightly Clambake at a steal, but we tried all of them, I think. And, if we wanted to splash out, we could use our WDW ID to get discounts in sit-down restaurants. We got great deals on hotel rooms, and, if family came to visit, who could pass up the chance to stay in a Disney resort hotel? Mom came; Dad & brother came; Mom & cousin came. Later on, we made memories on a great family trip, after I had left full-time employment, but still had seasonal privileges.

Those Utilidors! For years, I had read about the magical system of tunnels below the MK, the heartbeat of the whole operation. On Day Two of Traditions, we boarded a bus outside Disney University, north of the MK, and were driven to the tunnel entrance under and behind Pinocchio’s Village Haus Restaurant. My heart skipped a beat when I first stepped in there (ignoring, I guess, the enormous and smelly dumpster off to one side). Later on, we figured out how to drive around behind the Magic Kingdom with our CM parking passes and ID cards. We explored the tree farm, where, at least in the good old days, every tree on property had growing a twin, so, should damage or destruction occur, replacements could happen almost instantly. One night, on a back road, we saw armadillos. We went to the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Review way too many times, at half-price for the last show. We went to way too many character breakfasts. And bought way too many discounted souvenirs from Property Control in the north service area, and from Bargain Basement, a long-defunct shop under the MK where CMs could snap up soft toys et al at 80% off retail.

So many great memories, but advancement wasn’t coming quickly enough, and I really disliked Central Florida (& its weather). Along the way, I had taken my first church-musician job, at a conservative, evangelical, pro-life Episcopal Church in Longwood, north of Orlando. I was looking for a way to make music again after having not played piano or organ for months, and I needed some extra money, since full-time at WDW only guaranteed 30 hours a week (we usually worked 40 or more only during high season), and pay was only a little above minimum wage. In the few months that I served this congregation (where I was the musician for the “traditional’ service, i.e, fewer songs with guitars, none of which guitars I had to play), I learned that I loved the work, but that I needed more say over the kind of community I could work with, and also that I needed more training to be able to make church music to the level (King’s College Cambridge!) to which I aspired. I left WDW in October 1993, 13 months after I began, though I kept my Casual Temporary status until August of 1999, returning at least one week a year to work and play again.

When I interviewed for a church musician job in Branford, Connecticut, just as I was beginning graduate school, the committee asked me what skills I could bring to my work in church music from my recent experience at Walt Disney World. It was, I think, the most unexpected question ever posed to me in a job interview. But, you know, I had an answer. I learned at Walt Disney World that safety, courtesy, show and efficiency are all values that we can transfer to all our work, even our life. Dignity and polish in worship is an important goal for most of us in church work, and Disney excels at polish. I had learned that there is a difference between my on-stage and off-stage personae, and the way I carry myself professionally is extremely important; as Kramer said to Miss Rhode Island in Seinfeld, “Poise!” I had learned to respect all people, and to treat everyone with dignity. I learned that “they are not handicapped people (or worse yet, ‘wheelchairs’!), but people with disabilities” (language that has been further finessed in the years since). I learned that, though I may have seen a show hundreds of times, for someone in the audience, it was their first time, and I needed to ensure that their first time was as enjoyable and exciting as everyone else’s first time had been. I learned that keeping your hands and feet inside the car at all times might save your life, or at least your limbs (literally); that Vo-ban is your new best friend; and that “a cockroach the size of a small puppy” on Mr. Hamm was ample reason for the show to go 101.

Great times. Valuable lessons. Beautiful places. Wonderful people. Those were my Peter Pan days, and I am so grateful for them!

 

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