By the time I was 18, I had been to Walt Disney World more times than I could count and secretly dreamed of working at the most magical place on Earth. So, when casting calls for the Disney College Program were posted around campus at the University of Southern Indiana, I needed no one to convince me to interview. I had decided to live at home when I started college, so the thought of leaving home for the first time to work at Disney? Well, that was magical in itself. Still, I thought I would interview and they would politely tell me that I was not what they were looking for. When I received the invitation a few weeks later to be a part of the College Program, I was beyond thrilled! Soon, I packed up my bags and headed south.
Upon my arrival, I learned the three principles of the experience- Living, Learning and Earning. They were very quick to tell us that there would not be much earning, but we would have the opportunity to experience Disney in a way that we never could as a guest. As for the living, I had roommates for the first time. We were quite an eclectic bunch of girls; we hailed from the New York City borough of Queens, Mississippi, Michigan, Indiana, upstate New York and Indonesia. It was truly not an ideal situation, as we were in a very small 3- bedroom apartment, but at least we had two bathrooms. The learning part of the semester started almost right away, as we had to juggle work, responsibilities in the apartment and a social life; all of us for the first time. I am happy to say that almost 15 years later, I am in touch with all but one of my roommates!
I was placed at the newly opened Animal Kingdom as an attractions hostess. In August of 1998, the park had been open a mere five months, and it was both exciting and intimidating to work in Disney’s newest masterpiece. The real kicker was that I don’t like animals. I think even then I was being prepared for what laid down the road for my life- but I’ll get to that part. Suddenly, I was a cast member, stopping at Wardrobe for my costume, going “backstage” for lunch and breaks...all the (Disney) world is a stage, as Shakespeare would sort of say. Animal Kingdom turned out to be an amazing experience, despite my initial reservations. I had never really met people who were different from me in every sense of the word: from background to religion to lifestyles. I spent a semester in a very different place than my fairly conservative, Baptist background. It was a change that I desperately needed, even with (and especially because of) the personal challenges that came with daily interactions with many who simply did not believe the way I did. I love thinking back on what Animal Kingdom looked like that semester; everything was brand-new and had that “I’ve just been planted” look, even though it was a beautiful park. It is even more so now, whether you are an animal or landscape lover, or really just enjoy the magic Disney creates.
Throughout the semester, I worked a lot of long hours (though being at Animal Kingdom had its built-in benefits as it’s typically the first park to close) and also had the added perks of enjoying Disney in very unique ways. I was privileged to be part of the “soft opening” of Test Track, when only cast members and other invited guests ride. My first Test Track ride occurred at about 1 in the morning, and it was well worth the late night. Every Sunday, we would go swing dancing at The Boardwalk, and on our days off we very often took advantage of free entrance to all of the parks. On one occasion, a roommate and I went to the (then MGM) Studios explicitly to ride the Tower of Terror 13 times. I am proud to say we did it, and that day turned out to be one of my favorite memories from the semester. That Christmas, all of my shopping was done in the parks and it was a bit of a fairytale life for a while. All of the cares of my “real world” were put on hold for a few months of bliss.
This is not all to say that there were not moments during which I wanted to fly back home, because there were. For the first time in my life, I had become great friends with a young man who was openly homosexual. I was strongly disliked by a co-worker because I didn’t share her lifestyle, and didn’t pretend like I agreed with all of her choices. Those relationships challenged my beliefs in a way that sweet, safe, Southern Indiana never had before. I had a roommate who cleaned out a box of ice cream sandwiches every week and was upset that she was seriously overweight. I had to clean (REALLY clean) a kitchen for the first time in my life. I lived in an apartment complex just for College Program students that was on overdrive for parties and promiscuity, two things with which I was not comfortable. But I wouldn’t give back that semester for anything. It was my first taste of independence, and I loved it. Upon my return, I transferred universities almost immediately and finished my degree away from home at a school that allowed me to have a “real”-whatever that is- college experience.
Now, I think that semester paved the way for many of my adult decisions, from big and serious to small and fun. After graduation, I actually moved to Florida to teach, and stayed for 6 years. I had always been the daughter that everyone thought would come back home. As it turns out, in my tenth year teaching this fall, none of them have happened in Indiana. With my own children, I love Disney even more than I think I did as a kid, and I have sucked my husband in with me. In 2007, I was able to see him experience Disney for the first time, and it was incredible. However, he has nicknamed me “The Magic Killer” because he sometimes tells me that I know just enough of the secrets to be dangerous. When we visit with our family (December will be my then 5-year-old daughter’s 6th trip), Animal Kingdom is always our first stop. As we wander the beautiful pathways that look nothing like they did in the fall of 1998, I can still see myself along the bridges as a 19-year-old with no clue what her grown-up life would look like. Turns out, with a little Disney magic, it’s pretty great.
If you would like to submit a guest post, please select the “Actively Contribute” button at the top of the page (located just below the DLuminations Header).