From the Mouth of the Mouse

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The folks who know the most about Disney aren't always the Imagineers but rather the 'regular' people who manage the lines, serve the food, clean up the trash. Jeff Heimbuch has interviewed dozens of them. Their fascinating stories present Disney from new perspectives: you'll learn what it's like to work for the Mouse on the front-lines. And, of course, you'll hear from the Imagineers, too. So buckle up! What comes From the Mouth of the Mouse may surprise you...

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Interview: Amber, Disney CareerStart

Amber starts her Disney career on counter-service

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another edition of From the Mouth of the Mouse!

We're really running through the gauntlet of Cast Members here, and I hope it helps you understand just what it's like for these folks to work at Disney.

As you can probably tell, they love Disney just as much as you do, and they truly do love their jobs.

This week, we're talking to Amber, a participant in the CareerStart Program. Her love of Disney knows no bounds! She's even written a few articles for Celebrations Magazine, with one appearing in the most recent issue.

You told me earlier that you worked at Electric Umbrella, perhaps my favorite Future World eatery. What did you do there?

AMBER: At the Electric Umbrella, I performed, well, a myriad of tasks. In the beginning, most of my work focused around busing the tables, which is high Guest interaction, but not as fast-paced - most of the time. I remember some days, especially in the beginning, where we would get slammed with people and it was all I could do to keep the trash from overflowing, let alone locate chairs that had mysteriously vanished to other parts of the restaurant.
But then they got me in the kitchen, which was my absolute favorite. It was fast-paced: you didn't have to worry so much about not slouching or always smiling (which was easy to do when Guests were around most of the time). My favorite positions, by far, were anchor and window. Window was scooping fries into all the cups and onto boats, and anchor was assembling the trays with the order. There were days when we would have both sides of the assembly open and there were tickets down the length of the counter and to the floor. Those were the best because everything was moving so smoothly that there was nothing to stop you.
I also did the rest of the positions in the kitchen: ovens (making special order salads, toasting sandwiches, refilling sides), fryers, front and back of Neico (our char broiler), prep kitchen, dish room, register, filler - there was always something to do. And I also closed all of the positions such as the arduous ovens with the disposed food and the fryers (which left you smelling like a French fry!). My favorite, though was scrubbing Neico. That task involved disassembling the char broiler and scrubbing all the grease and other bits off. I was also made an unofficial trainer in my location. My training manager never actually signed me up for the classes, but apparently the other managers thought I had enough of a grasp on things to show others how to do them.
I almost forgot! We have a sister restaurant as well, Fountain View. It's across the pavilion and serves ice cream. It's an odd place. When you first work there, you love it. Older people always trade their Fountain View shifts for Electric Umbrella. And then, after about a month, you begin to dread going over there. It was a nice occasional break from the hectic atmosphere of Electric Umbrella because the only jobs were register, scooping, making waffle bowls or busing, but it was never busy enough for me.

How often would you switch between Electric Umbrella and Fountain View? (which, I assume, is named for the view of the Fountain)?

AMBER: Yes, Fountain View is named for its view of the fountain, which was a wonderful thing on days when you had to work register. You got to see the different shows when you weren't busy with Guests. It is also unique as the only restaurant at Walt Disney World in which everything is visible to Guests. The only place they cannot see is the very center, which is where we keep extra napkins and spoons just in case we run out very quickly. So, I don't want to say you had to be extra careful, but you had to be aware that Guests could see you the majority of the time. We would have shifts over there a couple of times a month, and it was just like being assigned a shift at Electric Umbrella. But, again, schedules were out two weeks in advance, so if you could find someone willing to trade shifts with you in Electric Umbrella, that was usually perfectly fine.

Did you just work at those two places?

AMBER: The vast majority of (if not all) Cast Members on the Disney College Program and the CareerStart Program (which I was in) are transferred at least once during their program. Two girls I worked with were transferred at least four or five times. I was transferred to Sunset Ranch in Hollywood Studios. I have to say, within the first fifteen minutes, I was ready to go back to my home at the Electric Umbrella. There, we were a family, but at Sunset, no one really made an effort to speak to me. I only saw one manager during the three days I was there, and that wasn't under incredibly pleasant circumstances. I mainly bused while I was there and did a little ice cream scooping. All in all, I wasn't given too great an impression of working there - although, like I said, I'd only been there three days.

Was transferring a mandatory thing?

AMBER: Yes, transferring was mandatory. Mine was actually rather screwed up because that was the week I was leaving for a few days to attend my high school graduation. I had gone in advance to my manager in charge of scheduling to warn him that I wouldn't be able to compromise those dates, and I was assured it would be fine. When I got back, however, I was told that the other location didn't know that I wasn't going to be able to come in for the second half of my time there. Luckily, I only missed two days (if you miss three, you're pretty much terminated), and I was able to work everything out so that it didn't affect my record or anything.
I think transferring was just to show you what working at different places around the World was like. Other work locations were also able to ask for other Cast Members when they were especially busy or had a lack of Cast Members for whatever reason, so sometimes people would transfer to a location by themselves (as I did at Sunset Ranch) and sometimes groups of people would transfer together. I never heard of any of the transfers lasting more than a week or a week-and-a-half, at the longest.

What made you decide to work at Walt Disney World?

AMBER: That is an easy question. My family is obsessed. Not in the mandatory 'once-a-year-visit' way, but in the fact that our first trip was in 1998, and at nearest estimate, I have been there 46 separate times! And never once has it gotten old. Sure, sometimes I'd wished we had sacrificed a trip or two and gone elsewhere, say, England, but I always enjoyed Disney World. And I had already finished everything I could do in high school, so it seemed natural to graduate a semester early and go to work in my second home until it was time for college.

Did you choose to work at EPCOT or was that assigned to you?

AMBER: I didn't choose EPCOT as my location, although given the choice, it's probably what I would have picked. It is my favorite park. You really have no say where they put you, which in Quick Service Food & Beverage is a tricky thing. You could end up outside at the carts or kiosks, or at a slower quick service restaurant, or one like Electric Umbrella, where you'll see lots of Guests throughout the day.

EPCOT is my favorite, also. As you get older, I think you understand and appreciate EPCOT better than you do when you were 10! It just seems like much more of an adult park.

AMBER: I completely agree. EPCOT always held some appeal for me (the pavilions especially, because I've always loved the idea of traveling), but I think there are some things that you just have to wait until you're older to appreciate, like the little museums and galleries tucked away in Morocco or Japan, for instance.

What's your favorite attraction at Epcot?

AMBER: I would have to go with Soarin'. The scenes are absolutely beautiful, and flying over the orange groves with that smell blowing in your face is incredible. There's also a sort of charm to being able to take off your shoes and pretend to drag your feet through the water that I and my family always enjoy.

Do you have a favorite pavilion?

AMBER: The UK has always held a special place for me, as I've wanted to go to England since I was around ten. Again, with these places, the more you learn about them, the more fun it is to go and look for the small differences, like the bubbles in the glass in Twinings, and how the glass slowly evens out as your progress farther up the street, and thus further in time. Japan is also an incredible pavilion with a level of detail that is absolutely baffling. The Mitsukoshi Department store is just bursting with things to look at and purchase, with the food a particularly interesting thing to sample. And Italy's charm is undeniable, from its little donkey cart with cannolis to the mask shop and wine cellar. I would often make trips to EPCOT just to buy some gelato, which I had never had until joining the CareerStart Program.

What's the CareerStart Program?

AMBER: The Disney Career Start Program is very much the College Program, only more limited. Unlike the College Program, the requirement is that you partake within 48 months of high school graduation, and that you be 18 at the time of arrival. Roles are more limited, so there is no entertainment or character handling, as well as a few other positions. Fewer people are accepted to the program, and actual move-in dates are different. Other than that, once you arrive in Florida (or California), you are essentially grouped in with those people from the College Program. This program worked especially well for me since I did the program in what typically would have been my second half of senior year in high school. I just had the good fortune to turn 18 two weeks before the arrival dates and have all my school credit.

Do you think, as a whole, that the program is worth it?

AMBER: There were so many ways that the program benefited me. Living on my own was a wonderful experience, especially with Disney as my safety net. It was preparation for the real workforce; you had to go to work and suffer the consequences if you didn't, you lived on a paycheck, you had to figure out transportation, stuff like that. It was an invaluable experience. I made so many friends while there, and so many connections that I will continue to utilize in the future, like with Tim Foster, one of the editors of Celebrations Magazine. That was something that never would have happened if I hadn't participated in this program, and will help me later in the future with my writing career.

So all of the 'real world job' stuff was a new experience for you? Did you have trouble adjusting to that lifestyle?

AMBER: Well, I've actually had a job since I was eleven. Early on, I wanted to be a veterinarian, so my mother, who had gone to school with our local veterinarian, arranged that I would go in and volunteer. So I stuck with it. I was officially working there when I was fourteen, and started getting paid. I worked there right up until five days before my program started.
But the CareerStart program was my first time living out of the house, working instead of going to class, cooking for myself, all that jazz. And I didn't really have too many problems with it, other than an initial problem of buying way too many groceries than I needed. It was much easier for me to adapt than it was for quite a few other people down there who had to leave very early in their programs.

Working in a restaurant, you definitely had high guest interaction on a daily basis. Did you do anything special for some of these guests to make their stay more magical?

AMBER: At the Electric Umbrella, we weren't given many opportunities to create magical moments, but that's not to say it was impossible. There were days that I had the great fortune of being able to set up a coloring table at the center of the restaurant. I would wander around with coloring pages and packs of crayons and invite children to come color with me, which was the most amazing experience. They were all thrilled to be in Disney, and what child doesn't love to color?
I remember most of the kids that I colored with - there was one young boy who gave me all kinds of information on Sea World, and what I absolutely MUST do if I ever went there, there were sisters who colored a princess page for me, there was another who had ridden Tower of Terror twice when at that age I'd have been afraid of Test Track! It was incredible.
At Fountain View, it was always easy to bring a smile to someone's face with a coating of Mickey Mouse sprinkles on their ice cream cones. That was one of my favorite things to do because it never failed. The child would jump up and down and show it excitedly to their parents. Other than that, it was just interacting with the Guests. Chatting with a crying little boy about his Mike Wazowski shirt, or commenting about a couple wearing Harry Potter shirts and becoming engaged in a twenty-five minute conversation about literature during a lull. Another time a woman was on her first trip with several kids and just needed some tips on how to maneuver through the parks - which rides to go on when, how to work FastPasses, and so on. This was around closing time, and I think I ended up talking with her for about an hour as I cleared tables around her. Little things like that were as magical for me as they were to them.

I love your sprinkle story. It's simple, yet effective. That's the kind of stuff I love to hear, and definitely brings a smile to kids' faces.

AMBER: Thanks. Kids don't always understand the ultimate Fast Passes and such, but sprinkles? What's better than that?

Were there any times when work got too hectic for you to handle?

AMBER: I worked with Disney for six months. That is an incredibly long time for someone whom the full-timers know is going to be cycled through the workplace. But that never stopped anyone from being so nice and understanding. One of my managers wasn't the best at handling stress, and one day when we were short of staff, he had a lot of people performing multiple jobs.
Not to be immodest, but I was usually one of the first to double-up on duties, just because if I felt I could handle it, I wanted to make things easier on the rest of the people who had more to worry about. But that day, even I was overwhelmed, as was another co-worker. After the rush passed, another manager came and apologized for the first one's actions because he knew I'd gotten upset about being told to do so much, but that was the only time in Electric Umbrella that anything upsetting ever happened. Sunset Ranch, though - that was an adventure. I'm not saying that I had a ghastly time there, because there were some very sweet people who helped me out when I needed it, but there were times when I was ready to tear off my horrific costume and go back to Electric Umbrella.

Working in food, I'm sure it's inevitable that some injuries occur. Any while you were there?

AMBER: Burns were most common, all purely by accident, and treated as soon as they happened. With scooping ice cream, there were a few people (three, I believe) who ended up having to wear braces for a few days, but that was mostly out of sheer stubbornness in not reporting their injury to begin with! I can't remember Guests getting hurt while I was there, although there was one fight in the Electric Umbrella between Guests. We did have a boy fall off one of the high stools in Fountain View, but a manager escorted him to first-aid, and he was fine. The Mickey sticker did a lot to cheer him up.

Did you ever do anything that management may have frowned upon, for your own enjoyment or for guests?

AMBER: I didn't often deviate from what management said, but if I did, it was usually with those Mickey sprinkles in Fountain View. I remember just having an awful day once (I wasn't too fond of who I was working with, I hadn't had time to eat breakfast, one of my roommates was contemplating leaving early, etc.). So I cheered myself up by putting Mickey sprinkles on pretty much every child's cone. Their little radiant smiles made me feel so much better about my day, knowing that maybe just one of them would remember Fountain View on their next visit.

It definitely shows that you love Disney. I mean, you beat me out for number of visits to the park, and I thought I had been there a lot! What, to you, makes it so magical?

AMBER: Hmm... what gives Disney its magic? For me, it's the fact that I am a dork. That's just all there is to it. As much as people can say I'm mature for my age, there's just something about Disney that immediately makes you revert back to being a kid, where PhilharMagic is just the most wondrous thing you've ever seen and Rockin' Roller Coaster is still the most awesome thrill ride you've ever been on. Part of it is that when you're at Disney, there's always someone else there for the first time. So whether you've managed to enter Magic Kingdom along with a family with two young kids and you get to witness their squeals - and sometimes tears - of joy at seeing the Castle, or hearing people scream on Star Tours because they weren't sure what to expect, you always get that throwback to your own first time.
And then, of course, there is the remarkable fact that those darn Imagineers put so much detail into everything. There's always something new lurking around the corner. For instance, on one of my days off, I went to Magic Kingdom just to watch PhilharMagic (which is my favorite!), and overheard this tiny boy who must have been maybe six or seven. He was telling his dad about the Dumbo in the clouds in the 'Whole New World' scene. I had no idea what he was talking about, so I paid close attention to what he was saying, and sure enough, there was a cloud shaped like Dumbo in the left part of the screen. Completely unreal.

Has it lost some of that magic since you've worked there?

AMBER: I don't think so. It had the reverse effect. Now I know some of the secrets, which is a little satisfying, but knowing what those Cast Members are going through gave me a completely different perspective on their actions toward Guests. If your food is taking a little too long to reach you, it might just be that the printer in the back jammed and your ticket was lost. If a CM isn't smiling, maybe they just got into a wreck on their way in and had to come in anyway. And there are still things that I don't understand. I did an article for Celebrations on Liberty Square while I was there. It was a place that I usually just breezed through, and now that I know more about it, it's instantly more intriguing to me. So I can only imagine what other little secrets are around waiting to be discovered that, far from diminishing the magic, will actually reveal more and more the talent of the people who created this World.

Now that you're home, you said that you plan to re-apply at Disney. Do you know where you'd like to work this time around?

AMBER: I know a little bit more about what I'd like to do. Before I just applied for everything but life guarding (I can't swim), but this time I'm planning to be more selective, choosing from hospitality, concierge, and attractions. Attractions would be a lot fun to work with, especially with such high Guest interaction, and hospitality and concierge would help me work out what it is I would like to do with the company after I graduate college.

When you re-apply, will it be your first time back to Epcot since CareerStart?

AMBER: I actually have not been back since I finished working there. I am going back on spring break with my family, so by then I should know whether I got into the College Program or not, which will be excellent, because while most of the friends I made while down there are from all over the globe, there are still those waiting for me to come back and visit.

Do you want a career at Disney?

AMBER: I would love it! My highest goal would be to write something and actually get it published, but I know that is an intimidating and arduous process - not something you can really do to earn money until you make a name for yourself. And Disney is such a welcoming place, with so many facets to the company, that I don't feel I would ever get bored there or feel like I wasn't being challenged. Toward the end of the program, I began to itch for something more to do, and if I had had a more permanent position, I could have found it. I wouldn't want to work in the food industry, but I think with hotel and resorts, or some aspect of travel (Adventures or Disney Vacation Club), I would be able to find a career which I would be passionate about while trying to crank out a novel.

Thanks for sharing with us, Amber!

And thank you for reading - please come back each week to hear more of the magic directly 'From the Mouth of the Mouse'!

If you are (or know) a Cast Member who would like to share some of their stories and be featured here on Disney Dispatch, email me at jeff@bamferproductions.com. I'd love to hear from you!

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