So went the inner thoughts of a once naive man, and all too many innocent victims of the Disney Corporation. Yes, I admit that my excitement was uncontainable when I was accepted into the Disney Internship Program. Their presentation was a high-energy multimedia production that made me feel like my life was about to begin at last. And so it began.
The Welcome Package
A few weeks before the program was to begin, I received a welcome package. Needless to say, there was a lot to sign, but you can’t join the program unless you do, so I did. More on that later.
Along with the paperwork, Disney had delivered a book. Far from a fairy tale, this book contained only sketchings and descriptions detailing how you were and were not allowed to look while working in Disney World. Men were not allowed piercings, visible tattoos, or unkempt facial hair; we could wear one ring on the left hand if we wanted. Women were given an “appropriate” range of hair length and amount of skin showing. The term “all-American” was thrown around quite a bit throughout the book. Although it struck me as a little unusual, I accepted that this was a conglomerate business that needed to present itself a certain way.
I arrived in Disney World to find that I was assigned to a pretty nice apartment complex. So then no big deal that it was owned and run by Disney and the bushes on property were reshaped to resemble Mickey Mouse ears. That would become the least of my concerns. I soon discovered the ramifications of one of the dotted lines I’d signed. Disney housing was expensive, and although living there was mandatory for those in the Internship Program, Disney did not pick up the tab. In fact, as an added convenience, they took rent right out of our paychecks.
The first item on the itinerary was to attend a welcome presentation on our first night. It began with some statistics. The presenter had every member of the audience stand, and then half of us sit back down. “The people still standing will most likely not complete the program,” she said. An interesting statistic to be sure, but it struck me as unusually daunting for a welcome speech. She then proceeded to throw out many examples of why these people will quit or be “terminated” (Disney tends to sugarcoat its terms, for example – dubbing its employees “cast members,” and working in a theme park “on-stage” – but does its best to make getting fired sound like the worst thing in the world, hence “termination”). There was once a cast member who showed up late for work after receiving a warning. Terminated. There was once a guy who gave his friend a free hot dog at his quick-service food stand. Terminated. There was once a girl who had to leave work early to pick up her parents at the airport. Terminated. I later learned that Disney can’t afford the staff that they hire, so they make sure there are enough rules in play to efficiently maintain the cast member population in case their 1/2 drop-off rate prediction doesn’t come to fruition.
Later that week, we were delivered a presentation from Vista bank – Orlando’s newly opened bank… wait for it… run by Disney – because apparently being endowed with the ability to take rent directly our of our paychecks didn’t give them enough control over our money – they wanted to have it all. Many signed up – the benefits were clear – it was convenient, and the only way to enroll in direct deposit, so as not to waste our precious time-off running to the bank. Ultimately though, it didn’t really matter, because our net balance after rent was so little that most, if not all of our money went right back into Disney’s parks and restaurants.
Quick anecdote – I once took a single day off to visit a friend, and my net paycheck for that 2-week pay period was $5. Needles to say, I ultimately left the Disney program with far less money (and pride) than when I’d arrived.
Did I say brainwashing? I meant training… I think. The training program was called, “Traditions,” and it lasted 3 days. We were shown videos, introduced to staff, and most importantly, taught how to point with 2 fingers (so as to not offend international visitors). Many of the videos were narrated by Walt Disney himself, which makes you wonder if their training has become a bit antiquated, or if they just unfroze his body and made him speak at gunpoint.
The key term we left chanting was “synergy.” Synergy is basically Disney’s way of rationalizing the things they make their daughter companies do for them, and the projects they rip off as their own. Synergy is Disney’s excuse for creating a theme park ride out of every successful movie (Star Wars, Toy Story), a movie out of every successful theme park ride (Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion), and forcing ABC and ESPN employees to wear Disney badges at all times. Once they felt we had all adequately subscribed to their religion, the new hires, now re-dubbed “cast members” were sent out into the parks to do their duty.
I worked the summer on location at Epcot’s outdoor theater in World Showcase. If the temperature wasn’t above 100, it was only because it was raining torrentially. Don’t worry though, we were allowed to drink while working in the park – but only as long as we chose one of two options. Zephyrhillis water and Powerade pay Disney a buttload of cash to guarantee that those are the only two beverages Disney cast members will drink while working. But at least we didn’t have to pay for these mandated beverages… wait, yes we did (side note – although Disney encouraged its employees to show off what they were currently drinking, putting it down somewhere would make it look like loose garbage, so in turn we were encouraged to open up the back panel of the nearest garbage can and store it in there).
Is the smell of those honey roasted nuts from the nearby cart making you hungry? Too bad. You can’t eat or spend money while working. If you need a fix that badly, you’re allowed to go backstage, change into street clothes, buy the nuts, scarf them down, and then change back. So much for your 15 minute break.
Furthermore, while on our feet for 8 hours a day in the heat, slouching or leaning were grounds for termination. Arms were to be at one’s side or behind the back at all times. One cast member at my post was caught with his hands in his pockets. Terminated.
When it rained, although it was nice to have an opportunity to cool off, we couldn’t use umbrellas near the theater or it would block the audience. Instead we were issued see-through panchos so as to keep our uniforms (“costumes”) dry, but still allow the guests to enjoy what they look like.
It was time for my friends and family to come for a visit and reap the benefits of knowing someone who worked in their favorite vacation spot. Well once again I’d neglected a key section of fine print on my contract. Guests were not allowed to stay with employees, nor even be within 5 feet of the apartment complex at night. Disney was however happy to extend a minimal discount to family members who agreed to check-in to a Disney hotel – how convenient for everyone.
This discovery came toward the end of my trip and I was fed up. My girlfriend had come down to visit, expecting to stay with me for a week, only to find out she’d have to check into a hotel. That wasn’t a legitimate financial option for either of us, so we snuck her in. Little did we know, Disney security checks your work schedule and regularly enters your apartment while you’re out in search of drugs, alcohol, and of course, evidence of overnight guests. I was later informed that Disney’s rationale for this is that any foul play in one of their apartment complexes will wind up on the news, and they don’t want that.
In short, security arrived one morning with a video camera (to document the event) and asked why I had girl’s clothes in the apartment and who was in the shower. I claimed that my roommate was in the shower (again, I was not aware that security already knew he was at work), so they waited for him to get out. The jig was up, so when she emerged from the bathroom, security informed her that if she ever set foot in a Disney apartment complex again, she would be arrested. I guess if you’re a Disney-employed security guard, you’ll take whatever power you can get.
I was deposed for my misdeeds but informed that I would not be terminated at this time – just issued a warning. I un-politely declined and decided it was time to terminate myself. Upon doing so, the last bit of fine print was revealed to me – by leaving my program early, I would not be allowed to work for Disney or any of its affiliate companies (ABC, ESPN, Touchstone, etc.) for 6 months. That was fine with me.
So you may be asking yourself how Disney gets away with all this – paying employees less than minimum wage, telling them what to drink and when to eat, and firing them at the drop of a hat. First of all, they call the program an “internship” so they don’t have to pay minimum wage. Most interns don’t get paid, so we should all be so lucky, considering all the experience – they’ll teach you how to clean, sweat, and cry for free! Unfortunately, the hard truth of it is that Disney put Orlando on the map, and Florida is not about to bite the hand that feeds it. Disney World at this point is more like a small country than a series of theme parks, and who wants to go to war with them?
Still not convinced? All I can say is that if you’ve read this article and you’ve decided to give it some serious thought before committing to Disney, then I’ve done my part. You should know ahead of time that you’re saying goodbye to your friends and family because they can’t visit you for long, you WILL lose money during your stay, and you’ll most likely be working in extreme environments where your every move is monitored – and all this is despite the flashy presentation from Disney when they visit your school. I have spoken with people who enjoyed the program (instead of spending a semester abroad, they were happy to party down in Disney World), so it just may indeed be for you; but be forewarned that aside from putting Disney on your resume, this is not a career move – it’s cheap park labor for Disney. And please have someone give you a cold hard slap in the face before you pen your name to Disney’s contract – just in case.