Alumni learn the art of how to ‘whistle while you work’

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Not everybody can say they work at “The Place Where Dreams Come True,” but for some TCU alumni the Disney College Program allows them to do just that.

After graduating from TCU in May 2017, theater major Hannah Wright began working at Walt Disney World in late August. Wright didn’t expect she’d work with endangered animals, but after being assigned to work in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Wright quickly settled in.

“I knew nothing about animals,” Wright said, laughing. “I was very surprised when I got this position.”

Wright is part of the Disney College Program, which provides work experience and career workshops to college students and recent graduates. The program also helps participants “build transferable skills such as problem-solving, teamwork, guest service and effective communication,” according to the program website. The program is offered to both current college students and recent graduates. Wright has done the program as both, as an alumna now, and while she was a junior at TCU.

Most of Wright’s time is spent in the Maharajah Jungle Trek, where she guides visitors through exhibits featuring tigers, birds and Komodo dragons. While she does not work with the animals directly, part of Wright’s job is to tell guests about conservation efforts, since most of the animals on display are endangered.

Since her job is mostly outdoors, Wright said the Florida heat can be tough to handle – particularly in her long-sleeved uniform.

“With the hurricane that’s just passed through I feel like there’s so much humidity in the air,” she said. “It does get really, really warm outside.”

But her job is worth it when she gets to be with children, she said.

“They’re just so hilarious and they’re so curious and they’re so eager to learn” she said. “They’re so unapologetically themselves. I just love that.”

Wright minored in elementary education and said she enjoys working with children because they are unpredictable and enthusiastic. Many children she meets don’t speak English, but Wright said there’s not much of a language barrier.

“They still understand the universal language of a smile and a high-five and a sticker,” she said.

‘Tenacity and hard work’

In 2016, 10.8 million people visited the Animal Kingdom, according to the Themed Entertainment Association annual index. DisneyWorld’s other parks were even more popular with The Magic Kingdom seeing 20.4 million visitors, Hollywood Studios seeing 10.8 million and Epcot seeing 11.7 million last year according to the same report.

Epcot is where fellow Class of 2017 almuna, and Wright’s current roommate, Maddie Curran works as a greeter for The Seas with Nemo and Friends Aquarium. Like Wright, Curran joined the Disney College Program in May after graduation.

Curran said she has always enjoyed working with children and that growing up with younger siblings fueled her passion. Working with kids at Disney however, is a unique experience Curran said.

“I think it’s totally different being in this kind of situation,” Curran said. “The opportunities it gives us are so cool.”

Curran is new to Disney, but said she is already learning about tenacity and hard work.

“I’ve only been here a week and I already feel like I’ve worked more here than I worked the whole time in college,” she said.

This hard work is something fellow alumna Sarah Maegdlin understands working as a character attendant with Disney’s entertainment division. She described her job as “stage management meets the TSA.” Her job entails facilitating character meet and greets, and partnering with performers and photographers to create “a smooth flow,” she said.

Working from behind the scenes is interesting, Maegdlin said, because it’s like having a backstage pass.

“It’s cool to be watching the parade and know that Rapunzel, Minnie Mouse, or any dancer is a close friend of mine,” she said. “It provides a really unique experience as a cast member.”

Disney’s downside

However there are many challenges to working for Disney, Maegdlin said, including manual labor and intense heat. What is hardest is dealing with visitors, she said, who sometimes become violent. Once, while she was working at a character dining location, Maegdlin said a male visitor mistook her for a waitress, pushed her to the floor and spit on her. He accused her of overcharging him.

“The other challenge comes from working in such a large company that its often very easy to only be seen as a number,” she said. “When you’re visiting Disney as a guest, please remember to treat cast members as human beings. We want to make your day just as wonderful as you want it to be.”

According to the Walt DisneyWorld News website, there are more than 70,000 cast members who work at DisneyWorld alone. However if you can make yourself stand out, Wright said that you’ll have an edge in the job market for the rest of your life.

“Globally and internationally people know the standard that Disney employees are held to,” she said. “If you meet those requirements and if you have fulfilled that, you obviously are a hospitable person who can communicate well.”

Maegdlin added that people looking to work for Disney should prepare to be verbally abused by guests and to be able to take it in stride. Anyone working in “guest-facing roles” is easily replaceable, she added, especially with the number of applicants coming through the College Program.

“Disney is a fun job, but its very very difficult to make a living having only that as a job,” she said, “Often times people don’t realize that Disney only pays barely above minimum wage.”

For some, however, this lack of high pay is made up for by the opportunities the job provides. Curran said her job doesn’t even feel like a job, she said, it feels rewarding.

“I think for the rest of my life, when I look for a job I’m going to look for a job that makes me feel this way,” she said. “When it feels like fun it doesn’t feel like work, and that’s how you know you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”

Wright said that when her program ends in January she hopes to stay at Disney. She said her dream job would be to work with Disney’s Fairy Tale Weddings.

Disney College Program staff declined to be interviewed and referred to the program website.