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Universal Orlando Entrance image

Although Disneyland set the standards, most modern theme parks operate very similarly. With a focus on providing a seamlessly top-notch guest experience, the theme parks follow heavily codified policies and procedures that are tested and verified. Yet each theme park retains a unique corporate culture, brand and target market. Working for Universal Orlando is different from working for Walt Disney World in several important ways.

I am one of thousands of local residents who have worked for both companies. In positions that primarily focused on spieling attractions, I found that the toughest part of training was learning to incorporate the subtle differences between the two. Here are 6 major differences between the life of a Disney Cast Member and that of a Universal Team Member.

1.  Edginess

Beetlejuice Graveyard RevueBeetlejuice Graveyard RevueThe Beetlejuice Graveyard Revue would never fly at Walt Disney World.

In recent years, Disney has made an intentional effort to become hipper, edgier and more modern. Yet the company was founded on childhood magic and make-believe. Cast Members refer to female visitors as princesses, and the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique does a booming business in girly makeovers.

Since its 1990 opening, Universal Orlando has pushed the envelope. Its first-year attractions revolved primarily around disaster scenarios, putting guests in the path of King Kong, in the water with Jaws, and on a subway train in the middle of an Earthquake. Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies gave away many of the legendary filmmaker’s secrets, while the Phantom of the Opera Horror Makeup Show taught the art of film gore.

Over the years, Universal has continued its commitment to edginess with attractions based on such franchises as Transformers, the Mummy and Shrek. It also has the exclusive theme park rights to Harry Potter. The immersiveness of that world, from the headliner attractions to the tiniest details, has set a new standard for what theme parks can achieve.

2. Feeling of family

Universal Team Members at the AleHouseUniversal Team Members at the AleHouseHanging out together at the AleHouse after work helps Universal team members bond.

In 1955, Disneyland was something new and special. In 1971, the Magic Kingdom opened in Orlando as the first Disney park outside of California. By the time I worked there, however, Walt Disney World was already a well-oiled machine.

Universal Orlando was different. The company had abandoned the tram tour model of its Hollywood studio in favor of a series of stand-alone attractions. Many of the ride technologies were untested, and no one knew exactly what might happen. In addition, the park’s opening day was a disaster. Universal needed to rebuild its reputation quickly to have a chance for survival in Disney’s backyard.

All these factors generated a strong sense of community among Universal Orlando’s front line employees, mid-level managers and even executives. There was never a doubt that the group was a team, strengthened by adversity and eager to save the park they truly loved. Universal Orlando was a family in those early days and, despite its later success and expansion, it has never lost that small-park feel.

When I worked for Disney, I felt very much like a cog in a machine. The legendary Disney name brings hundreds of applicants for each position, and every person is ultimately highly replaceable. While that might also be true at Universal, I never felt that way. I was part of the family, and I felt strong bonds with everyone, even those who worked in a different park. Today, years after I left both companies, Universal feels like home in a way that Disney simply never did.

3. College Program

Disney BusDisney BusMany College Program cast members get around on Disney buses. Image: Manop, Wikimedia Commons.

If I had to choose one single factor that I believe has the biggest influence on diminishing the sense of family at Disney, it would be the College Program. Every semester, thousands of college students from around the world take a leave of absence to work at Walt Disney World. Living in Disney-provided housing, they work hard and play hard, eager to soak up as much of Central Florida life as possible. Three months or six months later, depending on which program track they choose, they pack up and return to their home states. Within a week or two, the next batch arrives.

The College Program is a fantastic opportunity for students, and it provides Disney with an endless supply of cheap labor, but it does have two major downsides for non-College Program cast members. For College Program participants to be useful to the company, they must be thoroughly trained as quickly as possible. This streamlining takes away some of the rawness and opportunities for personal expression among the front-line cast members. In addition, it makes teambuilding much tougher. While at Universal, employees might come and go from an attraction in singles or pairs, at Disney attractions, we regularly replaced half or more of our staff all at once.

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