You’ve passed through security and waved your Magic Band at the machine. You stand on the precipice of the Happiest Place on Earth. And you have a plan.
You’re ready to rush to your destination. You’ve anticipated this moment since the moment you woke up. You’ve thoughtfully chosen your first ride, likely an E Ticket attraction whose line will quickly fill. You have only a few moments to sprint to the front of the line. Sure, Disney discourages running in the parks, but you can get where you’re going faster than anyone else. Even under the new rules, rope drop is still the best way to secure the first ride of the morning.
As you race past other Disney fanatics, you give little thought to the state of the park. Over time, you’ve grown to take its impeccable cleanliness and orderly structure for granted. Disney was like this when you first visited as a child, and it remains that way to this day. Since you’ve come to expect it, you pay no mind to the impressive machine that is a Disney theme park.
As much as you’d like to believe that Pixie Dust is what caused the grounds to look so lovely, something striking is at work. Invisible gremlins don’t ready the park for your early morning visit. Instead, that task falls to thousands of loyal cast members. The jobs they perform in the waking hours when you’re still showering and sipping your first cup of coffee are integral to your enjoyment of your day. While you’re brushing your hair, they’re performing all the requisite steps to ensure that a Disney theme park visit feels just as special to a person today as in 1955.
The work is largely thankless, yet the employees who execute these assignments will remember mornings like this for the rest of their lives. Many of them will excel in other industries, and when others pick their brains about such professional triumphs, these former cast members will relay memories of pre-dawn efforts behind the scenes at Disney theme parks. They’ll state that the work ethic, customer engagement skills, and leadership abilities they possess today formed in the darkness at a Disney theme park.
These former Disney employees fondly recall moments of tremendous professional satisfaction and accomplishment that were sight unseen by the general public. During these instances of personal achievement, they took their first steps down the path to self-actualization. They were doing work that brought joy into the hearts of others, and they relished that rare time from years past when they able to grow as people and workers while also having the time of their lives.
To borrow from an old Army slogan, Disney employees do more by 9 a.m. than most people do all day. What follows is a combined recollection of the morning shift at the various North American Disney theme parks. Several former cast members were kind enough to offer a detailed recounting of their favorite times, the moments before the park had opened. They relayed the various aspects of their assigned duties, providing both insights and heartfelt optimism about what they’d achieved in an anonymous setting. If you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at a Disney theme park before the gates open for the early morning crowd, read on to learn just how much cast members accomplish while the rest of us are still in our underwear.
An experimental city
The theme parks at Walt Disney World aren’t the utopias that Walt Disney had once projected for the land he purchased as part of Project X. Still, some of the premises apply. The same is true of Disneyland, the place he built from scratch on lands formerly filled with nothing but orange groves. Whether planned or a matter of happenstance, the two North American Disney campuses are functional cities.
The numbers support this notion. The Disneyland Resort is the largest single-site employer in Anaheim, California. More than 23,000 cast members head to work each morning, their goal being the happiness of strangers visiting from all corners of the planet. Walt Disney World’s numbers are even more dramatic. In order to operate the four gates on campus plus the accompanying resorts, water parks, and Disney Springs businesses, The Walt Disney Corporation employs more than 62,000 cast members. That’s 85,000 official Disney workers in Anaheim and Orlando plus several thousand more contractors. For perspective, that’s roughly equal to the population of Santa Monica, California.
Now consider that an average of 53,000 people visit Walt Disney World each day while 44,000 people attend Disneyland. Using these numbers as a baseline rather than peak season attendance, that’s 97,000 more people visiting the two sites each day. Including cast members, Disneyland hosts 67,000 people at the resort on an average day while Walt Disney World provides for 115,000. In combination, these two campuses roughly match the population of Knoxville, Tennessee, the 129th largest city in the United States. Factoring in contractors, the Disney parks would come close to qualifying as one of the 100 most populous cities in the country.
Imagine if you worked at a place with this much hustle and bustle. Now think about how strange your job is. Many of the people in our town each day are visitors from out of town. They’ll stay a few days and then be on their way. You’ll barely get a chance to know them, and you’ll interact with the overwhelming majority of them once at most. Your job is one of infrastructure. You must perform the tasks your bosses have determined are necessary to guarantee the orderly flow of thousands of people through a congested area. You also have to make certain that their basic needs are met. Those include food, water, shelter, and waste disposal. Since you’re at a tourist destination, you also have to provide extra touches that provide that special vacation feel. Otherwise, travelers won’t feel compelled to visit your establishment.
As a cast member at Disney, you’re the dinner AND the show.
You’re the one who causes theme park tourists to believe in the magical properties of pixie dust. You’re the cog in the machine that everyone takes for granted since they never see what you do in those early morning hours before the park has opened. It’s the breathing definition of thankless assignment yet tens of thousands of cast members over the years have felt tremendous personal satisfaction in doing their part.
So, if you were a cast member, how would you go about handling all of these duties, the ones that, in city-speak, keep the trains running on time? That answer is more painless than you might expect. The answer is that you stand on the shoulders of all the cast members who came before you.
These Disney employees meticulously constructed a series of processes, all of which have the same ultimate outcome. If you follow them, you’ll open the park on time. You’ll satisfy all the needs of the guests in attendance that day. And everyone will exit the park safely without any horror stories about their time at the Happiest Place on Earth. Sure, you accept at the start of each morning that you won’t make everyone happy every day, but when you do your job right, you’ll make most of them feel like a Disney theme park visit lived up to the hype. All you have to do is follow your procedures and your checklist. What are those? Well…
By dawn’s early light
During the research for this article, I interviewed 14 former Disney theme park employees. The Walt Disney Company’s general practice nowadays is to require many departing cast members to sign a non-disclosure agreement on the way out the door. None of the respondents for these interviews violated an NDA by participating in these interviews. A few either disqualified themselves or were disqualified from participating in order to honor Disney’s wish that certain parts of the job stay secret in order to maintain the illusion for visitors.
I attempted to respect Disney’s wishes as much as possible while writing this piece. Nothing posted here falls within the parameters of the tasks they want to go unpublicized. Instead, what follows is relayed information from employees who have worked at Disney theme parks as recently as 2015 and as far back as the 1980s. These participants wanted to share what they learned about the Disney theme park experience and what their duties were in doing their part to make a magical day for you.
A Disney cast member’s day starts in the twilight hours. The opening of a theme park generally happens at a set time, although it depends on the day of the week, season of operation, and a couple of other uncontrollable factors. One of them is whether Extra Magic Hours are in play at the park. If so, the opening moves up an hour.
Another is whether Disney is hosting a special event such as a marathon or private function. Despite the massive popularity of the parks, the company’s sales division still offers special park hours to corporations willing to pay a large sum in order to reserve Disney for their employees. Generally, the latter event happens at night. Marathons can start as early as 5:30 AM, so they screw up the process a bit. I’m going to ignore the exceptions in this discussion, instead prioritizing the details of a regular day at a Disney theme park. And the regular day of work at a Disney theme park starts the same way that any other job does.
Disney cast members wake up early in the morning, they get dressed, and they leave for work. It’s what happens once they arrive on the Disney campus that the situation is quite a bit different. The first issue involves parking. Disney understandably reserves their best parking lots for customers since they have to safeguard the transportation needs of tens of thousands of daily guests. They still try to accommodate cast members by offering special parking in different areas of the site.
At Magic Kingdom, the commute involves a bus trip from the staff parking section to the utilidors. Epcot also includes bus transportation for most employees. Animal Kingdom is perhaps the oddest one in that bikes are available for cast members to traverse the park to their job site. And Disneyland uses Cast Member shuttles from special parking sections, too. The rule of thumb suggested to most new employees is to allow an extra hour of travel for the first week on the job. After that, simply getting to the job from the parking lot can add 30 minutes to the trip.