We all know that person who won’t stop talking about their glory days. We get it. You were a high-school quarterback star. You were on the college cheer team. Your fitness used to be the envy of the neighborhood. You studied abroad. You worked for Disney.
Woah, wait, what?
Recently, I noticed that maybe (just maaaaybe), my brief, seven-month semester participating in the Disney College Program in 2016 was a conversation topic I brought up too much. I use problem-solving examples and leadership principles that I learned from Disney to offer solutions within meetings and projects in my current workplace. I reference fond backstage memories during nearly any discussion that arises concerning the theme park industry. Basically, I’m not shy about incorporating Disney experiences into everyday conversation. I’ve never seen any eye rolls or experienced visceral complaints about discussing the Disney College Program so often. However, the idea that maybe I bring it up too much came to my attention when I noticed how I was being introduced to new people. Nearly every time a friend or co-worker introduces me to someone new, they say, “This is Blake. He used to work for Disney.”
First, when you say it like that, it sounds much higher-up than my position actually was. While I did “work for Disney,” the image that that language suggests probably isn’t walking around a park picking up delivery packages, stocking shelves with merchandise, or cleaning dirty strollers. Second, and more importantly, I discovered that without even realizing it, my reputation had become defined by a short seven-month period that took place two years ago. I realized that I’m known as the guy who used to work for Disney.
Don’t get me wrong, being “the Disney guy” was nothing new. I’ve been a fan forever, and always will be, and as such, I’ve always generally been associated with the brand at work, or earlier in life at school. It’s “the guy who used to work for Disney” that’s unfamiliar and had a vibe I wanted to replace.
In short, I wanted to be aware if I was becoming someone who only lived in his own past. The real wake-up call was when my younger brother began his own DCP a few months ago. He’s participating during the same stage of life that I was in (the semester after graduating college) at the same time of year that my program was. It’s difficult to not think of where he’s at as his semester moves along, and where my own story paralleled each step of the way. A few weeks after he’d been down there, I realized I was vicariously living through his experience in the same way a parent might live through their child’s school days, trying to influence his decisions or suggest that his program had to look a certain way. In reality, I had my program. Now, he has his, and it’s ok if those are different.
So, I set out to shift the perception that I believed I gave off, of being too hung up in my own history. I wanted to make a new definition of my relationship with The Walt Disney Company. I didn’t want to be the guy who used to work there. I just wanted to be the guy who was passionate about the same ideals Disney represents: joy, happiness, excellence. It wasn’t the association with the brand I wanted to dismiss by any means. Like I said, I was a fan long before I was a Cast Member, and I’m not ashamed to be known as a fan. It was the position in time that my reputation referred to that I wanted to shift. Not being someone who was hung up in his Disney past, but someone who continued to make new meaning out of it for the present and the future.
Basically, I did a 180. I stopped myself from bringing up examples from my Disney work experience at my current job. I took a vacation to Walt Disney World and intentionally didn’t visit Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the park in which I worked. During conversations in group chat threads with roommates and friends I met during my program (which are still alive and active, a sign of the program’s special-ness with regard to forming relationships), I tried not to reminisce about old Disney memories and instead talked about other things.
And I found that… something was missing. In trying to let go of the Disney College Program, I found that… you can’t. To not use valuable business sense gleaned from one of the world’s most prolific companies is to deprive my current workplace of added insight. To leave my home park absent from my vacation itinerary was equivalent to a part of my soul being left in an abyss to rot and die (ok, maybe not, but… maybe so). To omit beloved, foundational moments from conversations with co-workers was to strip away a core element of our relationship. They’re the only people in the world that I share that specific, unique experience with, and really the only people that can relate to it in the same capacity that I do.
These actions felt like I was repressing part of who I was.
And in yet another turn of thinking, I had a rebuttal discovery: I’ll always be “the guy who used to work for Disney.” At least, partially. I think any Disney College Program alumni can attest that there is no ridding yourself of your Disney experience. When your program concludes, your time there doesn’t just remain a self-contained season of your past — it becomes part of who are.
That’s not to say I always have to vocally remind everybody about it. I can incorporate the leadership skills I learned at Disney without announcing my thought process to my team. I can spend a day in Animal Kingdom without continually viewing it through the lens of my former self who spent 6-14 hours there 5-6 days a week. I can meet up with former co-workers and remember our roots, while still conversing about other topics. It’s not an either/or situation.
There is a distinctive line that the DCP drew, that I’m sure many others would agree upon. There is a pre-DCP you and a post-DCP you. The DCP is such a unique experience that it’s impossible to claim otherwise. Your life is put on pause for you to spend a few months in a fantasy world whose legacy is legendary, and dive head-first with a few hundred other people your age into a crazy, exhausting, beautiful, wonderful experience that absolutely no one on this planet will ever be able to properly relate to unless they’ve experienced it, too. It’s a realm of traditions and Traditions, of ERs and force extensions, of “Have a magical day!” and “Oh my goodness, how on earth are we going to clean up this hurricane debris in time for the park to open?”… all the while knowing that, whether you stay in Orlando afterward or not, this period has a definitive end, and things will be different once the page turns. It’s a safe place of knowing that you don’t have to have the rest of your life figured out just yet, and with the most magical place on earth as a backdrop, you can take a moment to discover a little bit more about yourself and what you might want the rest of your life to look like.
You cannot come out on the other side the same person. As such, I want to bridge what began during the Disney College Program and continue to build upon it. I don’t want to longingly lament how DCP was some ultimate semester of my life that I’ll never get back, but rather celebrate how it was the launching pad for a remarkable new season that shifted the lens with which I view everything.
Will there ever come a day when I approach the people I interact with at work and DON’T think about the Disney guest experience training I received? Will there ever come a day when I pass through the main entrance of Animal Kingdom and NOT think of the countless hours spent within that small vicinity? Will there ever come a day when I converse with a fellow alumni and DON’T bring up the commonality between us being that we’re fellow alumni? Perhaps. But for now, at least, entertaining the notion of such a possibility is folly.
Certainly, I shouldn’t live in the past. No one should. In adding new conquests to the map of our lives, though, maybe the old should not be forgotten as quickly as we sometimes like to think it should. I’ll forever be the Disney guy, to some degree, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
All photos belong to author’s personal collection.
To learn more about Blake and read his recent posts for the WDW Radio Blog, visit his author page by clicking the link on his name at the top of this post.