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Earning My Ears: DAKlamation and Work Location Training for the Disney College Program

Hi there! In my last post we talked about my first couple of days during the Disney College Program, which included the Housing Welcome Session and Traditions Training.

During those couple of days, I familiarized myself with what would be my home for the next four and a half month. I was now a Floridian, or I at least considered myself one. It was a great time of getting to know my new roommates as well. Although we were training, working, and taking classes, we made time together to go park hopping, shopping, and we even had a big “family” dinner where we all contributed and made something for the meal.

Day 4: DAKlamation

animal kingdom - disneyDAKlamation is basically a training event where you learn all about—or become “acclimated”– to your location. Disney’s Animal Kingdom is abbreviated DAK, so that is why my training was referred to as DAKlamation. Cast Members who work in other parks or locations would have a separate training.

This was another early morning, which is something I became accustomed to when working at a park that typically closed at 5 p.m.  (which is no longer the case).  It was easy to wake up because I was as excited for that day as I had been for Traditions. I took the bus from my apartment complex to Animal Kingdom. Sometimes when I would wait at the bus stop very early in the morning, I wouldn’t necessarily be watching for busses, but rather eating my breakfast, reading a book, and/or listening to music. While I could see myself easily missing a bus to Epcot or Downtown Disney, it was nearly impossible to miss a DAK bus because most Cast Members who work there have elaborate and bright costumes designed to look African or Asian, themed for the different areas in which they would be working. It was pretty hard to miss a crowd of people decked out in bright orange and green jumpsuits walking towards our bus. This was just one of the many reasons I felt so lucky to work at DAK

Once we got to Animal Kingdom, we had to use our ID’s to go through large metal gates that looked similar to revolving doors, but instead of glass they were metal bars. Once you went through these gates you had the option of walking, riding a bike, or taking a bus to a large building where we were to meet our group for DAKlamation. Riding bikes to different locations backstage became something I looked forward to when I was on my way to work.

Once we were inside the building, we sat through about an hour long presentation, and then, we were on our way for a private tour of our park. The day was set up much like Traditions, but this day was focused on our specific park instead of the Walt Disney Company as a whole. During DAKlamation, we learned a lot of facts about DAK, such as the road signs in DinoLand, U.S.A represent the fact that DAK opened on Earth Day in 1998, and the Tree of Life is 145 feet tall, 50 feet wide at the base, and has 300 animal carvings. (The Tree of Life even has a hidden Mickey, so make sure you look for it on your next visit!) We were also told many times that DAK is not a Zoo, but a Wildlife Reserve. I was impressed to learn that not only does Disney house these animals, but they also rescue and breed endangered species as well. If you haven’t learned by now that Disney is much more than just a theme park, then let this little fact sink in.  These were great conversation starters to help me interact easily with guests. I always tried to keep my eyes and ears open for new facts, especially when working in new locations, so I could help guests learn even more about the park. I was nervous I would forget certain bits of information, but within the first week or two, I got the opportunity to talk to so many guests. I even knew how many leaves the Tree had on it. If I didn’t know the answer to a question I was not supposed to say “I don’t know”, but rather, “That’s a great question! Let me find out for you,” and call my manager back at base. This is just one of the professional tips I have been able to use at my current job “in the real world”. Disney managed to give me so much helpful professional training, and this was just the start! There were so many great opportunities for me to learn, so I encourage you to be curious and ask questions when talking with Cast Members.

During the DAK, tour I met some really nice people and was so excited to learn that, just like in Epcot, here I would be meeting people from Africa, Asia, and pretty much all around the world.  After our tour, our group was allowed to jump ahead of the line for a chance to ride Kilamanjaro Safaris. This was such a wonderful moment personally, because I just got to take some time to really take it all in. I knew from my sisters having done the program that your park kind of becomes your home and even a little part of your identity. I was in such awe over the beauty of the animals and the land. I knew I would miss my family’s farm back home, but this was a nice substitute and would be a good change of scenery for the next couple of months. (Thanks Disney, for placing me in a park where I could visit miniature donkeys when I got homesick for the little guys my family housed back home!)

Day 5: Work Location Training

My work location training was yet another early, but exciting, morning. I didn’t have my costume yet, but I dressed according to The Disney Look as I had for Traditions, DAKlamation, and other Disney events. You are also supposed to wear your name tag on these days, which is always pinned to your left side. For the first couple of weeks Cast Members will have a red ribbon on their name tag that says “Earning My Ears”. This is how you know they are in still in training, so patience is very much appreciated when you come upon a Cast Member with these ribbons.

For this day we were to take the bus to Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS) where our first day of training would be. Luckily for me, I was shown where to go by my sisters DCP friend, Matt, whose first location was DHS and current location was DAK. I encourage anyone participating in the program who is nervous about finding your way around to just ask a more experienced Cast Member or College Programmer. In my experience, everyone is usually more than happy to help, because that’s what we do all day for guests.

The Disney’s Photo Imaging Center or (DPI) is housed in the old animation building located backstage in DHS. Because Disney does not animate their films in Florida anymore, this is where all of the photos from every Disney Park end up. The building, which has murals of different Disney animated movies, has many rooms with computers where Cast Members receive the photos. Have you ever gotten home to find that Tinker Bell had magically appeared in your hand, or Simba was cradled in your arms in certain photos? Here is where they spread a little bit of pixie dust onto each of your photos to put the magic in these Magic Shots.

During this day of training, I and about 5 others CP Photopass Photographers sat at a large conference room table with two trainers. We spent the majority of the day inside, learning the basics, but my favorite thing we learned is that we are simply here to capture the memories.  They urged us to keep in mind that Photopass Photographers were not here based on commission or sales but that we were a free service.  We were even encouraged to use a guest’s camera or phone if they asked, so they could get a photo of their whole group for free.

We then got to visit the costume department. The costumes for Photopass are very basic.  We wore blue knee length shorts, a white button up shirt, a tan mesh vest, a water bottle hooked on to our belt loop, a black belt, a black “fanny” pack attached to our belts for rain gear, a harness type camera strap, an optional safari-looking hat, and of course our name tags. We also had to purchase white sneakers and white socks that covered our ankles. I ended up buying a pair of Reebok Princesses, the shoes my mother wore in the 80’s and 90’s that I had teased her about for years. They ended up being the most comfortable shoes I have ever owned.  I was even tempted to wear them during days when I visited the parks as a guest.

Apparently during that time, Photpass Photographers were in the process of switching costumes, which I have yet to see, but they only had male costume’s left for the other girls and I. The costumes did not fit me properly according to The Disney Look, so I got to have my shirts custom made! This was exciting to me because I got very new and clean outfits that, thanks to the costuming ladies, fit me to a tee. I felt like Cinderella when the mice were measuring her to make her first dress for the ball. All said and done, I did not look like Cinderella, but I felt a lot more confident in my blue shorts and mesh vest when it fit me correctly. Disney does have a service to wash your costumes for you, but I decided not to since my costumes were made specifically for me, and I wasn’t guaranteed to get those exact ones back. I even heard one of the other girls say she would nab one of my smaller shirts once I gave them to costuming for laundry. No thank you!

On our second day of training, we got to go outside to use what would become our best friends over the next couple of months, Nikon DSLRs. Shooting on these for 4-12 hours 5 days a week made me know this camera like the back of my hand. Unfortunately though, when I would take my own Canon DSLR into the parks, I would forget basic functions because the Nikon had become my new baby. As a Photopass Photographer, they supply you with a camera and flash every shift. The cameras are hooked up to a PDA which every at the beginning of a shift, or after breaks, you have to log your info into such as what area of the park you are in and which Magic Shots you will be using. We also had a baracodas which read magic bands and Photopass cards. These devices would hang from our belt loops. Sometimes you will also be supplied with a Nokia phone and ear piece. All of this along with extra Photopass cards in our pockets, water bottles and rain gear on our belts, weighed down my shorts heavily! Embarrassingly, I had to keep my belt cinched tight, or I would lose them completely. Not to mention that the camera was clipped on to a harness that went around my back and hung from my chest. However, I got used to the costume quickly and didn’t mind all of my dangling “decorations”, even in the hot Florida heat; especially, when I saw that one of my roommates had to wear a straw bonnet, apron, and flowy pants designed to look like a full skirt.

We spent the first part of the day shooting each other backstage. After lunch, we got to go out into the streets of Sunset Boulevard. We all took turns observing each other while someone would photograph guests. At one point, our trainer, who was an older man, had all of us observe him taking photos of a family which resulted in another Photopass Photographer about his age standing behind him mockingly take photos of him taking photos. Then about 5 more the older Photopass Photographers joined in. Soon they were running around Sunset Boulevard, all playing pranks on one another like photobombing guests pictures, playing tag, or making another photographer have bunny ears when they were behind the camera. Now a group of guests were standing in a circle around all of the Photopass Photographers laughing and taking pictures. They thought we were a street show!

The next day, I separated from my training group because we all had training in our home parks. I was the only one who was placed in DAK. I spent the day with my trainer, Precious. Usually during this training you will be with other CP’s, but I was the only DAK Photopass Photographer coming in for the next week or two. I was happy and relieved to learn that he was impressed with my photography skills. Something I loved about our Disney trainers was that they gave us compliments and also constructive criticism. While I was praised for my photography skills, they also told me I needed to work on my shyness. However, they helped me to overcome this by offering different tips and techniques for how to talk to guests. They also gave this criticism in an affirming way by talking about my strengths. While I don’t think I will ever be an extrovert, I am forever grateful to Disney for helping me overcome this to a certain degree.

We were now ready to start our first day of work. Later in the weeks to come, we would have separate training for nighttime and shooting characters. Once we completed these training days, we would get to take our “Earning My Ears” ribbons off of our nametags.

(DAK Logo ©Disney. Tree of Life photo from Matthew Whisante’s personal collection. Nametag photo from the author’s personal collection.)

What are some helpful tips a Disney Cast Member has given you?

Elysabethe is a 23-year old Disney addict and Disney College Program Alum. Her first visit to the parks was when she was just three months old, and her most recent visit was on her honeymoon last June. When she is not in the parks she can usually be found carrying her resort mug full of diet coke and singing to Disney music on her drive to work, trying to bring some of the “magic” back home.