–Karen Burns, WDW Radio Team
As every Disney fan and resort guest knows, a large part of what makes our visits to the parks so special and memorable the hard work and infectious enthusiasm of Disney Cast Members.
From the very start of your day when you are greeted with a friendly smile at the touch points; to the personal interactions at photo ops, character meet and greets, and in stores and restaurants; to the happy wave goodbye at the end of a long day when your feet (and theirs!) are aching and your energy spent — you are made to feel like a cherished friend rather than just a paying customer.
Without the Cast Members, the magic of Disney is not complete and the fairy dust somehow loses it sparkle and shine. Walt Disney himself understood the value of this connection and as Jim Korkis highlights in his book Call me Walt: Everything You Never Knew About Walt Disney, Walt made many innovations in the hospitality industry, one of which was introducing name badges for his staff. Everyone is on first-name terms, and this immediately creates a sense of family.
For Sophie Groves, growing up in the UK the thought of one day becoming a Cast Member seemed an impossible dream. She was destined to be a Disney fan, heavily influenced by parents who honeymooned in Walt Disney World and frequently went on family trips to Disneyland Paris. When not at the parks, Sophie would watch movies and the Disney Channel – her all-time favourite movie being Beauty and the Beast.
She says of the parks: “They were a magical place where once you stepped onto Main Street, it felt like you were not in the real world.”
As a teenager she didn’t think she would even get past the Cast Member application stage as she didn’t speak French and at that point, travelling over 4,000 miles to Florida to work seemed totally out of reach. However in 2015, her dad who is a driving instructor, had an interesting conversation with one of his students who had taken part in a summer programme at Walt Disney World. It sounded like a great experience for his daughter, and he knew if selected, Sophie would have a wonderful time working in a place that she loved. Perhaps the dream could come true for her after all…
Sophie went to Brighton University in September 2016 to study primary education and although the thought of applying for a cultural exchange programme made her very nervous, she knew it was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed as it would be such an adventure! So, in August 2017 she took the plunge and applied through the British Recruitment Agency, www.YummyJobs.com, based in Epping in Essex. She waited an anxious two weeks for news and was delighted to be invited for a pre-screen interview. The pre-screen stage of the process was delivered over three days, and she was one of hundreds of excitable people taking part.
“Everyone was asked to watch a film about the Disney company which explained the roles available at the parks for cast members, as well as what the visa, medical requirements and costs would be,” explained Sophie. “We were then put into smaller groups, and I was in Team Simba. The groups were given some time to go for a coffee and a chat so we could get to know one another before we were called back for a group interview’.
At first Sophie was unsure about this interview format as she was quite a shy person at the time and not overly confident. She remembers how her mum was quite worried about her as she knew how much Sophie wanted the job and that if she wasn’t selected, how devastated she would be. But she found that the group dynamic worked really well as the team members started bouncing ideas off one another when answering questions. The dialogue was much more natural and relaxed and rather than feeling like they were competing against each other, they were instead helping each other to answer the interviewers’ questions.
She was pleased that she had completed the first step and was very excited when she was told she got through to the next stage. This involved visiting Disney HQ in Hammersmith, London, for a one-on-one interview which took place in November 2017.
“Disney HQ was absolutely amazing!” said Sophie. “There were movie posters and memorabilia on all the walls and at the time there must have been a Star Wars movie coming out because there were Star Wars models in the corridors.”
Sophie was interviewed by three people on an interview panel and asked a series of questions which included example scenarios. She was also asked which Disney character she would describe herself as and why. When she received the phone call at the end of November, her mum was the first person she contacted. She remembers how both her and her parents were crying when Sophie told them she’d got the job!
Back in 2017 when completing the initial application form, Sophie was asked to detail her work experience up to that point and she was able to give her top three choices for the roles she was interested in. There were a variety of jobs available, and Sophie’s preferences were to work in food and beverage, as a character attendant, or in merchandise. As her previous work experience in the UK had been working in a pub and she had worked in a children’s play centre, it was felt that she
would be better suited to a role within the food and beverage department.
The final details of her placement were sent in an email when she was told that she would be working at Walt Disney World as a greeter at Cinderella’s Royal Table. She had to google the restaurant as she had never visited it before and was very pleased with the images she saw. When working in the park she remembers how “people would come up to me and ask if there was a table available for that evening. They were shocked when they learned that there was nothing available for the next six months!”
One special memory Sophie recalls is when all the UK new recruits were preparing to fly to Florida.
“Someone in the group suggested we all get hoodies and get our names and Cultural Exchange 2018 printed on them. We all thought this was a great idea and when we arrived at the airport, we were all wearing these hoodies! Because we were taking up 90% of the Virgin Atlantic flight that day, all you could see was hoodies everywhere! It looked brilliant and it helped everyone bond and feel part of a special experience.”
Everyone arrived in Florida on June 16, 2018, and they all had a couple of days to settle in before starting their training. Sophie had arranged to stay with a few of the girls she had met at the UK interview at Disney’s Art of Animation resort, and they enjoyed an exciting few days exploring the hotel and relaxing by the pool.
On the Monday she reported for duty, they were assigned their room and a roommate. Each apartment would have six Cast Members with two to each room.
“I was chatting to a girl in the queue who was also called Sophy and we got on really well,” she remembers. “It was a strange coincidence that when we turned over the card with our room allocation on it, we found out we were actually going to be roommates, which was great.”
Although the other friends she had made were in different accommodation blocks, there were transport buses to get around the site, so it was easy enough to visit each other when you had time off. When Sophie worked at the parks, there were four accommodation blocks for cast members, varying in price. The cost of your accommodation was deducted straight from your wages.
When the new recruits completed their training and earned their ears, they attended a Disney graduation ceremony. Mickey and Minnie were the guests of honour and posed for photos with the cast members. Sophie remembers fondly how she and some of her friends went to get their ears personalised with their programme dates and place of work.
Cast Members work incredibly hard and the shifts could be long, but Sophie explained how a lot of the international cast members didn’t mind this as they knew they would only be there for the summer, so they were keen to volunteer, and the shifts went very quickly. A usual day for Sophie would perhaps start at 2pm and she would finish around midnight or sometimes 2am. During this time, she was doing a variety of different tasks such as the meet and greet line for Cinderella, escorting guests for photo opportunities, and talking to guests waiting to come into the restaurant.
“Our thoughts were we could sleep when we got home!”
Asked if she ever felt homesick, Sophie explained that this hadn’t been a problem for her. She was meeting so many new people and was kept busy training and then working in the parks that there wasn’t really time to miss home. Her last day on the programme was August 18, 2018, and she will never forget the magical experience of that hot and humid summer.
She has so many cherished memories. Her roommate turned 20 while they were in Florida so her group of friends spent the day at Animal Kingdom as the park was celebrating its 20th anniversary, so it seemed the obvious place to go. They used their cast member discount to its full that day and had multiple character breakfasts which they thoroughly enjoyed.
She also remembers the July 4th celebrations when there was a disco in Frontierland and a night time event in Typhoon Lagoon when guests could have glow sticks under the water. Another special evening was a Peter Pan Cast Member event in the Magic Kingdom.
Sophie says of her time in Walt Disney World: “If you are a Disney fan and you want a completely different experience and memories that last a lifetime where you meet great friends, then go for it. I would do it again in a heartbeat! But don’t do it to make money as you end up spending your wages on merchandise anyway!”
She is still in contact with the friends she made on the programme, and they meet up for reunions as much as they can considering they are spread all over the UK. One of her friends has had a baby and another has moved from New Zealand to London so there are plans to meet in Scotland at some point to reconnect.
Sophie believes that because of the cultural exchange programme she is a much more confident person and learned valuable skills which have helped her in her chosen career as a primary school teacher back in the UK.
Her love of Disney is as strong as ever and she has a trip booked to return to Walt Disney World in July 2023 staying at the All-Star Music resort. She is looking forward to watching the firework show in Magic Kingdom as Happily Ever After made her cry every time! Sophie is a shining example of how dreams really do come true…