A Lesson In Walt Disney World From The Cast Member Side

Written by Jeff Heimbuch. Posted in Features, From the Mouth of the Mouse, Walt Disney World

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Published on August 15, 2012 at 12:23 am with 3 Comments

Today, we talk to Jared, who really has done it all! He first began working at Walt Disney World for the College Program, and from there, had a litany of jobs ranging from security to being “friends” with various characters. He’s got some great stories and a lot of good insight into Cast Member hierarchy, so I really think you guys will enjoy this one a lot.

Here’s Jared!


JEFF: How did get into Disney to begin with? Any specific memory as a child that made you fall in love with it?

JARED: Disney was always a very large part of my childhood growing up. I’d say as a family trip we probably went to Disney nearly every other year. We only lived about an 8 hour drive away so it was an easy trip to make. I can remember there only being Magic Kingdom and Epcot for a lot of the trips. Once I got older we went less often. I grew up on Disney cartoons, Mickey Mouse Club, Duck Tales, Darkwing Duck, etc. There was always a Disney influence in my life and I just loved the parks. I think the one thing I remember the most from my childhood was the old character breakfasts at the Empress Lilly (of course, now Fulton’s Crab House at DTD) which at the time was the only character breakfast. Interaction with the characters and just the magic of it all had a huge impact on me.

JEFF: Why did you join the college program the first time?

JARED: I originally got into the college program as a way to get my foot in the door at Disney. I enrolled in college in the fall and that very semester (my first semester) I attended a presentation and subsequently interviewed for a spot in the program. I chose attractions as my first choice and really wanted to work in the MK because that was the place I loved the most as a child. The MK to me is “Disney” and I wanted to be in the middle of it all. Of course I was selected and was told only that I got my first choice of attractions. I didn’t know until I got to FL to check in that I was working in the MK, and didn’t know until the first day on the job I would be working in Tomorrowland, I was thrilled to say the least.

JEFF: You were assigned to Tomorrowland attractions during that first stint Alien Encounter, Timekeeper, Astro Orbiter, and then Space Mountain. Can you tell me how these 3 rides all differed from each other, in terms of operation? What was a typical day like on them? (I assume the AE, TK, and Orbiter were all one rotation, while SM was different entirely?).

JARED: You are correct in your assumption. Tomorrowland was divided into four parts for attractions: Alien Encounter, Timekeeper, and Astro Orbiter were one section, Buzz Lightyear, Carousel of Progress and TTA were another, and Space Mountain and Speedway were off on their own, if you worked one of those, that was all you did. Alien Encounter, Timekeeper and Astro Orbiter were very heavy spieling to the guests. There was a lot of speaking you had to do to large groups of guests. Alien Encounter had 7 or so different positions. Trying to get everyone to move all the way down the row to “fill in all available seats” was a huge challenge and it still bugs me to no end when I go to WDW now and people stop in the middle of the row. Of course we had to actually sit in the chamber with guests in one of the positions which was fun seeing people get scared at certain parts, I can still recite most of the dialogue from the show. I was sad to see it go, but Stitch’s Great Escape makes more sense. Timekeeper was a nice break from the heat and only had 2 positions, the worst part there was making sure people didn’t sit on the “lean rails” or film the show. Monster’s Inc. Laugh Floor is a much better attraction. Astro Orbiter also only had 2 positions, loading people in the elevators and operating the ride itself. Numerous times I had people wait 30 minutes in the line and then proclaim they thought it was for the TTA. Space Mountain was a different animal all together. To start with the training was long and intensive and there was A LOT to learn. This is a ride from the late 70’s so it was a very manual process, it also breaks down quite a bit which involves the cast members working the attraction to physically reset each of the “zones” on the ride instead of a master reset on a computer somewhere. Each time the ride broke down the track area (both sides) had to be walked down so that’s why it takes so long to get it back up and running, in case you ever wondered.

JEFF: Did you have a favorite out of all of those?

JARED: I really enjoyed my time at Space Mountain. I had only worked my first three attractions a few months and I was already getting bored. Space Mountain was complex, but it kept you busy. There were so many positions (not to mention both sides of the ride) that you had to work which was nice. Hands down though working the in the control tower (where the line splits in two, at the loading area) was great. Yes, there actually are cast members in there, and yes we did control the ride from there). The ride was so quirky with some of the things you had to do to get it to run properly it always kept you on your toes. Second favorite position was doing the “catwalk” scene at Alien Encounter. There was a part of the attraction where a “maintenance worker” enters the chamber above and is supposed to be resetting the power so the alien gets in its tube, you had to shine a flashlight around and appear to be working on the power, most people assumed it was automated lights, but it was an actual person, and you only had to get up about every 8 minutes or so, a nice rest spot.

JEFF: Any fun, behind the scenes stories of your time during that first CP?

JARED: YES! One of the best things was getting to ride Space Mountain on a daily basis, and more times then I can count with the lights on (I prefer it with the lights off). It was great being able to experience working in the MK and having to utilize the tunnel system on a daily basis. One of the best things I can remember was helping out a family of three on Astro Orbiter. There was a single mom and her three smaller boys, she had hoped to fit all 4 in one vehicle; but we can only put three in maximum. She was stuck with having one child left over and she didn’t want him waiting by himself while the rest went on the ride, luckily one of my co-workers came to me to give me a break at the time, so I got to ride astro orbiter with the kid and we made it last twice as long as normal, that still sticks out in my mind as some magic I helped make for a guest. Of course we got to see a lot of celebrities on Space Mountain, which was always fun.

JEFF: What made you decide to go back for another College Program go round?

JARED: I decided to go back mostly because I had such a great time I knew I had to do it again. I made a lot of friends, loved working for Disney, and wanted to experience making magic in a whole new way. Also, a couple of my close friends I made on the first program got accepted into entertainment too, so being able to come back and work with them was also a plus.

JEFF: Tell me a bit about being a character performer. How did you get into the role to begin with, with an audition?

JARED: Yes, there was an audition. I was never a dancer before and had never performed in any sort of theatre so this was WAY outside the box for me. Most of the audition was picking up short dance routines and putting them all together and they got progressively harder as you went on. As I stated I am not a dancer but I am (as I found out without even knowing) a good animator. Basically I can do crazy exaggerated movements and look generally goofy. As the audition went on I kept messing up the dance movements but I made it into a big spectacle falling down and whatnot which I think helped me out greatly. There are four color codes they use to rate your movement and animation; green, blue, yellow and red. I was classified as a blue movement and a red animation. Also, Buzz Lightyear was one of the characters I performed as. His costume is a beast to fit into and only a few people actually can. After the dance routine they pulled me in and put me in the costume to see if I met the requirements, it fit me pretty well. So that reason and the fact I had good animation got me the job. They actually wanted me to continue my college program another 8 months but I deferred to the spring so I could at least go back and finish off another semester of school.

JEFF: Did you have a favorite character to perform as, or a favorite park to perform in?

JARED: Favorite character, it depended on a few factors, and I have a top 3. I performed as around 20 separate characters in my height range (which is a lot) and each one of them had its good and bad parts. My number 1 overall favorite day was doing a set called “Characters on Holiday” at Epcot as Pluto. You may have seen the double decker bus at Epcot; well that’s what we used all day. We’d pop up at different parts of the park, drive around world showcase a ways, and stop do do some meet and greets. The sets (the length of time we were out in the park in costume) were pretty short (20 minutes) and riding around on top of the bus and waving and acting crazy was pretty cool, I think I could done that every day and never got tired of it. I also liked Buzz Lightyear a lot. He is the favorite character of a lot of kids and they get a kick out of seeing him. The costume is quite heavy and not easy to move around it, not to mention I had to use a stamp instead of actually signing an autograph, but some of the kids would go crazy to see Buzz, which was cool, I was always a bigger deal then Woody, who was usually with me. It was nice because I was usually playing second fiddle to Mickey or Goofy when I was Pluto. My third favorite was Green Army Man from the Toy Story movies. That was fun because unlike a lot of the other costumes you could actually move around very well and the guests got a huge kick out of seeing all the green army men together. There were pretty much no roles on what to do or not do, and (depending on who was a green army man with you) you could have A LOT of fun.

Favorite Park, anywhere but Animal Kingdom. AK was usually very hot. I had the opportunity to work at Typhoon Lagoon as Pluto once which was an awesome day and allowed for some cool pictures. I also much preferred working the parks to the resorts. Some of the resorts have character dining as did the parks, I would much rather be out in the park and not stuck walking around a restaurant. All in all I have very little to complain about being in entertainment, I loved every minute of it and even the worst day as a character is still pretty awesome then most any other job on property.

JEFF: How did being character differ from being an attractions CM?

JARED: It was vastly different. The work schedule, for one, is a lot different; I usually worked until park closing in attractions and rarely ever did as a character. Most character sets are over before the park closes. There was also a lot more break time, or off set time. Usually (unless it was over 90° out) you did 30 minute sets and had 30 minutes off set, dining pushed that to 45 on 45 off because you were inside, but having to work usually no more then 45 minutes was nice. You also didn’t have to actually talk to guests; you had to use your body language. When I worked attractions I took a lot of flack from guests if the attraction was down, or something else was going wrong, but as a character I never really had to deal with facing problems from guests; a lot of that depended on how good your greeter was, some were absolutely awesome, others… lets just say not so much. I also felt like I had more of an impact on a guest’s vacation. Also, the other cast members were different. In attractions the ones that had been with Disney for a long period of time were often bitter and didn’t like college program participants because they felt like we were taking their job or hours. In entertainment most of the college program cast members did meet and greet sets or dining sets. A few got trained in parades and shows, but not a lot, so I felt there was less hostility towards us.

JEFF: Again, any fun backstage stories about your time then?

JARED: I got to take part in a lot of extra opportunities, I think most of the time I was in the right place at the right time. Anytime we got to meet with make a wish children and spend some extra time with them was nice. Sometimes we would be placed in a separate room or they would make sure that the family was the last to see a character and we got to spend a few extra minutes to make their stay more magical. I once got the opportunity to spend some time at the make a wish village in Kissimmee which is an amazing place. That was one of my best shifts as a character, those kids are genuinely happy to see characters and the parents appreciate the smiles you create for them. Other great times were taking pictures for celebrities if they happened to be coming through your line. There were a couple opportunities when people would wander backstage and you’d be sitting there in half costume and they would see you or see two Mickey’s sitting next to each other. They still do lead backstage tours for guests and them getting to see half dressed characters has to be odd for them to see. I think the coolest thing was seeing how many different variations of costumes they have for each character for different special events and also the really random or odd characters that never go out on set, like the crocodile from Peter Pan, The Rescuers characters, and ones like that.

JEFF: Do people treat the Characters better than regular CMs, as CMs often say? Are “face” characters really treated at the top of the scale?

JARED: I think that overall entertainment cast members are treated better then regular cast members, whether by guests in the park or by other cast members in general. For the most part the job involves having fun with guests, working on average 30 minutes out of every hour, and that a lot of guests come to the parks because of the characters. As for the second part of your question, yes and no. From my time in entertainment (over 3 years) it occurred to me that there is a small number of face characters that think they are better then regular entertainment cast members, rather then the other way around. Because of this, I think face characters have this stigma attached to themselves. A lot also comes from the fact that often times face characters and fur characters do not usually work together. Face characters also spend a great deal of time (as they should) with cosmetology getting their hair and makeup done, so the two don’t usually mix together. The majority of face characters I worked with when I was in entertainment were very down to earth. Most (if not all) face characters either started out as a fur character or have to be fur characters from time to time so they understand how hard it can be. Face characters also have to be on stage for longer periods of time, and since they can talk to guests, have to be on their toes when asked interesting questions whereas a fur character doesn’t have to worry about that. To add another interesting wrinkle to the mix, when I worked in entertainment was around the time the Tapestry of Nations parade was done at Epcot. Those cast members (especially the college program ones) were hired to only do tapestry. I often felt that they envied the regular entertainment cast members because they went through the same audition process we did and were chose to do puppets rather then characters.

JEFF: You came back to your third stint as a character. Why did you transfer into security? What was a typical day like for you there?

JARED: After I graduated college I liked working at Disney so much I relocated to Orlando so I could work at WDW full time. I had aspirations of wanting to move up within the company and to actually put my degree to good use. Transferring internally was a lot easier then being hired from outside the company so once I got full time, I had a good shot at getting a role I felt like I could move up in. I had aspirations to be a leader within the company. I also wanted to make more money as even entertainment cast members still are not paid that much overall. I was only a full time entertainment cast member for a few months before I transferred to the security department as a dispatcher. This was a specialized role within the security department but I first had to go through the regular security officer training, you really get to see another side of WDW working in Security. A typical day for me as a dispatcher involved me answering a ton of phone calls and sending security officers on calls and to take reports. I worked third shift so there was not much going on in the parks unless they closed up late, most of the action was confined to Pleasure Island and the hotels, most notably the All Star Resorts. After working in dispatch for a year and a half I moved into another specialized role as a loss prevention officer. This involved plain clothes operation in and around the parks and occasionally the resorts. A typical day involved getting a briefing and pretty much being turned loose in your assigned area, which was awesome. I loved the feeling of freedom that job brought me. I was pretty much limited to the amount of work I wanted to do on any particular day. I still feel as if this was the best job I ever had, Disney or otherwise. Again I had aspirations of entering into a leadership role but after more rejections I finally left the company for good.

JEFF: I’m sure you have some good security stories! Feel free to share some!

JARED: Most of the work I did when I was not in the communications center was at Downtown Disney/Pleasure Island. Pleasure Island was starting to really lose its popularity when I was there but you still had a good assortment of drunken tourists and cast members from night to night. There was the occasional fight and a nightly occurrence of peeing in the parking lots and puking in the bushes. Every once and a while they would allow us to go and apprehend shoplifters in the stores. Most of those people we caught were stealing just to do it, and we apprehended many who had hundreds of dollars in their pockets at the time. It was crazy to watch people continually remove items from display and conceal them in a stroller or another bag, or their spouse’s purse or back pack. I guess people figured since they were at Disney nothing bad would happen to them, wrong.

JEFF: Plain clothes vs. regular: Which did you prefer? How did it differ?

JARED: I preferred plain clothes, 100%. I did do bag checking from time to time which is not at all fun, though seeing what people try and bring into the parks is funny occasionally. I also worked a few times at a hotel which was very relaxing to walk around the property and interact with guests. The best part of being plain clothes was getting to act like you were on vacation. You could walk around with friends if they were around and it also helped you blend in better. The best part of being a regular officer was working third shift, you had keys to everything and could go pretty much where you wanted and see how rides operated and what attractions looked like “behind the scenes” some things guests pay hundreds of dollars to see while on their vacation, and I got paid to do it, pretty cool.

JEFF: Any times you can think of that you went out of your way to make a guest’s visit more magical?

JARED: Lots of times. I mentioned a few already. Getting to share moments with kids who get to see their favorite characters was great. They tried to tell us to spend only a certain amount of time with each guest but there were sometimes I could have spent a lot longer interacting with a child or even the family. I always liked harassing the older kids in a group who thought they were “too cool” for characters. Some restaurants had crayons they would hand out for the kids and taking a few minutes to color with a child was neat for me and (I hope) neat for them as well. I wonder how many pictures I am part of in family’s photo albums or videos, or the number of autographs I signed. That’s a lot of vacations to have an impact on, and I like thinking of that. In security I liked when we were able to reunite lost family members or help make a bad part of someone’s vacation a positive one. One thing I have to say about working for Disney is they empower all their cast members to do what they can to help make a guests vacation more magical. We had certain limits to what we could do but it was nice to know we could do something. On Space Mountain it was fun to send a family back to the front of the line to ride again or to talk a crying child down so they could ride (we were told not to send crying children, though some did).

Thank you, Jared, for sharing!

Don’t forget come back each week to hear more of the magic directly From the Mouth of the Mouse.


But we’ve still got a great way for you to celebrate along with us!

Disney World expert, noted author and MiceAge man about town, Kevin Yee, will be holding a FREE scavenger hunt before the Communicore Weekly live event. And we invite all of you (and your friends and family) to come join us. So save the afternoon of September 29th for us and we’ll have more information for your shortly about this great way to celebrate Epcot’s 30th anniversary!

By Jeff Heimbuch

If you are, or know, a Cast Member who would like to share some of their stories and possibly be featured right here on MiceChat, please email me at [email protected]. I’d love to hear from you!

You can read older columns of From The Mouth Of The Mouse here! 

Jeff can help you plan your perfect Disney vacation with Fairy Godmother Travel! Call him at 732-278-7404 or email him at [email protected] for a free, no-obligation quote for Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Disney Cruise Line, Aulani or Adventures By Disney.

Jeff also writes a MiceChat column titled The 626. We invite you to check it out!

Jeff also co-hosts the VidCast Communicore Weekly on MiceTube.

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About Jeff Heimbuch

Jeff has been in love with all things Disney since a very early age. He writes From The Mouth Of The Mouse and The 626 every week for MiceChat. He also collaborates on The Disney Review every weekend. Aside from that, he is one half of the devastatingly good looking duo of the weekly vid/podcast Communicore Weekly (the other half being fellow MiceChat columnist George Taylor), which you can find at www.communicoreweekly.com Jeff is also writing a book with former Imagineer and Disney Legend, Rolly Crump. You can find out more about the book at www.itskindofacutestory.com

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  • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

    WOW. This was really one of the best cast member interviews I’ve read. He had so many great (and different) roles in the parks.

    I’ve always wanted to be a character in the parks. While I know you can’t make a real living at it, it does seem like it would be a great job and help make the vacations of others more magical.

  • RatherBeAtDLand

    Definitely agree with Dusty. This one has been one of my favorites! Other than the weekly Disneyland reports and Al’s columns, this is my favorite column. Thanks so much!!