- Raymond Brown/Flickr
• Walt Disney World employees are all referred to as “cast members.”
• This includes everyone from the costumed character performers to the ride operators to the people working in retail.
• The park also reflects a show business-like environment by requiring cast members to stay “in character” while in the presence of guests.
Walt Disney World has a rep for being the “most magical place on Earth.”
But what’s it really like to be one of the people responsible for making the magic happen?
Walt Disney World employs 70,000 “cast members” – the term the company uses to refer to all employees. They all help to run a world-famous park that attracted a record 68 million visitors to Orlando in 2016, according to The Orlando Sentinel.
It’s fair to say that these thousands of cast members come to learn a number of secrets about the park that the rest of us tourists might miss.
Business Insider spoke with a number of former Walt Disney World cast members, as well as authors who’ve written extensively about the park.
Here’s what they had to say about the secrets of working at Walt Disney World:
You learn quickly that it’s all about the guests
- Matt Stroshane / Stringer / Getty Images
The guest experience is everything at Disney. That’s drilled into you from day one.
Former Disney College Cast program attendee and “Devin Earns Her Ears: My Secret Walt Disney World Cast Member Diary” author Devin Melendy told Business Insider that, even though her job consisted of working in retail in Frontierland, she was encouraged not to stand behind the register whenever possible.
Instead, cast members are directed to spread some magic by passing out stickers, fast passes, birthday pins, and free bags and shirts.
Mike Fox, author of “The Hidden Secrets & Stories of Walt Disney World,” “Disneyland Details: The Magical Hidden Secrets & Story Elements of Disneyland,” and “Disneyland In-Depth” and founder of the site Disney-Secrets.com, told Business Insider that a “deep commitment to the guest experience” is “instilled within the company.
“So it always impresses me, especially at the cast member level, the training that goes into helping these folks to provide that superior experience and to see it out on stage and see it executed,” he said.
Name tags are an absolute must — even if you’re using an alias
- Chris Jackson / Getty Images
Melendy said it’s considered “bad show” for a cast members to not wear a name tag. But if you lose your tag, no worries. There’s a whole stockpile of gender neutral names like Chris, Sam, and Pat to choose from.
“I lost my first name tag, so I was Chris from New York for two weeks while I waited for my new one,” Melendy told Business Insider.
“It’s a major deal if you don’t have one,” Chantelle Judd, a former cast member who worked in Frontierland, told Business Insider. “If this happens – it’s easy to forget sometimes – you have to make sure you can borrow one – costuming has spares.”
If you want to play a Disney character, you’d better be good at charades
- Matt Stroshane / Stringer / Getty Images
Melendy said she auditioned to become a costumed character but ultimately didn’t make the cut. She said that these performers must go through loads of auditions and costume fittings in order to land the role.
People who are good at improvising have a leg up. During the process, you’re asked to pantomime activities, like making a sandwich and washing a dog.
“You were supposed to make these gestures big and dramatic, because if you’re in a costume you have to parlay what you’re saying without saying anything,” she said.
You’ve got to be careful about how you point
In some cultures, pointing your finger is considered quite rude.
“They do tell you that, if you’re giving directions, to point with two fingers or your whole hand extended out as if you’re gonna shake someone’s hand,” Melendy said.
If the guests can see you, you’re technically ‘onstage’
- Roberto Gonzalez / Stringer / Getty Images
The terms “onstage” and “backstage” don’t just apply to performers at Walt Disney World.
“Even just being in the stores, they called that onstage,” Melendy said. “If you’re in the computer room or back office, that’s backstage.”
And all cast members, from the person dressed as Mickey Mouse to the person working the register at one of the park’s gift shops, must stay “in character” onstage.
“That would mean that your costume is correct, your name tag is on, and your pin lanyard is on – we would trade pins with guests,” she said. “They very much stressed that this is an experience. It’s not your experience, it’s the guest’s experience. You have to provide the best show that you can. It’s stepping into a role.”
Fox said that, for cast members, talking about your personal life and arguing is not an option. Anything that will “break the spell” of the Disney experience, so to speak, is out.
“When you’re talking to Cinderella, and say, ‘Hey, let me take a picture of you on my iPhone,’ and she says, ‘What is an iPhone?’ – she’s playing a role and her job is to maintain that role, to maintain that entertainment, maintain that story,” Fox said.
He said that passageways to Disney’s “backstage” are often marked with a broad yellow line.
“What those lines mean is that, if you were a cast member, anytime you step past that line, you are visible to the guests and you must be onstage,” he said.
You get to see the park totally deserted on a regular basis
- Joe Raedle / Getty Images
Cast members don’t just pack up and head out for the day when all the guests depart. Melendy said her shift would typically end an hour or two after the park closed.
That meant getting a glimpse of a deserted Walt Disney World.
“It’s kind of spooky because you’re just so used to seeing it full,” Melendy said. “Most of the time they keep the music on, so it’s not completely creepy.”
You can’t just run around the park
- Joe Raedle / Getty Images
Cast members can’t just take a walk around the park when they’re working.
This policy may have stemmed from something Walt Disney himself saw in Disneyland. Reportedly, the founder noticed a Frontierland cowboy taking a stroll through Tomorrowland.
“For Walt, it was all about the story,” Fox said. “To see a cowboy from Frontierland in Tomorrowland, it just ruins the story.”
As a result, cast members use hidden tunnels beneath the park to get around
- Adrees Latif/Reuters
While some reports indicate that there’s a whole underground, cast-members-only tangle of passageways beneath Walt Disney World, the reality is a little less mysterious.
The underground “utilidors” serve to allow cast members to move about the Magic Kingdom and Epcot unseen. According to Fox, Disneyland also features a smaller system of utilidors. The ones constructed in Walt Disney World were built at ground level, to avoid the area’s high water table. The whole park is actually built around 14 feet above ground level.
“The utiladors provide utility,” Fox said. “They’re an excellent business tools. It’s nothing that Disney’s trying to hide from people, it’s just a very efficient tool for maintaining the story.”
Fox said that cast members sometimes cycle or take small carts to navigate the underground passages, which also include large pipes through which trash is moved.
Melendy said that cast members can break from character once they’re in the utilidors and out of sight.
“You see different character performers with their wigs off, but their costumes on,” she said. “You see a mix of all the people from around the park.”
She didn’t spend much time in the passageways, however, as she worked in Frontierland and it proved to be a bit of a walk.
Cast members also get access to hidden cafeterias, changing rooms, and even a salon
- Scott Audette/Reuters
Along with the tunnels, cast members have access to underground cafeterias, dressing rooms, and even a salon called Kingdom Kutters.
“Some cast members also have access to a trailer or a room in a building in the backstage area,” Susan Veness, author of “The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World” series, told Business Insider.
She and her husband Simon once got a firsthand glimpse of a trailer when they visited a former performer at Epcot’s American Music Machine attraction for an interview.
“It was fairly basic, with tables and chairs they could use during meals, and a little sitting area, plus a few small rooms, including a room with mirrors where they could do their makeup and hair,” she said.
There are a number of other hidden spots around the park
- Chris Livingston / Stringer / Getty Images
Even beyond the hidden tunnels, there’s more to Disney World than meets the eye. According to Veness, VIP lounges dot the park – especially in Epcot.
“Some of them are open to guests who work at the company that sponsors the attraction they’re attached to, some of them are open to Make-A-Wish kids and their families, some welcome certain card holders, such as the Disney Visa card, and some of them are used for media events or private functions,” she said.
Veness and her husband have visited several of the lounges, including one in the old Wonders of Life attraction. She said that Spaceship Earth, Test Track, Mission: Space, and the American Adventure all have hidden lounges, although some may have closed. There’s even a private safari camp in Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
According to Veness, taking a behind-the-scenes tour is a good option for anyone who’s dying to get a backstage look at the park.
If you get a gig at Disney World, you’ll start noticing things that others don’t
- Joe Raedle / Getty Images
When it comes to all things Disney, cast members often become experts over the years. That means knowing all about some of the park’s subtle Easter eggs.
“Many of them, especially the long-time cast members, have an encyclopedic knowledge of their attraction’s details,” Veness said. “Many cast members know at least one or two hidden details, but some go above and beyond.”
“When you look at the parks, look at the little details, those make a huge difference, too,” Fox said.
Veness said she’s even met Disney cast members at the American Adventure in Epcot who spent years researching the details of the attraction.
So if you end up striking up a conversation with a cast member, make sure to ask about any cool hidden details in the park.
It’s not all fun and games at the most magical place on earth
One former cast member who operated rides like The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and The Mad Tea Party said that the role wasn’t all fun and games.
“A lot of people thought I played all day and didn’t actually do anything, but I can tell you that’s definitely not the case,” the cast member told Business Insider. “While it’s great to have fun while working, there was certainly a lot of hard work involved.”
“Working at Disney isn’t magical all the time,” Meghan O’Neill, a former Disney cast member who worked in Future World in Epcot, told Business Insider. “You work long hours in all types of weather dealing with guests who have high expectations.”
The parks take clean-up seriously
- Theme Park Tourist/Flickr
“There are bins meticulously placed all around the parks to limit the amount of rubbish people leave behind,” Judd said.
She said that in addition to this tactic, the custodial team works so diligently that it’s hard to find any discarded garbage around the massive park.
Cast members often work long shifts
Operating hours at Walt Disney World “vary by season and from park to park,” according to the resort’s website.
Regardless, cast members regularly put in a ton of hours every workday.
“A lot of people who I talk to can’t believe you could start as early as 4:00 a.m. and finish as late as 3:00 a.m.,” Judd said.
Cast members don’t get bombarded with free fast passes when they’re off the clock
O’Neill added that it was a misconception that cast members get perks like unlimited fast passes when they’re off the clock.
“When we are not working, we’re just regular guests,” she said.
Are you a current or former Disney cast member with a story to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.