published Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Chattanoogans recall magic of working at Disney World

Michelle Brooks received a certificate from the Disney College Program from Minnie, left, and Mickey Mouse.
Michelle Brooks received a certificate from the Disney College Program from Minnie, left, and Mickey Mouse.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Brittany Kanerva portrayed a bellhop at Disney's Tower of Terror attraction.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

On August afternoons last summer, as the smile on the face of Ooltewah's Brittany Kanerva's melted in the searing heat, she wondered what a nice accounting major was doing in a place like this -- holding back crowds during the parade down Main Street at Walt Disney World.

Despite the heat, the Lee University junior, who interned with Disney from January to August, says working for the Florida entertainment resort was a good experience and a chance to "do something different" before she bore down to finish her degree. When the opportunity came to apply for the Disney College Program, she jumped.

"I'm in school to be an accountant," Kanerva says, "and I'll never get a chance to work in a theme park [after graduation]. I'm motivated for school."

She is one of a number of Chattanooga area residents who have helped put the magic in the Magic Kingdom through the program in recent years. Current figures for the program are not available, but a 2005 Associated Press article said it employs about 4,000 students at any one time and 8,000 students a year.

Kanerva served in the Attractions segment, spending much of her time as a hostess at the Magic Kingdom's Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride. Michelle Brooks, a senior math major at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga who interned with the program at roughly the same time Kanerva did, worked in the Entertainment sector. Her job was primarily to play the role of Disney characters, but the company prefers that employees -- who are called "cast members" whether they play characters or serve food -- do not reveal which characters they played.

"I encountered everything," Brooks says, "from visitors who were the character's No. 1 fan to those who were blind or had other physical disabilities to visitors who didn't speak English. You were trained to handle almost every situation that would come your way."

For many visitors at Disney World, meeting the resort's characters is the photo op they have in their heads even before they arrive. It's a big responsibility to make sure they're not disappointed, Brooks says.

"When you think of Disney, (guests') favorite part, what they're looking forward to, they're probably going to mention the characters," she says. "And you have the privilege of bringing the characters to life."

Haven Burns, now an executive at Craftique Manufacturing Co., worked through Disney's internship program following her first two years at the University of Tennessee in 1989 and 1990. Five years earlier, she had torn an article from a magazine about a young woman working at Disney in hopes that one day she might have the opportunity.

"I didn't know anybody down there," she says, having seen a poster advertising the internship opportunity in the school's career services office. "I think there were six there from UT that year, and I didn't know any of them."

Burns worked mostly in food and beverage services at Epcot her first summer and primarily in retail at Hollywood Studios her second.

The magic even extended underground, where most of the actual nuts and bolts of Disney's operation -- including dressing rooms, break rooms, equipment, trash disposal -- are located.

"You turned in your uniform and got a fresh uniform every day," she says. "As a cast member, you put on your uniform [in the underground facilities] and were transported. You would come out in your area. If I was in my Betsy Ross outfit [for the American pavilion], they didn't want me coming up in Norway. That's why you would never see anybody out of costume. Everything was that detailed."

When the park closes, says Burns, who worked mostly evening shifts, huge floodlights come on for cleaning, landscaping and decorating.

"They do everything at night," she says. "It's like daylight in the park. They don't want guests to see that."

All three say the world behind the scenes was fascinating.

"It's unbelievable how large the company is," says Brooks. "More than 60,000 people work there. It's not until you get there that you realize what it takes to create the magic for the massive number of people who visit every day of the year."

On the evenings when she left at 11, she says, workers were coming in on buses.

"It takes a lot of people to sustain the Disney image," Brooks says. "There is so much that goes on for the magic [to happen]. They are the best, and they will maintain the best because of their skills in all the services. And because the expectations are so high."

MAGICAL MOMENTS

The women say cast members are encouraged to create what are called "magical moments" for visitors.

Kanerva says, for instance, they can choose visitors to bring them up the exit for a repeat ride on the attraction they just exited or bring a family into a show, put them in VIP seat and get them popcorn.

"They're so happy, so grateful," she says. "It makes their day. It makes their vacation."

Brooks says such efforts are even more special when they concern clients of organizations such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

"Those are things I'll remember the rest of [my] life -- the impact you've had on a family," she says. Despite the circumstance that brought the family there, "you have a chance to make their day better."

The values of magic even rubbed off on Brooks on her days off.

"I'd find myself as a guest," she says. "I saw a piece of paper, reached down and threw it away."

Other times when she was off duty, Brooks says, she would see a family and offer to make a photo.

"They've saved their whole lives to go to Disney World," she says. "As an employee, I felt the pride in Walt Disney World. We wanted to create those magic moments."

NOT ALWAYS MAGICAL

Kanerva says while interns are paid for their work and receive subsidized housing, "it's a lot of work, a lot of hours. You don't realize [going in] how many hours."

She also says her job at the Tower of Terror -- where she had requested to work -- could get a little boring. When she was stationed in the attraction's library, where visitors first stopped, she had to watch the same three-minute movie around 15 times over her 45-minute shift.

Fortunately, she says, rotating jobs where at points she was loading and unloading guests "helped break up the day."

On some days, says Brooks, she would rise at 5:30 or 6 a.m. and stay past midnight.

"The hours were really long and unpredictable," she says. "You would rarely have the weekends off because weekends are their busiest times."

Kanerva says while smiles are broad and the park is pristine in front of the public, it could be a little different behind the scenes.

"[Cast members occasionally] are not quite as nice and happy when they're on their break," she says. "It was funny watching the transformation."

And, she says, there are "absolutely" times when a park visitor is not pleased with something. Once, she says, a visitor became incensed with her when she would not let him move to the front of a line even though his Fastpass -- which is supposed to do just that -- had expired.

"[He] threatened to get me fired," she says.

LASTING MEMORIES

Burns says "being a part of truly a magical place" and seeing "how a company like that" runs are the memories she treasures from her Disney summers.

"You see the looks on everybody's face," she says. "They're in a good mood. They talk to you. [It's] the stories you hear."

As part of her duties at Disney's Hollywood Studios and their then-star tours, Burns also got to rub shoulders with celebrities such as Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman and Neil Patrick Harris.

"That was really neat," she says.

Now, Burns takes her three children to the resort once or twice a year.

"I know my way around," she says. "I point out [how things were] when we were there. Now, the most important thing is avoiding the crowds, picking the off-times."

Kanerva says it was cool "getting to see how everything works" and "knowing what the cast members go through," but she found pleasure in providing the type of experience she received in previous visits.

"People made it magical for me," she says, "and I wanted to do that for them."

Brooks says while meeting people from around the world and adding Disney World to her work resume were good experiences, she'll remember "how truly magical Disney is."

"Creating lifelong memories for families in hard times [and] for terminally ill children," she says, "those are things I'll remember for the rest of my life."

Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to my posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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