Being a Disney cast member is an experience many grow up hoping to accomplish by either hiring directly to The Walt Disney Company or through their Disney College Program. Through Disney’s vast enterprises, Disney Cruise Line, Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and all of their other entertainment enterprises, the mega-company employs 223,000, with 55% being women. Gender aside, Disney cast members are arguably the most important part of the magic, meaning they’d be held in high regard by the company, right?
Disney’s approach to its customer service is well-known, standing above the rest in almost any other market out there. Disney cast members are held to a high standard, driven by the 5 Keys: Safety, Courtesy, Inclusion, Show, and Efficiency, which dictate their approach to the thousands of guests Disney caters to each day within their parks and Disney Cruise Line ships.
As an employer, Disney considers itself a place “where everyone is welcome.” However, due to the face-to-face time with guests, while problem-solving a multitude of daily issues, some simply aren’t cut out for the type of work expected of cast members.
Expectations for Disney Cast Members Remain High
Despite often dealing with angry guests who have spent too much time in the sun and their wallets, the expectations for Disney cast members remain high. Some have noted that the notable customer service approach that Disney is famous for has slipped in recent years. However, Disney still expects their cast members to approach guest situations with a smile while going above and beyond. Even if guests become unruly.
In addition, standards for Disney cast members also remain high. Noted as the “Disney Look,” Disney employees are expected to put their best foot forward in their attitudes and approach to guests and their appearance. Disney has been famous for strict hygiene and grooming standards of its cast members in the past, although some restrictions have been lifted considering tattoos and piercings.
As Disney’s expectations for its cast members are set at a high bar, ensuring the company offers one of the best customer service experiences in the world, many would assume that cast member expectations of its employer are also exceptionally high and that Disney would go to extreme measures to ensure they meet them. However, there are plenty of cast member horror stories that would suggest otherwise.
Could Expectations By and Of Disney Be Unbalanced?
Anyone who’s worked for Disney, even in its farthest reaches at Tokyo Disney Resort, will tell you that the work is for a special breed. Disney asks a lot of their cast members. The expectations are considerable, not just for Disney Princesses and other face characters, but also for those who offer services like bus drivers and food workers.
Compared to other entertainment companies with similar businesses like Universal Studios, Disney’s customer service approach is typically well above the current standard in the industry. Although the expectations are high for their workers, some would say that Disney doesn’t necessarily meet the requirements of its cast members, creating a “take more than they give” perception among some of their workers.
Despite its squeaky-clean appearance, Disney has been accused of alleged poor working conditions in the past. As well, many cast members have cited considerable issues with pay and keeping up with work demands, work-life balance, and paying their bills. It has been suggested that although Disney expects their workforce culture to adapt and overcome, all with a smile on their face and pixie dust in their pockets, the massive corporation doesn’t always live up to their end of the bargain.
Former Disney Cast Member Blasts Company for Poor Work Environment
After being added to Disney’s “do not rehire list,” Gianna Alexis, a former crew member of Disney Cruise Line, sat down with Entrepreneur.com to discuss the alleged unrealistic and demanding work expectations during her short time with the company.
Unlike many who have come forward to discuss their inability to handle the workload that Disney expects of their cast members at Walt Disney World or Disneyland, Alexis took a different route once offered a position to work in the shops on an unnamed Disney Cruise Line ship. From the beginning, Gianna would notice several red flags that would eventually lead to a work experience that sounds like something out of a horror movie.
Although Gianna had a great passion for Disney, having taken her first cruise at the age of three and crying tears of joy when she received the call that she got the position with Disney Cruise Line, her dreams would smash into the brick wall known as reality quicker than she thought, eventually leading to her exit from the company. However, she didn’t hold back regarding the unrealistic expectations that many at Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and other areas of business for The Walt Disney Company face.
Much like a store representative at Downtown Disney or Disney Springs, Alexis was responsible for handling guest issues within her assigned shop, problem-solving purchase disputes, handling returns, and dealing with guests who had maybe overindulged a bit while on the ship.
Time to Train a New Magical Liason
Shortly after her hiring, Alexis mentioned that her training would begin. However, she noted that she felt as if the training, which all Disney cast members go through, was designed to create a false sense of excitement surrounding what would become a situation of unrealistic high demand.
“Before work started, Disney took us through training that was designed to get us excited about the work. On the last day of training, we were told to get ready at 4 a.m. Then, the company had a sniffer dog to smell our suitcases, which I didn’t expect at all — it all seemed so different because the only experience I had embarking on a cruise ship was from a guest’s point of view.“
Although she was hired as a store representative, Alexis would soon make her way to Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where she would help to make the dreams of small children come true. Even though she was excited for the new opportunity, she felt as if she “went into the job blindly” and was unaware of the workload expectations that would befall her.
Long Work Hours in Cramped Conditions
Unlike Walt Disney World or Disneyland, although the expectations are the same for cast members, working on a ship in the fleet of Disney’s Cruise Line presents unique challenges. As there isn’t a pool of employees to rotate through while at sea, your hours can’t be shared. As well, space is limited, confined to small areas where cast members must navigate other employees and guests.
“I worked from 8:30 a.m. until 9 or 10 p.m. Before starting this job, I didn’t, or couldn’t, conceptualize what an 80-hour work week without a day off would look like at all. There was no work-life balance.
I had so little time to myself. In my downtime, I didn’t even want to watch TV or movies. Once I got 30 minutes into watching, I’d rather just sleep because I was so tired — sleeping had become my priority. The only “me time” I would have for myself was a quick sheet mask in my room, and that’s all. My room was so small that I could nearly touch both walls with outstretched arms.“
Long-Standing Hours Lead to Injury and Burn Out
Spending a lot of time on your feet when you aren’t used to it can create health issues. Guests to Walt Disney World often note mysterious rashes that pop up when walking several miles a day around the Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, or EPCOT. The same applies to cast members, who (if it is to be believed) would spend much of their 80-hour work week at a cruise ship standing.
Alexis shared an ordeal regarding what she calls stress fractures from the experience. She also discussed that her “personal space” was also considered her “workspace on a cruise ship.” Often, when roaming the ship, she had “work” even during her off times.
“I got a stress fracture in one of my feet from standing 80 hours a week in my costume shoes — it got so hard for me to stand. With a normal job, you can call in sick if you’re not feeling well. But for me, if I didn’t show up to work, my manager could come downstairs from the shop to see me what was wrong, how long I would need off, and if I needed medical attention or if I was faking it. Working on the cruise ship meant my living space was also my workspace. Managers and coworkers could spot us whenever we were out at night. I had to be “on” a lot of the time, and it played a big role in how quickly I burned out.“
Poor Wages Aren’t Worth the Time, Holiday Parties Used as Leverage
A historical problem that Disney cast members have cited with the company is wages. Disney’s history at its theme parks is dotted with strikes from workers who insist they can’t obtain a livable salary with the company. Alexis’s experience with Disney was no different.
“I worked a minimum of 70 hours weekly and got paid $423 a week, so it was about $6 an hour. There was no overtime rate at all.“
Although she acknowledges that she understands that for many working aboard a Disney Cruise Line ship, who may come from other parts of the world, the salary is desirable, per American value, the wages were more than insufficient.
One important aspect of a cruise for guests is food. However, Disney Cruise Line employees apparently cannot access the same delicacies as guests. Alexis listed her daily eating habits, citing hard-boiled eggs for breakfast and cake and ice cream for holiday events on the ship. However, she also noted that Disney would provide special foods and events if they met expectations.
“Sometimes, the company threw parties for us. For example, if our service got high marks on guest surveys and feedback, that’s when we got to have the better-tasting guest food. I remember they brought jalapeño poppers one time.“
It Wasn’t All Bad
Of course, despite not having the same liberties and privileges as other cast members, Alexis quickly pointed out that her experience with Disney Cruise Line wasn’t all bad. She ensured that she mentioned the bonding opportunities available to her with other cruise employees, stating that she would cherish those relationships and friendships that she made on the ship.
Much like Disney cast members going through the Disney College Program, working so closely with others creates a unique bond that certainly helps to alleviate some of the hardships associated with challenging work environments. However, the lasting taste that Disney left for Alexis once she decided that her time with the company had come to an end was that she would be at risk of not being allowed to work for Disney ever again.
“Working on the ship for a few months took a mental toll on me. One week after giving my 30-day notice, I told my manager that I’d get off the boat the next time we ported. I remember being told that leaving before the 30 days might mean I wouldn’t be able to work for Disney or any of its affiliate companies like ESPN and ABC. That was a scary thought because Disney was the only company I’d ever worked for as an adult. But my foot pain and burnout were so severe that all I cared about at that point was getting off the ship. So I left after four months.“
What do you think? Are Disney cast members are happy with their work environments?
Please note that the story outlined in this article is based on a personal former Disney cast member experience. No two Disney experiences are alike, and this article does not necessarily align with Disney Dining’s personal views on Disney Park operations.