I made it. I existed for four months as a part of Disney’s microcosm in Central Florida.
I went into Walt Disney World curious about how Disney sells an immersive fantasy to the people who visit. I only found two fairy tales, two fantasies in Disney: one was the how they used to lure college students as cheap labor, the other was the images portrayed by the Disney princesses.
I imagined my 30-to-45 hours per week in merchandise meant I’d work in a quaint hotel gift shop or one of the multiple gift shops guests are dumped into as they exit a ride. Disney kept me in suspense until my second day there, where I was shuffled in line with my peers and handed a sticker that read “Main Street Entrance Merchandise.” I was thrilled. I’d be plunked into Magic Kingdom, the heart of the resort, the very park “where we sell fantasy,” as the instructor of my introduction to the Magic Kingdom class, Once Upon a Time is Now, told me.
My roommates told me that meant I’d work in the Emporium, the big shop on the left hand side of the street. It wasn’t the Nautilus or Neverland, but I could settle with Walt Disney’s turn-of-the-century America. It was as much a fantasy as Cinderella Castle. The only difference was that people believed this one was real.
“I’ll give it a week,” I told myself on one of my first days when I struggled to stack one sopping double stroller after another as they came in after the fireworks. If I didn’t work fast enough, they’d backup and clog one of the two exits bottlenecking forty thousand people. I felt like I was bailing a leaking boat during a monsoon with a colander. Main Street Entrance was little merchandise and a lot of physical labor. Traveling home from training on a decrepit bus full of disgruntled, venting college students, I thought about the video my recruiters had played about career opportunities and networking. I decided I’d been had.
Fortunately for my sanity, optimism--my coping mechanism--won and I became fond of my work area once I settled in there. Upon arrival, a computer assigned me one of many positions that included three small gift shops, one of which rented lockers, and another strollers and wheelchairs. The hard work was humbling but rewarding, and I discovered I preferred the physical activity over the repetitiveness of standing at a register. My managers were easy going and helpful, my colleagues for the most part supportive and quick to befriend one another. We worked a crappy job that didn’t pay enough to meet the bills, but we were all in it together. We bitched and moaned and found ways to stick it to the mouse, but worked together to get through it together. We earned the respect of the rest of the park. The lows--sexual harassment and being yelled at by customers--would have happened at any job. By the end, I was numb to the Disney “magic,” but I wouldn’t have worked anywhere else in the entire Kingdom if I’d been given the choice.
As my job satisfaction grew, my self image deteriorated. Traveling two and from work every day, I encountered the princesses, size 4 college-aged women between 5’4” and 5’7” that starred shows like “Cinderellabration” and “Share a Dream Come True” where they found they danced around with their appropriate male escort. Sharing a locker room with these young ladies, I succumbed to another type of fantasy: the ideal body type. If I, a self-confident, fit adult, felt inadequate, how do the pudgy, mousy-haired girls feel after queuing an hour to get that autograph from Aurora or Ariel? How did dark skinned girls feel when the only princess who lacked a fair complexion shimmies exotically across stage like she just stepped out of a brothel? I’d known for years that the beauty ideals shown to us by the media were an unobtainable illusion but I’d never truly encountered them before my internship. That was the last type of fantasy I had expected to be emerged in when I went to Walt Disney World.
This distraction made the pages of my journaling, where I cut out paragraphs rambling on about eating, exercise, and my body image because, I had to remind myself, I was posting it online for anyone to read. My journal was surprisingly successful, actually. Even if I didn’t probe the depths of fantasy to the extend I’d hoped, I surpassed my original expectations as far as the quantity of writing I produced. (33,000 words in all, specifically, posted at http://www.lake-desire.com in weekly installments.) My prose was intimate and detailed, and I have a tangible documentation of a monumental part of my life. I even found myself an audience, a small collection of family and friends who were bold enough to write me and tell me they enjoyed my posts and loitered at lake-desire.com while waiting for the next update. I did not have the opportunity to take as many photographs as I would have liked, but I did select about twenty photographs I felt represented the artistic side of theme parks to share on my webpage.
The last part of my internship felt a little disjointed. I took one class from Disney called “Communications” which met for four hours, weekly, over eleven weeks. I plugged along cheerfully throughout the week, enjoying my job and the adventures I had outside of work, but I had to put it on pause weekly to step into a classroom. I chose “Communications” because it seemed most relevant to my interests and I’d never taken a communications class before. I felt like I was back in high school, taking notes from a Power-point lecture on subjects that seemed a little easy for college level students. Class members were required to do three speeches in front of the class--one a persuasive group presentation--which I found challenging because I am not used to being so formal when talking in front of a group or trying to hit a certain number of points on a syllabus in order to make a grade. I passed the class (although I am still waiting to receive my final grade), but regret taking it because my day off could have been better spent forming friendships with my coworkers and doing things exclusive to Florida.
Disney, as an employer, was a bit of a let down, but I’m willing to forgive them because the best four months of my life occurred while I worked there. Working a dead-end job taught me how to be an autonomous adult, budget my money, to appreciate the privileged life I’ve led and education I’ve been receiving, but more importantly I bonded with the most amazing, heterogeneous group of people whose memories and friendship will remain a part of me for the rest of my life. I experienced my coming of age story in a theme park stroller rental, and wouldn’t have had it any other way.