Welcome back to Earning Abroad! In this series I’ll introduce you to some inspiring and ambitious friends I’ve met on the road — friends who have found viable work away from their home countries.
Many years ago, I spent a summer in Scotland, soaking in a country full of haunting landscapes, hairy coos and unbelievably hospitable people. Back when Earning Abroad was just a seed of an idea, and I made out the long list of friends I wanted to interview for this series, I realized there was a category missing — non-Americans coming into the United States to work. Considering my home country’s notorious stinginess with visas, it’s not exactly known as a working holiday destination among the backpacker set.
And then I remembered Lindsey Claire Riddell, one of the lovely girls I met and partied with all those years ago in Scotland, who had spoken so fondly of her year working in Florida at Disney’s EPCOT. Bingo! Having re-drank the Disney Kool-Aid myself recently, I threw on some mouse ears and got in touch with Lindsey to share more about her experience with us. And the results couldn’t have made me a smile more. Talk about a girl who loved her job and made the most of her time earning abroad! Over to Lindsey…
AB: Walk us through a typical day on the job.
LR: Everyone that works in Disney’s International Program lives in a large apartment complex about five miles from Disney World called The Commons. The program employs people from eleven different countries and these participants all work in the World Showcase in Disney’s EPCOT theme park. Everyone has a roomate — my first was from Germany, then half way through my year she left and a Norwegian girl moved in.
Epcot’s World Showcase is set around a lake with eleven pavilions, each representing a different country. So one minute you could be in France and a few hundred yards away you could be in Japan. Everyone on the program works in pavilions that represent the country they are from in either a food and beverage location, on an attraction, or in my case in a merchandise shop. The UK pavilion where I worked had a restaurant, a fish and chip shop, and several merchandise stores selling everything from Twining Tea to chess boards to Manchester United football strips.
I was quite lucky to be on a late rotation, so on a typical day I usually started between 12 and 3pm and shifts were between 6 and 10 hours. Disney has regular buses to transport international cast members from The Commons to Epcot, which are all free and take around 30 minutes one way. Once in Epcot, we had to pass through security and show our ID to prove that we were employees and allowed to enter the backstage area. There you’ll find everything from lockers to showers to the costuming department. Once through, you board another bus which takes you through the backstage area to the back of the UK Pavilion.
The company uses a computer system that rotates cast members around the various merchandise shops so nobody is stuck anywhere for too long. When you sign in you get a receipt print out that will either tell you to relieve another cast member for a break, or you initiate a ‘bump’ which basically rotates everyone round a position.
My duties on the shop floor weren’t your typical retail tasks. We created quizzes, played chess, had sword fights with children and spoke to people about our customs and traditions. My job was basically to entertain and educate (as well as doing the usual things you’d expect in a store like processing sales and replenishing stock).
Every night Epcot puts on the most spectacular fireworks show at 9pm called Illuminations: Reflections of Earth. The beginning of the show kicks off with a huge fireball being shot over the UK pavilion and so due to health and safety we would have to put up barriers to stop anyone walking through the pavilion for a few minutes until the show had started. This meant we got to see the start of the fireworks EVERY NIGHT! You’d think I’d get sick of it – but I think that would be impossible. I still can’t hear that music without welling up — I really was so lucky.
The World Showcase closed every night as the fireworks started so we would be finished work by 9.30pm. That was one of the best things about working in merchandise – we finished a lot earlier than the food and beverage cast members, who often weren’t home until midnight – we were always home by 10:30, so we had time to socialize at night.
The Commons was a very social place to live. Whether your thing be parties (there were plenty), going out to bars/clubs, shopping, or just sitting in and watching a film, there was always something going on. Sometimes we would finish up our shift and go over to one of the other Disney Parks or Downtown Disney to watch the fireworks, hit the cinema or check out the newest attraction. Epcot was generally one of the earlier closing parks, so even if we finished at 9pm, we could head over to watch another fireworks show at one of the other parks.
How long did you work for Disney?
Unfortunately the program only lasts a year — or I’d probably still be there when I’m 60!
When I left you couldn’t apply to go back to do the program for a second time – I believe that has since changed and you can now do the international program more than once though. They also now have summer programs if you didn’t want to go for a whole year.
How did you come to work in Orlando? What inspired you to find this job?
I’ve always been a bit of a Disney geek. I was very lucky that I’d racked up a fair few visits to the Sunshine State by the time I was twenty. To me it seemed a natural progression to want to work there. One of the previous years I’d been there I’d met a cast member that was from my home town. He had explained to me how I should go about applying, so I made sure I had some good customer service skills on my CV and went for it!
Keep in mind this was nine years ago, so things may have changed slightly since then. After the first step, the online application, I was contacted for a phone interview with my recruiter, Yummy Jobs. It’s fairly laid back and informal and just allows Yummy to get a feel of the type of person you are and the way you react to situations. If that goes well you are invited to attend a face to face interview. Here you get a presentation on the day to day life of what you should expect as a Disney Program participant. I actually really enjoyed this day and it only made me more sure I wanted to be a part of it all.
Your job acceptance is subject to your visa being approved. It is quite a lengthy process and I’d say from application to departure I was probably waiting for about a year.
How did your family and friends react to your initial departure?
I think many were fairly shocked that little old me was leaving for a year in the States when apart from a short stint in dance college, I’d never been away from home. But to most it made sense – everyone knew I was destined to live in Orlando and work for Disney.
How much money did you make? Was it enough to live on?
I worked for Disney in 2006, so things will have changed, but I made a fairly low wage — around $7 an hour for between 30 and 50 hours a week (we were allowed to specify within reason how much we wanted to work). After we had paid our rent we were left with around $120 to play with per week. Some took the approach of working a lot to save for trips to places like the Bahamas and New York. Personally I chose to work the minimum I could so I had lots of time off — I was only there for a year and I loved my job, but I didn’t want to spend all my time working.
With time off I went to the Disney Parks (we got into the theme parks for free and had discounts on the water parks), went to Downtown Disney to the movies, or went to the beach. The nearest beach is Cocoa Beach and was only about an hour away – some of my friends owned cars or we rented them – Disney employees get a discount on car hire in Orlando. I also had an annual Universal pass – Orlando residents get a discounted rate on this too.
The apartment complex we lived in also had a swimming pool and a tennis court, and a five minute walk down the road was Mickey’s Retreat – a club house for Disney Cast members that had a lake, a beach, volleyball courts and barbeque area. Disney also had lots of events and parties on throughout the year.
What kind of legal hoops do you have to jump through?
To work in the States, I needed a J1 Visa. The company that does the selection process for Disney here in the UK helps you out with the forms and any questions you have – then you have to go to a US embassy for an interview. There isn’t one in Scotland so I had to go to Belfast in Northern Ireland – but there’s also one in London.
The paperwork was actually harder than the embassy interview. Because Disney has ‘petitioned’ for your visa, and you will have proof of this with you, it is a lot easier to get it. People around me at the embassy were getting their visa denied but that was because they didn’t have a secured job – as long as Disney has offered you the job and you don’t have any reason to be denied a visa (a criminal record, for example) you should be fine.
What skills did you need for this job?
The most important thing you need for working for Disney is an outgoing personality and great customer service skills. You need to be able to treat everyone like a VIP and make sure they get the most out of their visit. You only need to be fluent in English but other languages are a benefit.
What were the best and worst things about working for Disney in the United States?
The list of good things is endless – you get to meet lots of people from all over the world and learn about different cultures and customs, free entrance into all the Disney Parks, living in the entertainment capital of the world and of course the fantastic weather to name a few.
The recruiter I went through, Yummy Jobs, does lots of hospitality/tourism recruitment, and have lots of opportunities to ‘learn and earn’ in the States through various well respected companies. There are opportunities with Starwood, Hilton and other programs in Universal Studios and Loews hotels in Orlando too. The opportunities you get from having trained with some of these big names and having them on your resume are fantastic. I don’t think I’ve ever had a job interview since leaving Disney where they weren’t fascinated that I’d worked for The Disney Company.
If I’m honest the job at times could get a bit repetitive, and you could be asked some fairly silly questions and have to smile and explain how you don’t commute from Scotland every day, or that the 3pm parade in Magic Kingdom was surprisingly at 3pm. But it is what you make of it and you just have to shrug it off, laugh (never AT the guest!) and remember how many people would kill for your job!
The worst part of the program for me was having to leave the amazing people I’d met when it was time to go home. I’m very lucky to have made such amazing friends that almost ten years on I still speak to almost daily, but it is never easy that they live in Norway, Canada, Italy and England — its not like you can just meet them for lunch!
What would your advice be to someone seeking to do the same?
My advice would be to apply for it! It was hard at times and no matter how much fun you’re having you’ll always have your homesick days. There were even times where I contemplated leaving, but the worst that can happen is that the program’s not for you and you decide to go home, and I can honestly say that the experience is so fantastic that I can count on one hand the amount of people I know that decided it wasn’t for them and left. Doing a program like this one is probably the best decision I’ve ever made. It has made me more confident, taught me life skills and made me life long friends.
You also do need to be careful about your behavior and how you are being perceived at all times. Drinking laws are a lot stricter in the States than the UK and the legal drinking age is higher. A lot of people found it difficult as they had been partying back home and had this freedom taken away from them when they moved to Orlando as they were under the legal drinking age there. Getting caught underage drinking by the security team in the apartment complex is cause for immediate dismissal or ‘termination’ as Disney refer to it.
Also, Disney has strict standards on personal appearance. Make up and hair needs to be natural, no logos on glasses, guys can’t have long hair or facial hair and definitely no facial piercings or tattoos.
What do you know about the US that you wouldn’t have learned as a tourist?
I think personally I learned more about other cultures and customs than I learned about the United States. The experience broadened my horizons and made me want to see more places. I think if I hadn’t done this program I’d probably have continued going to Florida every year — but now I have people to visit all over the world, and I want to go see what makes them love where they’re from. I’ve visited friends I met that year in France, Norway, Canada and Brazil — Spain and South Africa are next on the list!
You’d think that working for Disney would take the magic out of it a little bit, but I’ve been back twice since I moved home for holidays — and I love it all just as much. It really is a fantastic location and it has something for everyone.
Are there differences between working in your home country and in the US?
Working in Disney World can’t really be compared to anywhere else. It’s its own little world! The attention to detail and care of service really is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before but that’s what makes it the success it is
Was it difficult to transition home and re-enter the mainstream work force?
I found it very difficult coming home. I was coming back to start university and a part time bar job and life seemed very beige after working in Orlando for a year. You come home with so many stories from your time away and nobody understands them except the people you’ve had to leave behind because it’s such a rare experience. My poor friends from home having to listen to all those stories — I bet they wished I would shut up! Eventually you do acclimatize but it definitely takes time.
What are you doing now? What are your plans for the future?
Right now I’m working in travel — funnily enough as an American Specialist — often selling holidays to Orlando!
And one final question for fun – would you ever try Disneyland in California, or are you loyal to Florida for life?
Florida will always hold a very special place in my heart, and I truly believe as a vacation option it’s fantastic because with so many different parks/restaurants/shopping options there is something for everyone. It’s also a lot closer for families travelling from the UK so I can understand why it’s so popular with the UK market.
I would LOVE to go to Disneyland California again. I’ve been when I was a lot younger but would love to go back now as an adult. My dream holiday is to do the West Coast highway from LA up to San Francisco, of course with a couple of days in Anaheim at Disney. I don’t think I’ll ever be too old for a Disney vacation.
Thanks a million for sharing, Lindsey! Let’s leave this girl some love in the comments! Readers, would you ever work at Disney?
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