Friday, August 26, 2011

Talking Mickey Mouse?

Videos of the talking Mickey Mouse have been popping up on the Internet for some time now. Testing began at Disneyland a while back, and recently Mickey Mouse was talking at the D23 Expo this summer. 

It's clear that Imagineering is doing some great work with this technology. Mickey is doing a much better job answering Guests' questions and creating fun interactions with younger Guests, but there are still awkward moments. Mickey doesn't seem to like to answer strict 'yes' or 'no' questions. Guests often ask Mickey a question and he doesn't know how to respond. He thinks about it, and offers "Gee, I don't know" as his response. 

Having spent over four months working as a character performer, I understand how difficult it can be to answer certain Guest questions without being able to simply say 'yes' or 'no.' Guests ask some pretty outlandish questions to their favorite Disney characters! "Belle, where is the bathroom?" "Goofy, what is Cinderella doing?" "What did you have for breakfast today?" "Is it hot in there?".... (the answer to that question is always "In where???") I understand WDI is always trying to top themselves. To be the biggest and best, and offer the highest-quality entertainment "on this world or any other." But as a fan of character meet-and-greets, I don't think talking characters is a step in the right direction. 

Just thinking about the logistics of this technology gives me a headache. I can see from the many videos that the technology is improving, and these meet-and-greets with a talking Mickey can be accomplished. But when the technology becomes advanced enough and is able to be brought into the parks, will it be for Mickey only? The Fab Five only? What will younger Guests think if they can talk with Mickey but they can't talk with The Incredibles or Buzz and Woody? Guests aren't always the smartest, but they get it. They get that the Princesses and other face characters are the only characters who can interact verbally. But to offer this new technology to the Guests, I feel that WDI would need to integrate it into every character meet-and-greet for the sake of character integrity.

Character meet-and-greets work so well the way they are! A non-talking character leaves everything up to the Guest and their imagination! There's a great quote from John Hench from the book Designing Disney: "We give power to the guests' imagination, to transcend their everyday routine." Just as John Hench said, Disney Parks give power to the Guests' imaginations. Guests hear what they want to hear, in their head. They ask a character a question, and know what they want to hear back. And character performers are smart, and know how to answer those questions through their "animation." You can say a lot without speaking at all. 

During my four months as a character performer, I had a lot of truly great Guest interactions. One day working at Animal Kingdom, Goofy was a Camp Minnie-Mickey and was met by a teary-eyed mother. The mother explained to Goofy that her father had been taken to the hospital from the Park, but he was going to be okay and just needed to recover in the hospital. He wanted her and her son, his grandson, to enjoy the rest of their day in the Park instead of the hospital. But he had one request: that they go get a picture with Goofy, because Goofy is his favorite. She held back her tears, and gave Goofy a big hug, and said "Goofy, you have no idea how much I needed that hug." 

That woman opened up to Goofy because of the simple yet powerful trust that people have in Disney characters. Disney characters represent the highest, most uplifting values of the Disney Company, on their own accord. I know it sometimes sounds silly, but people really do hold Disney characters in high respect, and have very sentimental feelings connected with their favorite characters. 

That entire interaction happened without Goofy talking. Goofy was there to listen and react accordingly, but did not need to offer any words. All Goofy needed to do was be there for her and give her a hug. It was a great moment I will never forget. 

So why does Goofy, or any other character, need to talk? Guests go into a character meet-and-greet knowing what they want to say, and get their answers from the characters by interpreting their gestures and "animation." But what's so great about those gestures is that they can be interpreted however the Guests want them to be interpreted. Why take away that power from the Guests and their imaginations?

Thinking about this technology also brings up the question of international Guests, who don't speak English. They very often speak with the characters, and have seemingly understandable conversations. This happened to me on a number of occasions. While I may not have understood what the Guest was saying, Goofy understood exactly what they were saying. And the Guest understood what Goofy was saying to them through his gestures. Goofy, Sulley, Frozone and all of my other Disney "friends" had a number of conversations in Portuguese, Spanish and other languages that I myself do not speak. But my "friends" are able to converse with these Guests through their animation. And those Guests use their imaginations to hear what they want to hear. Why should they be forced to hear what the character wants to say verbally? 

Getting back to the logistics of this technology, I can only imagine that it is very expensive. And how can it be integrated into all of the character experiences offered in the Parks? Will characters only speak in certain meet-and-greet areas? So Mickey can't talk to you during breakfast or dinner, but he can speak to you in Town Square Exposition Hall? What about the rest of the characters beyond the Fab Five? 

I commend WDI for wanting to add more magic to the Guest experience. But I really think this technology is ruining the magic. The magic of character meet-and-greets is exactly that... meeting your favorite character! There's no need to "plus it." Why can't WDI leave some things alone?

And that is why I think Mickey Mouse should keep his mouth shut. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Video Memories: My Disney College Programs

Monday, August 15, 2011

Looking Back on My Disney College Program

Growing up, I always told myself “someday I’m going to work at Walt Disney World.” It was always a dream, but entering college I finally found the platform to pursue that dream: the Disney College Program! I attended the on-campus presentation, applied online, and was soon accepted to be a Cast Member on the Disney College Program at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida!

Thinking about the entire process and internship as a whole, I have nothing but positive things to say about the Disney College Program. It was a journey that led to so many new and exciting opportunities to further both my Disney heritage and my career goals in general. With the myriad activities, learning opportunities and special events for Disney Cast Members, my internship was filled with experiences that allowed me to advance as a student and as a professional. Considering all that went into the internship, my growth as an individual is truly based on the resources available.

My internship with the Walt Disney World Resort began at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight CafĂ©, a quick-service restaurant in Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom Park. I worked as part of a multi-functional team that successfully runs North America’s busiest quick-service restaurant. It was in the first few weeks of my internship where I was introduced to the Disney Quality Standards. These business standards, also known as the Four Keys of the Disney Show, are safety, courtesy, show, and efficiency. Safety is always put first to promote secure experiences for both Guests and Cast. Courtesy is providing friendly, personalized service to each Guest. Show is delivering flawless and captivating experiences for every Guest. Efficiency is striving for the most effective and efficient processes to provide quality experiences. These “Four Keys” work hand in hand in every part of our daily procedures, in each and every role across property.

Working at Cosmic Ray’s was a wonderful environment for developing transferrable skills I can use for the rest of my career. Clearly, time management always played a key role in delivering quality Guest Service in an efficient manner. Time management also went hand in hand with multitasking skills. There was always work to be done, and it was important to keep busy while performing numerous tasks at once. In all of this, it was important to remember the higher purpose: helping deliver the Walt Disney World vision of positive relationships with our Guests and making those connections last.

The first half of my internship provided me countless opportunities to develop these skills and put them into use on a daily basis. Each day presented new challenges and I thrived on working to find solutions to exceed Guest expectations. After a few months of my role at Cosmic Ray’s, I then transferred from Food and Beverage over to Entertainment, where I would have to learn how to put these skills to use in a new way.

As a Character Performer, the few seconds spent with a child become part of the story of their lifetime. Disney Characters, worldwide, provide joy, reflect the uplifting family values of The Walt Disney Company, and bring quality entertainment to people around the world. The transferrable skills I developed during my time at Cosmic Ray’s were important in successfully transitioning into my role in Entertainment, but were utilized in different ways. Time management now meant keeping track of set times to ensure characters were on time for meet and greet experiences. Partnering skills became a large part of daily operations. The partnership between Character Attendants, Character Performers, and Disney Photo Imaging Photographers helps ensure more impactful Guest interactions, as well as a consistent show flow between each interaction.

The Disney Quality Standard of “Show” became a very important aspect of my daily routine. As a Character Performer, the few seconds I spend with a child in a meet-and-greet interaction become part of their memory for the rest of their life. Every move and gesture I made as a Performer must be “part of the show” and help tell the story with which Guests are familiar.

A large part of my internship experience has been the educational offerings. Disney University and the Disney College Program Education Team offer a number of professional development, career exploratory and accredited collegiate courses. I was lucky enough to be enrolled in four classes: Marketing Exploration Series, Disney Heritage Exploration Series, Guest Relations Exploration Series, and the Entertainment Professional Development Study.

My Marketing Exploration Series course was a look into the marketing tactics of the various business units within Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. Guest speakers from multiple lines of business, including Disney Cruise Line and Disney Vacation Club, spoke about the marketing strategies and campaigns used to promote growth while maintaining the core equities of the Disney Parks brand. The amount of time and effort put into such small details in these marketing campaigns, in order to maintain the rich content and uniqueness of the Disney brand, is astonishing.

The Entertainment Show Production Professional Development Study offered me an opportunity to explore how Walt Disney Creative Entertainment develops, implements, and maintains their productions. Specific topics included business planning and creative investigation, concept development, show development, production and opening, and operations. In-class activities allowed me to partner with other students to solve detailed issues pertinent to show production.

One of the most influential aspects of my Disney College Program was the opportunity to network with Disney leaders. I was lucky enough to meet the Entertainment Manager for Fantasmic and Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Melissa oversees the daily operations of both productions, among other live events, and serves as the shows’ stage manager during most performances.

Melissa was gracious enough to give me a personal tour of both performance spaces. I was able to get a close-up, behind-the-scenes view of the inner workings of both productions. It was daunting to see how complex, (and at times, how simple,) each production ran. Melissa then invited me to shadow her during a performance of each show. I was able to sit in the control booth and take notes on how each performance is run. That, for me, was the most influential part of my experience in Orlando.

I look back on my experiences and I truly treasure the wealth of knowledge shared with me by passionate leadership teams and Cast Members. Looking forward, I can honestly say that my participation on the Disney College Program has been one of the greatest journeys of my life thus far. With my foot in the door with the Walt Disney Company, I feel very optimistic about a successful future with the Company, or any other path I may take in the future. Knowing myself, and my passion for Disney heritage, I know I will stay with the Company after college. Whether it be Parks and Resorts, or any other number of divisions of the Company, I know my graduation from the Disney College Program will help me secure a position with the Company.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Catching Up with Myself

"So, it's come at last. At last it's come, the day I knew would come at last has come, at last." (From Bye Bye Birdie)

I'm almost 21 years old. I remember thinking to myself, in middle school and high school, about how my life would be when I was in college. I always had this "grown-up" version of myself, to which I would compare my then-current life. I would always compare myself to this grown-up Zach. 

I figured, gee, I have quite a few years until I actually become that older version of myself. I have time to get everything figured out and put in place. I have time. 

But I suddenly realized this summer that I am going to be a junior in college! I only have 2 years left, and then I'm done! . . . How did that happen?

It dawned on me that the Zach I am today is that same Zach to which I would compare myself. The same Zach I pictured myself being. 

No, I never put a specific timeframe on that future Zach. But realistically, that's who I am today. I always pictured myself as an upperclassman in college, with a plan, and a purpose. 

Did I meet my expectations? 

Let's see........

I went into college unsure of a major. Well, I've got that figured out. I'm a theatre major, and I love every minute of it. Theatre has always been a large part of my life, and it's something I love doing and see myself doing for the rest of my life. I'm not sure what capacity theatre will play in my life, but it will most definitely play a role. 

I never had a "regular" job in high school, but I figured by late college I would have some sort of work experience on my resume. I worked at a photo studio for a family friend from late middle school until the summer after I graduated high school. I had a lot of freedom, since I was really the only employee at the studio. But with that freedom I had the opportunity to explore my interests in media and web design, and helped the studio make the transition from film into the world of digital photography. 

But once I went off to college, I didn't have a lot of work experience on my belt other than working at the photo studio. Luckily, I had the opportunity to combine my love of Walt Disney World with a chance at adding relevant work experience to my resume! 

The Disney College Program was where I did a lot of growing, exploring, reflection, self-discovery, and changing. No, I am not a different person coming back from my 8 months in Florida. But looking back on my time there, I don't think I have ever felt more sure about anything in my life. I was optimistic about the future, content with my place in the world, and truly happy. I found a wonderful group of friends, and learned a lot about the world from meeting such a diverse group of people. I did a lot of growing up as well. 

They say when you're in Disney World, you're a kid again. That is definitely true. But on the same note, I really grew up working at Disney World. Sure, Disney isn't the "real world." Yet for me, it was very much the "real world." I woke up each day, went to work for 8 hours, went shopping for myself, and made food for myself. I went to class, learned as much as I could, and even did some job shadowing. I tried to make the most of the opportunities that were in front of me. 

I had a lot of "firsts" in Florida. And from these "firsts" came seconds and thirds, from which I learned a lot about myself. I learned what I liked, what I didn't like. What worked, what didn't. I was able to reflect  on the past, but prepare myself for the future. 

One of my most rewarding yet difficult experiences while in Florida was coming out to my family. I was already out with all of my close friends, and started my life in Florida with a blank slate since I didn't know anybody. Since I didn't know anybody, it didn't matter. I wasn't "coming out" to them, I was just myself.

That "blank slate" perspective was really encouraging. It's so refreshing to just have a fresh start. It's not starting over, it's just a different chapter in the same book. It's taking everything you know about yourself and applying it in a new way, trying new things. Trying not to make the same mistakes, knowing that you'll make new mistakes. Trying to take what you learned from your past mistakes and applying them to make corrections. 

Coming home from Florida, I felt like I was taking a step back. I felt like I was abandoning this great new life I had created for myself. It didn't feel good driving away from that. But once I sat down and thought about it, I realized that I would always have a life in Florida. Disney will always be there, waiting for me. I wasn't throwing it away, I was just stepping aside to finish what I had started in Michigan, so I could return to Florida an even smarter, more prepared individual. 

I know that one day I will return to Florida to start from where I left off. I know the friends and connections I made will always be there for me, even if it means putting that on pause for a few years while I finish school.

So..... getting back to my question. 

How did I do?

Well, taking it all into consideration, I think I did pretty well. 

I now have a resume full of relevant job experience, both at Walt Disney World and in the world of theatre in Michigan. I experienced happiness, sadness, stress, success, and failure in those 8 months in Florida. I reestablished certain priorities in my life. I developed life-long connections with a few people that I know have changed my life for the better. 

So am I really all that different? Or am I just the same old Zach I was in high school, but just with a few more hairs on my chin and a few more entries on my resume?

Well, I think the lyrics to one of my favorite songs can sum it all up, where the title of this blog comes from:

Everything's changed. 
And nothing's changed.
I mean I'm different, but I'm still the same.
I still complain.
But I'm not the same that I was,
Except I'm the same that I was,
but different.
At least I hope I'm different.                                                                             
  -From A New Brain, a musical