You may be surprised to learn I spent a number of years as a 'castmember' at Walt Disney World in Florida. No, I wasn't inside a cartoon character suit or dressed up like a Prince--I just waited tables--but it was a significant chapter in my story.
It was a transitional period, with one set of dreams and assumptions fully in the trash and an uncertain future ahead. It was on the grounds of Disney's Animal Kingdom that I wrestled with some demons, reconnected with parts of me that'd been shamed into hiding, and made the decision to become a professional counselor.
And picked up more Disney trivia than anybody could know what to do with.
This week marked the 49th anniversary of the Magic Kingdom park and the 38th anniversary of EPCOT center, but it also has been a devastating week for some friends of mine and many others as Disney parks announced tens of thousands of lay-offs in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
More than a Mouse
It's something of an irony that EPCOT didn't become what Walt really wanted (did you know it stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow?). He died before any of the parks in Florida were ready to open, but he actually wanted EPCOT to be a new kind of city, a place where world cultures and technological innovation all intersected in the spirit of the parks' celebration of the past and hope for the future.
Of course, once he was gone the much more easily profitable model of a theme park was decided upon by the inheritors of his empire. But in a way, the ever-expanding resort did become a new kind of community.
Everyone who works in the parks as well as in the many hotels and other amusements within the WDW complex is called a "castmember", because it's all about the show. And for many of those thousands and thousands of people this is more than an occupation--it's a way of life.
Everyone hired as a castmember gets thoroughly trained in the history, legacy, and vision of Disney parks, and in becoming a part of a hugely impactful piece of the culture can become a culture and a kind of home pretty easily. Many of the folks you'll see portraying the characters, serving treats, or operating the rides live very near the parks and do their socializing, shopping and just living all right there.
I have to admit, it was pretty cool to have the option on some days when my shift was over to change into street clothes and hop over to ride Expedition Everest before making my way home. I had the opportunity to get friends into the parks, and even once in while serve celebrities like James Cameron, who dined with Disney execs at our restaurant back when the Avatar-themed section of the park was first being conceived.
Eventually I moved on, but many, many people have found community, purpose, and belonging within the bounds of the Happiest Place on Earth. And now that's been taken away. My heart was sad thinking of the empty ride cars that should be filled with happy families, but now it's heavy as I ponder the grief and uncertainty sweeping over so much of my Central Florida community.
I share the sense of loss, the anger and frustration at those of influence who've had other priorities during this crisis, and I can only offer my sincere hope that the happiness my community so eagerly shares with the world will be restored soon.
Mike Ensley, LPCC is a counselor and owner of Comeback Story Counseling in Loveland, CO.