Sean P. Thoennes, PhD
Walt Disney World Broadcast Productions
Fielding Graduate University
The Disney Institute sells a course to businesses teaching Disney’s unique management style that “makes the magic happen.” What they sell does have merit: an organic growth business model seeking input from each person, because each offers a unique viewpoint of “challenges” and “opportunities.” Walt Disney World, like most institutions, fears deployment of this advice. Fear challenges fidelity, and many Disney workers, including myself, find loyalty in “persons” the cornerstone of day-to-day survival.
Despite decades at Disney, a simple inquiry into my job function at the happiest place on earth gives me pause. The Disney lens determines the role. All workers start in “Traditions,” a class in which they learn the values of the company and Walt’s dream. Smiling faces greet them and share company secrets, Walt Disney World Resort in particular. It is amazing how this company maintains its standards across an area twice that of Manhattan with nearly 70,000 on the payroll in Lake Buena Vista, the largest single-site employer. Individuals can quickly lose their way in such an expanse. A gulf exists between aspirational new-hires and disillusioned Cast peeking through a glass ceiling. The company concerned with efficiency sees people as interchangeable, not unique and purposeful. Salaried and hourly workers are cross-trained and utilized whether or not they request it; this is the measure of employee value in the risk-averse company.
Trajectory dictates the possibilities that lay ahead, as does your luck in connecting with a well-placed mentor engaged enough to champion your cause. Most don’t know the best point of entry in such a big company. This results in feeling one’s way around. Trial and error methods breed cynicism and fear of trying. The agenda of constantly rotating management can clash with hourly Cast Members. The fear goes all the way up the political chain to the CEO, whose risk aversion can be tied to a fear of shareholders, or more simply the fear of failure to deliver. This is like any other large corporate endeavor; however, the common corporate structure is not my only learning with Disney.
Persons, as opposed to people, is an important distinction to activate the need inside oneself for a purpose-driven life; one must first make the social connection to reflect that purpose. Most describe a job that takes a message and requires its conversion into a visual medium for delivery to audiences ranging from old and new Cast Members to governments to the population writ large as a producer, editor, perhaps even a propagandist. Those titles reflect my purpose and function. My trajectory, however, is evaluated within the confines of my role: Broadcast Stage Technician Level 2. The only thing that fits in the title is the word “Broadcast” which was recently added, changing nothing. My pay topped out after five years, so clearly the company does not value the loyalty of someone like me. Why continue? My “trajectory” required a passion for “purpose” to grant me the resilience necessary for daily active engagement nearly 30 years running.
Studio systems became the freelance system when I landed this rare full-time job after a year as a backstage tour guide (tragic trajectory!). It became clear that if I were to succeed in my video and film production goals, it would be of my own doing. Non-linear desktop editing was just emerging, and the company’s multi-million dollar gear was cost-prohibitive to “lesser” departments. By offering to help on my breaks – along with some supportive management who fought battles against those fearful of taking chances – I built one of the first non-linear editing corporate business models “under the radar.” Constantly threatened with elimination, careful records of our work and connections with each client personally in a user-friendly process ensured support. The official Disney production facility was less welcoming. It was not a calculated move. My goal was to show off my abilities to get into the big facility, which closed after changing management and proving unsustainable, while we remained. My pre-disposition to having fun along with the individuals I selected to join saw an organic growth of our team and method: We can teach you how to edit, but not how to care.
The other part is how we see ourselves as storytellers. Stories matter. Our species evolved to make sense of the world around us, to give it purpose through story. Each person is a thread. Each thread is woven into a tapestry that is the community. A thread replaced is a tapestry changed. Setting aside the frustration of my trajectory comes with seeking and knowing a single person to whom the story matters. Making that commitment validates my efforts even in a thankless corporation. Front line Cast, whom I admire, share stories of families who have saved a lifetime for their trip; brothers reuniting at Disney World after decades apart, and terminally ill, incredible children who daily do more for us than we can ever do for them. Whether or not someone else’s intentions muddy the waters, your own intentions matter. I still make a difference where I am.
We outlasted all 27 original groups on property before they merged our team with another to justify their business plan. Our tiny team of six did more productions in one year for a fraction of the cost than all others on property combined. The bigger department that absorbed us uses the business model we created years earlier. The same people in charge of the failing models remain in charge. Trajectory and connections still matter. I edited the pilot program of The Disney Institute’s offering for executive approval. No direction was needed.
If you find yourself discouraged after reading this, change your mind. Disney is a company just like any other. Like Disney, any other company harbors a single thread you can weave into your own story, your own tapestry in your own community. Find your purpose in that story.