“Nobody’s a staff member at Disney,” Laurie Tilley informs me. “Everybody’s a cast member.” This is accurate; not once on Disney’s vacancy pages will you find reference to such a measly, bread-and-butter term. In fact, so fantastical is the Walt Disney Company today that it employs 62,000 cast – making it the largest employer in the United States.
We’re settled in the former Sheriff of Nottingham’s warm front room in Hassocks, Sussex. A promising dinner of chilli-con-carne is on the go, and the chef is reclining comfortably in a leather armchair. The mantelpiece is guarded by a pair of resin meerkats, two or three brightly-painted urns stand against the walls, and thick ruby curtains swaddle a flat-screen TV that’s almost the size of the dining table. Only a couple of small touches betray his allegiance: the battalion of binders marked “Disney”, and a magnetic paperclip holder in the novel shape of Mickey Mouse’s trousers.
Laurie had been in the travel industry for a while before the Magic Kingdom beckoned. His boss at British Airways Holidays jumped ship to the then brand-new Disneyland Paris, selling their packages to hungry and receptive tour operators back in the UK. A recommendation and a couple of interviews later, Laurie joined the ranks as Senior Sales and Marketing Manager, scouting out companies who were worthy of the coveted contracts to sell holidays to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. “With Disney it’s a bit different. We’re very choosy as to who we wanted to work with. Companies got a contract because they were USA specialists.”
But despite their international reach and high standards, it seems that slip-ups between regional cast did sometimes occur – with hilarious and faintly embarrassing consequences. Laurie goes on to describe the half-day’s experience he did as a Character Performer in the park dressed as the Sheriff of Nottingham, alongside a sales manager from Germany who portrayed Friar Tuck. With a laugh he recalls: “She’d actually misread and misheard that and was signing everything “Fire Truck”. It’s a strange experience, to be honest.”
Strange, perhaps. Rewarding, definitely. Another quick glance at the careers section of their website suggests a job like no other – living in a child’s world and getting paid for knowing all about it. There are even in-house qualifications and awards that you can study and be nominated for, of which my jovial interviewee has first-hand experience – he just missed out on Cast Excellence, the equivalent of Employee of the Year. “Cast Excellence is being aware of the Disney tradition and heritage,” he explains, adding, “It’s quite a thing to be nominated by your peers and not your superiors.” Indeed. Given the growing size of the studio – in 2016 it acquired Marvel and LucasFilm, on top of its on-off affair with Pixar – it’s easy to wonder how on Earth a college leaver can hope to get in and get noticed? Laurie hesitates, considering his points before firing them off. “Persistence is probably the way. Show willing. Go to Paris. Go and work in a store, learn another language. I think because it is so international what they look at is someone who is energetic, who is savvy. I think if you want to survive in the company you have to go with the flow. At the very beginning I had one or two run-ins with people in Florida and I realised that perhaps I was doing things wrong and they were probably right.”
In other words, there’s a requirement to be an ardent fan. But some people’s love of Disney is intense enough to be moving for employees sent to liaise with them, as he and a French colleague found out on a trip around Cape Town, South Africa. Along with Mickey and Minnie, they visited children’s hospitals. “It was a real eye-opener,” Laurie says. “There was a young lady who had been born there – she was about twelve, I think – and she could never move anything and all she ever wanted to do, her life’s ambition, was to see Mickey Mouse and he arrived to see her. And you can imagine how that went down in the hospital.”
It seems, then, that the Happiest Place on Earth can be anywhere that the pixie dust – as the cast fondly call it – touches. Laurie agrees: “It’s a unique product, very unique, and I had great years there.” Worldwide, multimedia and richly-staffed it might be, but talking to a single alum of Disney gives the clear impression that it’s still a close-knit, caring family.
This article was originally published in the BHASVIC Buzz online magazine, and was produced in early 2017 as coursework for A-Level English Language.