“Earning My Ears”: How I got my first job with the Disney company
by Nate Naversen
This is a story of how I got my first job with the Walt Disney company. It’s a story of perseverance and how I managed to turn failure into success in my job search. Now just for clarification’s sake I don’t consider myself any better or any more qualified than anyone else just because I was successful in getting hired by Disney. Indeed, there are many more qualified candidates than I. But I was probably more persistent than most, and that was what made the difference for me in this case. It was a good lesson to learn, and I hope to pass on my experience to you. Please do not take this advice as a way to get the Disney company to hire you. Too many people put Disney on a pedestal and sacrifice good jobs at other companies for not-so-good jobs at Disney. My hope is that this article will help put you in a good frame of mind to be successful in any future job search. In this great country of opportunity, no goal is too high for those of you who dream big.
Let me just say first of all that I remember visiting Disneyland as a 10 year old thinking, “Wow! Wouldn’t it be great to work here some day!” Later I shrugged away any such ideas as a kids’ fantasy. Such are the dreams of children, are they not? I went through high school and college thinking that I had to pick a normal career for myself; a career like law, teaching, business, or medicine or something that most people end up doing for a living. Now there’s nothing wrong with a normal career like that, mind you, but I simply wanted to do something different. For the longest time, however, I simply remained undecided about what that career might be.
In college I truly struggled to pick a major, wavering between business, political science, music, psychology (most of the normal college majors really) and eventually “settling” on Aerospace Engineering. At the time, I thought it would be great to eventually become a U. S. Air Force fighter pilot. So forgetting about Disney for the time being, I began my studies and enrolled myself in Air Force R.O.T.C. at University of Colorado, Boulder.
But soon I realized that the Air Force was not the place for me. The U.S. Air Force is an admirable profession, and it takes a special kind of person to be able to put their life on the line for their country. But it did not meet my expectations in several areas. So soon I left the cadet corps and continued in the search for a job I could love.
Well, it was later the following year that I got a call from my good friend, Will, who was then attending Washington State. He told me he had just been accepted into the Disneyland College Program, and that he would be spending his summer down in Anaheim working at Disneyland. “Such fun,” I thought. I already had a job that summer as a competitive swim coach which I truly enjoyed, but the seed had been planted. This was the first time that it dawned on me that people actually do have amazing jobs. . . that it is truly possible to have a career that you are excited about. After all, I was very excited about Disney, as so many are, so why couldn’t I go work there? Truly, there was nothing stopping me short of going out and getting it.
The following January I attempted to get into the Disneyland college program. Right off the bat I ran into a slight problem, though. You see, I went to the University of Colorado, but Disneyland only recruited in the Pacific states. It took a little doing, but soon I was able to convince my parents to help me to purchase a plane ticket from Colorado to Pullman, Washington where Disney recruited (and my friend Will could house me for the weekend.)
Will warned me that the odds of being accepted into the Disneyland College Program were very slim, as only 10% of the applicants were accepted into the program. “Hmmm,” I thought, “Maybe I was better off going for that Air Force fighter pilot slot?” Nonetheless, I had made up my mind about what I wanted to do: get Disney to hire me. I knew the competition would be stiff, but I had a great chance, right? After all, I was a clean-cut, good-old-fashioned, red-blooded, All-American boy-next-door type. I was the type of kid Walt was looking for. How could they not hire me?
Well, when I went into Disney’s recruitment presentation, and it was like my worst nightmare come-true. There I sat in a room full of 200 other college students who looked exactly like me ! The Disneyland College program only accepted about 150 students each summer, and this was one of only 30 universities they recruited from! Surely, the odds would be slim for me. Steadfast in my determination, I watched the presentation and signed up for an interview, but with a lot less confidence than I had at first.
Now the interview the next morning was truly what I would consider a stress interview. Because of the number of people who were applying for the job and the amount of time the recruiters had, interviews were conducted four at a time. There was a small room, where four potential Disney cast members went in and were asked questions by one interviewer. Also, because of the time constraints, the entire interview was conducted in only twenty minutes. One wrong comment could earn you a hidden “X” next to your name, spelling certain disaster for anyone hoping to be hired that summer. Will told me that the recruiter would either pick one of the four candidates for the job, or choose not to choose any of the four. Now those are some great odds to defy!
Well, I went to my interview that morning on the Washington State campus, having gone to great lengths to make my appearance perfect for the recruiter. I think I even clipped a nose hair that morning in preparation. I was either extremely meticulous or extremely worried. . . I’m not sure which.
When I arrived, it was just as I had been told. There were four of us: two boys, and two girls. The first girl was definitely dressed for success with a nice green dress on and a little binder clip board. The second girl, who I later met again down at Disneyland was even more well dressed than the first girl. She wore a funky designer dress and had her hair done up in a business-style crop. The young man impressed me less than the others because he wore old pants and muddy work boots. He surely could not impress an interviewer dressed like that? His lack of good interview appearance wasn’t comforting to me at all though: first of all, he seemed very nice; and second of all, I knew I had to beat all three of them to win the job. What a task!
During the interview the first girl made a critical mistake. When asked why she wanted to work at Disneyland, she said, “Well, it’s either Disneyland or an Alaskan fish cannery, and I really don’t want to clean fish all summer.” It was a terrible answer in my opinion, and I judged from frowning expression on the interviewer’s face that he probably was going to put an “X” by her name with that comment. The young man in the interview turned out to be a nice fellow, but he was a little less refined than the rest of us, so I assumed we would probably beat him out too.
But the last girl, Shannon, had the perfect girl-next-door smile and nailed every question. I knew it was probably down to the two of us. . . although I really couldn’t tell you how well I answered the interview questions. I was too nervous. The one thing I do recall was the interviewer asking me what job I would like to do at the Magic Kingdom. I told him that I just wanted to work there that summer. . . that I would take any job. “Give me the job as the custodial sweeper,” I exclaimed. “I’ll take anything!”
Well, there was nothing to do but to wait for a letter in the mail after the interview. I’m not sure what was worse: The interview itself, or the waiting period afterward. Will told me that when I got their letter I would know right away whether I had been hired or not. “The hirees get a thick packet,” he explained. “The reject letters come in a thin envelope.” The weeks passed, and I waited, until finally spring break came around. From Oregon I called Colorado to ask if I had received any mail. “Not much, Nate,” my roommate said, “Except this letter from the Disney.” I was excited, and I couldn’t wait to get back to Boulder to open the thing. “Tell me,” I said, “Is it a thin letter or a fat one?” “It’s just a regular letter,” he said.
When I got back to Boulder my wait was finally over. The answer I got from the Disney company was not the one I was hoping for, but it was just the answer I was expecting after what my roommate had told me. It was one of those typical form letters stating, “You are very qualified, but were not chosen, we will keep your resume on file, etc. . . ” Just as I thought. I got the thin rejection letter.
But in the midst of my disappointment I got an idea. . . a glimmer of hope to hang on to. I put myself in the shoes of all the other college students in my position and asked myself what would they do when they got a thin envelope? Well, I figured they’d do what any sane person would do. . .shrug their shoulders, say, “Oh well, I tried,” and go find another summer job. In my thinking, 900 people just took themselves out of the competition.
But the competition was not over yet in my mind. I assumed that of the 150 that made it at least 5 or 6 would change their mind and take another summer job. After all, Los Angeles is a scary, far off place to those coming from places like Pullman, Washington or Moscow, Idaho. Surely someone would change their mind? My goal was to get the spot of the person who changed his or her mind.
So that was my new strategy. . . to nab one of the last 5 spots I assumed would be there. That very day I sent my second thank you letter to my interviewer, Jay. (The first thank you was right after the interview) And thus my letter writing campaign began. In my mind, keeping in contact with the interviewer was one of the keys to my success in this matter.
I wrote one letter each week. Not enough to be a pest, but enough to stay in the back of their minds given the few short weeks until summer. I wrote the letters attempting to be as upbeat and excited about the college program as I possibly could without sounding too obnoxious. I stressed my commitment to Disney as a career goal, my personal assets (like good attitude, work ethic, being able to work with people, etc…) and the fact that I wanted the spot of the person who changed his or her mind. Stressing those characteristics, I sent my letters, saying a silent, and somewhat silly prayer before dropping each letter in the mailbox. If nothing else, my letter writing skills improved dramatically in those few weeks. Later, I decided that God listens to even silly prayers, and sometimes He blesses people not because they deserve it, but just to demonstrate how good He really is.
Three weeks from the end of school, I had not heard a word from Disney, and had all but given up all chances of getting the job. So I prepared myself to go back to my old job at the pool. And ironically, it was the day after I had given up all hope that I got the phone call that forever changed the course of my short life. Bridget Lindquist was her name, daughter of then Disneyland President Jack Lindquist. She said, “Hello, Nathan, how would you like to work on the Jungle Cruise?” My heart leaped for joy. I don’t remember what happened after that, but I obviously told her “Yes” before I hung up, because I actually did end up at Disney that summer.
I remember calling Will, telling him to ask me what I was going to do after finals. “What?” He asked. “No no,” I said, “Ask it like I asked it!” After some coaxing, he finally said “Okay you big dork, what are you going to do after finals?” “I’m going to Disneyland!” I exclaimed, just like in the Disneyland television commercial. It was the happiest day of my life to that point. He sounded pretty happy too.
As it turns out, Shannon actually had won our interview. She won the custodial sweeper job, too. Me, the “loser” ended up with what I consider the best job at the entire Disney company…. Jungle Cruise Skipper on the ” World famous” Jungle Cruise. I’ve never felt so good about losing in my life.
It just goes to show you that sometimes an initial no in a job search is not always a permanent no. Every wall is a door of opportunity if the right thinking can be applied to initial failures and if you stay persistent. As for me, I still remember the day God answered my silly little prayer.
So there you have it. When you get turned down for a job, you may not be as out of luck as you might think. Anyone can be hired at any time, especially in smaller companies. Persistence in letter writing to perspective companies will help you succeed in the future. I still make it a point to drop letters in the mail to those I have met while searching for jobs. They are personal notes, and are the true key to networking.
I hope this helps you. That was the start of how I found my true passion in life, theme park attraction design. For more information about jobs searches in the themed entertainment industry, be sure to check out my other article, “How to Become an Imagineer.”
Much luck! Nathan Naversen