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The Most Magical Job on Earth

walkingriver profile image Michael D. Callaghan Originally published at walkingriver.com on ・18 min read

I normally ignore unsolicited emails from recruiters. They are almost never a good match, and feel as though they are “shotgun” email blasts sent to hundreds or thousands of people. This one was different, though. It had the word “Disney” in the subject line.

A Little Background

Let me set the stage for you so that you have some context. The first thing you need to know is that my entire family consists of what we lovingly call “Disney nuts.” For years I had a Spaceship Earth antenna topper. We were Disney Vacation Club members (Saratoga Springs, 2004). We tried to visit the Walt Disney World Resort at least once a year. We used to say that we could drop any of our children blindfolded in any random part of Disney property, and they would be able navigate to any other part. No, we never actually tried that.

In December of 2010 I was in the 11th month of a 9-month contract with Dell. 2010 had been a stressful year. I was laid off from my work-from-home software development job in October 2009. We were living in Central New Hampshire, where the biggest employers were the local grocery store and McDonald’s. The nearest software development gig would most likely have me driving an hour to Manchester, or worse, 2+ hours in traffic to the Boston area.

In late January 2010, after about two months living off savings and food storage, I finally got a job offer, but it was not in New Hampshire. It was with Dell, in Round Rock, Texas. Though not ideal (it was 3000 miles away) and not long-term (it was only a 9-month contract), I accepted the job.

Dell HQ, Round Rock, Texas, USA

I was to start on the first Monday in February, which gave me exactly a week to pack up my Mustang Convertible and head out for a grand solo road trip. It was the middle of the school year and my wife and I decided it would be best for me to go alone, given that it was not a permanent gig. If it turned out later to be so, we could decide for them to join me in June.

My time at Dell required me to come up to speed on some “new” Microsoft technologies: ASP.NET MVC 2 and Entity Framework 4. The fact that I was living alone in Texas gave me a lot of time to study the technologies, learn about and meet key individuals in the industry. One such was Phil Haack, who was at Microsoft at the time. He came to Dell and gave a day-long overview of many of these technologies we would eventually be using. That meeting led to my interest in reading the blogs of other notable folks at Microsoft: Scott Hanselman, John Papa, Scott Guthrie, and others. Reading their posts and watching their Channel 9 Videos became a habit. I quickly became the MVC/EF expert on my team. During that same period, I landed a paid side-gig to implement a Silverlight app for a company who had found me online. That is a story for another day.

By July 2010, three things happened:

  1. My manager at Dell agreed to let me return to New Hampshire and finish my contract from there.
  2. He asked whether I would be interested in extending the contract about six months.
  3. The contract was probably not going to be permanent, and would end after this extension.

On July 3, I repacked the Mustang and headed more or less northeast for the three-day drive back to New Hampshire.

I tell you this because what happened at Dell led to what was to come next.

The Email

The Dell gig went as expected, and as promised. It was winding down, and the manager told me it would probably not be extended again after its January end date. On December 21 (yes, four days before Christmas), I received the following unsolicited email. As I said, I would normally not even open it. I am reproducing it here mostly in its entirety.

Subject: .NET Disney

Greetings-Disney Corp headquarters in Fl, needs a .Net Architect for their group. I have included some notes and a link to the posting, the notes are from the hiring manager, so those are the real points of interest.Work with best developers onsite, there are appx 100 on site. The group you would be in is an elite group that oversee’s and provides direction to the development team. All approvals on any programming, etc will run thru your group.

Your day to day will vary, as you may be interfacing with the CIO on something, then providing direction and advising the development team on issues ranging from making suggestions on what tools to use, how to approach tasks, mentoring, etc.

So you will be the “A” team that all .Net development for Disney will pass through.

Communication is number one, you will be dealing with lot’s of personalities, and we need someone who is confident in their ability to be part of the elite team, and can provide strong leadership, be tactful, be patient, etc when dealing with developers that range from passive, to aggressive.

You will be considered a Net expert. Other technologies would be nice but this role is for a top flight person. Fundamentally knows how to write solid unit tests, enterprise library, unity, prism, foundational needs to be strong..They want someone who is passionate about technology. Someone that lives and breathes technology, even their hobbies and their off hours .

Despite the poor subject line and the numerous spelling and grammar mistakes, I replied with a two-sentence email.

I’m definitely interested. How much actual development responsibility would be involved?

At this point, I was not entirely sure it was a real job offer. I promised myself I would not get my hopes up until I had proof. We exchanged emails throughout the day, during which time he indicated that the hiring manager was on vacation and that nothing would move forward until after the first of the year. I finally sent him my resume that evening.

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

I heard absolutely nothing more for almost three weeks. Then on January 12, 2011, I received this email:

I know I have already shared this with you, my contact really wants to get moving on this, please let me know if you would consider-THX!

I had sent him my resume and told him to proceed, but now I was concerned that he never got it. The next day I received this:

Mike-the Client really likes your background…she is on travel till next Fri, she has said she will call me then to set up a [conversation].

That same day, my manager at Dell offered me another 90-day extension (the one that was not supposed to happen).

Eight days went by before I received another email from the recruiter that nearly made my heart sink.

The [manager] at Disney is working thru some internal process to get us approved on her vendors list… She really wants to interview you, and will get us on the list so she can.

I have worked with enough large companies to know that if you are not an approved vendor, they are highly unlikely to work with you. In my mind, that meant I was stuck. Fortunately, I had agreed to the 90-day extension with Dell, so at least I still had income.

Another month went by with barely a word. On February 10 I finally got an email from him saying that the hiring manager got over the “internal hurdle” and that they would be scheduling a call soon. We were planning a trip to Disneyland in California for the following week (I mentioned we were Disney nuts, right?), so I asked him to try to schedule it after we returned.

The Phone Interview

After a week at the Happiest Place on Earth, the recruiter finally got me the promised phone interview, scheduled for March 3. Quite frankly, I remember almost nothing from the call, except that for the first time I finally believed it was a real job. I received a brief email from the recruiter late that afternoon.

[The hiring manager] emailed me right after you got off the phn and said she wants to fly you in to interview….

So although I do not remember much of the call, it obviously went well.

Nothing much happened until March 14, when I got an email saying the salary would be lower than he had indicated initially and that I was one of six candidates for the job. My hopes of working for Disney were falling rapidly.

The Day Before the Interview

The in-person interview was scheduled for March 25 at the Team Disney building at Walt Disney World.

The plan was for me to fly down Thursday, where I would stay at Disney’s Boardwalk Inn. They covered the flight, car, hotel, and breakfast Friday morning before the interview. The interview would start before lunch Friday, they would take me to lunch, and then finish up for a few hours after lunch. It was going to be a long day, but I was prepared — or so I thought.

The flight was on time, the drive to the resort was uneventful, and I got a great night sleep. I did not have to be at Team Disney until after 9:30 AM, so I had made a breakfast reservation at Boma, which is at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, for 7:30 AM.

At 7:30 AM Friday morning, I was the only Guest in the restaurant and the Cast Member at the carving station gave me a personal tour.

After breakfast, I drove to Team Disney. Fortunately, my many prior visits to the resort enabled me to navigate the area like a native, so getting there was no trouble. I was early.

The In-Person Morning Interview

From this point on, I will use initials when describing the people I met who are not otherwise well known in the industry. My coworkers will probably be able to figure out who these people are, but most of my readers will not. This will allow me to avoid using terms like “hiring manager” and “other manager” for the rest of the story.

Team Disney at Walt Disney World

Upon my arrival at Team Disney, I discovered I was a little early. I parked at the far end of the parking lot to be able to take everything in. I have always admired the Team Disney building but had never been close to it. That giant tower in the center reminds me of a smoke stack, and I assumed the building was designed to resemble a cruise ship. I was mistaken. That tower is an (estimated) 8-story hollow tube, open to the sky. In fact, it is a giant functioning sundial, with markings on the walls to help you tell the time.

I entered the building at the main entrance, beneath the Mickey ears. I then checked in with the security guard, who called the hiring manager, JG, to let her know I was here.

My wait was brief, and soon JG walked up and introduced herself to me. She informed me that she was the manager of a 3-person team known as the .NET Center of Excellence (or COE). I liked the sound of that. She escorted me upstairs to a tiny conference room I later learned was the office of the COE. I met JS and DM, who gave me an overview of their day to day work. They told me all about the individual I would potentially be replacing, and it was clear that this was a tight-knit bunch. They would have to be, working together in a tiny office. I tried to imagine myself working closely with them every day.

When we got to the technical portion of the interview, they began telling me about the types of technology they expected to use that year: Entity Framework and ASP.NET MVC were two of the biggest — the very ones I had spent the last 14 months or so becoming an expert in!

I remember them asking me about how I keep myself current on the ever-changing software development landscape. I took a gamble and basically told them about the Microsoft blogs I follow. When I mentioned “John Papa” and all of his Silverlight videos, they told me, “that is a good answer.”

Lunch

After about an hour, JG returned and offered to take me to lunch, after which we would resume the interviews with someone else. We walked across the street to Downtown Disney (now Disney Springs) West Side and decided on Wolfgang Puck. Feeling pretty good about how the first portion of the interview went, I relaxed for lunch and we simply made small talk.

About halfway through lunch, I saw three people enter and be seated across the dining room from us. Two of them were the guys I had just interviewed with. The third looked familiar, but I could not place him. I pointed them out to JG, who told me, “Oh, that’s John Papa. Do you know who he is?” I told her that I did and had learned much from his blog and videos during the past year or so. “He used to work for me before working for Microsoft,” she told me. “In fact, I have been trying to get him to come back to my team.”

All my prior confidence evaporated at that point. I knew there were multiple people being interviewed for the job, but this changed things. I am up against someone both famous in the industry, and also someone having history with the team. It occurred to me that the only way I was getting this job would be if John did not want it. The fact that he was having lunch with his former team, at the same time I was being interviewed, struck me as very unfortunate timing.

The Afternoon Interviews

After lunch, we walked back across the street to Team Disney. During the walk, I tried to put that unpleasant surprise out of my mind so that I could try to relax during the second half of my interview.

JG had told me I would be taken to a conference room on the fourth floor, where I would be interviewed by LR and another person, each for an hour. You will see shortly why I do not remember the other person’s name.

LR showed up on time, introduced himself as a manager of technology, a peer of JG. He was there to help answer any technical questions I might have.

He told me used to be a .NET developer himself and described some of the projects he had worked on. It was a very pleasant chat, and he really made me feel at ease. At one point, he asked me why I wanted to work at Disney. I remember my answer very clearly, which I will paraphrase.

I have worked for a lot of companies, large and small. I have been with multiple startups, all of which had failed. I have also worked for larger companies: Digital, Compaq, HP, Dell. All of my prior employers, except one, had one thing in common. They were technology companies, producing technology for consumers of technology. In my entire career, I had only once done software development for a non-technology company. I built a website for an assisted living firm. Working on that site gave me a sense of satisfaction that I was building something for real people to use. I imagined that Disney would be similar to that. Sure, Disney uses a lot of technology, but the technology has as its purpose the creation of magic and happiness for its Guests. I wanted to be part of that.

Reflecting on my answer a bit, I concluded with, “Disney is the only company I have ever wanted to work for, where I have a prior admiration for the company and its products.”

After my answer, LR smiled and said that his reason for working at Disney was very similar. He then went on to describe what has become one of favorite employment benefits of working here: The Cross-U.

Cross-U is short for “Cross Utilization.” Simply put it goes like this. At certain extra-busy times of the year, usually right around Christmas and Easter, office-based Cast Members are asked to leave their desks and sign up for shifts in the theme parks. The jobs are the types of things that require little to no training: fill sodas, sweep up trash, clear tables, park strollers, run parade crowd control, that sort of thing. To some it may sound like drudgery, but the idea of taking shifts in the parks excited me.

It was about time for the final hour of my interview, when JG came into the room. She thanked LR for his help and then told me the interview was being cut short. She said that she would be in touch with the recruiter, thanked me for coming in, and escorted me back to the security desk.

Rejected?

I walked back across the parking lot to my rental car. I was confused and a bit dejected as I struggled to figure out where it had all gone wrong. Had I done or said something to offend someone? Nothing stood out as an obvious mistake. The only conclusion I could reach is that John Papa had accepted the job and that there was no reason to waste anyone else’s time. Thus was I unceremoniously sent packing, as it were.

I had nowhere else to go but the airport, even though I would get there hours ahead of my flight. There was no point in sticking around Disney World. Before I got on the road, I called the recruiter and told him what had happened. He said he would try to find out and let me know. However, given that it was late on a Friday, he probably would not get back to me until Monday. I told him I understood, hung up, and started the car.

I drove back to the airport, returned the rental car, breezed through security, and made my way to the gate. While waiting to board my flight, I received an email:

Mike-you did great!!! They have a formal process by which each member of the interview team fills out an evaluation form…I can tell you they all verbally told [JG] they really liked you.

Apparently the person who was supposed to be my final interviewer had something come up, though I never did find out for sure. I asked JG a year or so later, and she had no memory of it. In fact, she told me that she was sure she had told me that the interviews went great (she had not).

The Hiring Process

As you can probably imagine, the flight and weekend went better than I had expected. It was still not a done deal, but I was feeling much more positive about the experience.

Six days went by with little information. A friend of mine whom I had used as a reference let me know that Disney HR had contacted him. That appeared to be some forward progress, at least.

Some time in early April I received an official offer of employment from the Walt Disney Recruitment. The terms were set and agreed upon. My start date was set for May 9, 2011.

They required a drug test, which I was able to do from New Hampshire.

Walt Disney World Casting Center, photo by WikipediaI then had to return to Walt Disney World to be fingerprinted at the Casting Center. That ended up being a day trip. I flew down in the morning, went to the Casting Center, and then flew home. I was wracking up those Southwest Airline points.

Another Solo Trip

Because I was starting in early May, and school in NH did not end until late June, I once again found myself traveling across the country alone. I received a modest temporary housing allowance, and rented a small condo about two miles from Walt Disney World.

Fortunately, my experience the year before with Dell had inadvertently prepared me for this. I knew how to avoid the oddball mistakes I had made during that move. For one, I rented a furnished condo this time (don’t ask).

Another difference between Dell and Disney is that I did not try to drive all my things. Instead, the Mustang was loaded onto a car carrier about a week before I flew down, and it arrived in Florida a few days after I did. It could not have gone more smoothly.

My First Couple of Days

On May 9, 2011, I finally arrived for my first day at Team Disney. I again met with JG, JS, and DM, and spent most of the day getting my computer set up and generally observing. I was not expected to do much, because I did not even have a security badge yet. That would be tomorrow.

Disney University

On Tuesday, May 10, I arrived at Disney University bright and early for Traditions, a day-long orientation required for all new Disney Cast Members. I do not want to go into detail about the specifics of Traditions for two reasons. First, I do not want to spoil the experience for others. You are best coming in cold, as I did. Second, the program changes often enough that anything I told you would likely be out of date or completely inaccurate.

I can say that it was at Traditions that I received my security badge and my name tag.

Disney nametag

With my security badge came new abilities, and I was determined to use them. When Traditions ended, I drove to Disney’s Boardwalk Inn, where I had stayed just a few months before. My shiny new badge got me through the security gate and I proceeded to park and walk around.

Disney's Boardwalk Resort Area

The Boardwalk Resort area has always been one of my favorite locations at Walt Disney World. It is simply beautiful. It is also within walking distance of both Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

It was barely 6:00 PM and I was on a mission. I walked the one-mile path to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. There I used the second ability provided by my new security badge. I entered the park simply by showing it at the turnstiles. Note: This does not work today, as Disney provides a different means for Cast Members to obtain park admission.

After marvelling for a while at my newfound freedom, I made my way over to the Hollywood Hills section of the park, where I proceeded to ride both the Tower of Terror and the Rock and Roller Coaster.

That important task completed, I left the park and took the boat shuttle to Epcot’s International Gateway. I entered Epcot the same way I had entered Hollywood Studios and set off immediately for the France Pavilion. My wife’s birthday was coming up soon, so I decided to use my badge’s third ability: a nice merchandise discount.

I bought her something she had wanted the last time we had visited, and then left the park. I walked back to the Boardwalk Inn and my car, stopping at the Boardwalk Bakery for a slice of their phenomenal carrot cake. That was my dinner and a fitting end to a long day.

Family Reunion

It would be almost two months before my family finally joined me in Florida. We had chosen a rental a few towns away, but it was not available until July 1. Fortunately, I had the condo for three months, so we ended up living there until the house was ready. The move could not have gone more smoothly The movers kept our things in storage until our move-in day in July. Our house in New Hampshire sold a few months later. My transition to full-time Disney Cast Member and Florida resident was complete.

Timeline of Events

From the beginning to the end, the entire process took 140 days (4 months, 19 days) from the time I received the email until I reported for my first day on the job.

To recap, the major events were this:

  • Dec 21, 2010 - Received unsolicited recruiter email
  • Dec 21, 2010 - Sent resume
  • Mar 03, 2011 - Phone interview
  • Mar 25, 2011 - In-person interview
  • Apr 11, 2011 - Offer received
  • May 02, 2011 - Fingerprinting
  • May 09, 2011 - First Day on the Job
  • May 10, 2011 - Disney Traditions

Lessons Learned

The primary takeaway from this experience is that you should never give up. There many times during this process where I was convinced it was never going to happen.

A secondary lesson is the importance of keeping your skills sharp, and taking jobs that will help you do so. I had to be willing to leave my family for 6 months to do that. Will that happen to everyone? Of course not, but it seemed right for our situation at the time. And in the end, that experience in Texas the year before prepared me to make the move to Florida.

Try to stay positive during the interview. My thinking about losing the job to John Papa nearly derailed the entire day. As I later discovered, JG was not telling me about him coming back to the team to make me think he was my competition. She was trying to get me more interested in the job. Unknown to me at the time, there would soon be another opening on the team. John ended up filling that opening and joining us a few months later.

Cross-U Details

Oh, that Cross-U I was telling you about. With only a single exception, I have managed to work at least one shift every Cross-U season. One I worked eight.

The most complicated task I have ever been assigned was to make popcorn, and that is so well designed that even I had a hard time messing it up (though I did once — I forgot to press the Oil button with one batch).

Here is a picture of me working at the ice cream cart just outside of the Tomorrowland Speedway at Magic Kingdom, around Easter a few years ago.

Tomorrowland Speedway Ice Cream Cart

Since Joining Disney

It has been nine magical years this month since I joined Disney. I have been fortunate to hold a variety of roles, from Solutions Architect to Software Engineer.

The .NET Center of Excellence is no more. Through a series of corporate moves and job transfers, I am now a Lead Software Engineer with one of our Cast-facing Resort-Sales teams.

I have had the privilege of helping to organize two separate internal “Developer Days,” a Disney-only conference held for the benefit of our technology Cast. My Twitter banner photo is from one of these events, where I gave an introduction to Ionic at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort and Convention Center.

A few years ago I was given the opportunity to be the lead developer on an emergency project, which required us to replace the handheld devices used by Disney’s Magical Express at the resorts and the airport. Time being of the essence, we chose to implement the project using the Ionic Framework. This was our first official foray into hybrid mobile development, and it could not have gone better. I discussed this project in more detail in December 2019 on the Ionic Podcast.

On the non-technology side of things, in addition to the Cross-U shifts, I have also been present at almost every major theme park “grand opening” we have had: New Fantasyland, Test Track, Pandora, Toy Story Land, Galaxy’s Edge, and more.

Do You Have What it Takes?

If you have gotten this far, it is possible that you may be interested in working for us in some capacity. As I am writing this, we are right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and things are mostly shut down. That will not last forever.

If you think you have the skills and talents to join us, we will eventually have more technology jobs open.

I occasionally tweet about new job openings in my own organization, so feel free to follow me on Twitter (@walkingriver ) to get notified. You can also checkout DisneyTech.com to see our current openings across The Walt Disney Company.

If you think you might be interested, go ahead and apply. You have nothing to lose by applying. Maybe we will work together on a project some day.

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walkingriver profile

Michael D. Callaghan

@walkingriver

Husband, father, developer at Walt Disney World; part-time author and video course producer, mostly about the Ionic Framework

Discussion

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A Disney story with a happy end is my kind of favorite story 😉

Thank you for sharing this experience, great read!