Amber Earns Her Ears

My Secret Walt Disney World Cast Member Diary

by Amber Michelle Sewell | Release Date: June 17, 2013 | Availability: Print, Kindle

My Boss, Mickey Mouse

Come read Amber Sewell's Disney College Program diary and share her successes and her failures, her moments of delight and her moments of despair, and learn what happens when the pixie dust settles and the guests have gone home.

As part of her job, Amber not only had to flash a smile and chat with awestruck children, but also deal with amorous Imagineers, drunks in Downtown Disney, bleeding kids and hysterical parents, screaming roommates, conceited Cast Members, and power-hungry supervisors. Throughout, she kept her cool, chronicling in Amber Earns Her Ears what it's like to work "backstage" and how Disney ensures its millions of guests always come back for more.

Even though the pay is low, the rules rigid, and the experience at times disillusioning, Amber still found her job magical. Her book is as much a coming of age story as it is a compelling behind-the-scenes glimpse of Walt Disney World.

Follow Amber as she:

  • Soldiers through Disney's extensive Cast Member training, including the famous Traditions class
  • Struggles to master Disney's picky procedures for food prep and quick service at Epcot's Electric Umbrella
  • Stands in the broiling Florida sun behind a cart selling Captain EO merchandise to the disinterested
  • Seeks the reason why someone would stand in the broiling Florida sun behind a cart selling Captain EO merchandise
  • Shares tips for how you can ace your College Program application and interview, and work for the Mouse yourself

From private, after-hours tours of iconic attractions like the Haunted Mansion to hauling sacks of rotting food to a grease pit behind the Electric Umbrella in Epcot, Amber Sewell saw the Mouse at his best and at his worst, and tells all.

Amber Earns Her Ears is the first volume in the popular "Earning Your Ears" series. (Check out Volume Two.) If you've never been in the Disney College Program, this is the next best thing!

Table of Contents

Foreword by Lee Cockerell, retired Walt Disney World Executive VP

Part One: My First Semester at Walt Disney World

Chapter 1: Amber Chases CareerStart

Chapter 2: Amber Sweats Her Interviews

Chapter 3: Amber Hates the Wait

Chapter 4: Amber Picks Her Roomies

Chapter 5: Amber Drives to Disney World

Chapter 6: Amber Digs Her Disney Digs

Chapter 7: Amber Learns the Disney Way

Chapter 8: Amber Takes a Wrong Turn

Chapter 9: Amber Opens Her Electric Umbrella

Chapter 10: Amber Bonds Over French Fries

Chapter 11: Amber Gets a New Gig

Chapter 12: Amber Deals with Disney Stress

Chapter 13: Amber Colors Eggs at Chatham

Chapter 14: Amber Learns Where Things Go

Chapter 15: Amber Gets Deployed

Chapter 16: Amber Recalls Cast-off Cast Members

Chapter 17: Amber Goes a-Wizarding

Chapter 18: Amber Does the Cupid Shuffle

Chapter 19: Amber Cries Her Farewells

Part Two: My Second Semester at Walt Disney World

Chapter 20: Amber Does Disney, Again

Chapter 21: Amber Goes Through the Motions

Chapter 22: Amber Gives Guests Some Magic

Chapter 23: Amber Keels Over

Chapter 24: Amber Auditions for Her Close-up

Chapter 25: Amber Handles a Drunk

Chapter 26: Amber Deals with Disney Discontent

Chapter 27: Amber Rumbles with Her Roomies

Chapter 28: Amber Circles the Wagons

Chapter 29: Amber Exposes Disney Merch

Chapter 30: Amber Gets a Thank You Card

Chapter 31: Amber Counts the Days

Chapter 32: Amber Crashes in Japan

Chapter 33: Amber Joins the Bus People

Chapter 34: Amber Feels Sympathetic Vibrations

Chapter 35: Amber Hooks Up with Her Parents

Chapter 36: Amber Dyes It Red

Chapter 37: Amber Defects to Universal

Chapter 38: Amber Fails Inspections

Chapter 39: Amber Enjoys a Turkey Leg

Chapter 40: Amber Seeks Holiday Cheer

Chapter 41: Amber Nears the End

Chapter 42: Amber at Rest

I particularly enjoyed reading Amber Earns Her Ears, as the Disney College Program touched me personally even before I joined Disney in 1990 to open the Euro Disney project in Paris.

Back in 1989, I was the General Manager of a Marriott Hotel, and my son Daniel was in his second year at Boston University. He called me asking for ideas on what summer job he should pursue to gain some experience in and exposure to a different industry. He had already worked at the Boston Copley Marriott as a waiter in the sports bar, and had done an internship at a Boston brokerage firm.

I suggested he try to get a job at Disney through the Disney College Program. I had heard lots of good things about this program and had, in fact, instructed my management team at Marriott to hire any applicant who had Disney experience. I was never disappointed in hiring someone who was Disney trained.

My son Daniel called me two weeks after he started the College Program and said, "Dad I have bad news for you. Disney is better than Marriott." I said, "Why are they better?" He replied, "The training is fabulous." A year later I was recruited by Disney. I tell people that my son got me the job.

Amber Sewell has done a great job of painting a fun and informative picture of what it is like to work and live at Disney as a young college student.

Her descriptions of her many experiences and escapades brought back fond and not-so-fond memories of similar stories I had heard from my son and from many of the thousands of young people who have participated in this program.

I suggest anyone looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience consider the Disney College Program. I assure you that, like Amber, you will never be the same. Learning from the best will help you be the best, and will give you a lifelong edge. As one college professor told me a few years ago, "Lee, we sent you an introvert and you sent us back an extrovert."

The real value of doing the Disney College Program is that when you apply for a job after graduation, or even years later, the employer interviewing you will only want to talk about your Disney experience and how you can help their organization achieve service excellence like Disney does.

If you can't participate in the Disney College Program, I suggest you read Amber Earns Her Ears to gain a unique understanding of how the right experience can bring you lots of fun, frustration, and knowledge which will serve you well as you navigate your career. It sure worked out for my son, who is now the Vice President of Disney's Hollywood Studios. He has been with Disney for 20 years, and it all began when he earned his ears.

I met Amber Sewell in the modern sense: online.

Back in 2011, I ran a mega-site called Disney Dispatch. I had a few dozen weekly columnists, including Disney Legends like Rolly Crump, and I began to notice in my Google Analytics reports that one particular column was doing better than most of the other columns. In fact, it sometimes drew more traffic than Rolly Crump! Who wrote it?

Amber Sewell, of course.

I had pitched Amber the idea of a weekly column about her Disney CareerStart and Disney College Program adventures called Amber Earns Her Ears. I figured it would interest other College Program participants. But Amber threw herself heart and soul into the column, and her weekly “diary from Disney” drew faithful flocks of readers young and old.

Well before Amber finished the College Program, I sold Disney Dispatch, and most of the columnists left the site. Amber stuck around for a bit, but then she drifted off as well. Her diary? Unfinished.

About a year later, I got back in touch with Amber to ask whether she’d like to revise and expand her old Disney Dispatch columns, and write new material (lots of it!) to pick up from where she left off.

I told her we’d turn it into a book.

If you’re not familiar with Disney CareerStart or the Disney College Program, don’t worry: you’ll learn about them right along with Amber.

I ought to mention that Disney discontinued CareerStart a couple of years ago. CareerStart and the College Program (which is still active and enrolls thousands of participants every year) are mostly identical, except that you could apply for CareerStart while still in high school. Once enrolled, however, participants in both programs take on the same Cast Member roles and duties.

In the first part of the book, Amber chronicles her semester in CareerStart, and then in the second part, she covers her semester in the College Program.

Want to follow in Amber’s footsteps? If you’re a college student, and if you’d like to spend your next semester in a theme park instead of in a classroom, maybe you can:

Enough with the preliminaries. Let’s get to work—for Disney.

Amber Michelle Sewell

Amber Sewell lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her first visit to Walt Disney World was in 1998; since then, her trips number well over 50. She participated in the Disney CareerStart Program in 2010 and then in the Disney College Program in 2011. She has written articles for and for Celebrations Magazine.

Amber graduated with a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Tennessee in 2013.

In this excerpt, from Chapter 7 ("Amber Learns the Disney Way"), Amber steps foot into the magical world of Disney Casting:

The doorknobs were shaped like the ones in Alice in Wonderland. The hallways were painted with Disney characters. Ramps led up and down, random corridors branched off to unknown locations, and a bunch of young adults in varying states of business attire stood clustered together, gazing around with a uniform look of bemused anticipation.

That was my first—and lasting—impression of Casting. Luckily, Paige, Leah, Jenni, and I all got along wonderfully, so we clung together as much as possible before they put us in alphabetical order and marched us, a little shell-shocked, through the business side of Disney—a side we hadn't seen before. Yes, Paige had worked at a Disney Store in Washington, D.C. prior to joining the program, but this was different from a stock room in a mall.

A bus had come to our complex early that morning to take us to Casting, where we would receive our work locations, submit fingerprints, and complete the myriad other tasks required for us to become Cast Members. We walked in—past the doorknobs, which held us up for a bit as pictures were taken—and joined lines of other new CareerStart participants strung through a hallway. We didn't have a clue what we were doing, other than following orders. When word passed down the line that we were about to learn where we would be working for the next six months, a murmur of excited chatter arose.

As I queued up and got closer to the desk where people were getting stickers plastered onto their College Program booklets (already, CareerStart had ceased to exist; once you've finally made it to Florida, the two programs function the same way, so even though I was technically in the CareerStart Program, all the training and introductory materials were identical to that used for the College Program), my mind was racing with possibilities. I had already decided the most preferable spot would be the shake stand just outside Rock 'n' Roller Coaster; what better way to spend the day than listening to Aerosmith? Maybe then I would finally learn all the words. The smiling Cast Member took my folder and applied my sticker. Breathless, I looked down:

Electric Umbrella.

Electric Umbrella?

Honestly, I remembered Electric Umbrella only from a link someone on Facebook had sent me. I couldn't remember ever eating there, and I wasn't even sure where it was (a rare occurrence), but that didn't matter. I was working at Disney World!

As I waited in another line to be inspected for compliance with the Disney Look, I hurriedly sent out a text to my mother, letting her know that I was working in EPCOT. Then, as the line advanced, I shoved my phone back in my purse and peered ahead to see what was happening.

In groups of four, we were inspected by a Cast Member who assessed our hair color, clothes, tattoos (if we had any), jewelry, and every other aspect of our appearance to ensure that we complied with the Disney Look. While the rules for the Look have slackened over time, the guidelines for College Program participants are quite strict. Hair had to be of a natural color, with no roots showing if it was dyed. Men's facial hair was compared to a few charts the Cast Members had on hand, clothes were assessed for level of appropriateness, and even nails were checked to ensure they were of a proper length. Luckily, no one in our group had any problems, but I have heard of people who had to go home and dye their hair before they did anything else, or buy special make-up to cover their tattoos. Disney posts the Disney Look guidelines on the College Program website, so it's easy (and advisable) to log in and make sure you qualify ahead of time.

More tedious tasks ensued. We were taken through a string of offices to fill out more paperwork and answer more questions. Adding our fingerprints to the system proved to be troublesome—my thumb was refusing to scan, and I wasn't the only one having issues. Leah encountered a plethora of problems with the business side of Disney, beginning with the background check. It took aeons to process, and she wasn't able to start training until later than the rest of us.

Eventually, though, it was almost over. We queued up for one last room, where we received even more booklets and rules, and then picked up our debit cards. Once we registered the cards, we'd be sent a text whenever money (such as our Disney paychecks, which were deposited every Thursday) was put on them, and whenever money was spent. I eventually switched over to the Partners Federal Credit Union, a Cast Member banking system with an office located just down the road from Chatham and Patterson, and another at Disney University.

As people trickled out, I found a seat on a bench outside to wait for Jenni, Paige, and Leah so we could all ride a bus back to our apartment together. One by one the others emerged, pausing to take pictures with the costumed characters that Disney had waiting for us at the exit.

On the bus back, we all compared Traditions times, which were on the sticker that told us where we would be working. Jenni and I had Traditions together; Leah, sadly, wouldn't get to attend Traditions until later, due to the delay with her background check (we never did find out what took so long). Back at the apartment, we retired to our seats in the living room—everyone had already picked out their spots—and chatted, getting to know one another more. Now that we were evolving out of that awkward strangers phase, personalities were starting to emerge.

Jenni was the comedian. Everything was funny when she was around, and every night would end with all four of us collapsed in hopeless laughter in the living room over some outrageous comment she had made. Many inside jokes emerged from late night conversations—late being somewhere around ten, when things took a definite turn from fairly normal to absolutely nonsensical.

Leah was compassionate, creative, and fun-loving. She was quite the seamstress, too. While the rest of our rooms had a slightly lived-in feel (except for Jenni's room, since she never did manage to unpack everything she had brought), Leah's assortment of knick-knacks—from pillows she had made and then thrown on the couch to picture frames everywhere—made the apartment feel like a home in no time.

Paige was more logical and down-to-earth, with a drier sense of humor that I totally appreciate. She was a gamer, and the biggest Disney fan I had ever met. Her goal was to be a tour guide for the Keys to the Kingdom tour—anything we needed to know about anything Disney, she was our source of information. She was also a huge Harry Potter fan, which meant that we were destined to have a few adventures on that front.

And I fit in quietly, still warming up to everything. I got incredibly lucky, standing next to those three in line on check-in day. They made it easier for me to meet my goal of becoming more sociable; there was no awkward tip-toeing around, no arguing over fridge or pantry space, no complaining about sinks full of dishes or the air conditioner being on too high. After that first night, we had all become friends.

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