Armed with a freshly minted degree in anthropology, Arielle Tuan found her job prospects less than hoped for. Then she heard of the professional internships at Disney's Animal Kingdom for college graduates interested in conservation. Apply? Why not! And from there her adventure began...
Arielle soon found herself in possession of a "bug box" and told to educate guests about conservation and how they could help save the world — whether they wanted to hear it or not. After the bug boxes, she moved to Wilderness Explorer Stations (then known as Kids Clubs) and "animal positions", including one that featured the seldom cooperative Marley the Crocodile.
For shy, introverted Arielle, her months in the steaming "jungle" of the Animal Kingdom, surrounded by wild animals and sometimes even wilder guests and cast members, brought about a metamorphosis.
From the girl with the bug box that most guests ignored as they raced for the "thrill" rides every morning, Arielle found her groove as one of the park's Conservation Education Presenters. Her stories shed light on a whole other world at Disney's Animal Kingdom.
YOU'LL HAVE A WILD TIME!
It was only 8:50 in the morning, and sweat was already dripping down my back. The park was due to open in ten minutes, and hordes of guests were already lined up at the turnstiles, waiting for their chance to run left (toward Africa and Kilimanjaro Safaris, one of the most popular rides in the park) or right (toward Asia and Expedition Everest, another popular attraction and one of the few “thrill” rides in Disney). I wondered if anyone would even stop and talk to me; that would mean risking their chance at a short wait time, or missing their Fast Pass.
I uncomfortably shifted the weight of my bug box from one arm to the other, keeping an uneasy eye on the thermometer tucked in the corner of the see-through box. I was lucky that morning and got the Huntsman spider, one of my favorite insects that was usually okay in the Florida morning heat for the half hour or so I was required to stand at the entrance. However, I was still supposed to bring the insect back to the A/C if the temperature inside the box rose to a certain degree. As usual, safety always came first at Disney, even for the critters and creepy crawlies.
As if to emphasize that statement, a blue net was tucked into my back pocket (in case the spider—shudder—escaped, or if god forbid the bug box was to fall and break open). In such a scenario, I was to try and catch the insect without harming it or anyone in the area. Luckily, that scenario hadn’t happened yet, mostly due to the rule that both hands be wrapped protectively around the box, held close to one’s chest, at all times. I followed this rule very carefully, never letting myself casually hold the box with one hand.
As the opening announcements of the park began, along with the first few opening lines of “Circle of Life”, a familiar thought began to creep over me—What was I doing here? True, I had always wanted to work for Disney; I grew up going to the parks, watching the movies, and singing the songs. I even shared the name of my favorite Disney princess (different spelling, true, but I felt as though Ariel was my spirit animal—or, rather, spirit mermaid). But now that I was actually here, I realized that perhaps I was not cut out for this role.
I was a born introvert—almost a dirty word at Disney, a company that values extroverts in almost every aspect. I craved working in a quiet office, and had anxiety in customer service roles. I had tons of experience in customer service, and was fine once I started work, but I still got nervous every day, and had never had a job before that emphasized interaction with guests this much. I was expected to talk all day long, approach strangers, enforce conservation messages, handle emergencies (both of the animal and human variety), and when it was all over, go home and live with girls I had only known for a few weeks.
For an introvert, who craved alone time and quiet moments to recharge my batteries, this meant I was exhausted mentally and physically pretty much all the time. Not to mention that I was living and sleeping five feet away from the world’s biggest extrovert, my roommate.
For some reason, I convinced myself I could do this job. After all, it was Disney, and it wasn’t like this was a store or a restaurant, where guests could yell at me over a mistake with their purchase. I would be working with animals, and no one was going to mess with the girl holding a dangerous-looking spider in her hands. I would get amazing discounts, free entry to my favorite place in the world, and earn a great addition to my resume. Also, my co-workers would love Disney just like me, and we would all become best friends and help each other out. Plus, I knew from reading blog after blog that Disney would make sure you were trained to the best of your ability before letting you loose (unlike some previous jobs I had held, where it was sink or swim).
However, this was way harder than I had expected. I had to learn a whole manual full of animal facts. I was watched by my coordinators every day, and was reprimanded if I didn’t include a conservation message in my interactions with guests (it’s really hard to say “please recycle” when a guest is just asking where the restrooms are). I had to learn all areas of the Animal Kingdom park (the biggest of the four Disney theme parks), and work in each area. I had to learn what to do if someone dropped an item in an animal exhibit. I had to wear a hot, incredibly unattractive costume complete with hiking boots. I had to be prepared for aggressive guests who, fresh off their third re-watch of Blackfish, were all ready to argue about animal rights. I had to learn a complicated rotation schedule where my co-workers’ breaks and lunches depended on my punctuality. I had to learn how to use a radio, and all the different radio codes. I had to be prepared for every possible emergency. And I had to do it all with a smile on my face.
As the “Circle of Life” came to a close, and the sound of an elephant trumpeted regally through the speakers, I placed one of those smiles on my face and braced for the horde of guests, doing my daily prayer that a child wouldn’t run into my knees and knock me over, thus sending me and the spider flying.
Guests streamed in; as expected some went left, and some went right. However, some lingered near the entrance, waiting for family members to rent strollers, lockers, and wheelchairs, and some stopped to consider their maps. It was these guests and their children who approached me.
I knelt down gently to eye-level, and began explaining what the creature was in my box and, most importantly, why they should care about it (and not squish it if they saw one at home!). Usually, though, there were always the guests who somehow failed to see the huge box in my hands and would immediately start grilling me with questions about the best places to eat, where the attractions were, and, my personal favorite, “Are there animals here? Real ones?”
Now that I think about it, Disney’s reputation for astounding audio-animatronics didn’t render that question all too idiotic. However, it was called the Animal Kingdom, and I did happen to have a real live animal in my arms at that very moment.
I answered the questions to the best of my ability, and soon began to relax. I enjoyed seeing the fascinated looks on a guests’ face (and sometimes a disgusted look) as they gazed and learned about a Huntsman spider, before leaving to go do something (probably) more exciting.
After a little while, I saw my fellow interns start to head backstage out of the corner of my eye, and quickly excused myself from the throng. Time to drop off my bug box, get my stuff from our backstage break room/trailer, and head to my next assignment which, depending on what letter I was that day, could take me to Discovery Island, DinoLand, or Rafiki’s Planet Watch. I would never stay at one place for long—I would rotate the rest of the day until it was time to head home.
Now, you might be wondering what bug boxes, conservation messages, and letter assignments have to do with working at Disney. Well, as I soon began to learn, my experience as a cast member was very different than most. I didn’t pin trade, didn’t work a register, didn’t operate a ride, and didn’t escort characters. However, this role just might have been more important than all of those combined.
I was not a regular cast member; I was not even on the college program, or an animal keeper/zoologist/veterinarian. I was a Conservation Education Presenter, one of the many professional interns living and working at the Walt Disney World Resort for six months. A PI, for short.
This is a very different cast member experience than what you’ve read about, I promise you. This is the story of how I came to be here, and how I grew to love (and sometimes loathe) my time at the Animal Kingdom.
Arielle Tuan worked in Disney’s Animal Kingdom as a Conservation Education Presenter. She later earned her master’s degree in museum studies and now works at a museum in south Florida.
Disney's training "ice-breaker" activities do little to defrost Arielle.
I sat in my seat, perspiring slightly (which was to be become a usual occurrence within the next few months), and prayed for a lecture and some note taking. I know that sounds weird, but I like “boring” classes that require no interaction. I love listening, and learning through observation. Of course, I knew Disney would be different, but I thought since we had already been through so much that first day, they would cut us a break.
“Okay, everyone!” clapped a perky cast member with blonde hair at the front of the room (more like a classroom than a theater). “Time for your first ice breaker!”
I groaned. My least favorite words in the entire English dictionary—ice and breaker, used in the context of classroom activities. Nevertheless, I put on a smile and tried to subtly wipe the sweat from my brows.
“We’re going to have everyone stand up and reseat themselves in alphabetical order by last name—this means go around the room, introduce yourselves, and find your neighbors! You have ten minutes … go!”
Luckily, everyone else seemed to be thinking the same thing, because we all kind of sat there looking awkward. Heather took charge by standing up and cupping her hands around her mouth. Oh god, what was she doing?
“Listen up!” she commanded. “All the A through L’s, over here, M through Z’s, over there!”
To my surprise, everyone listened. Heather and I just happened to have last names with very similar spellings, so we could stay seated where we were. But I still couldn’t help dwelling on what I had gotten myself into when choosing her as my roommate.
Once everyone was seated in alphabetical order, looking a little more relaxed, I tried scanning the room, trying to see if anyone looked as nervous as I felt. No luck. Everyone seemed cheerful and positively giddy. Would I have no one in Orlando with whom to vent over the ridiculousness of Disney ice breakers? How can anyone be cheerful one hundred percent of the time?
I turned my attention back to the cast member at the front, hoping now for some actual information.
The cast member disappointed me again by talking about Yammer, the social media site we had all been using prior to being here, and giving out some accolades. For example, one girl held the record for posting the most amount of messages on the site. Guess who?
My roommate. Heather.
I couldn’t help laughing. We were complete opposites, but perhaps that was for the best. I needed to loosen up.
Finally, the cast member in the front introduced herself as Michelle, the Animals, Science, and Environment leader, and the one who had been emailing us. She also introduced Jason, the internship coordinator, and Erin and Nadine, two other Animal Programs trainers who also happened to be the ladies I had interviewed with.
Erin and Nadine were also on the “core team”: eight coordinators who would be in charge of the Conservation Education Presenters. Michelle and Jason were both based at the Seas pavilion, so I wouldn’t be seeing them much.
After a few more introductory items, she split us up into groups and handed out small binders of information. This was the most important information we would receive that day, as it went over our schedule for the rest of the week.
The first page of the binder had my name in big letters at the top, which made me feel important. It read:
Welcome and Congratulations on your Animals, Science and Environment Professional Internship! We would like to commend you on this accomplishment and welcome you. It has taken a lot of determination, talent, and hard work to get where you are today. We hope you make the most of this career-building opportunity.
The next few months will be very exciting for you. Have fun and enjoy your learning experience. We are confident that you will complete your internship having gained valuable insight, professional development and unforgettable memories.
Well, damn. Now I felt bad about internally cringing at the cheesy ice breakers. This lady thought I was talented and determined, and wanted me to learn and have fun. How could I think badly of an experience that only chose the best, and only wanted the best from us?
The Animals, Science and Environment team also had their mission statement listed on the bottom:
Deliver uncompromising excellence in animal care and welfare.
Inspire Cast and Guests to conservation awareness and action.
Build a united team of leaders who are respected partners within the Disney, AZA [American Zoological Association], and conservation communities.
Champion the wide use of resources to support both financial and conservation goals.
Okay, I could get behind that mission statement. I wasn’t sure how much of a leader I was, but maybe I could lead in my own way. Maybe it was time for Disney to have a quiet, patient, and kind leader. So what if I wasn’t loud and extroverted? I could “inspire” and “deliver” just as good as the rest of my team. In my head, I had a vision of myself singing sweetly in the middle of Animal Kingdom with bluebirds landing on my shoulders, like Cinderella. Then I remembered I couldn’t sing, and this job wasn’t exactly meant for the gentle, kind, Cinderella type.
Continued in "Arielle in the Animal Kingdom"!
Emily's in the Animal Kingdom, too! And that's not good news for Arielle...
The new practice of presenter evaluation involved a device called an “iPaq”, on which our scores could be recorded and tallied up. We were scored on our initiative, level of engagement, accurate information, whether or not we were wearing a nametag, whether or not the bug boxes had a thermometer, whether or not we were carrying a net and using two hands, whether or not we were smiling, and whether or not we were keeping with the theme of our location. We were also judged on how many conservation messages we gave out. Some of my coworkers prided themselves on giving out an insane number, like 15 conservation messages every day. I was usually good with one or two.
Emily, one of the newer Core Team members, always seemed to be the one to evaluate me, and always had something to critique. She was also my mentor. Along with a few other presenters, we gathered together for a morning every few weeks to talk about conservation topics and listen to Emily go over our job performances. She had just finished the presenter internship, and now was a leader—maybe it was just me, but I think she liked being in charge, and it seemed as if the power of being on the other side of the presenter food chain went to her head.
Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t dislike Emily as a person. We got along just fine outside of our mentor groups and work meetings, and we sometimes ate lunch together. But there was just something about me she didn’t like as a Conservation Education Presenter—maybe she sensed my hesitation and took it as dislike for the job. Shy people, like me, are often perceived as snobby, when really we’re just timid. I wasn’t as open as the other presenters, and needed more time to get used to my role, and this stood in the way of our working relationship.
It started at the Asia KDC. I had to open it one morning, and I stood there trying to call people over and participate in the activity. As usual, all the guests were making a beeline toward Everest, and I hated myself for interrupting them. I felt incredibly stupid, and half-heartedly shouted things like, “Hey, do you guys want to play a game?” Before I knew it, Emily was behind me, staring at me. I was doomed. We had been open for ten minutes, and I had yet to draw a single guest in.
She told me in what she probably thought was a helpful tone, but was actually condescending, different ways I could entice people to join me. Also, she didn’t like the word “game”. I tried her suggestions, but at the time all I wanted to do was hide under a rock. I knew if she had caught me at anywhere but Asia, I would have impressed her.
Even if she had just given me advice and then left me alone, I would have done better. But Asia was my weak spot, and I felt like she knew it. She continued to stand there, and I got a zero from her for not being able to draw in any guests. I felt terrible—just because I wasn’t loud didn’t mean I was a bad cast member! I had the whole day ahead of me, but all I wanted to do that morning was go home and cry.
Funnily enough, I was later evaluated at the Discovery Island KDC at the same time—morning opening. This time I had Stephanie, an older woman on Core Team, judging me. She had been doing this gig a while, and she slightly intimidated me—she was a lot like Heather, though, where all it took was getting to know her.
I successfully called over a family standing about five feet away, letting my voice carry loud and clear toward the “It’s Tough to Be a Bug,” exit. I gestured animatedly toward the bug boxes, and the family came right over. Stephanie looked at me proudly.
“Wow,” she said. “If I could give you a ten for that, I would.”
Her praise meant the world to me, especially after my disastrous morning with Emily at Asia. I wished she would tell Emily how well I had done, and I wished Stephanie could be my mentor instead. Stephanie didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with the way I did things.
However, it wasn’t just the “carnival barking” that Emily didn’t like about me. She critiqued my crocodile facts over at DinoLand, telling me how wrong I was about certain things (which, of course, I corrected myself on, but she didn’t have to be so mean); she critiqued me at the Africa KDC for telling kids the “poop” was fake; she critiqued me in the morning at the main entrance, holding my bug box, telling me she had been watching me for ten minutes and hadn’t heard me say a single conservation message (a big no-no). It was always her, and I never felt she gave me any encouragement. Sometimes I thought I was being too sensitive, and other times I was sure she just had it out for me. I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I mean, just give me a chance!
I never felt right forcing conservation messages on guests, unless the discussion came up naturally. I later learned that a few fellow presenters felt the same way as I did, but there was no choice—we had to lay down the conservation facts, which could sometimes turn a conversation awkward.
One day, Emily watched me as I chatted with a guest about her time at the park, and her vacation. This guest was alone, waiting for her family members to meet up with her, and just wanted someone to talk to. How was I supposed to interrupt her and say, “That’s great, but I must remind you to learn more about these animals when you get home!” or “I know you just asked me a question about park hours, but I really have to tell you about these amazing bamboo products!” It was one thing if we were in the middle of a Kid’s Club activity or an animal spiel, but other than that it just felt wrong.
To be fair, after I got my evaluation scores at the mentor meetings, I did get some nice comments from Emily and the other Core Team ladies. Emily wrote “great information and conversation!” while I was at the flamingos one day, and “awesome information on the siamangs!” while I was in Asia. It was sad that I always had to read these on paper, and didn’t hear it from Emily at the time, but it was still nice to see. During the internship, my scores on initiating guest interaction only grew higher.
Another unpleasant surprise happened one day at the white-cheeked gibbon exhibit. A guest dropped his baby daughter’s pacifier in the dirty water inside of the exhibit. Instead of just buying a new one, he wanted it retrieved, and so I called an animal keeper to come to the gibbon enclosure. I had to call a keeper anyway (objects dropped from guests can be harmful to the apes if they try to eat them), but the dad watching me and waiting with me while the keeper was on her way made it ten times more awkward.
Naturally, this happened just before I was supposed to go on my lunch break. I didn’t have to relieve anyone, and nobody else was scheduled to bump me out (animal positions differ from KDCs in that they don’t always have to be staffed). I couldn’t leave the guest alone, so I spent my lunch break waiting for the keeper. The keeper took forever, and the guest didn’t seem too happy to be kept waiting so long. I wondered why he would want the pacifier back after it was in dirty ape water, but I didn’t ask.
Finally, the keeper came and retrieved the pacifier for him (the keepers always seemed annoyed at having to do this, for some reason). The guest left with nary a thank-you, and I didn’t have time left for my break, so I went to my next position, dying for a few minutes to sit and rest my voice.
That was another thing about being a presenter—your voice was always raspy from so much talking. We talked to hundreds of people everyday, with barely any breaks in between. Any time you spent at a position not talking was an opportunity wasted. Tea and honey were my best friends throughout the semester.
I had the bad luck of encountering guests who always lost something in an animal exhibit. During my time as a presenter, I had the lady who lost her sunglasses in the otter pool, the pacifier guy, and a little girl who dropped her shoes in the ape water right before park close, and right as Emily was evaluating me. Oh, well, at least Emily got to see me go through the proper procedures of what to do when a guest lost something near an animal, but still, this always seemed to happen to me, and it always had to with smelly, dirty water.
Continued in "Arielle in the Animal Kingdom"!