Ema Earns Her Ears

My Secret Walt Disney World Cast Member Diary

by Ema Hutton | Release Date: December 12, 2014 | Availability: Print, Kindle

God Save the Mouse!

Ema Hutton's two summers in Disney's International College Program took her from a little town in England to cleaning rooms at Port Orleans and performing as Pluto in the Magic Kingdom.

Ema's first summer at Disney World pitted her against a surly band of housekeepers from hell who nearly led her to "self-term" (Disney-speak for "quit"). Her account of Disney Housekeeping is the most revealing look yet at what it's like to work for the Mouse.

Ema's second summer at Disney World put her inside a Pluto costume, where she dealt with excited children, rude guests, ridiculous questions (Pluto can't talk), and every autograph-signing implement imaginable. What does it take to be a Disney character? Ema tells all, from management's edict to "know your friend" (more Disney-speak) to a true insider's guide about how to make the most of your own character meet and greets.

Follow Ema as she:

  • Faces the embarrassment and near disaster of her first interview
  • Frets over the surprisingly cold and political world of housekeeping at Port Orleans
  • Feels the pressure of paperwork, roomies, Traditions class, and on-the-job training
  • Figures out how to be Pluto, while not being Pluto, and why Disney mandates schizophrenia among its character performers
  • Finds her way around the culture shock of speaking and thinking like a Brit while working in the most American place on earth

Through it all, Ema kept a stiff upper lip, and her quirky, witty writing will put you squarely in her sensible shoes as this proper English girl finds fun, adventure, laughs, tears, and surprises in Walt Disney World.

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

Table of Contents


Part One: Housekeeping




4Orientation, Day One

5Orientation, Day Two


7My First Trip as a Cast Member

8Role Orientation

9Location Training

10On-the-Job Training

11A Meeting with Mickey

12The Ronnie Who Wasn't


14Abbie Bought a Blanket

15Runner Training


17English Buddy

18Towel Animals and Magic Moments


20Whistle While You Work

21Say "Harry Potter"

22PAC Shift

23A Journey to Hundred Acre Wood


Part Two: Performing

25Application, Again

26Acceptance, Again

27Everything in Between


29Arrival, Again

30Tangled Up in the Bedsheets

31Dole Whip

32Roommate Bonding

33Welcome to Entertainment

34Character Training

35DinoLand USA

36Make a Wish

37Give Kids the World

38A Guide to Meeting Characters at Disney

39The Famous Florida Thunderstorms

40Three Girls and Princess Dress Temptations

41Earning My Ears, Round Two

42Season Finale

Appendix A: Chips vs Chips

Appendix B: A Letter to Walt


About the Author

I remember from a very young age dressing up in a homemade, golden Belle gown, or as Pocahontas complete with long black wig. My playroom was covered from floor to ceiling with Disney characters, including a scene of Peter Pan chasing his shadow around the ceiling light that my mum had painted. I loved my childhood.

I remember my first trip to Disney World, and it’s complete with a quote that my dad will never let me forget. He asked me, on camera, where we were, to which I replied enthusiastically: “DISNEY!” We weren’t a family that would return to the “Happiest Place on Earth” every year, and I’m glad, because each visit was special, and not just an annual pilgrimage that we had to take. My family worked hard to afford these trips. Even now, I still get excited over a prospect of a trip to Disney World. My life revolved around watching a new Disney film on VHS, while being surrounded by my mountains of Disney character plush toys, and being able to visit the place where these characters seemed to exist made it all real, at least to a child, and I suppose to a few adults, as well.

As a kid, I was always Disney orientated; I don’t really know how or why I became this way, but when I reached age where I realized that the true magic of Disney was made by people like myself, I decided that one day I wanted to make that magic, too. I wanted to become a Disney cast member.

In December 2008, we were on a holiday in Disney World. I remember engaging in conversation with a cast member working on front desk at the Pop Century resort while we were checking in. I told her that I wanted to work here, and that I wanted to make magic. Although she was trying to go through the process of explaining to my parents everything they needed to know, from transportation and Disney park hours to the food court, she did spend some time at the end of our check in and gave me a number for Casting. I was over the moon.

But little did I, and little did that cast member, realize that to be able to work in Florida, as an International, I would need a working VISA, and Disney wouldn’t just hand one over to me. I never rang Casting when I was there, and thinking back, I don’t really know why, but I kept the piece of paper, and still to this day I can tell you it’s in a cardboard, pin-striped shoe box under my bed. I’ve kept hold of it like a dream.

Even though I’ve now worked for Disney, and seen what it’s like from behind the curtain, Disney is still a huge part of who I am, even though my childish notions of princesses and characters and magic have given way to their sometimes harsh reality. Every little girl may dream to one day grow up to be a Disney princess, and I had those dreams, but at some point they changed to dreams of becoming a Disney cast member.

And you know what? My dreams came true.

This book is about what happened next.

Ema Hutton

Ema Hutton recently completed a post-graduate certificate in Education at University of Central Lancashire, England. She hopes to return to work for the Disney Company at some point in the future. This is her first book.

A Chat with Ema Hutton

Coming soon...

Before she was Pluto, Ema cleaned rooms at Port Orleans; here's a sneak peek into the world of Disney housekeeping:

As I was given no direction as to where to go once I arrived at Casting, I just followed a group of people dressed the same as me. I found myself faced with an overwhelming number of people who didn’t speak English as their first language. I wandered over to a huge room with two blocks of chairs set out like an assembly hall at school. After being told I couldn’t have a particular chair because it was being saved for someone else—twice!—I finally found somewhere to sit.

Once the manager came and it looked like everyone was here, I noticed that one of the chairs where I had asked to sit in was empty. I felt sick at the thought of someone lying to me just because they didn’t want to sit next to the new British girl. I was looking around in hopes that someone knew who I was, and that they would show me where to go. Only by chance did I see a green folder on a lady’s lap with my name on it. I made a beeline for her. Even though her name tag said “Jenny”, I could tell English wasn’t her first language because she looked confused when I said “excuse me.” I pointed at the name on the folder and said “that’s me.” She laughed and said “I understand.” I think she found it funny, because she could tell that I knew English wasn’t her first language, but saying “that’s me” was maybe a bit too basic, and probably sounded very funny to someone that did understand.

Jenny was from Puerto Rico, like a lot of the housekeepers at Port Orleans. Although she did, in fact, speak very good English, there were moments when I could tell she didn’t understand me, but with my accent and the speed at which I speak, I don’t blame her. I spent the first two days with Jenny. She would show me what to do and how to perform each job.

The first thing we had to do was get a pargo. Pargos are like little golf carts that are used to get the housekeepers from Cast Services to their work locations at the resort. Before we could do that, however, I had to go get a ‘‘Royal’ apron. It was blue and yellow and I didn’t like it as much as my white one which made me look like Cinderella. So it was back to Costuming to find an apron in my size, scan my ID so it went on my costuming log, and then off to find a pargo going to our assigned section of the resort. Once we got on the pargo and traveled to Riverside, we went straight to a linen room. These were behind doors that looked like every other door, but had a plate on them that read “Cast Members Only”.

It was quite exciting to have access to cast member-only room, even if it was just full of towels. As lovely as Jenny was, her co-workers weren’t so welcoming and kept talking to her and to each other in Spanish, looking at me and talking to each other again. I felt so awkward not being able to join in with the conversation. What made it worse is I knew they could speak English, because they spoke to the manager in English.

It wasn’t all negative that day. I found my first hidden Mickey in the design printed on a table in one of the guest rooms. Jenny was really excited to point the hidden Mickeys out to me. I also got my first tip of $2. Technically, it was Jenny’s, but she halved everything with me, which I thought was the nicest thing, because these women really do work hard and the extra money in tips means a lot, so for her to share it all with me was a kind gesture and very much appreciated.

I had the most fun learning how to make towel animals. Before I left for Disney, I’d seen a video of an elephant being made out of a towel. I really wanted to learn how to make it, and Jenny taught me on my first day.

On the second day, Jenny started giving me my own section of the room to clean and would then come over and assess how well I did and tell me where I needed to improve, because on my third day I’d have my own cart and my own board with my own rooms.

I knew nothing of carts or boards at this stage, but I quickly had to learn. The carts were the simplest things to work out; they had all the equipment and supplies we needed to clean. The boards were pretty easy to follow. They consisted of a piece of paper with a table on it, each row for a different room, and they were color-coded based on room status. White meant an occupied room with a guest who was going to be in that room again that night. Blue meant that a linen change was required, and pink meant that a family was checking out. There is more to do in a checkout room than in an occupied room, and so if you had a lot of pink on your board, you knew that it is going to be a rushed day to make sure you get all the rooms done in time.

On my last day shadowing Jenny, I was to sit for an exam-style, multiple-choice assessment as well as cleaning a whole room, as a checkout, on my own, which would also be assessed. I found the room cleaning part really easy. I kept a list of all the tasks I had to do to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I passed both parts of the assessment, which meant that the next day I could be completely on my own.

The next six days of training were called ‘ramp up’. This was a slow way to introduce a new cast member to Housekeeping. The first day I started with 8 rooms, then I got an additional 2 rooms added to my board on each subsequent day. On the sixth day I was scheduled to work only from 8:30am til 12:30pm, which let me get back to the apartment and chill.

Although I didn’t feel like I was a housekeeper, or belonged in the Housekeeping community, I had passed my tests with flying colors, and Ema had earned her ears. I could now remove the tell-tale red training sash under my nametag.

Continued in "Ema Earns Her Ears"!

After performing as a character (Pluto) herself, Ema knows what it takes to ensure you enjoy a great meet and greet, and here are a few of her tips:

During my college program, I got pretty close to a few of the characters. I noticed a lot of things as a performer, and it only seems fair to share what I learned so that you’ll have better luck when it comes your turn to meet Pluto and all of his friends.

  • Be prepared. When the attendant says “get your pens, autograph books, and cameras ready”, they mean it. Have them in your hands, ready to go.
  • Have an itinerary. Know who in your group wants individual pictures and who just wants to be in the group picture. If you want individuals, decided whether it is really necessary for all 20 members of your group to have their own photos taken.
  • Pens! Don’t give the characters pens that are for meant for small, nimble fingers. Some of the characters have paws or big hands, and some are not able to pose their fingers. Mickey taught Pluto how to write especially so he could sign his name for guests, but please make it easy for him (and for characters like him) by giving him a big, thick, easily manipulated pen. I have seen Rafiki been forced to write with half a crayon, and on the other end of the scale, I’ve seen Pluto handed one of those giant novelty pencils. If you want a decent autograph, the character needs the right tool with which to give it to you.
  • Sharpies. Be careful where you’re pointing that thing. It’s good that you uncap the pen to help out the character, but don’t throw it at him or stab it into his palm nib-first. It’s not easy to wash permanent marker out of fur.
  • The characters do love to be hugged. But be gentle; a proper hug doesn’t involve hanging off Rafiki’s neck or using Pluto’s nose as a pull-up bar. Some of the character performers are quite small and easily damaged.
  • Mix things up a bit. The characters also know how to high-five and some can even fist bump. Some characters in the quieter meet-and-greet areas will even learn a new handshake if you want to teach them something cool. Pluto, in particular, loves learning new tricks, and for him a hand shake is definitely a trick.
  • Talk to the characters. It’s awkward if you just shove your paper at them expecting it to be signed without saying a word. You can even ask them questions and create a fun game of charades trying to guess their answer (for the ones unable to talk). It can be amusing to see how the character reacts when you guess wrong. Please do avoid stupid or intricate questions, however.
  • Accept the PhotoPass card. You don’t have to be rude to the photographer or attendant for asking you if you have or would like one. The cards are free, and you aren’t bound into a contract to buy anything by accepting the card. The PhotoPass photographers are pros and will capture things on film that you’re likely to miss.
  • Character love presents, especially those handcrafted by children such as pictures, letters, stickers, origami, paper airplanes, bouncy balls, or anything small but memorable.
  • Would you give your newborn baby to your dog at home? No! So don’t give your newborn baby to Pluto. He sure doesn’t want to hurt the little fella, but with big paws and fingers that don’t always work so well, he does tend to drop stuff.

Continued in "Ema Earns Her Ears"!

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