Long-time cast member Gary Conness collected many "snapshots" from his years working at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and even the company's reservation center. Each snapshot is a short, uplifting story to remind us that the real magic of Walt Disney World is its people.
In his eclectic Disney World career, Gary has planned vacations, trained cast members at Innoventions, and run some of the park's finest restaurants. Wherever he went, and whatever he did, he always found the often elusive Disney magic. His short, potluck stories are a celebration of the best that Disney has to offer, with no snark, no negativity, and no bitterness.
For Gary, the wonderful world of Disney really was wonderful, and you'll think so too as you read his stories about:
AND DOZENS MORE TO RENEW YOUR FAITH IN DISNEY!
Sandy Saves the Day
Michelle Tries to Blow Me Up
Greg Talks Baseball
A Party for Me?
My Demo at Innoventions
Seven Girls at the Fish
A Call to Martha
A Date with the Popcorn Queen
He’s No Eisner
Sky Cyber Guy
I Receive WDW’s Highest Honor
My Glove Retired
A Ride with the Duck Himself
Best Bartender on the Planet
The Dream Team
Just This Week
Dad Almost Dies
Tebow Comes to the Fish
He Worked for NASA
Annual Father/Daughter Day
Farewell to Norway
Jen Makes Me a CoT
Filming at Pirates
Hugh Comes to Visit
Not an Easy Day
Standing on the Fireplace
Crescent’s Coffee and Tea
Robin Saves My Magic
Lunch with Robin Williams
Sarah and the Tip Board
Lord Stanley’s Cup
Give Kids the World
My Mentor, Michelle
Hide the Ops Manager
A Great Week
I Made a Little Girl Believe
A Tour with Michael Eisner
My Butt Is Seen on National TV
A Picture of my Head
Grandma’s Last Visit
America's Funniest Home Videos
The Norwegians Are Coming
My Current Role
Finally, Some Tips and Stuff
Not the End
I was born and raised in Antioch, California. With Disneyland only an eight-hour drive away, my family went there every other year. I knew I wanted to work there. The dream had started. Then, when I was fifteen years old, my parents took us to Walt Disney World in Florida. I instantly fell in love with Epcot and knew I would work someday. That dream came true in July 1995. I will never regret the choice I made to work for the Disney company.
I have to admit that I’ve had more wonderful experiences than I can count working at Walt Disney World. Most cast members won’t find themselves in quite as many truly great experiences simply because they don’t make themselves available for those experiences.
Here’s a brief history of my working career at Walt Disney World:
I started off at Epcot’s Innoventions in 1995. My first job was that of a “technologist”. We walked around the two Innoventions buildings and gave help to those in need as they made their way through the attraction. We were also the greeter that met you outside as you came into Innoventions. Here I gained a wealth of knowledge about guest interaction.
Eventually, a tip board was constructed and the technologists moved outside to work it. A tip board is a sign board that gives wait times as to how long you will wait in an attraction queue. They usually have a cast member out front of it giving directions and helping to plan a guest’s day. I’ve planned many a stay at Epcot from the tip board and met many regular guests and annual passholders.
From here I was moved inside to the Oracle exhibit, where we talked about interactive television. This was ground breaking at the time, but you probably use it every day now—stopping, starting, fast forwarding your television shows at will. This is also where I was made a Disney trainer, a position I am still very proud of to this day.
Due to family responsibilities, I moved back to Wisconsin for about four months. I realized that I belonged at Walt Disney World, so my wife, Crescent; my daughter, Natasha; and I moved back to Florida and I returned to Innoventions, but this time they placed me in the Disney Interactive exhibit.
Soon I was picking up shifts at many of the other exhibits throughout Innoventions. But the one thing I shied away from was spieled exhibits. David, one of my managers, really wanted me to learn the spiel at the House of Innoventions. Eventually, I listened to him and did the spiel. And to my surprise I loved doing it. My first show was extremely scary to do, but as the show went on, I got more comfortable. I found out that I liked talking on a microphone. As soon as my first show was over, I asked if I could give the next show. I was hooked.
This led me to join the Fly Team. Our job on the Fly Team was to know all the exhibits and spiels at every Innoventions exhibit and be able to move from exhibit to exhibit on a moment’s notice. It was a great job with lots of variety.
From the Fly Team I was promoted to coordinator of training for Innoventions along with my partner Norm, who is still a treasured friend of mine. As coordinators, we would make the training schedules for our new cast members and teach the orientation class at Epcot, known as Discovery Day.
Innoventions had just gone through a complete rehab, so there was no longer a need for two training coordinators there. This gave me the opportunity to move to the Norway and China pavilions at Epcot’s World Showcase. Here I was in charge of four areas of training: merchandise, custodial, attractions, and food and beverage. Although I enjoyed them all, it was food and beverage that stole my heart.
My next move was to training coordinator for food and beverage at the Canada and United Kingdom pavilions. My passion for food and beverage was growing steadily. Soon I was promoted to the position of restaurant guest service manager (RGSM) at the Electric Umbrella in Epcot’s Future World.
After getting my feet wet in quick service, I was moved back to Canada as an RGSM at Le Cellier. What a great time I had there. The cast were as fantastic as the food. While at Le Cellier, I was given a six-month opportunity to be the area manager of Le Cellier. An area manager is known as a general manager in most restaurants outside of Disney. I still have treasured friends from working at Le Cellier. You know who you are.
From Le Cellier I was transferred to the Flying Fish Café, a four-star restaurant on the BoardWalk with plenty of awards. I had big shoes to fill. Fine dining was great, but I missed Epcot.
I made the move back to Epcot at a restaurant in the Land Pavilion called Seasons. There I worked both at Seasons and the Garden Grill restaurants. By this time I was also filling in shifts at many restaurants throughout Walt Disney World, including some where I had never worked (and occasionally never eaten!) before. What a thrill to walk into a location you know nothing about, but have to deliver amazing guest service. This taught me to be flexible on a moment’s notice.
From Seasons I was moved back to the Norway Pavilion as RGSM at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall, a princess character dining location. I loved working at this restaurant, but it was time to move on again. This time I was transferred to Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café at the Magic Kingdom. At the time, Cosmic Ray’s was the third busiest restaurant on the planet.
Finally, I moved to Olivia’s at the Old Key West resort. This would be my last restaurant and work experience at Walt Disney World for three years. From there I would go on to open my own successful restaurant in downtown St. Cloud, Florida, called Crescent’s Coffee and Tea. Although we started out as a coffee house, we ended up as an entertainment night spot and specialty beer restaurant. But owning your own restaurant has a way of taking its toll on you. The hours are long and you begin to miss out on life.
After I closed Crescent’s Coffee and Tea, I took some time off. This doesn’t mean that I did nothing. I spent my time writing my first ebook, Employee Retention and the 21st Century Manager.
Next, I made the move back to Walt Disney World. I got a part-time job working at the monorails; I wanted to be as far away from restaurants as I could for a while. Not to say that I will never go back, as that passion for food and beverage is still inside me.
After about a year and a half, I moved to the Magic of Disney Animation at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Here I got to talk to Mushu the dragon, color, and interact with guests.
Then I was in a car accident that has made it tough to walk and stand, so I took a role at the Disney Reservation Center in Tampa where it’s my job to help guests plan their vacations. It’s an amazing job and I truly love it and am there to this day.
I may move locations again, but I never plan on leaving Walt Disney World; at least not until retirement.
I hope you enjoy this book as much as I enjoy going down memory lane writing it. As you’ll soon discover, if you haven’t already, I love working at Walt Disney World. Maybe this book will show you some of the magic that being a Disney cast member entails. It’s not all roses and champagne, but the great things far outweigh any bad experiences that I may have had.
By the way, you don’t have to turn the page and start reading. You can turn to any page and start reading. There’s no chronological order. As the sub-title suggests, these really are “snapshots” of my years at Walt Disney World, and like photos you spread out before a friend, they can be enjoyed in whatever sequence you like.
Gary Conness grew up in California and fell in love with Disneyland on his first visit as a child. After visiting Epcot as a teenager, he decided that working there would be his dream job. That dream was soon realized at the age of 25 when Gary started working at Innoventions. After twenty-plus years working for Disney, Gary has had many wonderful experiences there and plans on having many more.
When the latest crop of Norwegian cast members got off their plane in Orlando, Mickey Mouse wasn't waiting for them—but Gary and friends were.
This book wouldn’t be complete without talking about what I feel is one of the best things that I was able to take part in for our new hires.
The story begins with one of my Norwegian cast members coming to me when I was the coordinator of training at the Norway and China Pavilions. She thought it would be nice to have a special welcome at the airport for the new hires. This sounded like a great idea, so I started working on it immediately.
I put her in charge of making a welcome sign for the new cast. I was able to secure the training van each of the nights that we had new hires coming in for the next several months. I then put together a small welcoming committee of both cast and managers. Then we put the idea before our operations manager, Michelle. She liked it.
The van sat fifteen people total, including the driver, so if four new hires were coming in, I could take ten from my welcoming committee with me. We arrived at the airport and found a parking spot. All the Norwegians were dressed in their costumes for a more authentic Norwegian welcome. We went onto the tarmac and waited for the jet to land from Newark.
We all grouped together and began to cheer in Norwegian as soon as the passengers started to disembark. Since we didn’t really know who we were looking for, we thought this was a great way to welcome these new cast members and to let them know we were there to pick them up, especially because they were not expecting a welcoming committee.
The first thing that we noticed was that the all the people coming off the jet enjoyed the welcome. Most of them were going to Walt Disney World for their vacation, so they felt like Epcot was welcoming them to Orlando. This was a benefit that I did not expect, but it sure brought smiles to many people.
Finally, our Norwegian new hires got off the plane. Even though they had never met us before, we all received welcome hugs. They were so delighted to be welcomed in their native language and by their future co-workers. It was a huge success.
As we headed down the corridors, we all got to know them a little better and also started telling them what to expect about working at Walt Disney World and especially Epcot. About the time we made it back to the van, they were already starting to feel comfortable and were telling us their life stories.
We took them to their residence check in, and after they were checked in, we brought them to their individual apartments and made sure that they met their new roommates and felt comfortable.
I was so glad that we were able to do this small but pixie dust-covered event for our new cast members. The sad thing is that all things must come to an end. After the events of September 11, everything changed and the airport would no longer allow us to do our welcoming ceremony. But to those cast members that were able to be welcomed to America with Norwegian style, it was an event that they never forgot. Many of them ended up on my welcoming committee.
I’m so glad that that cast member came to me that day with the idea; it’s a memory that I will never forget. It’s also great to work for a company that will allow its people the opportunity to do something special like this for their new hires.
Continued in "The Wonderful World of the Mouse"!
When an operations manager shows up to grade the performance of a Disney restaurant—in this case, Le Cellier—he shouldn't let the staff pick his table for him.
John, if you are reading this, I want to start off by saying that you are no dummy. In fact, you are the one who helped me get the job at the Flying Fish. So I’m going to say that you had to play along with the following story; there’s no way we could have fooled you that much.
In a Disney restaurant, the operations manager play important roles. Their job is to make sure that each individual restaurant is up to the Disney standard and makes money. John is very good at both of these things.
I can remember times when we would stand at the bottom of the ramp at Le Cellier and he would say, “What do you see that’s not right?” I’d look around and notice a spray bottle or something else in view. John was great at this and I learned to look for the little things thanks to him and my cohort Vicki.
One thing John did often was eat lunch at Le Cellier. Each time he ate there he had something to say about what he saw. It was never about service, but always about something that the guests would see and could ruin their experience. I do appreciate feedback, because it made me a better leader.
But, I also enjoy what little power I had. And I do use it to my advantage from time to time.
I talked to all my assigners and showed them a picture of John. An assigner is the person that assigns you to your table when you come to a restaurant. I also talked to my seaters and showed them the picture of John and told them that if they saw him they were to give me and the assigner a call on the radio.
What did this do? It allowed me to put John at table 35. Now, if you are looking for a quiet dinner at Le Cellier, this is the table to ask for, but if you are looking for excitement and the nice view of the restaurant, this was not the place to sit.
So each and every time that I knew John was coming, I saved table 35 for him. Now he had to pay attention to the servers and their service, not on me and how I was running the restaurant.
Little things out of place now bug me, so I have to fix them. I realize that just a little something can take away from the guest experience. Thanks, John, for teaching me that.
Continued in "The Wonderful World of the Mouse"!