For many Disney fans, the early 1990s was the heyday of EPCOT. Mike Rhodes was there, working in the UK Pavilion of the World Showcase, as part of Disney's defunct Fellowship Programme for international cast members. With Brit wit, he takes you backstage, from Horizons to the Tea Caddy.
To staff its World Showcase pavilions, Disney recruits from the host countries themselves. For the limited spots in the international Fellowship Programme, competition was fierce. Fellowship cast members got more of everything, including Disney-sponsored trips, free rent, and higher pay.
Perks aside, Mike's program brought him many magical moments, both fanciful and farcical, including:
THE GOLDEN AGE OF EPCOT AWAITS!
Chapter 1: Becoming a Disney “Cultural Representative”
Chapter 2: Getting There
Chapter 3: Arrival
Chapter 4: A Bit More About the Fellowship Programme
Chapter 5: My First Days Working at Disney
Chapter 6: Getting Around
Chapter 7: Let the Work Begin
Chapter 8: Difficult Moments on the Shop Floor
Chapter 9: A Year of Visiting the Parks for Free
Chapter 10: Guest Interaction
Chapter 11: Cultural Differences
Chapter 12: A Glimpse Behind the Scenes
Chapter 13: A Day Out in EPCOT
Chapter 14: How to Get the Shop Closed
Chapter 15: More Adventures
Chapter 16: The Unfortunate Decapitation
Chapter 17: Tea Off to a Bad Start
Chapter 18: Was English Food Really That Bad?
Chapter 19: Getting on the Road Again
Chapter 20: To the Magic Kingdom at Last
Chapter 21: The Crowded Days of Christmas
Chapter 22: Having Some Fun
Chapter 23: A Costume and Name Change
Chapter 24: The UK Pavilion and the UK
Chapter 25: A Look Inside the Parades
Chapter 26: Other Disneys
Chapter 27: World Showcase Cultures
Chapter 28: How We Were Treated
Chapter 29: A Night Away with Disney
Chapter 30: More Days Out
Chapter 31: Some Nice, and Not So Nice, Surprises
Chapter 32: Some Reflection
Chapter 33: Extra Interaction with Guests
Chapter 34: World Showcase Merchandise
Chapter 35: More Fellowship Opportunities
Chapter 36: A Big Disney Presentation
Chapter 37: The End Is Nigh
Chapter 38: Our Disney-Sponsored Trip to New York
About the Author
It was from September 1993 until September 1994 that I worked in the UK Pavilion at EPCOT’s World Showcase, Walt Disney World. It may seem like a long time to write a book; in fact, just over 20 years is a long time. Whilst working at EPCOT, I did discuss the possibility of writing about it with a colleague. It was a great idea, but we never quite got around to it. Years would pass by and, periodically, the idea of writing a book would cross my mind again. I even made a small start about 10 years ago. So why, you may ask, has it taken me so long?
Writing a book takes a lot of time and requires being in the right frame of mind, and I suppose it is only in recent years I have started to get into the proper zone. Recently I have read quite a few books written by ex-Disney cast members and, like many fans, have found them fascinating to read. One thing that does surprise me is that there aren’t more, considering the apparent demand for them. This inspired me to start.
I am also aware that I worked in ECPOT during a period that many fans would call its “golden years” and so my accounts will hopefully give you insight into that era, along with many behind-the-scenes stories and observations. As it is such a long time ago, I have not written the book like a diary and interesting subjects are sometimes grouped together, though they may have happened at different times. Another reason for not keeping everything in chronological order is because the balance of experience was weighted toward the first three months, as I absorbed all the new experiences, and toward the last two or three months, as I wanted to get things done before leaving. The months in the middle were routine, so if I wrote chronologically, the middle part of the book would get a little bland.
I debated how far to include other people in the process, for example, work colleagues during my year at Disney. For better or worse, I decided, and was advised, that trying to write a book by group, with too many accounts, was not a good idea (unless, of course, writing an historical/research book). So, whilst all the people mentioned in here are real, names have been changed.
I have tried to keep a good balance between work and play. Obviously, living in Florida for a year, I wanted to explore it, but being aware that most readers of this book will probably be Disney fans, I chose to keep the content related primarily to Disney World and my work there. That said, Florida is a beautiful state, and often the “real” side of it gets missed as people head only to the theme parks (certainly this is the case for most Brits visiting Florida). I did explore some interesting places in Florida as well as places that are virtually unheard of (internationally, at least), and you’ll read about a few of those trips, especially the ones sponsored by Disney.
I hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed working at EPCOT.
Mike was born in 1969 and grew up in the United Kingdom. After completing a degree in business studies, he went on to work in tourism, and still does, as a manager at a major tourist attraction in Torquay, England. He has also had time out to work as a holiday rep in Spain for three years and, of course, the year working at Walt Disney World in Florida.
Being a keen traveller, Mike has experienced many places around the world, but as well as a sense of adventure he does loves to chill out in the sun, along with taking road trips around the US or fun trips to Florida and the theme parks. Fortunately, his partner of six years, Steve, enjoys pretty much the same things, so they are always planning their next vacation.
If you would like to get in contact, Mike’s profile on disboards.com is mikeyuk.
Disney paid Mike's salary and took care of his rent, but it was Twinings Tea that had sponsored him and paid for his airfare, and it was in Twinings shop in Epcot (the Tea Caddy) where he worked. So where does his loyalty lie?
It was about 3 months in that I received a note from the Fellowship office, informing me that a gentleman from the Twinings branch in Greensboro, North Carolina, would like to meet me. I was sponsored by Twinings so I had to expect it; what I didn’t expect was to be briefed by the Fellowship office on what I should and should not say. The manager from the office was also going to be joining us for the meeting, where I experienced the politics of corporate sponsorship.
Twinings Tea had to pay a fee for the privilege of a shop in the World Showcase. It was a form of sponsorship. I was told they paid $100,000 a year for the privilege. On the scale of things, this isn’t a great amount of money, but it was 20 years ago and we are only talking about a small shop. So it was still a significant amount, and the sponsors naturally wanted to keep up to date with what was going on. As they had sponsored me, I was their eyes and ears. One of the concerns they did express to me before I ventured out to Florida was other products taking up too much space in “their” shop. Twinings sponsored the Tea Caddy and naturally expected it to be full of their products. In reality, they had about two thirds of the shop, and at times less. I was informed by Disney not to mention this to them. Talk about being stuck in the middle; how much loyalty goes to your sponsor (Twinings) and how much goes to your employer (Disney).
I didn’t want Twinings to feel that sponsoring me had been a waste of time, so I decided to hedge my bets. As part of the agreement of my sponsorship, I had to write and send a monthly report to Twinings. In the days before email, this meant handwriting and posting a letter. I did do it, but not every month. In one of my letters I had mentioned to them about losing some of their space in the shop, and this may have been what prompted the meeting.
I met with the Twinings guy from Greensboro and my Fellowship manager for lunch in the Norway Pavilion. I hardly got a single word in, as the Disney manager steered the conversation, totally in favour of Disney, as you would expect. I could tell the guy from Greensboro was frustrated, and a couple of weeks later I received a private letter from him suggesting we go for lunch or dinner somewhere in private. It was about 4 weeks later that he came back again, and we did secretly meet for dinner, on him, at the Grand Floridian.
This was a real dilemma for me, though. I had already overstepped the mark, and at the end of the day Disney was my employer and I didn’t want to upset them further and be sent home on the next plane. So I had a very cautious dinner meeting with the Twinings representative, basically saying that displays do change according to stock levels, and that sometimes other products do edge into the shop a little too much, but I move them away again.
To a point, this was true. There are merchandise stockers who bring the products from the warehouses, but they do also stock up the shelves. There were also shop designers who would come around occasionally and rearrange displays. Both of these people changed the way the products were stocked, but we also had an influence, as we had to stock the shelves on a daily basis. Technically, we weren’t supposed to move things around, but we did, just a little. The merchandise stockers didn’t care, but sometimes the designers would get a little irritated. They didn’t come around very often, but when they did you could hear them say things like “Who has put this here?” and move it. At the end of the day, though, we worked on the shop floor and knew how guests asked for things and what they wanted. Also, some products were connected and better displayed together (often guests would buy both), but sometimes the shop display designers didn’t get this. As we all know, sometimes things work well on paper, but less so in practice.
Continued in "Working at Disney's EPCOT During the Golden Age"!
Just because every guest is a "VIP" at Disney World doesn't mean the cast members can't have some harmless fun at the expense of the slower ones...
We did have fun teasing the guests. If they found out that I was sponsored by Twinings Tea, some assumed that I may have met the queen or had a link to the royal family. Some assumed that all the products on sale in the Magic of Wales were handcrafted in tiny village cottages rather than mass produced (and probably not in Wales). Some asked if Wales was near London, and some didn’t know whether England was west or east of the US. I think a lot of people perceived the UK as to how it was 50–100 years ago.(It probably didn’t help that we were wearing costumes from the past.) The level of naïvete about other countries at the time was shocking and quite worrying. I am generalising, of course, but it was all quite a surprise at the time.
It did mean we could have some fun going along with the naïve questions and expectations. I heard a colleague working in the Magic of Wales one day telling a guest how children still go down the coal mines and that some of the coal ornaments were made by those children, presumably once they had come up from the coal mines. I once discussed how I had met Princess Diana and been to lunch at Buckingham Palace (I never have, of course). It was probably an unfair thing to do, but when you get such naïve questions, it is always temping for our British humour. I know all the other countries had similar issues; however, in the UK pavilion we found the lack of worldly knowledge held by some Americans, at the time, quite amusing, whereas the French used to get very upset about it.
Of course, such international naïvety is not restricted to the US, but as this was a special cultural programme in a world showcase, any such lack of international knowledge by the host country will be all the more noticeable. I do get the impression that things have changed a lot in the past 20 years, and that Americans are now much more aware of the world outside their country.
Continued in "Working at Disney's EPCOT During the Golden Age"!