Posted by: Christine Donovan | May 5, 2009

Everything I’ve Learned about Excellence I Learned from Disney, Part 1

The Disneyland Sleeping Beauty Castle

The Disneyland Sleeping Beauty Castle

Mid life is often a time when many people regroup, assess strengths and weaknesses, and think seriously about what we might still offer to the world.

Many have regrets, overwhelmed by thoughts of missed opportunities and bad choices, which is unfortunate.  But this is also a life chapter when we may come to a realization of how lucky we’ve been.  Our lives may have given us experiences we didn’t value at the time; but now from a 30,000 foot level, we see that we’ve done some amazing things, learned some amazing lessons, and realized that amazing situations have happened to us that have shaped our lives and perhaps influenced the lives of others.

For me, my quarter century with the Walt Disney Company was such an amazing experience…

For many teenagers living in Anaheim, California in the fifties, sixties and seventies, the perfect job was working at Disneyland — and that was at a time when the interview-to-hire ration was 10 to 1.   So the day after my high school graduation I drove my little Mercury Comet over to the Disneyland “Casting” building (less than a mile from my childhood home), struggled through my first job interview ever, and within days found myself as a new Disneyland “Cast Member.”

My heart was pounding as I arrived at Disney University to attend “Disneyland and You,” the precedent-setting employee orientation program.  Little did I know that I was about to begin a phase of life that would last nearly 25 years, give me a great sense of pride, an impressive resume, introduce me to some incredibly memorable and life-changing people, and create a professional identity for me that I still carry today.

But in life, we can take a lot for granted.  I’d grown up literally a half-mile from the Park; my mom and some of her friends had worked at the “Magic Kingdom” (Disneyland’s moniker before the Walt Disney World park adopted that name) on a part-time basis.

A favorite, youthful, summer-afternoon pastime, for my childhood pals and I, was to walk to the Disneyland Hotel and ride the parking lot tram all day as it delivered hotel guests to and fro to the Park.  It was so much a part of my young life that by the time I landed my job there it hadn’t dawned on me that people all over the world made it their life’s dream to visit Disneyland.

Through today’s lens, with Six Flags and Universal Studios and “theme parks” around every corner, one might not realize how unique and truly magical the concept of Disneyland was in its early years.  For nearly two decades, there was nothing else like it on the planet.  Its closest “rival,” Walt Disney World, didn’t open until 1971, 16 years after Disneyland’s debut.

So the little theme park in an orange grove was to become an icon of not just family entertainment, but architecture, technology, education, service, and so much more. (Stay tuned for Part 2, Visual Story)

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