Wednesday, February 03, 2016 Gabby Bill 0 Comments

My mom took me to Walt Disney World for the first time when I was 4 years old. You know, the typical rite-of-passage trip that most parents, especially those raising their children in south Florida, aim to take before their kids stop believing Cinderella's a real princess? We went back when I was 5, because heck, little Gabby asked for it, and then we went back when I was 6, because I asked to go again. Those first few visits are blurry for me, save for the fantastic late 80s pictures that stand as evidence, but one thing was clear: I was hooked.

As soon as I learned how to memorize a phone number from a  TV commercial and dial it without help from mom, I was ordering those free Disney vacation planning VHS tapes, and whenever I'd feel sad or lonely, I'd pop in one of the tapes and the beautiful colors, magical melodies and smiling faces would make me feel better. I became one of those people I'm sure Disney marketing hates, because I ordered a tape every single year of my childhood (and I kept ordering once they transitioned to DVDs, so you can see how long this went on).

Year after year, I'd beg my mother to take me back to Disney. As I got older, she kept trying to convince me to visit other destinations in Florida -- Naples, Sanibel Island, St. Augustine -- but I wasn't interested in anything except my yearly visit to Mickey's house. I mean, how else was I going to try out all the new rides, see the new parades and eat the latest delicacies?

And so we went, and each time I'd enter the gates of one of the theme parks, a rush of happiness would come over me. Even today, I can't help but feel the stirrings of butterflies in my stomach when I enter the Magic Kingdom, smell that delicious, manufactured, warm cookies smell and hear the refrains of my favorite old-timey music. Disney is my happy place, and I don't think any distance, nor span of time, could refute that (in fact, they are probably the one company that could lure me back into the corporate world).

I give you this background because I want to illustrate just how passionate I've been about the Disney brand throughout my life, and to help underscore just how badly I wanted to work for the company when I graduated from college.

I had thought about applying for one of Disney's coveted internship roles (they offer standard internships where you work in the parks [although there's lots of education-related perks that come with this] and advanced professional internships where you're working in an office role), but the semester I started college they changed the program to such that you had to take a semester off of school to participate (rather than just interning in the summer). As someone on scholarship with financial constraints, this wasn't in the cards for me, so I sadly had to pass.

But once I got that diploma and threw my graduation cap into the air, I knew the hunt was on. I bookmarked the Disney Careers website, and every day I was on the computer submitting my resume for a variety of roles. I had majored in journalism, but was applying for all kinds of jobs in communications and marketing -- promotions, advertising, digital marketing, sponsorships, corporate alliances, etc.

Now let me brag for just a moment (I hate doing this, but it helps the story). I graduated from the University of Florida, which at the time was considered the best public university in the state, with a 4.0 GPA and as a valedictorian of my college. I had won numerous awards throughout my tenure, had a resume chock full of extracurricular activities and had completed two internships, one at a big brand name company (Motorola). I even had a gaggle of recommendation letters I could send people, published clips that showcased my writing skills and a local Florida address (which can sometimes help). There was little that I could have done to make my new graduate resume stronger, and yet...crickets.

That summer I submitted my resume to more than 200 jobs on the Disney Careers website, and the only thing I ever received in response was an automated email confirming my application had been received. The positions I was applying for were things I was clearly qualified for -- entry level jobs, or jobs asking for a year's work experience, which I assumed was flexible. Jobs asking for communications degrees, strong writing skills, a willingness to learn. And I was applying for things in LOTS of different departments, so I assumed that even if one didn't like me for some reason, surely I'd break through the clutter with another.

But nope. Nada. Zilch. Zero.

I literally never heard anything from the company.

I went through the motions of applying for other jobs in my hometown, but one after the next I just hated what I was being offered. A telemarketing firm wanted to hire me for their call center. I hated talking to people on the phone. A local construction company wanted me to come in and do their marketing. I was bored just thinking about it. I finally wound up taking a part-time program associate role at one of the non-profits that had given me a college scholarship, simply to bring in a little money and get my mom off my back (by now I had turned down five full-time jobs offers, and I'm pretty sure she was ready for me to get out of the house).

I was bummed that I wasn't breaking through at Disney, because really and truly I knew it was where I was meant to be. Instead of quitting, I decided to take a different tack and find some other way to get my foot in the door. Oh, and I also set myself a time limit (I think it was four more months of searching before I swore I'd move on).

Now, I said that I decided to take a different tack, but if I'm being honest, I didn't really know what that tack was going to be, just that I knew what I was doing wasn't working. I started keeping my eyes open for ideas, and lo and behold, a few days later I received an issue of the Communigator in the mail (this was the alumni publication for UF's College of Journalism). As I was flipping through and reading an article here or there I saw that they had done a profile on a woman named Mary* who was a Director of Creative for Disney marketing. My heart started to pound a little, and the spark of an idea popped into my mind.

I grabbed the issue, went to my computer and penned a note to the Dean of my college (I had built a relationship with him during my tenure at UF, so I knew he'd know who I was). I told him I had just read Mary's profile and that I really wanted to work for Disney -- would he give me her contact information, pretty please? Within a day or two he responded with her phone number -- HER PHONE NUMBER -- I had been expecting an email address at the most! Now it was time to prepare for action.

Armed with that key piece of information, I stood in front of my bathroom mirror and practiced my speech (thanks Mrs. Hasko for the excellent drama instruction that helped with this exercise). A few days later, my heart running quick as a race horse, I dialed her number. She answered.

"Hi Mary! My name is Gabby, and you don't know me, but I saw your profile in the Communigator, and I wanted to reach out to you. I'm a graduate of the College of Journalism too, and I really want to work for Disney. I was wondering if you'd help me?"

Granted, I don't remember exactly what I said, but it was something along those lines, and miraculously, here's what she said back to me:

"Sure. I think you're very brave to reach out to me like this, and I don't get contacted by UF alums very often, so I'd be happy to talk with you."

We set up a time to chat via phone, and I think she gave me about 30 minutes for the conversation. She shared great inside information on the culture at Disney and her background, but then the conversation ended, and no, I didn't walk away with a job in hand. I knew I needed to keep the relationship going, so I emailed Mary a few times, sending her an interesting article or giving her an update on my job search. Sometimes she'd respond, sometimes she didn't. I was hitting another dead end.

So I lied. Mary, if you're reading this cover your ears! But it's true. I knew this email/phone communication wasn't getting me where I needed to go, so I told Mary I was going to be in the Orlando area that week (not true), and could I come by the office and meet her in person? "Sure!" she said. She was happy to meet with me, and she'd introduce me to some of her colleagues on the floor.

I packed my bags, drove up to Orlando (about a 3.5 hour drive from my hometown), stayed with a friend who lived an hour away from the offices and got up at the crack of dawn to make my way over.

Standing there in front of the brightly colored building in the Stepford-Wives-like town of Celebration, I knew this was right, and I also knew every step I was taking was getting me inches closer to my dream.

Mary and I had a nice, 30-minute meeting and then, making good on her promise, she introduced me to four of her colleagues on the floor -- a couple that were in the promotions department, a man in the public relations department and a fourth that I can't even remember anymore. I came prepared with beautifully printed resumes on thick paper and my custom-designed business cards, and I handed them out like a boss, grabbing a business card in return from each person I met. I was there for maybe 60 minutes before I was being ushered out the door, and once more, it's not as though I left with a job (or even any prospective jobs) in hand.

From there, I became the squeaky wheel. Looking back on my behavior now, I likely wouldn't recommend a tactic quite to this level, but if my memory serves me correctly, I emailed every one of those contacts every two weeks for two months. I'd send them updates, ask them questions, share articles...all the typical things one does to build relationships. And each time I'd close asking if they knew of any open entry-level positions on their team or on the floor.

At the tail end of that two months, and with just a few weeks left in the timeframe I had set for myself, Rick, the public relations director I had met, responded. He had a PR consultant/contractor position that was coming available in the next few weeks. It was a 9-month contract with no benefits, and once the 9 months was up, I'd be out the door. Oh, and he was telling me about this, but really he didn't think I could handle it, because it was an in-the-trenches job that was demanding and typically required a little more experience.

There's nothing that motivates me more than being told by someone else that they don't think I can do something. I can't quite explain it, but somehow it activates in me a ridiculous desire to prove that person wrong. I emailed Rick back, explaining that I certainly could do the job, that I was willing to prove it to him and then asked when he'd like to interview me for it (damn, I was gutsy!).

We started with a phone interview, then he asked me to come in to shadow the woman who was currently in the job, and I remember the day like it was yesterday. Our task was to manage two photoshoots with Broadway star, John Tartaglia (the original Princeton from Avenue Q, among other things). He was leading a new Disney Channel series called Johnny & the Sprites and was doing a special show at the (then) Disney-MGM Studios. We were to supervise the photographer during the shoot of the show, then run the photoshoot that would have John and his puppets posing in front of the (then) signature icon of the park, Mickey's sorcerer's hat. I had to work really hard to control my fangirling when John walked up, because as a Broadway devotee, I was intimately familiar with him, his music and every lyric to the Avenue Q soundtrack. Watching the magic unfold was fascinating to me. I soaked it up and was still on my high when we returned to the offices, sorted through the selects from the photographer, picked the image we'd syndicate to our PR contacts and drafted things like the caption and pitch email.

This job was fantastic, and I knew it needed to be mine.

Two weeks, a number of follow-up emails and a bit more convincing on my part later, and I was at the car wash when I got the call from Rick that they wanted to hire me. No joke guys, I about shit my pants from pure happiness. It didn't matter that I had two weeks to move to Orlando to start this job. It didn't matter that I'd have no health care, no retirement savings plan, no free tickets to get into the parks. All that mattered was that I was going to be working for Disney, I'd be in that office every day and I'd have a full 6 months to make connections and ensure I was able to stay longer.

October 16, 2006 was my first day on the job.

There are so many more things I could tell you about my experience working at Disney, and at some point, I'll write more about how I did indeed turn that 9-month position into nearly two years at the company (before I voluntarily left to get my MBA), but today's story was about getting that first job, and it's already a doozy of a blog post. That said, before I leave you, I want to underscore a few points inherent to this story that I think are repeatable for others looking to get a very specific job:

1) I was persistent. Some might argue foolishly so, but I set a goal for myself, and I was relentless in pursuing it. I didn't let setbacks get in my way or make me give up. I was laser focused, and I looked for other avenues and opportunities to get to my end target when certain paths proved futile.

2) I used the power of people. My stellar resume and credentials did little to make me stand out in the sea of thousands of new college grads that wanted to work for Disney. But having a relationship -- albeit a subtle one -- with the real, live people that worked in the office, did. The position I was hired for wasn't even something that was posted on the Disney Careers site, so had I not connected with Rick, I never would have been in the running.

3) I was flexible. Was the job perfect? Heck no. I totally could have snubbed my nose at the lack of benefits or the fact that the position was short term. I could have said it was a risk I wasn't willing to take. But I didn't. I accepted the flaws of the position because the benefits greatly outweighed them, and I had the confidence in myself that I'd be able to bob and weave when the 9 months ended.

The experience that I gained in that two years proved so invaluable on so many levels. I met and worked with amazing people throughout the Disney organization. I was on the celebrity PR beat, so I have countless stories to tell about which celebrities are nice and which are not (always great for parties). I learned massive amounts about leadership, creativity, networking and relationship building, and how to manage coming into work full of energy, even when a reporter needs access to Epcot at 3am (she needed to shoot the installation of the main topiary for the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, and the horticulturists do this overnight when Guests aren't in the park). I'm also pretty sure that having the name "Disney" on my resume helped catapult me into HBS when I applied with less than two years of practical work experience.

The moral of this story is the very cliche, but very true, "You can do it!" mantra, because I believe you can. Everyone around me, including myself sometimes, thought that getting a job at Disney straight out of undergrad would be impossible. But as Walt said himself, "It's kind of fun to do the impossible," and I couldn't agree more.

What questions do you have for me, either about this topic or about working for Disney in general? Let me know your thoughts, comments and more below. See ya real soon!

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*Name changed