At 7:30 in the morning on a recent Saturday, 14 people gathered on the 10th floor of Disney’s Riviera Resort in Orlando, Florida, at the Topolino’s Terrace restaurant. The resort would open in two days, and this group had been among the first to experience it — a treat for many, but especially for this collection of self-described Disney super fans.
These 14 adults –a mix of stay-at-home moms, young professionals without children and middle-aged parents from across the country – aren’t just Disney fans. They are now considered experts.
They beat out more than 10,000 other applicants to become members of the 2020 Disney Parks Moms Panel, a website where people planning to go on a Disney cruise, or visit a Disney park or Disney Vacation Club in the United States, can ask questions and get responses from these experts. Eleven of this year’s new panellists are women, three are men and two are not parents. The panel also has an additional 28 panellists returning from previous years.
During breakfast, Mickey Mouse walked into the restaurant and most members of the group rushed to give him a hug and take photos. When Minnie Mouse arrived, others got up, complimented her dress, hugged her and asked for pictures. Group shots, selfies and posed photos were all taken. By 8:15 a.m., when Donald and Daisy Duck arrived, the panellists were too excited to contain themselves – they clapped and danced to the music as the characters put on a performance.
“My kids are going to be so jealous,” said Aena Drone, 36, whose area of expertise on the panel is the Orlando park. Her peers who have children agreed.
The group had been together in Orlando since Wednesday, receiving training about how to be panellists. They learned how to ask each other for help, how to answer a question politely, how to urge someone to try something new.
After breakfast, they headed to the office building where the Disney team behind the panel works (on a street fittingly called Celebration Place) to get their headshots taken. Afterward, it was on to lunch at Sebastian’s Bistro and then tours of some of the Disney resorts. The tours were meant to give panellists information that could help them answer tough questions from travellers.
Millions of people visit Walt Disney World annually. For many visitors, every moment spent at a Disney park or resort must be well accounted for, which means that planning the perfect Disney vacation is something of an art form – or, at the very least, an in-demand skill. The desire to maximize time spent at Disney has spawned an entire market of Disney planning books, guides and podcasts. Some travel agents focus solely on planning Disney trips and are able to tell guests things like how to avoid waiting in line to get on rides and how to best get around the resorts.
Every week for the next year, each panellist will answer about 15 questions from eager travellers seeking advice on where to stay, which rides to go on, where to eat and how to activate wristbands, among other questions. In most cases the panellists will pull from their own Disney experiences and also do some research to see if there is new information available. Some questions may take 10 minutes to answer, others 30 — it all depends.
Each panellist has some kind of area of expertise: Disneyland in California, Disney World in Florida, Disney Vacation Clubs across the country or the Disney Cruise Line. Some have multiple specialties. They each already have some kind of plan for how they will fit the panel into their busy daily lives.
Tiffanie Sojourner, whose expertise is in Disneyland in Anaheim, California, and who works full time in wealth management in San Diego, plans on answering questions after work and on the weekends. Clara Chlon, a paediatric new-born hospitalist in Cincinnati, Ohio, will answer questions on days off, after work and on weekends. Andres Villa, a special-education teacher in Ventura, California, plans to keep his evenings open to answer questions. (Chlon and Villa will also be answering questions submitted in Spanish.)
The kinds of questions the experts have to answer are typically detailed, with multiple parts. Online, one person recently asked the 2019 panellists: “What is a good value resort that offers theme park tickets for a four night stay over the Christmas holidays? Do they include any meals or package deals and if so are there any bundled offers?”
Another wrote in: “We are staying at animal kingdom with a 22-month-old and a five-month-old. We plan on probably going to Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom this Friday and Saturday. Which day is better for which park? Also what are fun things to do with young toddler?”
The panellist position, while a Disney contractor role with an intensive application process, is not paid. In exchange for answering these questions every week, the panellists get a free stay at a Disney park or vacation club of their choice for five nights and can bring three people along.
For this group, the trip is more than enough payment.
More than money
At the office on Celebration Place, Drone changed into a mint-coloured shirt that, with her long, curly dark hair, evoked an image of Princess Jasmine from Aladdin. Of course Drone knew this. Jasmine is her favourite Disney princess, she said.
For Drone, a stay-at-home mother of two boys, Disney has always been a symbol of joy. From the time she was a child in Pakistan, she has always loved Disney movies, she explained, twice during our interview becoming so overwhelmed she started to cry.
“When my parents told me that I was moving to America from Pakistan, it was scary, but they also told me Mickey Mouse lived in America because he was my hero,” she said. “My American dream was to go to Walt Disney World.” Chlon shared a similar sentiment. When she moved to the U.S. from Spain at the age of seven, Disney movies helped her learn English. Around age nine, Chlon’s parents took her to Walt Disney World, where, she said, “everything came together.”
For other panellists, who like Chlon work full-time, working for Disney in this capacity is something of an honour. It’s also an opportunity to contribute to a company that has sentimental and nostalgic meaning.
While I’d love to work for Disney, I love what I do,” Sojourner said. “I feel like I’m able to be a part of this Disney family without having to move or change my life completely.”
Throughout the course of the day, 12 of the 14 panellists described being on the panel as being “part of the Disney family.”
Sojourner, 34, grew up in San Diego – less than two hours away from Disneyland – and would go regularly with her mother and sister. She has been a Passholder for 12 years and estimated that she’s been to the park more than 100 times. Her mother, whose favourite ride is Space Mountain, also loves Disney.
“Every time I go to Disneyland, and I go a couple times a month, my mom always says, ‘Did you ride Space Mountain for me?’” Sojourner said. She does not have children.
Live and breathe Disney details
In the early 2000s, Disney conducted research that found that in most households mothers were in charge of planning vacations, and that one of the best and most trusted ways of getting information was through word-of-mouth. In particular, people valued the advice of friends and family.
The Disney Parks Moms Panel was born out of an effort to marry these revelations.
“We weren’t even sure what to call it at the time,” said Leanne O’Regan, director of public relations for Disney Parks, Experiences and Products. “But we knew that we wanted real moms and dads who understand what it takes to plan a Disney vacation.”
This is why the panellists aren’t paid, according to O’Regan. There is an “authenticity of getting advice from someone who isn’t being paid to give you advice,” she said. “We want them to be honest when they answer questions.”
The panel was initially called the Walt Disney World Moms Panel, with a focus on Disney World in Orlando. But over the years, as interest and expertise grew, the name broadened to encompass other domestic parks and activities like cruises and the company’s Vacation Club.
The application process to become a panellist is intensive and has three parts: a series of short-answer essay questions, a video submission and a phone interview.
The short-answer portion of the application prompted applicants to write about their families, share when they last visited the Disney entity in which they claimed expertise, describe how many times they visited that park in the last year, and note when they last stayed in a Disney resort hotel. Applicants had to answer a sample traveller question like: “My family and I are coming to Walt Disney World Resort in 2020 and know there are many new attractions opening. What are your top must-do’s for a trip in February?”
In each step of the interview process, candidates had to explain – beyond having seen the movies or visited the parks –why they were so passionate and knowledgeable about all things Disney.
“The Disney Parks Moms Panelists live and breathe Disney details,” O’Regan said.
The panellists know things like where private nursing rooms at Disney World are. (They also know that breastfeeding is allowed anywhere in the park, but mothers who want privacy can find private rooms.) They know where the best pickles in the Disney parks are, which restaurants offer plant-based menus, and whether the chairs in the resort rooms at the Art of Animation Resort stack up to save space.
This year, Disney put out the call for applications in August and kept the application portal open for one week in September. Many people apply for years before becoming panellists.
Tamela Hansen, 45, finally made it onto the panel after 12 years of applying.
Hansen said that she feels like she has been preparing to be a panellist for her whole life; she knew her time would eventually come.
After all, she has been to Disney World from Alabama, where she grew up and currently lives, at least 100 times. She first visited the park when she was five years old, and has memories of returning with her parents and little sister. Each time she visited the park, she became more “addicted to it,” she said.
“I know there are a lot of people that love Disney and that would love to help other people to have a memorable vacation with their family,” she said. “I just thought, ‘OK, well, the glass slipper isn’t shiny for me this year. It’ll be shiny for me one year.’”
By Tariro Mzezewa © 2020 The New York Times