Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex

(27.05.2002 , South Africa, Mossel Bay )
Museum Employee Back from Disney World!

From Mossel Bay in the R.S.A.
to the phenomenal parts of the U.S. of A.!

As we drive through the tranquil African bush our hearts begin to race as a 5000-pound white rhino and her calf step into the dusty road ahead of us. A lot smaller than the herd of around twenty elephants we had just seen at the waterhole, but so close that we can almost touch them. They seem to ignore us, but ahead in the bushes near the koppies we sense something watching us. The cheetahs are extremely well camouflaged like the giraffes we saw about a mile back between the pink trumpet vines. We have seen hundreds of African animals roaming freely through endless acres of savanna, forests, rivers and rocky hills. I hear a lion roar and feel as if predators surround us. The saddle-billed stork flaps its wings as the air warden’s voice crackles over the radio: there are poachers in the reserve!

It is almost hard to believe that in reality, we are thousands of miles from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean at the world’s #1 vacation destination: Walt Disney World. Africa makes up just one section (one of the seven areas) of the 202 hectares Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park. The Walt Disney World Resort is a 75-square-kilometer world-class entertainment and recreation center featuring four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom); three water adventure parks (Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon and River Country); 27 resort hotels (17 owned and operated by Walt Disney World); 99 holes of golf on six courses; two full-service spas; the Disney Institute; Disney’s Wedding Pavilion; Disney’s 12,500-seating capacity Wide World of Sports complex; and Downtown Disney, a three area entertainment-shopping-dining complex with 24 movie theaters, nightclubs, a ball-shaped Planet Hollywood and massive Virgin Megastore. The Resort is also included in the vacation packages of the two Disney Cruise Line ships. The Walt Disney World Co. employs over 55, 000 cast members (staff) to handle the thousands of daily guests (visitors).

I cannot begin to explain the magnitude and magnificence of the whole setup and scale of everything at Walt Disney World. Just when I thought that I had seen it all: the best, most amazing and incredible – along comes something better. As a Walt Disney Cast Member I got to see and experience things that people who go to this magical place on holiday, cannot begin to fathom. Words cannot describe the precise nature of the operations or detail and emotions involved in the presentation of what the company has to offer. In 1996 I had been to Europe and caught a glimpse of Asia but had never really seriously considered visiting America until being afforded this opportunity. I look back a year later and am in awe of what I saw in the seven US states and the Bahamas. Between the work schedule, completing UNISA modular studies and a Disney HR Management Course, I traveled to Miami, the Florida Keys, Atlanta, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Los Angeles, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Detroit, New York and went on a cruise to three Bahamian Islands with friends who were also on the college and international programs.

How does it happen that an employee of the Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex in Mossel Bay ends up here in the USA and obtains unpaid leave from his government-position to obtain experience, knowledge and to conduct marketing for Mossel Bay and South Africa?

I was fortunate enough to be recruited and chosen by Disney’s International Programs as a Cultural Representative from Sub-Saharan Africa at this mega-organization and leaped at the thought of a yearlong adventure in the USA. I have often been asked how I initially got the position and I guess that it is one of those “being in the right place at the right time”-scenarios. I saw an advertisement in the Business Times of the Sunday Times newspaper about the program and read that the international recruiters for Disney would be visiting Africa with three stops in South Africa. I complied with the requirements and submitted my CV and attended the interview in Cape Town after a telephonic interview from the States. My application was successful and a few months later I was on a flight to the USA with 15 other cultural representatives from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya and Mozambique. There we were joined by cultural representatives from Europe and Asia and commenced our nine days of intensive training and orientation which entailed “Traditions and Company History”, “DAKlimation” and on-the-job training as an Attractions Host in “Africa” at Kilimanjaro Safaris. Other African cultural representatives worked in the village of Harambe in the various restaurants, African shops (Mambassa Marketplace and Ziwani Traders) and at Pangani Forest Exploration Trail. The newest Disney resort, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge also recruited Africans as savanna guides, merchandisers and food and beverage hosts.

Being in constant contact with thousands of people at one of Disney’s most popular attractions (the attraction is sometimes unable to carry the Animal Kingdom Park’s volume of daily guests) at up to 3,000 safari guests per hour, was an incredible opportunity. At peak times and holidays the work was especially demanding and it was usually physically draining in the Florida heat and humidity. Working with such a large company, time is of crucial importance in enabling operations to run smoothly and Human Resources are tightly managed. I was trained in twelve different areas of the Kilimajaro Safaris attraction and we were rotated between positions every two hours. These positions ranged from being greeters and facilitating guests through the waiting process (assisting disabled guests, children, and coordinating the loading of safari trucks) to actually driving the 9-ton safari vehicles while giving a twenty-five minute narration and information session about Africa and its animals. Safety issues, vehicle checks and preparation also received regular attention. We were usually at least 50 cast members working the single attraction at all times and I felt honored as being voted as “Cast Member of the Month” for March and being asked to host Roy Disney (Walt’s family successor) and his family on a personal safari. During the African Cultural Celebrations in the African village, the cultural representatives were taken out of our work areas and invited to represent our heritage and cultures by interacting with the guests and participating in a Cultural Showcase. This also provided a perfect marketing platform for South Africa and Mossel Bay with everyone being invited to visit the Garden Route. Most Americans are sadly unaware of the cultural diversity of South Africa and our regions and enjoyed the informative sessions. The strangest things include mistaking my accent for Australian and not knowing that South Africa is a country. A single country rich in diversity and consisting of more than just wild animals.

Mossel Bay received special mention on numerous occasions and my friends and colleagues often joked and called me “John Thackray, the Mayor of Mossel Bay”! On my safari narration the introduction always sounded something like: “My name is John and I come all the way from Mossel Bay: a coastal town on the south coast of South Africa, about four hours drive from Cape Town on the Indian Ocean side…” and one look at my name badge confirmed my origin. It read: “JOHN” above “Mossel Bay, South Africa”.

We stayed at a fully equipped housing complex with other participants on the International and College Programs and our $80 weekly rent included all utilities at the two-bedroom apartments with computer access, swimming pools, gyms and sporting facilities. Shuttles provided free transport to all Disney areas and essential amenities. In the 12 months that I was living there I had housemates from Aruba, Croatia, Holland, India and South Africa.

I am almost embarrassed to say that I learnt more about African animals, traditions and cultures in America than I ever did while living in South Africa – now even knowing things like why a giraffe has a purple tongue, why flamingos are pink and that hippos have red sweat. I worked and lived alongside people from across the globe and made many interesting friends. I even met and got to know a girl who grew up in Mossel Bay and was in Point High School at the same time as I was!

It has been an extremely eventful and educational chapter in my life and the memories and knowledge obtained will last forever. I understand exactly what Walt Disney meant when he once said: “I hope we never lose some things of the Past.”

Field Guide to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park (First Edition 2000) by Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Cultural Awareness (Blueprint to living and working in the USA: Walt Disney World International Programs) Booklet issued by Disney’s College and International Programs.
Work Learn Live Walt Disney World / Disney’s Animal Kingdom issued by Walt Disney World International Programs.

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