Erika Jenko
March 14, 2015 6:00 am

Most of my fondest childhood memories are of Disneyland. I have more photos of myself with Snow White and Mickey Mouse than I do with most of my family members. Sometimes, my mom would pull up to the school parking lot and say, “Wouldn’t you rather go to Disneyland?” The answer was always, “Yes.” (Here’s where I probably need to explain that I grew up in Anaheim, California.) So when I turned 18 and needed a job, it just made sense: Wouldn’t I rather work at Disnleyland?

I marched over to the beautiful building off the freeway, filled out an application, and wound up getting cast as an interactive host in Tomorrowland. I got paid to play video games with kids and teach grownups how to ride a Segway. Later, I was a ride operator at Snow White’s Scary Adventures and Pinnochio’s Daring Journey. After that, I hosted various meet-and-greets with the characters, taking pictures of Tigger with guests in the Hundred Acre Wood, or explaining that Pooh needed to excuse himself for some honey. I went on to be a performer in the Toontown Morning Madness Show and a Padawan in the Jedi Training Academy. Mickey Mouse was on my pay stubs!

After Disneyland, I got a serious job — at Universal Studios. I was a tour guide, which consists of narrating the sound stages and filming locations on the backlot, informing busloads of tourists which famous films and TV shows were shot here. You might not think this was the most serious or substantive or enlightening job experience, but let me tell you, I came away with some valuable life lessons. To wit:

1. Spatial awareness is important.

As I speedily dart through crowds in New York, where I now live, I wonder, “Am I a ninja or what?” I’m not a ninja. However, I developed a keen sense of spatial awareness from navigating packed theme parks in the middle of summer. I’m the girl who used to make it from Fantasyland to Tomorrowland just minutes before the fireworks, which would be like speed walking 10 blocks through Times Square on New Year’s Eve. It’s no small feat. What’s the secret? Well, not to state the obvious, but: Be aware! Pay attention to the people around you. I don’t bear down on people just to walk on their heels, nor do I stop suddenly to reply to a text.  If you want to pass, then do so nimbly, and if you want to stop, pull over. If someone in front of you in a line moves up just a centimeter, maybe you can allow them that room instead of smooshing yourself flat up against them. People appreciate small courtesies like this, and it makes being out in the world together that much better.

2. Adults want to believe in magic.

Sometimes when I’m really tired from a long week of work, the sound of kids laughing exuberantly on the subway will make me think to myself, “Be quiet! The grownups are tired” And then I hate myself, because I worry that I’m turning into an old fart and next I’m going to be yelling, “Get off my lawn!” It would kill me whenever I’d see a grownup walk up to Mickey at Disneyland and ask, “Is it hot in there?” or “Uh oh. Goofy is walking pretty quickly. Is it break time?” I would always turn around and say something like, “Goofy promised to build a new dog house for Pluto.” This would usually get a smile, because the truth is, no matter how stressful life gets, it’s nice to believe in a little bit of magic. Whether it’s Santa Claus or David Blaine or fall foliage, hold on to a sense of wonder and enthusiasm.

3. Don’t be afraid to dress big.

At Disneyland, my uniform was a costume. If I was in Toontown, you better believe I was running around in bright blue overalls and a baseball cap. If I was hosting Captain Jack Sparrow, I’d be strutting around a feathered hat, striped tights and a purple vest. In comparison, my regular clothes started to look a little bland. I was so used to wearing funky outfits every day that it seemed strange not to take any fashion risks in my everyday life. When I first moved to New York I wanted to blend in, so I wore lots of black, but these days I prefer a hot-pink beanie or leopard-print shoes. It’s invigorating to wear clothes that stand out. We shouldn’t just save the costumes for Halloween.

4. Work is supposed to be fun.

Having a “fun job” isn’t just for teenagers who need some extra money for textbooks and movies. We tend to think, at some point, that we have to grow up and settle down with a serious job that we likely dread in order to cover rent, student loans, and the crazy amount of bills that you’re responsible for when you reach your mid-20s. But we should aspire to work someplace that excites us. When I first moved to New York (post theme-park days), I worked retail on the Upper East Side and I could not handle it. I was so bored and I wasn’t motivated about what I was doing, so I looked for something else. Now I work the front-of-house for a Broadway theate.. We will work for our entire lives, but there’s not enough time to waste in jobs that make us miserable. Sometimes we’ll have to make sacrifices to pay the bills, but the goal should be to enjoy what we do.

5. Junk food isn’t off-limits.

I look inside my refrigerator and see nothing but kale, almond milk, and Greek yogurt, and I remember being a kid and reaching for a soda and a handful of chips. The food I choose to eat now has necessarily changed, because sugar/trans fat/etc., but sometimes a girl needs a treat! There’s nothing in the world like walking down Disney’s Main Street with a hot dog and an ice cream cone. Yes, it’s vacation food, but why deprive yourself of some indulgences when you’re not on vacation? Don’t feel bad about eating a bathtub full of macaroni and cheese once in a while. Your inner child needs nourishment too.

6. Find yourself an adventure.

I’m not gonna lie: I get really homesick for theme parks. I wish there was a Disneyland in Manhattan. I miss the anticipation of zooming up Space Mountain in a dark tunnel, never knowing when the next drop would come. Here’s the thing to remember: Rides are adventures. At one time, we may have been a little scared to get on, but before long, we were begging for more. Whether it’s starting a new job or going scuba diving, it’s necessary to keep challenging ourselves, to take risks, to conquer fears. I say let this be a theme: Seek thrills, often and always.

[Image via here]

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