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How a Disney Adventure Prepared Me to Be a Financial Planner

This article was originally published in the “Voices” column of Financial Planning Magazine. Read it here.

After graduating from Western Kentucky University’s personal financial planning program, most students will immediately start work full-time with a financial planning firm and simultaneously commence their studies for the CFP exam. I decided to take the road less traveled – the road to Orlando, Florida. The reactions from my peers, professors, family, and friends were extremely mixed when I told them I planned to work in Walt Disney World for five months; some were ecstatic that I would try something so different from my other endeavors, others confused why I (or anyone) would ever want do something like that. I worked as a cast member at a new nighttime show called Rivers of Light in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Basically, I talked with park guests for six nights a week. My pre-conceived notion was that working in Disney World would have many more parallels with my future career in the financial planning profession than meets the eye; after completing my Disney College Program, I can sincerely say that was the case.

There is a perception that in Disney World, the customer is always right. I can tell you firsthand that this is definitely not the case, and probably any other cast member would tell you the same thing. There were probably hundreds of times when I had to step in to “correct” a guest, whether that was informing them they were headed in the wrong direction, that they couldn’t enter an attraction through an exit, or they couldn’t get free Fast Passes without reason. However, I always attempted to guide guests every step of the way to make sure they were having the best experience possible while staying within Disney’s guidelines. That could mean walking with a guest to their destination to make sure they made it there without issues or escorting a disabled guest to the front seating section of the nighttime show. Disney has built its brand on top quality customer service – though the guest isn’t always correct, every guest’s problem deserves an answer.

In the realm of financial planning, this customer service element is key. Every client should be treated as a Walt Disney World guest who may not have all the answers. Yes, financial planning scenarios are vastly more complex than simple theme park questions, but the notion is the same. Planners should have a high level of competence in order to guide clients through some of the most intricate circumstances. This could include telling a client “no,” but providing a proper answer to their solution thereafter.  And just like Disney park guests, clients should be treated with respect, fairness, and objectivity. 

Two of the CFP Board’s principles are competence and professionalism. Financial planners with the CFP designation are expected to have a fine-tuned expertise of a variety of subjects such as retirement planning, income tax, and investments. They are also expected to be able to communicate these topics for clients with clarity and professionalism. Although I didn’t dispense much financial advice while working for the Mouse, I was expected to demonstrate these principles every single day.

On the day I started at Animal Kingdom, I was given a map of the park. Throughout my first week of training, I would reference the map often and walk around the park before my shift in order to gain a better understanding of the directions I would be giving guests every day. I talked to cast members throughout the park about the attractions, restaurants, and shops in which they worked. I read about the history of the park and its attractions, and talked to leadership about how it’s changed over the years. By the end of my time in Animal Kingdom, I was well-prepared to answer most guest questions and do fun things like asking them trivia questions about the park, all while treating them with the highest level of professionalism. No matter what job you have, having a high level of competence can dramatically increase your confidence in your work and make the customer’s experience so much better. I learned this throughout my time in Disney and am seeing it again here working as a financial planning associate.

I think the biggest parallel between working for Disney and working as a financial planner is the idea of treating others as you would like to be treated. This may seem obvious, but it is certainly not easy. At Rivers of Light, we had a loose policy that guests could not enter the show once it had started. One night, there were a few guests that asked me if they could see the show, which was nearly halfway over. I politely informed them that it was almost over and no more guests were allowed in the theater. They promptly cursed in my face and told me they were never coming to Animal Kingdom again. It would have been easy to tell these people that I was glad I’d never see them again. However, I promptly apologized and informed them of the second show that would start later that night, and asked if there was any way I could make their experience better. This is not human nature, and it is not always the way I reacted in these situations. But I tried my best to maintain integrity at all times while wearing the Disney uniform, just like I maintain a fiduciary duty of care when working with clients. Putting others’ needs above your own can be exceptionally difficult. But I know firsthand that it is by and large the most rewarding way of doing business.

There are obviously pronounced differences between working with hundreds of guests a day in the largest theme park in the world and working with a limited number of clients as a financial planner. But working for the Walt Disney Company last fall was some of the greatest preparation I could have received before starting this career. Effective communication, professionalism, teamwork, and human behavior were the cornerstones of my Disney employment experience, and I fully intend to incorporate these going forward as a planner. Disney’s core mission to make people happy is essentially what I do now too. In fact, it’s my primary goal. So, while I may not be telling clients to “have a magical day” around the office, I am set on putting the lessons I learned during my time at Disney into context in order to continue to make those around me as happy as they can be.

Written by Elijah Essa, Financial Planning Associate