LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Pam Nelson was a 17-year-old senior at Orlando’s Colonial High School in 1971 when Walt Disney World officials recruited her to work at the new resort under construction in the middle of a swamp just outside the city.
“They actually reached out to all the local high schools and to the principal,” Nelson told News 6. “He recommended 10 students, and I was one of the 10.”
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Nelson expected she would only work at Disney World for six weeks so she could earn Christmas spending money, promising her parents she would quit if the job became too stressful or exhausting.
“I never came home tired. I never came home aggravated,” said Nelson, who is celebrating her 50th anniversary with the company, “and I’m still working for Christmas money.”
In 1971, prospective employees received a brochure explaining that Disney was not hiring them for a job, but rather “casting you for a role” in the “Walt Disney World show.”
“You’ve probably heard about the friendliness and helpfulness of employees at California’s Disneyland – it’s famed ‘round the world,” the recruitment brochure stated. “Walt Disney World will have the same kind of cast!”
Applicants were told Disney was selecting employees based on traits such as personality, enthusiasm, friendliness, politeness, availability and physical characteristics.
“Due to wardrobe limitations for positions requiring costumes in the on-stage area, we have to select those who meet [certain] physical requirements,” stated the casting guide.
On-stage “hostesses” were available in sizes 6-14 for women from 5 feet 2 inches to 5 feet 10 inches in height, according to the 1971 brochure, while men’s “host” costumes had waist sizes of 28-40 inches and jacket sizes from 36-44.
Today, Walt Disney World provides employees with wardrobe in a much wider variety of sizes.
Nelson’s first job at the resort was handing out those costumes.
“I started on opening day in the costuming tent, as the building wasn’t quite ready,” she said. “We were young. Everything was new to the park. All the people that were here were new, so we all learned together.”
Florida residents like Nelson were given hiring preference over out-of-state applicants, company documents show.
In the summer of 1971, Disney’s employee relations staff conducted job interviews at a community recreation center in Orlando’s Washington Shores neighborhood.
“The neighborhood interviews are part of a massive campaign to recruit 5,000 new employees for the Vacation Kingdom opening in October,” a press release stated, indicating most open positions were for full-time employment. “Jobs are available in the Magic Kingdom theme park, two resort hotels, water and land recreation, golf courses and many other areas.”
Nearly three months after Disney World opened, the company said its projected workforce had grown to 10,300 employees as it continued to hire for positions primarily in the Contemporary and Polynesian Village resort hotels.
Walt Disney World employed more than 77,000 just before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted layoffs throughout Central Florida’s tourism industry in 2020. The company has not provided a more current employment figure.
In 1971, wages at Walt Disney World started at $1.80 per hour, which was about 12% higher than the federal minimum wage of $1.60. At the time, Florida did not set a state minimum wage.
Following a historic Disney labor union vote in 2018, the entry level wage for non-tipped employees will rise to $15 per hour in October 2021, 50% higher than the state’s new minimum wage of $10 per hour that goes into effect the same month.
“Right after I was out of costuming, I went to the Diamond Horseshoe Review,” said Nelson, who eventually left her entry level position to take on new roles and challenges at Walt Disney World.
Nelson currently works as the senior procurement coordinator for the Disney Event Group, which arranges conferences, corporate events and other private gatherings at the resort.
“I don’t think there’s any place that you can go work and have a hundred options for jobs,” said Nelson, who was nominated by her peers to receive the prestigious Walt Disney Legacy Award for embodying the company’s values. “I’ve had a wonderful career, a wonderful opportunity at Walt Disney World.”