We Get to Learn from a Guest Experience Manager at the Magic Kingdom What It’s like to Share the Magic
Nathaniel Palma has been a Disney aficionado since he was a child growing up in Mexico. Originally born in Southern California, the origination of Disney as well, he has always had a connection to the parks and the lore of the brand. From the films, to the music, to the parks themselves, talking to him shows you just what a special thing the world of Walt Disney is to him, and undoubtedly, he carries it into this current position within Florida’s Walt Disney World Parks.
As a Guest Experience Manager, helping make guests feel like he has about the characters, attractions, and even the churros, are all part of a day’s work.
In the following Q&A, we get to hear from Nathaniel himself, and get a glimpse into his upbringings, schooling, and the experiences that ultimately led him back to the dreamlike experience that constitutes a Disney Park trip.
Thanks for the time Nathaniel. To start off, could you talk a bit about where you grew up, and if there was any Disney influences or experiences involved during your youth?
Yes of course. I was actually born in Southern California, in Orange County, very close to Disneyland. My mother at that time lived in Anaheim, to answer the second part of your question, the Disney ties, my mom was actually in Disneyland the day of my birth, because she really liked Disney. Me being her first born, she would phone [the doctor] a lot, and the doctor said, “Miss you have to go and walk a little bit”, and so used to choose Disneyland as a park to be able to walk while she was expecting me. The day of my birth was no exception, she went to the park, she wasn’t feeling very well, she went to the hospital, and that’s when I came out.
We were in Southern California for two years, then we moved to Mexico City. We do have Mexican heritage, and my mom really always loved Mexico and wanted to move to Mexico to open her own business and be able to have a connection back with the Mexican community. I actually grew up there, all my childhood, until I graduated from high school in Mexico City.
Of course, all throughout my childhood and growing up there were Disney movies being played at home, there was Disney soundtracks all the time. At that time, we didn’t have Disney channel in Mexico, or a Disney Store per se, but the movies are what I loved to watch.
I remember that these movies were so inspirational to me, the characters were role models to me and so I’ve always been very attached to the brand. And every few years, my mother would save enough to bring my siblings, my grandma and I to Southern California. My aunt still lived there, and we used to go visit, stay with her, and then of course go to the Disney Park for one day which was of course one of the best days of that year, because I got to go back to where the characters lived and where Walt once was.
I remember what I loved the most was that every single cast member – which are the employees that work at Disney – had a name tag which is so nice and so welcoming and so kind, and would treat everyone with respect and kindness, which for me was very impactful because I was a very little, young boy. Back home things were not as magical, but this place was so inclusive, so since that moment I had such an attachment to the brand.
That’s so interesting. What business did your mother start out in Mexico?
She started a fundraising company. My mom always wanted to make an impact in the community and in others, so she started a fundraising company through the sales of chocolates. And it’s a company that she still has, 28 years later. That’s what she does down there. She has schools, community centers and churches – or groups of families – that may have somebody that’s sick [and] that need to raise funds, for them to pay their medical bills or improve their education, things like that.
Now, does she make her way out there to Florida to visit you and the Parks?
Yes. When I moved back to the states when I graduated from college, I first went to Connecticut. At that time my English wasn’t very well, and I wanted to make sure that I improve my English because I wanted to come work for Disney. So, I moved to Connecticut, and when I graduated from college I moved here. So, I’ve been in Central Florida for six years, almost seven years now. And yes, she loves Disney, she’s also a huge fan, so she comes at least every six months, if not more to come visit my sister and I. My sister joined the company three years ago, so now both of us live here.
One of your first bigger roles at Disney was being an Ambassador before you became a Guest Experience Manager. What was your path to working within the Walt Disney Company and getting to where you are now?
I had gotten a scholarship to go to the University of Hartford in Connecticut and again I wanted to improve my English and get my degree in business but I was so disappointed that I was so far from any Disney Park so I remember I went to the mall and saw a giant Mickey head peeking through a store, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, there’s a Disney Store!” I was a little foreign to the concept because in Mexico we didn’t have those. So, I rushed in there and asked, “Is this Disney?!”, and they said yes, so I said, “I need to work here.”
I used to go every Thursday because I knew who the hiring manager was, and I would say, “I will do anything, I just want a nametag and I want to be able to work for Disney.” I was very fortunate to be hired there, so my Disney career actually started at the Disney Store in Connecticut, I was there for four years. I learned [there] about the Disney College Program [which] gives opportunities to students from universities to do their internships down in Walt Disney World for six months to a year. I actually applied for that and they sent me to Walt Disney World for one year to do my internship. Then I went back, finished school, then when I graduated I first went to work for an insurance company because I was Valedictorian in my school and the president gets very involved with your development and then the dean, and they’re like, “We need you to have a job that will be in your career,” and in Connecticut, insurance is the big thing to do, especially in Hartford.
I was going to work there but when I gave my speech to my class, talking about Walt Disney and how much he was inspiring to me, and about, “following your dreams and your passion, be good at what you do and have the courage to pursue your dreams”, and things like that. That’s when I realized my dream and my passion, and everything was targeting me back to Walt Disney World.
So, I came back seven years ago, and I was actually first in the entertainment department. I was able to be taking care of our characters, performing in our shows and parades, and I love that. During that time, among other things, I became a trainer, a coordinator, I would be at the Disney University, so I could welcome our new cast members, and share the passion of Disney with them. I had learned about the Ambassador program from just reading about Disney.
It’s a role that Walt Disney created 50 years ago that embodies the goodness of our company and represents our cast members and all the wonderful things that we do for our guests and for our community and the magic that they create around the world. And so, the posting is every two years, and it’s like two cast members for those two years. My peers were so supportive and encouraging to at least try it. And lo and behold I was very honored to get the Ambassador role after almost two years of being in the company – to represent the company and 74,000 cast members around the world which was a huge honor.
Now, being a Guest Experience Manager, what has that experience been like?
I feel like it’s been a 180 because I remember coming to the park as a little boy, or as an adult and just loving this park because of how special the cast members made me feel. I mean the parks are beautiful, our Imagineers make sure the park is beautiful, and there’s a story, and that our shows are impeccable, the attractions transport you to faraway lands. But really to what it comes down to is the cast members who bring it to life, and their smiles and their welcome and greetings, and making sure everyone feels included and appreciated no matter if you are from a Latin American country, or from Asia or Europe – or Alabama. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, only that you’re included and have the same experience. Everyone can have the same magical experience at Disney.
I remember that as a young boy who didn’t know English at the time and was a little afraid of putting myself out there, I was able to come to Disney and feel safe and [it] really be a source of joy and inspiration to me, which is what Walt wanted these parks to be. So now being on the other side and making sure I uphold those values and standards for every single guest that comes into the park because I also take care of the entrance, which literally, every guest might not go to every attraction, but every guest will come through the entrance and leave through the exit. I see the guests twice. So, to make sure the beginning and the end, the bookends, are magical, and the in-between to guest relations is impeccable to the Disney standard, is such an honor.
Whether our guests have been here a hundred times or they’re international or their local, or they have a disability, or they have a language barrier, we can take care of them and make sure they have a wonderful experience. And saying that I have the privilege of taking charge of that is a great honor. It brings me back too, like, “This could be the next Nathaniel.” When I see little kids I think, “This could be me in a few years.”
Bouncing off that, there’s some people that visit the parks only once in their lives, or like you said continuously over the years. What are any memorable moments or experiences that sit in the back of your mind, or are really special to you?
What I love about what we do is that every guest has a story, and everybody has a reason why they come to the park. Our annual passholders, some will just come almost every day because they love it here, it’s like their second home, and they want to just come and chat with the cast members, which is such a beautiful thing to say, that people spend money just to talk to cast members and spend some time here.
We have a company that has such an emotional connection with a guest where our guests come here to either celebrate the most successful achievements or sometimes to escape from maybe something that wasn’t so great. We deal with these cases in guest relations on a daily basis, and it’s such an honor to be able to have our guests trust us to let us share these stories. There was one time I was working at City Hall and it was during the holiday season and it was a rather large group of a Hispanic family that literally was mom, dad, kids, uncles, grandma, second cousins, it was a group of almost 25 guests, which happens quite frequently, and I love that I can relate to that [with] my family.
They were here, and it was a busy day in the park, they had not gone on anything and they were just looking for information. I helped them, they had already been a few hours in the park and it was just not a great experience because of how busy it was. At the end I remember there was somebody in the party in their account, but the person wasn’t there. And I was like, “Oh, who is-?” And the name of the guest. And the name of the guest wasn’t there, and I was like, “Where is she? Why is she missing?” Unfortunately, it was the great grandma, and she had not made it just before the trip. It was a very difficult decision for the family to make. The great grandma had made them promise to come to Walt Disney World, and wanted to make sure that this trip was extra special in memory of her. And so, me, loving my grandmother, it just touched me very much.
They could’ve gone anywhere else to celebrate the memory of their grandma, but they chose us to do it. So we were able to set them up with a character meet and greet, her favorite character was Mickey so we had our boss personally meet their family and get them a special viewing for our parade, so they could see Mickey Mouse and have churros, which grandma loved, coming from a Mexican family, and made sure that that memory, which could have been something on the sad side, was a moment of happiness and of remembrance. And I love that our brand can do that for our guests on a very personal level. That is one memory that comes in mind of the many, for multiple reasons.
Thanks for sharing that Nathaniel. Now for the tough questions: Do you have a favorite park, attraction, or land?
That is a tough question because it’s like picking your favorite baby. What I love is that all the parks have something unique and special. It really depends on what experience you want to have. The Magic Kingdom is special because it’s that remembrance, that nostalgia of the past and those childhood memories and those storybook characters that come to life. And then you have Hollywood Studios which is all the glitz and the glamour of Hollywood and being part of the show. Epcot is the hope of the future and what it could be if we all work together. And Animal Kingdom is celebrating nature, celebrating animals and our most precious gift which is planet earth. So, what I love about our parks, and my favorite part, is that no matter what our guests like, no matter where they’re from, if they like characters or like animals or want to talk to people and learn about different cultures, there’s a park for them. It’s not like a cookie cutter experience.
Of course, I still have a soft spot for all the classics. Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, or It’s a Small World. I did those attractions with my family, with my mom, we were scrambling sometimes just to come to the park. So for me, going back to those bring me back memories of how happy those attractions made me, even though they’ve been here for 50 years. And so that is very special as well.