Courtesy Emily Cook Harris
Like many of us, Emily Cook Harris grew up watching Disney movies and listening to the soundtracks. “I had a four-disc compilation of all the best songs from the classics—The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, Aladdin, and more. I still know all the words!” She first visited Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando as a young girl and then got further hooked when her high school dance team went yearly for national dance competitions. “That experience solidified the magic for me as it was so many things I loved—having a dream and working hard for it and believing anything was possible.”
So during her sophomore year of college in 2007, Harris applied to the Walt Disney World College Program. “I knew what I really wanted was to be a character performer,” she recalls, so she drove the 400-plus miles from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she attended Louisiana State University to Austin for the auditions. “There was a movement audition first for “fur characters” where we did a dance and animation routine. And then I was asked to stay and read for a ‘face character.'” Harris was selected to play Alice from Alice in Wonderland for the upcoming spring semester—and that’s when the fun really began.
“Once you are selected, you head to ‘princess school,'” Harris explains. Though this isn’t the official name, it’s where characters-in-training go to learn the characters’ backgrounds, practice the official signature, mannerisms, accent, favorite phrases, and learn to apply makeup that will transform them into their designated character. Disney employees also need to know these etiquette rules, too.
As part of her “studies,” Harris watched the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland movie. “I had seen it maybe once or twice as a kid, but once I was cast I watched it countless times—at least 50. I memorized all her favorite phrases, the colorful characters in her world, her British accent, and her mannerisms.”
Harris instantly connected with Alice. “She technically isn’t a princess, so she didn’t have to be poised and polished; rather she is playful and inquisitive,” she says. “Alice is a dynamic character and even restless at times, so bringing her to life with the guests was basically one big improv exercise. Plus speaking with a British accent was a bonus on the fun scale.”
Courtesy Emily Cook Harris
Among many fond memories of her time at WDW, Harris recalls an evening when she was greeting guests at a dinner in Epcot. “The IllumiNations show was going on and a young girl, maybe four or five, was afraid of the fireworks and crying. I knelt down and she and I talked about how fireworks are just like big birthday candles in the sky—a giant tea party for her—and soon her tears stopped and a big smile came over her face. She gave me a hug, her parents thanked me, and I went on my way. Those are the magic moments that still make me smile ten years later,” notes Harris.
Staying on your toes
It’s not uncommon for schedule changes for cast members to happen at the last minute. They may be expected to fill a new role like one of these other great jobs at Disney Parks or go to a different location as previously planned.
That’s what happened the first time Harris played Wendy, from Peter Pan. “Before I knew it, I was trading my blonde Alice wig for Wendy’s brown curly ponytail wig with the bright blue bow and being whisked off through the underground tunnels at the Magic Kingdom,” she says. “I was so nervous and practiced my Wendy-isms the whole way over, and when I emerged in the park, by the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, I literally bumped right into Peter Pan, whom I had never met before, and off we went.”
Harris explains how this was a great life lesson. “You just have to go for it. Jump in before you feel ready and it will work out better than you think!”
Courtesy Emily Cook HarrisNot Just Fun…
As fun as it sounds to dress up, delight children, and work at the “Happiest Place on Earth,” Harris is quick to point out that this internship was still a job and, in fact, very hard work, along with these other secrets Disney employees won’t tell you. “It required a lot of energy, thinking on your feet, and being present with each guest.”
Was it worth it? “Driving to work and passing underneath the Magic Kingdom sign every morning was one of those ‘I can’t believe I get paid to do this’, experiences that I will cherish forever,” Harris says.
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