Workers at the Disney catalog center find out there's nothing magical aboutbeing a telemarketer.

Cast System 

Workers at the Disney catalog center find out there's nothing magical aboutbeing a telemarketer.

On her first day as a telemarketer in Overland Park, Cindy Rella (not her real name) experienced a rather routine workplace predicament: She couldn't find the restroom. No big deal, she thought, just ask a supervisor.

She expected some variation on the usual instruction: "Third door on your left." Instead, she heard, "Go to Snow White, and the Seven Dwarfs will show you."

As Rella recalls, "That's when the appeal and charm started to fade away."

In telemarketing, most workers soon realize that not even $10 an hour can compensate for monotonous shifts, grotesquely energized managers and vague memories of blue sky -- the typical fruit of laboring within the grayest office spaces imaginable.

Yet when it opened in 1991, the Disney Catalog Center in Overland Park sought to revamp this bland occupation. Bringing the Disney spirit to its Midwestern call center, the merchandise juggernaut named hallways "Tigger Alley" and "Imagination Boulevard." The company lined walls with effigies of Disney characters and marked the training area a Little Mermaid zone.

At the call center, up to 450 employees handle phone orders for stuffed movie characters around the clock from callers around the world who assume they've dialed up Fantasyland. But telemarketing plus Sleepy, Dopey, Happy, Sneezy, Grumpy, Doc and Bashful is still just telemarketing.

Like employees at the actual Disney parks, Overland Park telemarketers are referred to as "cast members," a term that's supposed to inspire a teamlike mentality.

That sort of inspiration may work for someone picking up trash in California's Disneyland, or someone heaving from heat exhaustion inside a Goofy mask at Florida's Disney World, but in the mind-starving universe of telemarketing, it takes a lot more than a euphemistic title to sweeten the job.

"They push that stuff quite a bit," says Ryan Adams, a former cast member. "They want to make working there like working at the real Disney, and it isn't close. I mean, you're sitting in front of a computer."

Rella, who does not want to use her real name because she still works for the company, believes the catalog center can go a bit far with its motivation-by-cartoon approach. "When you speak you're supposed to have 'pixie dust' in your voice, a metaphor for enthusiasm, I guess," she says. "I don't know why they couldn't just say that."

In addition to "pixie dust," cast members are also repeatedly reminded of another company maxim: When speaking with a customer, never say something "if Pooh wouldn't say it."

At first, cast members might find the ultra-upbeat atmosphere cute and even inspiring, but it doesn't take long to tire of the job, even when taking orders for the "Pooh Easter Mini Bean Bag Musical Maypole."

"When you first get hired, you're kind of immersed in Disney atmosphere," Rella says. "You're kind of blinded by it. You have these preconceptions about the company. That lasts maybe a few days -- maybe through training."

For some catalog center employees, the job already shy of Fantasia became The Black Hole last month, with the beginning of a new scheduling policy that favors workers with top per-call sales and monitoring scores. Now a lack of pixie dust could cost cast members their shifts.

"I fall into that category myself," Rella says. "I guess if worse comes to worst, I'll take a different shift for a while. If you're a mother, going to work around your schedule, I don't know what you're going to do." Susan Murdy, Disney's vice president of communications, told the Pitch the company would not discuss scheduling policies.

Even as cast members sink into the drudgery of their work, their callers, or "guests," inevitably remind them that they're supposed to be at "the happiest place on earth," not Overland Park.

At 12:01 a.m. during an overnight shift, Rella received a call from a woman wondering whether she knew it was officially Mickey Mouse's birthday (November 18, 1928, in case you wondered).

"Well, are you guys celebrating?" the caller asked.

"Uh, yeah, I guess."

Others ring in from time to time to express their knowledge of Disney trivia and even to quiz cast members with such questions as: "Which animated movie debuted in 1953?" (The anwer is Peter Pan.) Fortunately, daytime representatives can consult an expert hotline for answers ranging from product information to what year The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad came out (1949).

Once, Adams says, he took a call from a kid who wanted to speak with Mickey Mouse.

Just another bored part-time worker in an industry that bans outside reading materials and times breaks to the second, Adams blurted a response no amount of pixie dust could save: "He's on his smoke break."

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