Zach Bailey Turns a College Internship into Disney Career
There’s internships, and then there’s internships.
Zach Bailey ’14 had the latter back in 2012, when he spent a semester as an intern in the Disney College Program. That experience—one that included working with such enter-
tainment icons as George Lucas and J.K. Rowling (yes, that George Lucas and J.K. Rowling)—has launched a “magical” Disney career for Bailey since graduating with a business degree from Siena Heights. He is currently a park operations guest service manager with Hollywood Studios.
Bailey said he’s always wanted to work for Disney, and when he came to Siena Heights, he began to explore internship possibilities.
“I literally had no idea how to start that journey,” he said. “It’s an empire, so how do you even start to work for those guys?”
He discovered the Disney College Program, but learned that Siena Heights was not part of the program. Regardless, he drove to a nearby university to see a presentation about the program, and worked for the next year to try to make that happen.
Enter Matt Ripper. SHU’s assistant professor of Business Management worked to rewrite the business program’s internship program to help make that internship possible for Bailey.
“He really went above and beyond for changing that program,” Bailey said of Ripper, whom he calls one of his mentors. “Matt found a reason to make that happen. … For him to do that for me was absolutely amazing.”
Bailey started in the Disney College Program in the fall 2012 as a merchandise assistant at the Emporium in the Magic Kingdom. But he didn’t stay there long.
“I was trying to learn how to move up in the organization,” said Bailey, who had years of managerial experience at Busch’s Fresh Food Markets around Michigan.
One of those ways was networking. He met someone in merchandise presentation who invited him to “job shadow” a store that was opening in the new Fantasyland.
“I didn’t realize that at the time he was the head of merchandising pre-sentation at Walt Disney World,” Bailey said.
The new shop, called Bonjour Souvenirs and Gifts, was patterned after the movie “Beauty and the Beast.” After Bailey watched as the design was finished, Disney executives visited the store and offered their opinion.
“They thought it was terrible, and we were getting a chewing for the store being wrong,” he said.
Then, one of the executives turned to Bailey and asked, “Who are you?”
“I said, ‘Just a college intern,’” he recalled.
After explaining that he was just on a job shadow, the executive surprised Bailey by asking, “Do you have an opinion about the store?”
Bailey said he initially balked at answering, but the executive insisted, and even gave him a pen and paper and asked him to show what his plan would be. Bailey obliged.
“The guy took a look (at my plan) and he said, ‘I like what you are doing here. Take a couple of hours, get something to eat and write up a store (plan) and come back to me and we’ll take a look.’ The next thing I know, we redesign (the store) to my design.”
And just what part of Bailey’s plan impressed the executives?
“Theming is what Disney does best,” he said. “The products we had in the store didn’t make sense with the theming of the store. … I saw the “Beauty and the Beast” movie a thousand times, and I know what that shot looks like.”
Bailey said he used an interactive, experiential shopping approach.
“That was a piece that sparked their interest,” he said of the executives. “We could actually do interactive displays through merchandise that will actually create an experience for our guests.”
Bailey was soon promoted from college intern to professional intern, and began to oversee the design of other Disney parks stores. One in particular brought him in contact with Star Wars creator George Lucas.
“We were working on all sorts of presentation work for Star Wars,” Bailey said. “(Lucas) was coming in and was talking to us a lot and telling us what his vision was and what he wanted to see. I just kept telling him … ‘ideally what we want to do is get these families to interact with these displays. Your movies are amazing, but understand that when these folks watched your movies, they had an experience.’ … George said, ‘Show me what that actually means.’ ”
So Bailey came up with a “build your own light saber” concept, which immediately sold Lucas.
“(He said) ‘this is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen,’ ” Bailey said of Lucas’ reaction. “That helped me get a lot of kudos from him. … I still stay in contact with him.”
Not long after working with Lucas, he received an email from someone claiming to be J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame.
“I thought it was a joke, so I deleted (the email),” Bailey said. “I got it probably like six more times. Finally, there was a number, and to give her a call at this number. So I call, and to be honest, I was actually being pretty mean. I said, ‘What do you want?’”
The person on the other line wanted him to come to Universal Studios, where the new Harry Potter theme park was being completed.
Still skeptical, he drove over to Universal and went to the main gate.
“Sure enough, I go to the back of Universal, and I ended up meeting Rowling,” Bailey said. “She said she heard about my work through Disney, and asked if I could help them on the merchandise side. So I helped them with the designs, and she wrote me a pretty paycheck, and that helped me pay some tuition at Siena.”
When the internship finished, Bailey returned to Siena Heights to complete his business degree. But when he graduated, Disney immediately brought him back as a management intern. He resumed his merchandising display work, and then was asked to run the show “Fantasmic,” which was under performing at the time. Within months, he said the show became the top revenue grossing one at Disney.
A few months later, he was given a full-time position at Hollywood Stu-dios, where he oversees the guest experience for the entire park.
“I still work closely with merchandise, but the sole purpose of my job now is to drive 100 percent guest excellence,” Bailey said.
In May 2016, Bailey had the special honor of working directly with Great Britain’s Prince Harry on the Invictus Games that were conducted at Walt Disney World in Orlando.
“Even Disney wasn’t sure what I would be doing,” said Bailey of the Invictus Games, which are an international Paralympic-style multi-sport event for wounded or ailing armed services personnel from around the world.
“It was one of those moments that you were going to go in and make this position up as you go.”
As a nation liaison, Bailey took a leadership role in welcoming the ath-letes, their families and the many international dignitaries to Disney. Then, as liaison for Australia, Bailey made sure his guests had the “magical” experience Disney promises. He helped organize a parade for the athletes and families in Walt Disney World, as well as set up a day trip to the Kennedy Space Center. And he got a chance to work directly with First Lady Michelle Obama, former President George W. Bush and actor Morgan Freeman. But he said his experience with Prince Harry stood out.
“The guy is phenomenal,” Bailey said of the prince, who organized the games in 2014. “He’s a very humble guy. He puts faith in people and he’s not a micromanager by any stretch of the imagination. He really does care about people. He would always ask me, ‘Zach, who’s this athlete?’
“Definitely a guy who really understands servant leadership and who could completely care less about titles. He’s all about helping people.”
Bailey made a name for himself during the games when he helped an Australian athlete who was possibly suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder attack during the opening ceremonies’ fireworks display.
“When the fireworks went off, she’s shaking like a leaf. She’s crying and a big, big mess,” Bailey said of the athlete. “I realized something was happening.”
He helped take her out of that situation until help arrived.
“By the time the military doctors came in, we had calmed her down and everything was good,” Bailey said.
The U.S. Ambassador to Australia, Joe Hockey, found out what Bailey had done and invited him to a VIP dinner the next night. During the dinner, Bailey was brought on stage and honored for his effort with some special ceremonial coins.
“It was hard to put it all into words,” Bailey said of the Invictus experience. “These folks have really been through hell and back, and for us to be able to do anything for them is just phenomenal.”
Back to his “normal” duties at Hollywood Studios, Bailey said Siena Heights helped him realize his ultimate dream.
“Through Siena, I owe a lot of my success,” he said. “It’s the reason that got me here.”
And what’s his favorite Disney park?
“Magic Kingdom,” he said. “That’s where my journey began. … The fact that they pay me to do this is hilarious. I could do it for the rest of my life.
“To infinity and beyond! That’s the plan.”