Do you believe in magic?

I learned how to be a doctor by working at Disney World

As I make my way through medical school, I keep running into lessons I learned working for The Mouse.


In the spring after college, I had the opportunity to take the most magical Gap Year ever: working at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

My experience at Disney was an instant icebreaker on rotations and always comes up during interviews. Yes, there are tunnels under the Magic Kingdom. No, I’ve never seen Walt Disney’s frozen head (that’s definitely a myth). But more importantly, as I make my way through medical school and closer to that coveted knee-length white coat, I keep running into lessons I learned working for The Mouse that I feel are deeply rooted in a successful career as a physician.

The Four Keys

Everything at Disney World begins and ends with the “Four Keys”: Safety, Courtesy, Show and Efficiency. The Keys are a tiered system; all four are essential, but Disney employees, or Cast Members, have to apply them in a certain order. Safety is the most important, followed by Courtesy, Show and finally Efficiency.

To me, the Four Keys are directly applicable to medicine.

Safety is obvious. Our first priority should always be patient safety. Courtesy is also easily apparent and something we should strive for in every patient interaction. But what about Show? How does our ability to “stay in character and play the part” relate to our duty to care for our patients?

As physicians, we’re constantly creating Show. Our costume might be a white coat, a stethoscope or sharp business casual attire, while our professionalism and bedside manner represent the character we play. Without these elements, our patients would not put their faith in us as they do to make critical decisions for them.

It is significant to me that Disney places Efficiency last among the Four Keys. In the business of medicine, there’s an unrelenting demand for efficiency—increased value, decreased costs. But if we prioritize Efficiency above Safety, Courtesy and Show, the results can be disastrous for our patients and medicine as a whole.

The Disney philosophy reminds us that we should always take time to understand and meet guest needs even if it hurts the pace of overall production. This ideal would be well-adopted by medicine, as even a few extra moments with patients can make an enormous difference to them.

Keeping your smile when things get hard

Unfortunately, working at Disney World isn’t all magic and dreams coming true.

During the extremely busy holidays or the boiling humidity of the Central Florida summer, shifts can be lengthy, exhausting and frequently disheartening. I’ve never been yelled at with more raw fury and vitriol than I was by angry guests who were 35 minutes late for their Fast Pass. I struggle even to imagine Master Yoda from Star Wars keeping his serene composure in the face of such an enraged person and asking, “How can I make your experience better?”

And yet, despite all that, I learned to keep my smile. I saw tons of redeeming moments Disney Cast Members call “magic” or “pixie dust”—little miracles that reaffirmed my belief in the special significance of the experience we were creating for guests. I developed resiliency and the ability to separate my feelings from my “performance,” despite sometimes feeling less-than-magical on the inside.

This skill is vital to physicians. Before COVID-19, they were being bombarded daily with the debilitating attrition of the clinical setting. Now, they are fighting a pandemic, often with limited PPE and resources. Even when faced with exhaustion and disillusionment, a physician must be able to recharge themselves with the pixie dust of their profession: a difference made, a life saved, a patient’s gratitude.

See through their eyes

Ultimately, my mission when I was at Disney is the same one I hope to carry into my career as an osteopathic physician: to view each guest through their own eyes as the living center of their own story. When you’re working at Disney World every day, it’s easy to get numb to the experience. You forget that for the guest, this could be a trip they saved for years to take.

It’s the same thing when you’re seeing patients in the clinic or hospital. What might be a busier-than-usual Tuesday for you could be the most important encounter of the year for the patient. Perhaps their entire life. I learned to always try to imagine how I might want to be treated in the same situation, and to meet every patient with patience, compassion and understanding.

Follow your dreams

Working at Disney may not be the typical job for someone about to start medical school, but my time there gave me a unique and invaluable set of skills that taught me a lot about how to be a physician.

To the premeds out there who might be dissuaded from doing something unusual because it doesn’t seem to be medically related: I encourage you to, as Walt Disney frequently said, “follow your dreams.” You never know where they might lead you.

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  1. J Michael Finley DO

    Dr. Shumway – thanks for sharing your WDW experience ….. valuable insight for all. As an Associate Dean for a developing COM, I will use your story as EB practice wisdom for our rising colleague who are beginning their professional journeys. Thank you again. Respectfully, J. Michael Finley DO

  2. John Ervin MD, MBA

    MSIV Shumway,

    Thank you for your article. I grew up at Disney World and I completely agree…..I’m using your article for physician coaching to prevent and treat burnout.

    Good luck in the Match.

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