Disney has a lot to celebrate right now.
The Walt Disney Company just kicked off its 100th anniversary. Walt Disney World is wrapping up its 18-month-long 50th anniversary celebration. Highly anticipated rides like Tron Lightcycle / Run and Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind are significantly upping Disney World’s thrill factor. Disney Cruise Line is adding a new ship to its fleet and preparing to welcome guests to its newest private island, Lighthouse Point, next year. And Disney World recently struck a deal with its six cast member unions to raise the minimum wage from $15 to $18 an hour by the end of 2023.
These are all huge milestones. However, there is another milestone that is just as important and directly influences each of the achievements mentioned above: For the first time in Disney’s history, all four Disney World theme parks are being led by women.
From the opening of Disney World’s newest land, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, to overseeing the multiyear transformation of Epcot, these women have put countless hours into making Disney World what it is today.
What better time than Women’s History Month to celebrate their accomplishments within the company, learn what inspires them, see how they inspire each other and give them the fanfare they so rightfully deserve?
TPG recently had the chance to speak with Jackie Swisher, vice president of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Sarah Riles, vice president of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, about their part in this monumental moment in company history.
Together with Melissa Valiquette, vice president of Magic Kingdom, and Kartika Rodriguez, vice president of Epcot, these women are setting a new precedent for Disney leadership.
The path to the top
Though they are each at the helm of different parks now, each woman has held a number of roles during her tenure at Disney. Riles and Swisher both began their careers in Disney’s professional internship program with industrial engineering roles. At Disney, this can mean everything from planning new attractions to day-to-day park operations.
“Industrial engineering at Disney is so unique,” Swisher told TPG. “During my internship, I fell in love with being a part of Disney’s vision of creating happiness.”
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As Swisher progressed through various back-of-house roles in operations, she became interested in bringing happiness to Disney guests in a leadership role. “I knew I could use my skill set to create a broader influence by leading a team and bringing happiness to guests that way,” Swisher said.
She gained the knowledge she needed by taking on roles leading Disney World’s textile services and worldwide safety services teams before landing her current role as vice president at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Riles, on the other hand, credits her path at Disney to her sense of curiosity. “If a job opened, I raised my hand, and I went for it,” she said.
This led her to roles in costuming, attractions, vacation planning and others before returning to lead the industrial engineering team. “One of the best things about working for Disney is that you can try so many different paths and find what you truly love to do,” she added.
Their colleague Valiquette started her career at Disney as a guest relations hostess at Magic Kingdom. After moving up the ranks — including a stint as vice president of Epcot — she came full circle to her role as vice president of Magic Kingdom.
When asked if they had any role models that made them see an esteemed leadership role like the ones they hold now as a possibility, both Swisher and Riles credited their mothers as primary sources of inspiration.
Swisher’s mom ensured she and her siblings knew the sky was the limit. “My mom spent a lot of time making sure we knew that we could do anything,” she shared.
Riles’ mother similarly encouraged her. “My mom kept us very focused on school and working hard and made sure I knew that any door could open for me,” she said.
After landing jobs at the Most Magical Place on Earth, Swisher and Riles felt proud to work for an organization with a strong history of women in leadership roles. “We’ve had women in leadership roles within the company since the early days of our careers,” Swisher said. “Seeing women in those roles made us realize it could also be possible for us and gave us an opportunity to observe other female leaders,” she added.
Some notable female leaders include Erin Wallace, the former head of Magic Kingdom, and Meg Crofton, the former president of Walt Disney World.
Advice for future leaders
In that vein, Riles and Swisher shared some advice for other women interested in leadership roles. “You spend so much time at your job. You have to find something you are passionate about and look forward to when you wake up every day,” Riles said. “Find your strengths and pursue a career that plays to your gifts.”
Swisher agreed and added that you should always be asking for feedback. “Ask your peers and leaders for feedback,” she said, “Ask how you can continue to grow and improve.”
Now, they — along with Valiquette and Rodriguez — have the opportunity and the responsibility to inspire the next generation of female leadership at Disney.
The women work in an extremely collaborative and supportive environment where they can lean on and learn from one another. They all have different gifts and skill sets, and they recognize that together they are stronger.
These women have made significant achievements, but Riles hopes they will be remembered for more than breaking barriers.
“I hope our legacy is that we were all united as one team of women,” Riles said.
It’s always inspiring to meet strong female Disney characters like Merida and Tiana in the parks. However, these five women are real-world examples that dreams are more than fairy tales. With a lot of hard work – and a little pixie dust – you can make your dreams come true.