‘The happiest place on earth’

By Jamie Creamer

Hort alum has spent career helping create Disney magic

Tanya Peak Smith is crazy about Disney World. She fell for the place as a kid, the first time she passed through the Magic Kingdom’s gates and gazed in wide-eyed wonder at Cinderella’s magnificent castle, and no matter how many return trips she and her family made from their Ozark, Alabama, home to the Imagination Capital of the world, the Disney magic never wore off.

It still hasn’t, not to this day. Even though Smith makes the 45-minute drive from her home in Groveland, Florida, to Disney every weekday morning, she can’t help it: She’s still a threat to fall under the enchanting spell of the Disney global theme-park kingdom’s crown jewel.

Smith, obviously, works at Disney World—although, as she says, “work” is a misnomer.

“‘Work’ is ‘work,’ and this is too much fun to be work,” she says as she walks briskly down Disney’s Main Street. “Working here is the most fun you can have and get paid to do it.”

If you work at Disney, you’re not an employee; you’re a cast member. And Smith is one who, for a quarter of a century, has been helping the Florida resort live up to its reputation as “the happiest place on Earth.”

In fact, for her and the roughly 70,000 cast members on the Florida vacationland’s payroll, priority Number One is to provide exceptional service and create magic for each and every one of the nearly 30 million guests who visit each year. For cast members, creating magic for guests is magic in itself.

“Honestly the most magical part of Disney to me is seeing the smiles it brings to our guests’ faces, young and old, and knowing that I had a small part in making them smile,” she says.

Smith’s part, however, isn’t a small one. Since 2012, the 1991 Auburn University horticulture alumna has served as general manager of the Walt Disney Company’s Pest Management Global Initiatives, which means she heads up pest management programs, not only at Disney World but at Disneyland and at Disney theme parks and resorts in Paris, Hong Kong and Shanghai as well.

But wait: There’s more. When other Disney enterprises—including Disney Vacation Club in Hawaii, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Studios in Burbank and Disney Stores in the Big Apple—have pest-related issues, she’s called in. She’s the troubleshooter.

Pretty impressive position for someone who joined the cast in 1992 as a Disney Horticulture gardener stationed in Epcot.

The Epcot assignment was most fitting, because it was in that futuristic theme park that Smith realized her calling in life. She was only a middle-schooler at the time, but the exotic plants, the intricate landscapes and the bounty of fruit and vegetable crops the park featured, struck a chord with her.

“I visited The Land [in Epcot] and fell in love with horticulture,” she says. “All the different avenues horticulture could take were just so interesting. That’s when I first realized I wanted to have a career in horticulture.”

It was such a defining moment in her life that, when she returned to Ozark, she wrote Disney World a letter about her Land experience. Much to her surprise, Disney responded.

“I received a polite letter back, thanking me for my interest and telling me to contact them once I graduated high school,” she says.

Wow. Would that not be the ultimate? To get a job at Disney World when she grew up.

“I made up my mind right then,” she says. “I was going to get a degree in horticulture, and I was going to work for Disney.”

She never wavered from that decision throughout her high school years. Not even after discovering that, if she wanted to pursue that four-year horticulture degree at an in-state school, she had but one option: Auburn.

For a teen who had grown up screaming Roll Tide Roll in a family full of dyed-in-the-wool Bama fans, might that cause her to rethink? Absolutely not. So it was that, in the fall of 1987, she headed north to Auburn, leaving behind a host of dismayed relatives grappling with the reality that one of their own was a traitor.

Smith settled in nicely at Auburn, and the College of Agriculture and Department of Horticulture fit her like a Mickey glove. The more knowledge she soaked up in classes both inside and outside Funchess Hall and elsewhere on campus, the more committed she became to her Disney World dream.

She even spent the summer between her junior and senior years in Orlando as a Disney Professional Intern stationed in Disney Horticulture’s pest control/integrated pest management unit.

“Disney was just starting to utilize ‘good bugs’ to combat ‘bad bugs,’ and my work was with tiny parasitic wasps that lay their eggs inside other insects,” she says. “That was an eye-opening experience for me and also for [Auburn horticulture] department.

In 1991, she was awarded that long-aimed-for bachelor’s degree in horticulture and went straight to work—not in the Sunshine State but in the Steel City.

“At Auburn, I was really focused on the landscape design aspect and loved the thought of designing gardens and taking into account all the factors that exist in planning a landscape to make it a success, so instead of Disney, I looked elsewhere for a job,” she says.

She found one as a floriculturist with a Birmingham landscape company and specialized in designing flower beds for the company’s commercial clients. She enjoyed the work, and it was a great learning opportunity for a new college graduate, but . . . it wasn’t Disney World.

“Honestly, I missed the Disney experience,” she says. “So after about a year in Birmingham, I decided to apply for jobs at Disney.”

It didn’t take long. She applied, flew down for an interview and got hired. By July of ’92, she was back in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, this time as a full-time Disney gardener in Epcot. It was official: She was a bona fide member of the cast.

Cast members at Disney enjoy a slew of perks, but one that Smith values most is the internal job mobility. Consider that Disney World has 3,700-plus different job classifications ranging from accountant to zookeeper. Cast members can change roles, and even totally change careers, all within the same company.

“You never get bored or burned out working at Disney,” Smith says. “You have so many opportunities to take on more responsibilities, work in new areas and even move into management.”

Her first job move came in 1993, when she switched from a gardener in Horticulture to horticulture technician in Pest Management.

“It was a promotion, and, for me, it was a next step,” she says.

Every job move means major changes in tasks and, often, lifestyle. Such was the case in Smith’s shift to pest management.

“I started out working third-shift pest control, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and that was quite an adjustment,” she admits. “I worked that shift for seven months, and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

“Being in the park at night, with no guests, is surreal,” she says. “Talk about magical.”

Sometimes, the enchanting aura that envelops Disney can lead to storybook romances. It did for Smith, then Peak, when she met fellow cast member Ken Smith. She was horticulture; he was an arborist. Perfect match.

“We got married and then right after that, he left,” she says. No, not her; Disney. He left Disney and embarked on what has become a highly successful career in sales. The Smiths now have two teens, Tyler, a high school quarterback and varsity baseball player, and Taylor, 13, a budding artist and girls basketball and softball player.

“When the kids were younger, we visited Disney a lot,” she says. “As they’ve gotten older, weekends fill up with ball games and parties, but we still make time to come out together several times a year.

“They love that their mom works at Disney World.”

Throughout Smith’s colorful Disney career, her creativity, innovation, dedication and professionalism have merited her major awards and honors—including a U.S. patent that she was awarded in 2012 for her ingenious “Trap for Crawling Insects.” That invention, which has a heat source that attracts, traps and exterminates such pests, earned her the Walt Disney Company’s Disney Inventor Award, too.

She also has received the Walt Disney Chairman’s Special Award for Creativity and Innovation and the company’s most esteemed honor: the Disney Partners in Excellence Award. Her latest recognition came in February, when the College of Agriculture presented her the 2017Alumni Award for the Department of Horticulture. Dave Williams, horticulture department head and professor, said Smith “represents not only the best of Disney, but the very best of the Auburn Family.

“Imagine winning the Inventor Award and being recognized for creativity and innovation by what is arguably the most creative and innovative company in the world,” Williams says. “Tanya’s a living testimony of what it means to take an excellent Auburn education and, through talent, hard work and dedication, rise to world-class leadership.”

Tags: Feature

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