Disney Connection: Alum plays big role at Paris parks
Six years ago, when Steve Sulaski ’87 was in charge of guest and VIP relations at Disneyland Paris, his boss gave him an important job: Keep an eye on Michael Jackson.
The King of Pop, his children and their tutor were coming to the theme park for a private four-day visit, and Disney wanted things to go smoothly. So there was Sulaski, watching Jackson and his family dining and other intimate moments. One night, as the Disney team shot off a private fireworks show just for Jackson’s family, the pop star told Sulaski what he already knew.
“And he says, ‘You’ve got the best job a person could ever have,’” Sulaski said.
Sulaski’s life in the Magic Kingdom began at Illinois State University in 1986, when the business administration major studied abroad in Angers, France. As a child, Sulaski’s bedroom had a map on the wall and a radio on the bedside table, which he used to try and tune into stations from farther and farther away. At Illinois State, the Peoria native, who spent his first year at Monmouth College playing football, was always most at home with the international student community.
“I always wanted to travel, to see different things,” said Sulaski, now 47.
Sulaski returned to the United States later in 1986 and worked briefly in St. Louis before finding his way back to France permanently, where his girlfriend at the time—now his wife—was living. “When you’re 23 years old, it sounded like a fun thing to do,” Sulaski recalled.
Sulaski lived in downtown Paris and was working at a small car company in 1990 when a coworker suggested he apply at what was then called Euro Disney, which was still under development. Sulaski, who could speak French and English, got an assistant manager job right away, doing hiring, purchasing and giving visits to government officials. There were only 600 employees then. Now, during the busy season, the park about 35 minutes east of Paris employs more than 14,000.
Sulaski has done stints on various Disneyland Paris projects, from setting up the ticketing system to developing the FastPass line-management system. The Redbird is now senior operations manager of the parks.
While the Jackson family visit was an “interesting experience,” Sulaski’s most rewarding role came in 2005, when he was put in charge of the park’s daily parade. It’s a big responsibility, with oversight of about 150 people, including actors, make-up artists, dance captains and drivers.
The average age for the parade staff was 21. Not everyone spoke the same language, and emotions ran high.
“There were a lot of passionate, energetic and artistic people that needed to be managed,” said Sulaski, who drove a float on occasion. From that vantage point, he got a good look at all that mattered—the look on a smiling kid’s face as the parade passed by.
“It’s a lot about organizational skills, a lot of respecting deadlines, building a team of people you can rely on,” he said. “Because every day, you’re putting on a show. Every day you’re doing something to make people happy.”
Disneyland Paris, comprised of Disneyland Park and the newer Walt Disney Studios Park, draws more than 15 million visitors every year, making it one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. Disneyland Paris celebrated its 20th anniversary last year.
Those 20 years haven’t been without challenges, most notably an up-and-down financial performance. That means Sulaski and other employees are under a lot of pressure to be efficient, especially when it comes to labor and when to hire and let seasonal workers go. And in France, unions are more commonplace than in the U.S., putting labor relations, safety and working conditions among the top issues at Disneyland Paris, Sulaski said.
“But any day, I can step out of my office and watch someone watch the parade, and I know why I’m doing my job,” Sulaski said.
Pressure to be efficient means Sulaski is often talking shop with other theme parks around the world, looking for solutions to universal problems in the tourism and hospitality industry. That information-sharing goes both ways, as Sulaski found out when Disneyland Paris officials helped London prepare for the 2012 Summer Olympics.
In addition to ticketing and signage, the Olympics organizers were “very interested” in how Disneyland Paris trained its younger employees to be outgoing, and how the theme park managed “guest flow” and decided how wide certain walking paths should be. London is notoriously rainy, and Disneyland Paris’ delegation was able to share tips about how to keep guests happy during a downpour disruption by creating water-based entertainment—playing “Singing in the Rain” music, for example, or doing pretty much anything having to do with rain.
“It was a very enriching experience, which peaked during the Games when we saw some of the ideas that we suggested were actually put in place,” Sulaski said.
He travels often to Florida and California, home to Disney’s two flagship resorts. The biggest differences between the American sites and Disneyland Paris, he said, are the cultural, language and behavioral differences of the guests and employees. Sulaski’s guests come from all over Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa, while employees from more than 100 nationalities speak more than 20 languages.
Everyone’s habits are unique. Middle Eastern guests don’t eat pork or drink alcohol, while Muslim employees are fasting throughout the day for Ramadan. German guests eat a lot of meat for breakfast, while Spanish guests don’t eat dinner until well after 8 p.m. Plus, Europeans tend to travel on staggered vacation periods, not to mention the diverse spending patterns from guest to guest.
“That means that we are constantly adapting, adjusting and learning from each other,” Sulaski said.
He returned to ISU last summer with his two teenage children, including a son who is a senior in high school and eager to study in the U.S. someday.
Sulaski’s Redbird roots run deep. While a student, he shared an apartment with his brother, also a student. His sister attended Illinois State too, and his uncle, William Sulaski, was chairman of the Board of Trustees from 1996 to 2003.
When they were young, Sulaski recalls bringing his children to work with him in the “City Hall” area of Disneyland Paris, at the front of the park.
“On the playground, they had a lot of street cred, when you can say your father works at Disney. They got a lot of mileage out of that,” Sulaski said.
He traces his journey at Disney back to his decision to study abroad while an Illinois State student.
“Because of this wonderful opportunity provided by Illinois State and the help from my professors, my life has been truly enriched.”
DISNEYLAND: A MAGICAL HISTORY
Disneyland remains one of the most-visited tourist destinations in the U.S. and tops the list in Europe. The timeline reveals milestone moments as Walt’s dream became a reality.
July 1955: Disneyland opens to the public in California, with general admission $1 and attractions costing 10- to 35-cents.
December 1957: The park welcomes its 10 millionth guest.
1961: Tinker Bell is added to the Fantasy in the Sky show.
June 1965: Construction begins on It’s a Small World.
June 1972: Main Street Eletrical Parade debuts.
March 1987: The Walt Disney Co. signs the Euro Disneyland Project agreement with French government officials to create the resort.
November 1990: Dumbo Flying Elephants replaced in California park, with elephants set to go to Disneyland Paris.
April 1992: Disneyland Paris Park officially opens to the public.
October 1994: Following its first financial restructuring earlier in the year, Euro Disneyland changes its name to Disneyland Paris.
November 1999: Introduction of the FastPass system in California park.
March 2002: The resort’s second park, Walt Disney Studios Park, opens its doors in Paris.
February 2005: Another financial restructuring wraps up, with money set aside for construction of four new Paris attractions: Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast, Cars Race Rally, Crush’s Coaster and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.
August 2008: Disneyland Paris celebrates its 200 millionth guest.
April 2012: Disneyland Paris begins yearlong 20th anniversary celebration.