by John Gassman
Someone once said, “Life is full of outstanding experiences.” My most recent came at work, when on, July 16, 2019, I was given the highest award Disney can give to an employee: the Walt Disney Legacy Award. Winners of this prestigious award are nominated by other cast members. Each winner is chosen based upon how they model three of Walt Disney’s legacy of excellence criteria: dream, create, and inspire while in the workplace.
Those individuals who nominate a winner have to justify everything in writing and give examples of how the nominee dreams, creates and inspires. Committees choose the winners, which turn out to be half of 1% of the entire global Disney Company. We have about 450 people working at the Walt Disney Travel Company. Three of us won the award.
I’ve worked for Disney Travel booking vacation packages since 2003. I was the first totally blind person hired by the Disneyland resort and perhaps even the entire Disney Company. We literally had to figure things out as we went along in the beginning of my time with Disney. We all worked together to make the reservation system accessible. An understanding group of Disney people and the JAWS for Windows screen reader have allowed me to become extremely successful through the years. I’ve trained 17 blind new hires in my time with Disney. I also test the new software we use to be sure it is compatible with JAWS. I hope that eventually other Disney areas will hire good, qualified blind individuals, and I hope that I can help make that happen before I retire.
I still have trouble believing that I won this very important award! Everything culminated in July 2019 with the announcement. I’m so thankful that my two brothers, Larry and Kevin Gassman, my sister Lisa Millhauser, sister-in-law Debbie Gassman, niece and nephew Nikki and Eddie Millhauser could be there to experience it with me.
When the award is given, the family is taken into the break room just as the name is announced. They had to hide my family until the last moment, because Larry is my twin brother and they didn’t want the rest of the cast to see him and give it away ahead of time. If I had been paying more attention, I would have heard the reaction when they saw him just as my name was announced. I understand that a cast member saw them in the parking garage and knew instantly that I had won.
I was presented with a beautiful plaque, a photo of Walt Disney and a special name tag. Anna, my manager, gave me the following description: the nametag is all blue with a thin gold outline around the entire nametag. At the top of the nametag is a silver pin of sorcerer Mickey with a small diamond in the star right above his outstretched hand. Below the pin is my name (in white lettering) and below that is Anaheim, CA, also in white lettering. In gold lettering below the hometown are the words Dream – Create – Inspire. I’m proud to be able to wear that name tag each day at work.
The other Legacy Award winner and I were also presented each with a 25-pound cake — mine was chocolate and Alondra’s, lemon. After the families had their share, the rest was given to the remaining cast and was devoured in no time flat.
It was an honor to have won the award and to actually be thought of as somebody who models his work life true to the legacy of Walt Disney. Since the award was announced, I have had my photo taken in Disneyland at Sleeping Beauty Castle, been interviewed twice for Disney Publications and once for FSCast Freedom Scientific’s monthly podcast. I’ve also been interviewed for AIRACast, which is a podcast produced by AIRA.
I think that every Disney cast member wonders what it might be like to win this award. I never dreamed I’d win it. You don’t orchestrate a plan for winning it. You just do your job and if you are lucky and it’s meant to be, it might happen. I know that my life will never be the same and that winning the Walt Disney Legacy Award is my proudest moment in 19 years with Disney.
Let me tell you about the culmination of this story, which is the over-the-top dinner given to Walt Disney Legacy Award winners. Winners at Walt Disney World and those in Europe had their dinner in February of 2020. Those of us at the Disneyland Resort as well as Disney Asia were scheduled to have our dinner in March of 2020. But the pandemic shut down the resort and hotels, along with our dinner. One of the variants put an end to the January 2022 attempt. So it was rescheduled for May 25, 2022. We were allowed to invite one guest, and I invited my twin brother Larry.
The award dinner took place in the ballroom of the Disneyland Hotel. Alexa Garcia, who formerly was a Disney ambassador and friend from Disney Travel, now on the events planning team, took me and Larry into the Disneyland Hotel ballroom, where we were able to sit and enjoy food served at the reception.
I was given a special new badge to wear. The name tag is an all-black background. In the top left corner in bold writing it says John; below it in small writing, it says Gassman. Others from Travel Company were there, including Chris Mortensen, the director, along with my award-winning colleagues Alondra Preciado and Darwin Manzala.
The entertainment was unbelievable! A special song written for the Legacy dinner was performed. I don’t know if it was brand-new for 2022 or used in previous Legacy dinners.
We had brief presentations from Josh D’Amaro, Disney Parks’ Experiences and Products team, whom we met and had pictures taken with; and Ken Potrock, President of the Disneyland Resort.
Performers included a live Disney band plus soloists and a chorus, including Josh Strickland from Disney’s original Tarzan on Broadway; Kissy Simmons, who played Nala in Disney’s Lion King on Broadway; and Jodi Benson from The Little Mermaid, who in my opinion stole the show. She can still sing and emote just as well as she did in the movie.
The following day we met friends for a character breakfast at Goofy’s Kitchen, then spent the rest of the day enjoying the parks at the Disneyland Resort.
I think of how lucky I’ve been to work for Disney for 19 years. Everything the name Walt Disney represents is embodied in the Legacy picture and plaque. I proudly wear the name tag to work each day. In a few months, we will welcome several new recipients to the award ranks. It’s a lot like welcoming a new baby brother or sister to the family. I know I’ve grown since winning in July of 2019, and I am sure new winners will feel the same way.
My favorite two biographies on Walt Disney are available on BARD:
Bob Thomas, “Walt Disney: An American Original,” DB11548
Neal Gabler, “Walt Disney – The Triumph of the American Imagination,” DB63503