This story originally appeared on Business Insider.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Gianna Alexis, a former crew member of Disney Cruise Line. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
I was three years old when I sailed on my first Disney cruise, and I thought it was the coolest thing. It was the best vacation ever, so I went every few years after that.
I had always been excited about the idea of working for Disney, so I applied for a job at Disney Cruise Line in 2017. When I found out I got the job, I was so excited I cried.
Before work started, Disney took us through training that was designed to get us excited about the work. On the last day of training, we were told to get ready at 4 a.m. Then, the company had a sniffer dog to smell our suitcases, which I didn’t expect at all — it all seemed so different because the only experience I had embarking on a cruise ship was from a guest’s point of view.
I was first hired as a merchandise person to work in the shops, and then the company moved me to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, which was a total dream of mine. This boutique is the place where kids between three and 12 get makeovers — we do their hair, makeup, and nails.
A lot of girls that I did hair for would come back the next day just to see me. In their eyes, I was like their fairy godmother — that made me feel it was the most magical job that I’ve ever had.
In addition to that job, I also helped workers bring food, merchandise, and toys to the shops. I didn’t know the job would be physically demanding — I thought I would just be doing kids’ hair, makeup, and nails.
I quit after just four months
As a young 24-year-old, I went into this job blindly and wasn’t fully prepared.
I worked from 8:30 a.m. until 9 or 10 p.m. Before starting this job, I didn’t, or couldn’t, conceptualize what an 80-hour work week without a day off would look like at all. There was no work-life balance.
I had so little time to myself. In my downtime, I didn’t even want to watch TV or movies. Once I got 30 minutes into watching, I’d rather just sleep because I was so tired — sleeping had become my priority. The only “me time” I would have for myself was a quick sheet mask in my room, and that’s all. My room was so small that I could nearly touch both walls with outstretched arms.
I got a stress fracture in one of my feet from standing 80 hours a week in my costume shoes — it got so hard for me to stand. With a normal job, you can call in sick if you’re not feeling well. But for me, if I didn’t show up to work, my manager could come downstairs from the shop to see me what was wrong, how long I would need off, and if I needed medical attention or if I was faking it.
Working on the cruise ship meant my living space was also my workspace. Managers and coworkers could spot us whenever we were out at night. I had to be “on” a lot of the time, and it played a big role in how quickly I burned out.
In the fourth month of my contract, I felt defeated and exhausted to the point where I decided to quit.
The Disney Dream cruise ship at sea. David Roark/photographer via BI
I was making less than the minimum wage
I worked a minimum of 70 hours weekly and got paid $423 a week, so it was about $6 an hour. There was no overtime rate at all.
We did receive benefits, including shipboard medical care, complimentary Disney theme-park admission, discounts at selected resort hotels, and Disney merchandise at worldwide Disney locations.
Many cruise members come from all over the world. They’re making US dollars and sometimes even making more than doctors or lawyers in their home countries. One girl from Portugal had worked on the ships for 10 years. She loved it because she was making a great living for herself and for her family overseas — she regularly sent them money.
The cruise life was totally worth it to her, but for me, there were other higher-paying jobs I could have easily applied to. Some crew members on the ship thought I was taking a job from someone for whom it could have been more beneficial, like someone who needed to support their family in another country.
We don’t eat the same food as the guests
The crew members eat in the crew mess, a large cafeteria where breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served. There is a small salad bar and some cooked options. For breakfast, I usually ate hard-boiled eggs. For lunch and dinner, I ate veggie burger patties (I was a vegetarian at the time). During holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, we had specialty food items like cake and ice cream.
Sometimes, the company threw parties for us. For example, if our service got high marks on guest surveys and feedback, that’s when we got to have the better-tasting guest food. I remember they brought jalapeño poppers one time.
The Buena Vista Theatre inside the Disney Dream cruise ship. Matt Stroshane/photographer via BI
Not everyone on the ship has the same freedoms
Not everyone has the same freedoms in what they can do or where they can go on the boat. Everything above the deck we lived on was a “privilege” — we weren’t allowed to roam the ship freely.
If we wanted to go to spots like the movie theater, we had to call our manager beforehand and get it approved in writing. If the cruise was very full, we might need to free up room for guests. I worked in the shops, and our team was a small group of 30 crew members. We were able to go to more places on the ship easily.
Typically, the larger teams weren’t able to get clearance. The dining-room team, for example, is a 300-person team. If their manager gave everyone on that team permission to roam the ship, guest areas would become too crowded.
I had a friend who was a server in the dining room. She wasn’t able to go to the movie theater or the pools like I could. She was only allowed on the floor that she lived on and a spot called “Deck 14,” which is a small outdoor smoking deck.
I left the boat and was almost put on Disney’s ‘no rehire’ list
Working on the ship for a few months took a mental toll on me. One week after giving my 30-day notice, I told my manager that I’d get off the boat the next time we ported.
I remember being told that leaving before the 30 days might mean I wouldn’t be able to work for Disney or any of its affiliate companies like ESPN and ABC.
That was a scary thought because Disney was the only company I’d ever worked for as an adult. But my foot pain and burnout were so severe that all I cared about at that point was getting off the ship. So I left after four months.
Working on the cruise ship wasn’t all bad
Working at the boutique was so much fun. I also had a wonderful roommate and made great friends with the people living in my hallway. It felt like living in a college dorm, and we all became close friends in a very short amount of time.
The unique cruise line experience was a bonding opportunity that brought us all closer. Those who haven’t lived on a cruise line just wouldn’t understand. In all, I cherish the friendships I formed with my coworkers.
Disney did not respond to a request for comment.