July 30, 2012 at 7:08 AM ET
When Freddie Wieczorek retired after 35 years in the German navy and moved to Florida in 2007, he was rising at 6 a.m., bugging his wife, flipping channels and wondering when it was time to eat again. Seeing him unhappy, his wife gave him two choices: Get a part-time job -- or a divorce.
She wasn’t used to having him around all the time, and he felt like he was missing something. “We decided I’m going to get a part-time job to make me happy again,” said Wieczorek, 58, of Spring Hill, Fla.
Wieczorek was hired as a security guard at Walt Disney World, where he works two evenings a week checking the bags of people entering the Magic Kingdom. In finding the bright spot he was lacking in his own life, he is now bringing joy to legions of others.
When his bag check line is not too long, he asks kids in costume for their autographs, a twist on a longtime Disney tradition of kids collecting autographs from their beloved characters.
“Their face brightens up,” Wieczorek said of that moment when pint-size princesses and pirates realize they’re being mistaken for the real thing. “This is something so unbelievable for them. It gets them by surprise and they feel special.
“Every time I see a princess leaving from that signature or when I just tell them, ‘You look so pretty,’ I see them skipping. Then I know I just made their day. And the pirates, the same thing. When they ‘Awwwr,’ it’s very special.”
In his 4 1/2 years at Disney, Wieczorek estimates he’s collected more than 1,400 signatures, some taking the shape of a smiley face, a heart or even just a scribble from the youngest characters. Recently he gained some fame around the Web after the grandmother of a little Cinderella posted a photo of their meeting on Pinterest, with others reposting the touching image.
The photo from September 2008 shows Alli Bunchuk, then just 5 and outfitted in the light-blue, puffy-sleeved gown of her favorite princess, signing Wieczorek’s book. For the Bunchuk family, who are planning their eighth trip to the park in September, it was a standout moment.
“We started to walk in the park when the security guard stopped her and said, ‘Excuse me, Princess, can I have your autograph?’” recalls her grandmother, Barbara Bunchuk. “She couldn’t believe it. Throughout the day, she kept saying, ‘I can’t believe he thought I was a real princess.’”
“She kind of floated around all day,” said Bunchuk, 65, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
It’s not just the little Snow Whites and Ariels who enjoy the moment. Parents and grandparents are often excited and encourage their kids to sign the book, Wieczorek said. When youngsters are too shy, “the parents take it harder than I do,” he said.
Still, the interactions mean a lot to Wieczorek. “It makes my magic, too,” he said. “The magic is not limited to the guests.”
A Disney spokeswoman says employees are encouraged to engage with park visitors, including by asking for autographs. In fact, Wieczorek got the autograph idea from a training class.
Wieczorek, who has seven grandchildren, started by asking his granddaughter to sign his book and he kept on going. “After seeing the feedback from the parents I continued it, and I’m on my eighth book,” he said.
Wieczorek says his job as a bag checker suits him because he gets to interact with people. “I wanted to have every guest that goes through my line leaving with a smile and so far, I managed that,” he said.
If it’s raining, he welcomes grumpy grownups to the “Magic Kingdom Water Park.” He puts children at ease when searching their bags by telling them he’s looking for red apples because Snow White is afraid of them. And he’s learning to say “Have a Magical Day” in 15 languages.
“I’m up to nine so far and it really makes the guests feel special,” he said.
And for making so many children joyful when they’re already at the happiest place on Earth, his fans are grateful for making their day extraordinary.
“He kind of went out of his way to do something special for a child,” Bunchuk said. “It made the whole family happy.”
To Wieczorek, she says: “Thank you for just being a nice guy."