A wild ride: McGeorge alumna helped steer Disneyland Resort through pandemic

Carrie Nocella

Carrie Nocella at Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge when it opened in May 2019. 

McGeorge School of Law alumna Carrie Nocella ’02 vividly remembers the moment two years ago when the COVID-19 pandemic forced Disneyland, where she’s worked for 15 years, to close its gates.

“I knew this was a moment in history. There have not been a lot of times Disneyland has closed. JFK assassination, Northridge earthquake (partially), September 11th for one day, and then this,” said Nocella, who serves as Disneyland Resort's director of external affairs.

The resort closed for 412 days and Nocella worked feverishly to help get it re-opened. “Probably one of the hardest things I've ever done,” she said.

Her job was to make sense of ever-changing protocols, find ways to creatively implement them, and work with the governor’s office, California Department of Public Health and the California Attractions and Parks Association on guidelines for safely reopening theme parks.

“We had to make very difficult operational and personnel decisions and it is very hard not to take that personally and feel personally responsible,” said Nocella.

Perseverance paid off. As someone who grew up in Anaheim, worked at the parks in high school and college, was an intern, and eventually made it her career, seeing Main Street come back to life was overwhelming and emotional.

“There were cast members crying. I was crying. You had guests coming up to us saying, ‘Thank you so much for reopening,’ … It's been a fantastic ride since then, and we don't take anything for granted.” As of today, the Disneyland Resort is almost back to pre-pandemic staffing.

She credits the team with which she works.

“They always say law school teaches you how to think, and it's very true … When you work for a brand like Disney, you have to protect them from a worst-case scenario, and the training that I got from McGeorge showed me how to do that.”

Her journey to McGeorge

Although Nocella is from California, it was an internship in Washington, D.C. that led her to McGeorge. While working for the Supreme Court of the United States, she met now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has taught at McGeorge in various capacities since 1965.

“He really sold me on the school, and of course, the opportunity to interact with him … I could see the love that he had for (McGeorge), and that was really impressive,” Nocella said. Kennedy even wrote her a letter of recommendation.

She remembers her time at McGeorge as “fantastic,” and not just because it’s where she met her husband Tom, who is now a Senior Attorney at the Alternate Public Defender’s office in Orange County, Ca. (The two have a 16-year-old daughter, Samantha.)

“I had some awesome professors,” she said. She distinctly remembers what it was like sitting in the class of property law professor John Sprankling. 

“There was only one day in the history of my property class that he did not call on me,” she said laughing. “But he made me better. He made me prepare, and he made me anticipate issues and questions. And I still do that every time I go into a meeting…He taught me how to develop that skill.”

She also values the practical experience she gained, something she says not all law schools offer. “I think McGeorge really exposed me to all different types of facets that a legal career could achieve.”

A wide-ranging career 

She’s explored many career options. Before her current post, Nocella worked in law firms, as a public defender, and as an adjunct professor at Chapman University School of Law.

At the law firms, she found spending long hours behind a computer was not for her.

A public defender job in Placer County was a different story.

“I tried a lot of cases, everything from being drunk in public to attempted murders, and it was probably one of the most fulfilling and rewarding jobs I've ever had because you truly are impacting people's lives,” said Nocella. “I loved it.”

But while waiting for a jury to deliberate one day, she got a call from her former boss at Disney. Nocella was exactly who they were looking for in their government relations office.

Though she never anticipated a career change, it’s one for which she has a passion. Nocella also has an amazing view—her office overlooks part of Toontown with Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge in the distance.

“There are days where awesome things happen outside of my office, like a Stormtrooper will walk by. Or we have the Mariachi Divas, which are an all-female, Grammy award-winning group…They'll just be walking through the hallways playing mariachi music,” Nocella said. 

When she’s not dealing with the monumental impact of a pandemic, her job is to lead government relations and corporate social responsibility functions, an area that’s grown increasingly important as consumers place a higher priority on how companies operate. 

“The best part about my job is being able to sit down with an elected official or a policymaker and share with them our position on certain issues and what we're doing in their communities. That's important to be successful,” said Nocella.

She also works on land-use development and what the park could look like in the future. She was part of the resort's Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge project before it was announced to the public.

She encourages law students to be open to all career possibilities. 

“Try new things. Figure out what you like, and figure out what you don't like,” said Nocella. “Don't spend time in your professional career working in a space that doesn't motivate you and give you fulfillment because time is too short. We learned that during the pandemic.”


Nocella’s Disney highlights

Favorite ride: Guardians of the Galaxy–Mission: Breakout

Favorite character: I'm very unique. It's Pearl from Finding Nemo. It's the little purple octopus that has the pigtails and who always says, ‘you made me ink.’ She’s my favorite.

Favorite food: I'm going to go traditional. Corndog, Main Street cart. It's offered in other locations, but for some reason, the red wagon cart on Main Street offers the best corndog.

Best time of year to be at Disney: There's nothing better than the holiday season in December. We celebrate all the holidays at Disneyland. There’s snow everywhere, festive music and awesome food. It’s the best time.

Insider tip for enjoying the parks: You have to plan ahead and make all of your tickets and dining reservations. If you can't get a reservation for Oga’s Cantina, which is in Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, do try that morning because they may release reservations. That's a pro tip.