For over 30 years, Disney has had a college internship program (currently called the Disney College Program). Active college students who have taken at least one semester of college courses are eligible to apply for the 5 to 7 month internship (international students with no restrictions for working in the U.S. can also apply). I spoke with two College Program alumni (Courtney and Ethan) about their experiences in the program at Disney World three years ago.
First, a little history. In 1981, Disney began an internship program. At its inception, there were 200 positions available at Magic Kingdom for these interns. Of course, the program grew along with the resort, and today there are internships available at both Disneyland and Disney World, across all theme parks and resorts. About 8,000 students participate each year.
The College Program is a paid internship. In addition to providing affordable housing and free transportation (Disney World only), participants receive a full-time working position as part of the internship. They receive an hourly wage dependent upon their role.
There are 19 different roles in which to be placed. Some of the positions available include custodial, merchandise, food & beverage, PhotoPass photography, character performer and attraction operator. Courtney and Ethan were placed in quick service food & beverage based on their previous experience working in restaurants. They held positions at Studio Catering Company in Hollywood Studios, where they rotated between positions (food prep, drink servers, cashiers, etc.) They were also deployed to other counter service restaurants and food carts as needed, and they were able to pick up extra shifts if they wanted as well.
Whichever role a student receives, “participants will have the opportunity to develop their communication skills, problem-solving skills and work on their confidence and self-reliance,” according to the College Program website.
Disney takes customer service seriously. Ethan and Courtney both walked away from the experience with great training to help every guest have a positive experience, which is a goal of the Disney corporation. All employees are responsible to help keep the parks clean for the guests. They are trained to help answer guests’ questions, or if unable to answer the question to find the answer for them. College Program participants greet guests with a smile, always use two fingers when pointing to direct a guest (one finger is rude), comment on guest’s special occasion pins, and adhere to the Disney Look in their appearance. Employees are empowered to find “magical moments” for guests, such as giving away a free dessert for a birthday or allowing guests to open a park or open an attraction. Courtney says, “we were all responsible for helping to ‘create the story’ for guests, because we were more than an amusement park filled with attractions. We provided an experience of a lifetime.”
There are college courses, seminars and special experiences available to College Program participants. The American Council on Education recommends awarding 3 to 9 credits for the internship experience itself, but availability varies by college or university.
College Program participants also have a variety of on-site college course options, many of which are designed to teach transferable skills such as professionalism and communication. These courses are as rigorous as a typical college course, and college credit may be granted at the discretion of the student’s college or university. Courses are free to College Program Members, but materials fees may be required.
Many seminars are available for free as well, such as a resume writing course or “Exploring Leadership.” Courtney and Ethan both recommend “Exploring Disney Heritage” for a fascinating look at the history of the Disney corporation.
The College Program comes with non-educational perks, too. Disney offers special experiences to its College Program participants. There are mixers and dances for the participants to get to know each other. There are networking opportunities with Disney employees, where students can ask questions about pursuing their careers. There are also behind-the-scenes opportunities. Ethan and Courtney were able to experience Space Mountain with the lights on, and take behind the scenes tours of The Haunted Mansion, Fantasmic! and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.
Park admissions, discounts for friends and family, and on-property dining and merchandise discounts are a few more of the benefits of being a College Program participant.
Disney takes work ethic seriously. College Program participants have a strict code of conduct to follow, which closely aligns with Disney’s family-friendly atmosphere. Underage drinking is not tolerated, in fact there are certain housing complexes that are no-alcohol zones (even 21 year olds who drink in these areas can be terminated from their positions). Disney uses a point system to measure less serious infractions, such as attendance problems, having an appearance that goes against the Disney Look, and safety violations. Too many points could result in disciplinary action or even termination from the program. The program is set up to encourage good work ethic in its participants.
What did Courtney and Ethan take away from the experience? Both feel it was worth taking a semester away from college to complete the internship. Ethan began the internship undecided about his career path, and he came away with a new college major – marketing (he was fascinated with how Disney does such a good job with all of the details, and how good they are at creating their brand). Courtney was in the middle of her elementary education degree, but being a life-long lover of Disney World knew that she would not regret the experience of the internship. Courtney enjoyed meeting so many new friends through the program, and her love of children was only fueled by daily interaction with the pint-sized guests. She feels lucky to have interacted with so many international Cast Members and guests, in fact she learned how to say “I love you” in several different languages by speaking with her new international friends.
Any advice from Ethan and Courtney to potential College Program participants? When you are applying, be sure to be energetic and enthusiastic. If you are chosen to participate, take advantage of all the benefits that you can, especially the seminars and special behind-the-scenes perks. This is a once in a lifetime experience (although many Cast Members and Disney corporate employees began their Disney experience in the College Program). Keep an open mind to the experience and really take time to get to know other people. You never know – you might just meet your future spouse.
Next time you are at Disneyland or Disney World, take note of the nametags of the smiling Cast Members you see. If you notice a college or university listed, they are interns in the Disney College Program.
Ethan and Courtney met as participants in the College Program and are engaged to be married in 2015. Where did Ethan propose? In the “scream room” of The Haunted Mansion, a favorite attraction of theirs, while on a magical Disney World vacation.