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Live, Learn, Earn – How Disney launches careers with their College Program

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By Melanie Huntrods
Special to Orlando Attractions Magazine

How does Walt Disney World staff their theme parks and resorts with 60,000 plus cast members while simultaneously training new talent and continuously marketing a career within their company? Disney has transformed working in the theme park industry from a mere summer job between school semesters, to potential careers in the hospitality, entertainment and services industry. Disney successfully recruits college students from all backgrounds to become paid interns, providing students with hands on, tangible, professional experience, leading to future career paths and permanent cast members.

According to the Disney College Program website, “The Disney College Program at the Walt Disney World Resort is a one-of-a-kind, Disney-designed combination of education and work experience.” This program offers three components which are marketed to students both nationally and internationally – live, learn and earn.

The living component consists of secured housing specifically for interns. Apartment complexes are designated to interns in Lake Buena Vista, where security guards are on the premise 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Additionally attractive to potential students is the provided bus transportation, so bringing a vehicle is optional.

The learning component consists of Disney Collegiate courses, professional networking and various job functions across property. The Disney College Program provides students wishing to attain college course credit during the duration of their internship with Disney Collegiate courses, business courses designed to educate students on Disney policies and procedures, while simultaneously being American Council on Education (ACE) accredited. During the program there are also professional networking events where leaders within Disney Theme Parks and Resorts speak to students about their specific job function and responsibilities within the company.

Other opportunities available on this 47-square mile “learning laboratory,” as stated on their website, are professional development studies and Disney Exploration Series. Lastly, the program offers roles designated to students all across Disney property. Roles within the company can include, quick service food and beverage, resort front desk, entertainment, merchandise and attraction operations, to name a few.

The last component Disney markets to students in the ability to earn. The internship program is a paid internship, where students are paid on an hourly basis. As a member of the College Program, students are guaranteed a minimum of 30 hours per week. Pay rates are determined by job function.

To understand how Disney recruits thousands of students per semester from around the nation, you have to understand the work is not done alone. Disney Theme Parks and Resorts rely heavily on the use of campus representatives to market the program to colleges and universities. Campus Representatives are alumni of the Disney College Program, selected to represent their school and become a liaison for Disney. These students serve as assistants to recruiters of the College Program.

Recruiters for the Disney College Program are assigned a region of the nation to oversee campus representatives and their respective colleges. To market the program, Campus Representatives receive collateral materials in the mail for distribution across campus. Disney mails these materials to career centers nationwide, which are then dispersed to campus representatives which advertise Disney informational sessions coming to their respective campus.

Through this collaborative effort between recruiters, representatives and college campuses, Disney’s informational sessions consist of a lively PowerPoint presentation and video offering a thorough overview of the Disney College Program and the Walt Disney Company. Once informational sessions are underway, the second step in the process is a preliminary computer application, followed by phone interviews with interested applicants. These interviews are approximately 15 minutes in length and students are given various questions and scenarios to determine if they are a good fit for the program.

Campus Representatives are also responsible for additional informational sessions to educate students on Disney policies and procedures and what to expect when they arrive in Orlando. Campus Representatives answers student inquiries and assists students in coordinating with the appropriate university departments for issues regarding transfer guidelines, insurance and internship credit, among others. Disney starts generating excitement before students arrive as interns through the help of Campus Representatives.

So how and why are Campus Representatives motivated to perform this task on campus? While the position is unpaid, the more marketing they do for the program the more reward incentives they receive. Reward incentives can include up to $500 Visa cards, resorts rooms at Disney Theme Parks and Resorts and Disney dining packages. Additionally, being a Campus Representative is a resume enhancer, as Disney looks for company loyalty and experience when hiring candidates for positions within their company.

The final aspect to touch upon is how this program benefits Disney in finding future cast members, and aids in the establishment of professional careers in the hospitality and services industry. For some students, working in the theme park industry is not a long-term career path. But Disney has worked to establish a brand name and created an atmosphere desirable for tens of thousands of students to work in every year. Students from across the nation are immersed in the climate of working at Disney, the benefits they provide to their cast members, and the perks associated with working at Walt Disney World. Once cast members and interns have experienced this, many want to continue this unique lifestyle.

For Disney to attain the best talent for their company and retain these students, Professional Internships are available at the completion of the Disney College Program. Professional Internships are major specific internships and very specific in job function. During the duration of a Professional Internship, networking is the key to acquiring a future job. Disney Theme Parks and Resorts rely heavily on internal hiring, and once you are a cast member, internal job postings are available.

Finally, the merit of having the College Program on your resume in attaining a future job is very helpful. For many leaders in diverse areas of the company, the College Program is where they first started their career. According to their website, by participating in the program, “…Participants will have the opportunity to develop transferable skills, including guest service, problem solving, service recovery, effective communication, teamwork, leadership, attention to detail, time management, personal empowerment, self-confidence, responsibility and cultural sensitivity.” All of these skills are valuable for future endeavors, and recruiters are aware of the skills participants acquire during the College Program.

The Disney College Program is attractive to both students and parents interested in this unique experience. The College Program Recruiting Department recruits thousands nationwide through the use of Campus Representatives and effectively markets working with the Walt Disney Company as a career path and learning experience. An internship with Disney can lead to a career within their company. The magic of being a Walt Disney World cast member doesn’t have to start in Orlando.

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8 comments

dianne February 9, 2011 - 6:00 pm

Great article! For an alternative internship, there appears to be something to appeal to the pursuits of everyone – while giving the student the opportunity to have fun while earning money – a rarity in internships. Just the cache of saying I interned for Walt Disney Company begs an potential interviewer to continue questioning and gives you the edge that makes you remembered and worth considering. Well written and informative.

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John Henley February 11, 2011 - 5:52 pm

Disney’s College Program at WDW has been around for quite awhile, more than 20 years. It first started as an elite, select group of fewer than 200 students per year in the mid-1980’s, many from top schools and universities.

Now, it’s mushroomed into almost 8,000 students per year, and the smartest and brightest students from the best schools have gotten the word to “stay clear.” Disney has desperately raided the “bottom of the academic barrel” by hitting up community colleges in backwoods areas of the US and even going overseas to China, Brazil and Mexico with the J-1 Student Visa to slake their unquenchable thirst for cheap, disposable labor. The 5-fold expansion of the WDW College Program has also meant the disappearance of that many once decent-paying full-time jobs with benefits from the area’s economy, and has resulted in depressed, non-competitive wages for existing workers.

Disneyland also has a College Program, but is much more selective, as their unions have been able to keep it in check. They only let in 150 students per quarter, and they’re REQUIRED to take courses, AND provide their own housing. Unlike the Florida program, the Disneyland college program workers have full union protection on the job and automatically start out with 3 years of scheduling seniority.

What would make the WDW College Program legit? Downsizing the program to fewer than 1000 students per year. By requiring coursework, and allowing only applicable majors such as Hospitality and Tourism, General Business, Theme Park Management, Hotel and Restaurant Management and perhaps a few others into the program. Also, not just simply filling a position with a “warm body” as is the current practice, and by carefully screening and placing students in jobs SPECIFIC to their major, where the students truly want to be.

Currently, there is rarely a connection to their major. For example, a culinary arts major working a water ride in a theme park, rather than working in a restaurant. Or a mechanical engineering major bussing tables in a park’s fast food restaurant instead of working a complex ride system. Or a public relations major scrubbing toilets and taking out trash instead of working in Guest Relations. Sure, they offer so-called “Professional Internships” where after chasing the carrot on a stick, they can actually work in a job related to their major, (wow) but it’s hard to believe that Disney has the gaul to call their WDW College Program an “Internship.”

Many students say they felt “lied to” by their College Recruiter, saying that they would “probably”*** get a job which is related to their major. The Recruiters are typically a former participant student who has a vested and selfish career motive in advocating the Program at their school.

Finally, there is the WDW International College Program which utilizes the J-1 Visa to employ thousands of foreign college workers instead of local citizens who need jobs. The J-1 Visa explicitly forbids the “displacement of American workers from jobs Americans can do.” Yet, Disney seems to think they are immune to Visa laws.

In contrast, the Q-1 Visa is cultural representation only, and is used appropriately at EPCOT so Chinese represent China, Norwegians represent Norway, and so on, and does not hurt local workers and wages as does the domestic and foreign WDW College Program in Florida.

The College Program at Disney in its current form is a ploy to reduce labor costs and steal millions each year from Orlando area’s economy and tax base and funneling the money to Disney’s corporate coffers in Anaheim, California rather than provide a legitimate pathway to a decent paying career in the once-respectable Tourism and Hospitality Industry.

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Amy March 15, 2012 - 10:26 am

I did the college program in 2001 and 2003. I was also a campus rep. It really is a good experience. Of course with thousands going through the program there will be people to have a negative experience. With anything what you put in it is what you get out of it. Some people go down thinking they will just play. It is very hard work. I have learned so much through the program. I have recently decide to go back for a career.

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