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Cast Member Corner: Further Thoughts on WDW's College Program

Cast Member Corner: Further Thoughts on WDW's College Program

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Yeah, I think it may be time for me to find a nice place to hide. Take a look at this email I received about Disney's College Program that made me think it was time to open this can of worms again...


The truth about the College Program really does lie somewhere in between, and like most things in life, your attitude determines your experience. I think there are three kinds of people that do the WDW College Program: Disney-lovers who jump at the chance to work in the Parks and maybe start a Disney career; students who think the idea of getting college credit for a semester in the Florida sun at the "Happiest Place on Earth" sounds like a lot more fun than regular class at their school, even though they don't feel especially drawn to Disney; students who have heard "through the grape-vine" that Vista Way is an intense place to party and "get laid" and they don't care about Disney at all. I am one of the Disney lovers who desperately wanted to perform on stage at Disney World. My College Program lasted 4 months in the Spring of 2003. In my experience meeting people on the program, about 20 percent are Disney-lovers, 50 percent want to get college credit for fun in the sun, and 30 percent are only there to party, (these are generous percentages, since it felt like there were a lot less Disney-lovers and a lot more partiers).

While I do feel that some aspects of the College Program were misrepresented in the recruitment, the recruiters really did not lie. The biggest disappointment for me reaching Florida was the realization that the College Program is not a "selective" internship experience. They give you the impression while you are applying and interviewing that it is very difficult to get accepted, when in reality it's not. There was one guy I met who said he hated Disney and hated working with people...how the heck did he make it into the "selective" College Program Internship? Maybe the program started out as a selective group of talented college students, but it has become a mostly a money saving trick to pay less to man the parks by paying the CPs basically minimum wage, help give the company leverage against the unions, and have guaranteed "guests" spending money in the parks during the off seasons (since almost all CPs spend all their money in the parks). So, it feels like Disney is really filling the program with warm bodies.

I'm not saying that the College Program is terrible. I was lucky and was cast as a Role Hopper, or "Rescue Ranger" in Epcot. I got the opportunity to be trained in several jobs, including Merchantainment, Quick Service Foods, Illuminations Viewing (crowd control), Conventions, and Park Clear. I never knew where I would be working each day...when someone in the park was short-handed, I would be sent over as a "Rescue Ranger" to fill their place. I know every inch of Epcot, since I worked in just about every area during my four months. I was even one of the lucky Rangers (10 out of 100) who was trained in Conventions, so I got to see all the private rooms around the park where they hold corporate parties and conventions. Those experiences are priceless...there is no other way that I could learn so much about Disney and the parks.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to perform or even see anything special about performing while I was down in Orlando. I am a Vocal Performance Major, and I was hoping some performing opportunities might open up while I was at Disney, or open up for after my internship experience. I didn't have a manager who "pulled strings" to open up special doors...most CPs don't. The "networking" opportunities are minimal...it really is about luck. Being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to make a connection. I know several people who worked their butts off to talk to cast members in their field who never got anywhere, (unlike the CP who got to try out his dream of being a puppeteer). Maybe 10% of CPs actually get to experience something special in their desired field, but many many more are disappointed in this area, (although there are many more opportunities for Advanced Interns).

I loved being in Florida and always being able to jump on a bus and be in the Magic Kingdom within 10 minutes. I wasn't bored...I took full advantage of the free entrance and experienced all I could experience out of the parks. I made some awesome Disney memories with my boyfriend, (now husband), since we went there together, and we often reminisce over the fun times we had together at the parks.

I enjoyed my work experience, and I really enjoyed my free time in the parks. What I did not enjoy was the living experience. I have a lot of experience with communal living. I lived in the Residence Halls at CU Boulder for all 4 years of my college experience. I worked for the Department of Housing as an RA, so believe me, I've seen a lot of weird stuff. Residence Halls are not nice places to live, but Vista Way was worse. Now, all I can speak of is MY experience, and while I feel I had an extreme situation, I don't think it was all that uncommon down there. I was 21 when I went on my program. I rarely drink, and I thought that if I lived with other girls over 21 that we would all be "over" the wild partying craze most freshmen and sophomores go through before they turn 21. I was wrong. In my apartment, there were 3 girls who are the "I'm only here to party" type people, 2 who were the "fun in the sun is better than regular school" type people, and me, the only "Disney-lover". To be honest, it was the 3 partying girls that made my living experience bad. They were loud girls to begin with, and they got even louder when they drank, which was about 6 nights out of 7. They were all 23 years old, and yet they insisted on bringing over 18-year old guys and supplying the alcohol for loud parties and ending up sleeping around with them. I had to sleep with my headphones playing music to drown out the noise, and then got to work the next morning exhausted. Our apartment was a constant mess (the "after-party" kind with beer cans everywhere and spilled food...etc). I looked forward to "PI night" when they would at least move the party somewhere else. I filed an official complaint to protect myself if we ever got "raided" and caught supplying alcohol to minors, but security never came around our place.

Now I realize that oftentimes, perception is reality. Even though it felt like "everyone" was just there to party, I'm sure it was probably around 40% of the people. But they were a very LOUD minority. The atmosphere at Vista Way was worse than anything I experienced at CU Boulder, which is ranked at the number one party school in the nation. And while some people did get caught and terminated, many more did not. There were many times when I considered quitting the program because my living experience was so miserable. And trying to change apartments was a whole other fiasco. It is definitely not as easy as other CPs have made it seem in their letters. But, I ended up sticking it out, and I think that was the right choice.

And, to address the "$67 a week rent is a bargain" argument, do the math. $67 times 6 people times 4 weeks in a month is over $1600 a month for a shabby apartment where you share a bedroom. While I was in school, the dorms at CU charged around that much a month to share a room with the exact same benefits (furnished room, cable, all other utilities) PLUS a meal plan, and Boulder is one of the most expensive universities for room and board. Honestly, while $1600 a month may not be "insane rent", for what we got it is definitely not a bargain either. And making minimum wage and still trying to pay rent is not a fun experience, although it was probably a valuable one.

Overall, I'm glad I did the WDW College Program. It has opened many conversations in interviews with employers and played a part in me getting my current job. I made some wonderful memories and experienced parts of Disney I never otherwise would have experienced. Unfortunately, I feel that the same quality issues that have plagued so many parts of the Disney company in recent years have impacted the College Program as well, and it is currently a mere shadow of what it could be. I'm sad that it seems that the College Program has become simply a source of cheap labor and a tax write-off instead of a way to truly recognize and cultivate talent and keep it in the company. And while there are high quality CPs really doing their jobs in the parks, there are also way too many bitter, lazy ones for my taste. And the fact that the program depresses the pay scales of the full-time workers only means that there are more cynical, negative full-time Cast Members interacting with guests. I wish Disney would streamline their College Program and only hire the really qualified, talented students and truly make it the selective internship it was envisioned to be.

Your thoughts, folks? Did this e-mail do a better job of summing up what Disney World's College Program is REALLY like? Or are we now going to have another chair-throwing melee over in the JHM discussion boards?

If that's the case, then I'm heading back to the bunker ...

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  • this is a very accurate portrayal of the college program at wdw. i participated in the spring program (jan-may) of 2005. i wasn't entirely satisified with my program, but i would probably do it again considering i would get a different role and new roommates. i, too, was shocked at how non-selective the program actually was. if you have a pulse and less than three major felonies, you can be in the college program. i am not exagerrating. they will let ANYONE in. every CP (college program participant) is a big-time tax write off for the company. they are cheap labor and don't require benefits like full-time workers. it's as simple as that. the Program is definitely great for certain people - people who can stand and enjoy lots of partying, working horrific hours (CP's are given the shifts no one else wants - usually something like 4 PM - 2 am each day), getting paid minimum wage and getting completely ripped off on rent each week...and still have fun and be happy...and these people do exist, apparently =). to be fair, a lot of people LOVE the college program and say it is the best experience of their life, and go back a second or third time...some never leave. i just think it's necessary for anyone wanting to participate to not go into it with false expectations - it's really a job, not an internship. you're gonna be broke most of the time, you may have terrible roommates (or they may be your new best friends...a huge gamble), you may have an awesome job or a miserable one.

  • There were many times when I considered quitting the program because my living experience was so miserable. And trying to change apartments was a whole other fiasco. It is definitely not as easy as other CPs have made it seem in their letters. But, I ended up sticking it out, and I think that was the right choice.

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