Posted on

Tommy Gagliano

Hello there, college student. Are you tired of taking boring, meaningless classes at a state university that you didn’t want to attend in the first place? Want to escape the shitty weather, seasonal depression, and crackheads for a semester? What if I told you that you can earn college credits—and get paid—to do an internship at Walt Disney World? What if I also told you that you get free admission to all Disney parks during your internship? Sounds like quite the experience, doesn’t it? If you’re still not sold, check out how Disney themselves describe their college program: “Discover a unique living and working environment with participants from all over the world. [Disney College Program] allows you to gain on-the-job experience with a world-renowned company, providing uniquely Disney learning experiences, all while preparing for your future, building transferable skills, including networking, problem solving, teamwork and effective communication.” Wow! There are so many buzzwords in there that I almost missed that the second sentence is not grammatically correct. Surely you must be convinced now, though. Who wouldn’t want “transferable skills” or “uniquely Disney learning experiences”?

I know I was sold. At the time of publication, I’ve been in Florida for approximately two and a half months as a Disney College Program participant. Everyone always asks “are you having fun?” to which I respond that I am. They then ask “would you recommend it to other people?” to which I respond that I absolutely would not. At least not right now.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, here’s the general idea of what the Disney College Program is: Work at a low-level position somewhere at Walt Disney World. Opportunity to live at College Program housing near (but not on) Disney property. There are no college credits to be earned; that part was a lie. (I’m not earning any at least, and I have yet to meet someone who is.) That’s about it.

The Disney College Program is open to current college students and former students that graduated within the past two years. It used to be fairly selective, but that went out the window when they brought the program back post-COVID hysteria. In the past applicants were required to take part in a phone interview, but they ditched that step in an effort to get as many people in as quickly as possible to help with labor shortages. Presently, applicants are chosen solely based on their resume and whether or not they can convincingly lie about being an extrovert in the “web-based interview.” At the moment Disney is opting for quantity over quality, and some of the people I’ve met down here are proof of that. One of the biggest benefits to the College Program was the ability to put it on a resume, but that reputation has been tarnished a bit, at least if prospective employers are in the know.

College Program applicants used to be able to list preferences for the type of work that they would like to do, but that died with the phone interview. Now, Disney decides the role and location on their own, and you get what you get and you don’t get upset. When most people think about working at Disney World they imagine working at a ride in one of the parks, but “attractions” is just one of many potential roles. College Program participants—or CPs, as we’re commonly called—can be assigned anything from attractions, to food service, to merchandise, to parking, to custodial, and so on. Locations outside of the four parks are fair game as well. Yeah, you might have the opportunity to work at Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance in Hollywood Studios. But you’re just as likely to work in housekeeping at Disney’s All-Star Sports Resort. 

The work that CPs do is no different than what part-time or full-time Cast Members do. Even though Disney describes it as an internship that teaches “transferable skills” and all of those other words that I see all over LinkedIn, CPs are not actually provided any additional classes, training, or work opportunities. We do the same work as the other Cast Members in that role or location. That does not mean that we are treated the same, however. CPs are paid $14 per hour. This is $1 fewer than the $15 per hour that full-time and part-time Cast Members are paid. While other Cast Members are free to move their schedules around between themselves as they please, CPs are only permitted to make even trades; in most situations, we cannot give away a shift without picking up another one, and vice versa. This is especially annoying, because unlike full-timers and part-timers, we cannot put in preferences for which days or times we would prefer to work; our availability is locked at 24/7 for the duration of our program. In some locations, this is fully exploited by leadership. For the past few weeks I’ve been scheduled 45 to 55 hours with only one day off, and I know people that have been scheduled 60+ hour weeks. 12 to 14 hour shifts are common, and in most locations closing is considered a CP job, because no one else wants to work that late. CPs also miss out on benefits that other Cast Members have access to, such as paid time off and Aspire (a program through which Disney will pay for a Cast Member’s college).

CPs do get some benefits, though. We get a self-admission pass, which we can use to enter Disney theme parks (and water parks) for free. It was a great perk for about a month, until they started blocking us out of everything. There is not a single day in the entire month of April, and only one day in the month of May, that we are not at least partially blocked out from entering the parks. On most of the days that are only partially blocked out instead of fully blocked out we are only able to enter one park, and the majority of the time that park is Epcot. Just because we aren’t blocked out does not mean that we can actually go to the park that day, though. As a residual effect from Disney’s COVID policies, guests are required to make a park reservation for each day that they intend to go to a park. Cast Members are required to follow the same procedure. There are a limited number of reservations available, and the number available to Cast Members is significantly lower than the number available to paying guests. As a result, even on days where we aren’t blocked out, reservations are always full. The only way to get into a park is to make a reservation weeks ahead of time. But wait, there’s more! Cast members are only permitted to hold three park reservations at a time. So making reservations ahead of time becomes problematic because we are then unable to make more reservations until we either use or cancel the ones we already have. And, of course, we don’t know our work schedule until a week beforehand. So we basically have to pick a day that we want to go to a park weeks in advance, and then pray that we’re given that day off, because we can’t give away shifts. Really solid perk. Oh, and we get 20% off merchandise. Woo hoo.

At the moment, College Program housing is at Flamingo Crossings Village—a brand-new apartment complex managed by American Campus Communities that is located just outside of Disney property. The complex has a gym, pool, basketball court, and WiFi that never functions properly, among other amenities that we never use, but have to pay for. There are three apartment styles—a four bedroom four bathroom apartment (which we refer to as a “4×4”), a four bedroom two bathroom (“4×2”), and a two bedroom two bathroom (“2×2”). Each apartment houses four people. Paychecks come in weekly, and rent is automatically deducted from each paycheck. Rent costs $185 per week for a 2×2, $205 per week for a 4×2, and $225 for a week for a 4×4. We’ll be doing some more math later, but while we’re talking about rent costs… If we say that a month is 30.5 days long, that means that each resident is paying between $806 and $980 per month in rent, depending on which apartment style they live in. Since there are four residents per apartment, each apartment—which, by the way, is comparable in size to a Hillside apartment at Binghamton—is bringing in between $3,224 and $3,920 per month for American Campus Communities. It doesn’t take any expertise in the central Floridian housing market to know how ridiculous that is. A quick Zillow search reveals that you can rent four or five bedroom houses in the area for the same cost as a Flamingo Crossings Village 2×2. Oh, and did you want to bring your car? You better have a quick finger, because if you don’t click the button the split second that registration for a parking pass opens, you’re out of luck. There isn’t nearly enough parking at Flamingo Crossings to accommodate everyone.

Rent isn’t the only thing taken out of your paycheck, though. The government also likes to steal your money. And even though Florida does not have state income tax, because we are not permanent residents of Florida, CPs are required to pay the income tax for whatever state they “live” in. Even though I am working in Florida, New York State is still yoinking my money every week.

So, let’s say I work a standard 40-hour week. At $14 per hour, my gross pay for the week would be $560. I’m no accountant, but based on my pay stubs the amount taken out between state income tax, federal income tax, social security, and medicare seems to be around 20% on average. (I’m sure I’ll owe more at the end of the year when my income from my other jobs are considered together, but we’ll just go with 20% for now). $448 remaining after the government takes its cut. Then Flamingo swoops in, and as I live in a 2×2, an additional $185 disappears. That leaves me with $263. With food and gas prices as absurd as they are right now, I’d be able to save $100 per week at most, if I spent absolutely nothing on leisure or entertainment. And that’s assuming I get 40 hours per week. Disney only guarantees CPs 30 hours each week. Even though I mentioned earlier that a lot of CPs get scheduled way too many hours, some people have the opposite problem, and can barely afford to pay for housing and groceries.

Now, after all of that, would you believe me if I said I’m happier here than I’ve ever been? Yeah, I wish I had more days off, and I wish I could get into the parks more frequently, and I wish that I actually got to keep the money that I earned. Yeah, from an objective viewpoint, the program is a scam. But I’m still enjoying myself. I’m not sure if you noticed, but I have yet to mention what I actually do at Disney. I work at Pirates of the Caribbean in Magic Kingdom. It’s not easy work, but for the most part, I enjoy it. Or, more accurately, it’s bearable enough to justify the benefits of being here.

Even though I can’t get into the Disney parks very often, I’m getting plenty of use from my Universal Studios annual pass. For $350 I get access to both parks with free parking, no blockout dates, and 10% off food. Neither Universal Studios Orlando nor Universal Islands of Adventure can compete with the Disney parks, obviously, but Velocicoaster exists, and that alone makes the trip worth it.

There is so much more to do in the area as well. For the theme park junkies, SeaWorld is about twenty minutes away, and Busch Gardens is an hour. Tampa and Daytona Beach are about an hour away, Jacksonville is two hours away, and Miami is three and a half hours away. All four major sports have teams within striking distance. And, of course, Disney Springs does not require a reservation, nor do any of the Disney resorts.

Florida is also just a great place to be, especially right now. The weather has been in the 70s and 80s pretty consistently, and I have not worn a mask in over a month. There is no state mandate, and Disney and Universal both dropped their mask mandates in mid-February.

I should also take a minute to talk about the people here. The CP population is largely women and gay men, and there’s an overabundance of theater kids. Definitely not my normal vibe, and even though I do feel like I need some more masculine energy sometimes, nearly everyone I have met has been friendly and pleasant to be around. I really like most of the people that I work with; the majority of them are great at their jobs (which is important because working in attractions is a team effort) and are always willing to help new people whenever possible. Walt Disney World is huge and I can’t speak for other locations, but at Pirates the work environment is overwhelmingly positive and encouraging.

In conclusion, pros and cons. Like everything else in life. I know a lot of people that are having a blast down here. I also know a lot of people that self-terminated and went back home because they were miserable. My final piece of parting advice: If you do want to participate in the College Program, consider getting an apartment outside of Flamingo and going part-time instead. It’s the stonks move. Or wait a bit, if possible. I imagine the experience will be more enjoyable in the future if they aren’t so understaffed, if they allow applicants to list preferences again, and if they abandon the reservation system for park admission.

One Reply to “Disney College Program: Is It Worth It?”

  1. I really wish you’d stop glossing over the fact that Disney is one of the most exploitative companies I’ve read about, particularly with this so-called internship program. Instead of paying for room and board and discounting the rides, they’ve done the opposite. Make the intern pay the most expensive part of the experience and give the interns nothing. I don’t count sweeping up after guests and being a carnival concierge as an educational experience. What a grift! The kids are better off working at a fast food place and calling it what it is: cheap labor at their expense. Good luck making this translate into anything else but a tough, tough slog for Disney in the future as (maybe) a manager. Ha!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *