OKOMO, Ind. — Standing for hours each day under the hot Florida sun, selling popcorn and ice cream, probably doesn’t sound like a glamorous job.
But to Mikayla Shaw, it is the opportunity of a lifetime, to live and work in the Walt Disney World resort, participating in the Disney College Program.
“I can’t believe I’m here,” said Shaw, a general studies major at Indiana University Kokomo. “I’m still completely amazed that I work here. I grew up a Disney fan, it was a big part of my life, so when I found out about this program. I had to come down here and experience it.”
She’s also adding invaluable experience to her résumé.
“Disney is known and respected world wide,” she said. “This opportunity will make me stand out among job applicants after I graduate.”
Her faculty advisor, Heather Kennedy-Eden, assistant professor of hospitality and tourism, agrees, adding that Disney customer service is legendary.
“They train their employees and interns to set the bar as high as possible, and then exceed it by one percent every day,” she said. “The tools of hospitality and customer service you learn there are transferable across the tourism industry. You also learn efficiency and patience as you deal with large crowds and diverse cultures.”
The extensive application process allows students to be placed in areas they are most likely to succeed and have a positive experience, Kennedy-Eden said.
“By asking your preferences, what Disney movies are your favorites, what you like to do, they try to put you in the area that matches your personality and talents,” she said. “It’s a great program, and I think our students who complete Disney internships gain a lot and learn how to work hard, but efficiently.”
Shaw, from Arcadia, is one of nearly 4,000 college students working in the parks this semester, with jobs ranging from character attendant, housekeeping, food sales, costuming, and transportation, among others. She manages a food cart in the Magic Kingdom, selling popcorn, drinks, and ice cream, working five days a week, between 32 and 40 hours.
“I expected it would be really rewarding some days, and difficult others, but I did not expect to enjoy what I do so much,” Shaw said. “I started working here, and they move me to locations around the Magic Kingdom. I know most of the park now, because I’ve worked all over it. The people I work with are just phenomenal.”
She enjoys the job, and the perks that come with it — including passes to visit the parks when not working. So far, Magic Kingdom is her favorite, and she is excited to visit Disney’s Animal Kingdom for the first time. She loves seeing the characters too.
“I can’t pick a favorite character,” she said. “I love them all, they’re so much a part of my childhood.”
Her favorite ride is Splash Mountain, in Magic Kingdom.
“I went on that with my roommates, and we just laughed the entire time,” she said. “It was so much fun, even though we got soaking wet.”
One of Shaw’s favorite parts is being able to help create Disney magic for guests, to give them the best experience possible. For example, if she sees people wearing birthday or anniversary buttons, or spots a child crying, she can offer a free treat.
“When you can do that, their whole face lights up, and you know you’ve just added magic to their vacation,” she said. “That is the most amazing feeling.”
She feels lucky to be chosen, after applying twice before unsuccessfully. Nearly 25,000 students apply to participate each semester, according to Kent Phillips, educator relations manager at Disney World Wide Services.
“Many of these students have an affinity for Disney, and they know Disney does things the correct way, in a very productive way,” he said. “They want to learn from the best how we do guest courtesy.”
Participants also learn how to market their experience when looking for post-college jobs.
“We talk about how to maximize their participation in the college program,” Phillips said. “Working in food and beverage, you interface with thousands of individuals daily, you have your own cart, your money supply, and you’re the one who is responsible for guest service, guest safety, developing your own interpersonal skills while you are there.”
Students who successfully complete the Disney College Program may apply for the next level internship, which is something that interests Shaw.
She lives in an apartment on resort property, with bus transportation provided to work daily. In addition to working in the Magic Kingdom, she takes online classes through IU Kokomo and an onsite class, “Disney Innovation and Creativity.”
“I’m definitely learning time management,” she said. “I struggled at first to get everything done with my classes and make sure I get to work on time. I’m learning what’s important, figuring how to get everything done without letting anything fall by the wayside.”